How Punk Rock Made Me a Lefty

Election '16

Joining a long tradition of right-wing politicians denounced by their favorite bands, this week Paul Ryan was the recipient of a scathing open letter from Tom Morello, activist, proud union member and former guitarist of Rage Against the Machine, in Rolling Stone magazine.

“Ryan claims that he likes Rage's sound, but not the lyrics. Well, I don't care for Paul Ryan's sound or his lyrics,” Morello wrote. “I wonder what Ryan's favorite Rage song is? Is it the one where we condemn the genocide of Native Americans? The one lambasting American imperialism? Our cover of 'Fuck the Police'? Or is it the one where we call on the people to seize the means of production?”

(Dee Snider of Twisted Sister also put out a statement against Ryan's apparent fondness for his music this week, and the band Silversun Pickups asked Mitt Romney -- with a lawsuit -- to kindly stop using its music at his rallies. It's not only US politicians that face this problem, either—UK conservative prime minister David Cameron was called out on Twitter by Johnny Marr of the Smiths.)

While musicians warn Republican candidates away from their tunes in the US, in Russia, a rock band-slash-performance protest troupe is facing prison time for staging a feminist political protest in a church. Yes, I'm talking about Pussy Riot, the “manic pixie dream dissidents” captivating the world—including lots of Western journalists who are too obsessed with their looks and style to pay attention to what they actually said and did.

The firestorm around Pussy Riot has kicked off yet another discussion of whether music should be political, whether it matters what musicians say and think if their fans often ignore it, and whether we in the US should obsess over the photogenic women of Pussy Riot while ignoring other Russian dissidents and those around the world imprisoned for political speech. And the regularly scheduled denunciation of Republican politicians by rebel rockers whose politics are far to their left may have become campaign-year routine by now, but it does seem to imply that there are quite a few folks out there who not only ignore the words their favorite musicians write, but also apparently learn nothing from previous presidential campaigns.

Michael Barthel, writing at Salon, argued:

We’d like to think that through rigorous scholarship and skilled wordsmithery, you could craft such a damning indictment of the current order that it would dissolve in disgrace upon the song’s performance. (“If the world is so wrong, then you can break it all with one song,” as another riot grrrl once put it.) But that’s not the way it really works.

Leaving aside his calling Courtney Love a "riot grrrl" for just a second, his argument seems to be that because political rock lyrics haven't brought about the revolution yet, they should give up and go home—or get themselves some brightly colored balaclavas, because apparently Pussy Riot's popularity is all about how they look and act, not about their political positions. This was in a piece published the day after what would have been Clash frontman Joe Strummer's 60th birthday, no less. Pieces like this are endlessly frustrating, implying simultaneously that protest bands haven't done enough and also that their efforts are futile, even childish.

Musicians and fans, especially punks, know that music doesn't actually “break it all with one song.” Wrote Spencer Ackerman at Foreign Policy, “Punk has a long history of aspiring to disrupt corrupt and authoritarian governments, corporations, and other structures of international power. But it does not have a long history of success. Accordingly, punk rock has set more achievable, less globalized political goals: typically, localized protests and raising consciousness.”

To answer the question of whether rock 'n' roll can actually make its political points heard, I offer my own story. I was raised by Republicans in a Massachusetts suburb, a geeky kid who liked horses and fiction. I discovered lefty politics when I discovered punk rock; I learned about labor unions for the first time not through my family's experience but through the lyrics (yes, Michael Barthel, the lyrics) of the Dropkick Murphys, a Clash-inspired band of blue-collar punks whose first lead singer left the band to become a Boston firefighter. I went from listening to the Dead Kennedys to buying singer Jello Biafra's “spoken word” rant records to voting Green Party and reading Chomsky and taking Biafra's advice to “don't hate the media, become the media,” writing a political column for a Denver music magazine where each week, you guessed it, I wrote about a different protest song.

Barthel is right that when people who remember the '60s ask where the protest music is, it's usually because they aren't listening or because it's not talking about what they consider important. Since the '60s, people have been brushing off popular music as too commodified to make its point even as young people were cooking up new movements that, yes, coalesced around a band or three. The most obvious comparison and one that's been made (often badly) in many articles about Pussy Riot is riot grrrl, in which women alienated from both mainstream sexist society and a sexist punk scene took on both with their bodies, their sound, and yes, their words—riot grrrl lyrics were circulated in a vibrant zine culture, next to confessional stories and political polemics by budding activists who did indeed take their feminism off the stage and into the street.

According to Radio Free Europe, “Pussy Riot is more a performance art collective than a punk rock band in the classical sense. They emerged out of the underground anarchist art collective Voina -- itself notorious for its outrageous public stunts, most notably painting a giant phallus on a drawbridge in St. Petersburg facing the local FSB headquarters.” They indeed took the idea for a feminist punk “band” from the riot grrrl movement, deliberately using the word “punk” and staging a “concert” as a form of protest that would be widely understood.

Barthel manages the enviable feat of both criticizing Westerners' obsession with the Russian women and objectifying them the same way he critiques others for doing, reducing them to their look and arguing that's what we should do. Meanwhile, these women were experienced activists, leftist provocateurs (whose politics are probably far to the left of many of those taking up their cause) who knew what they risked. They were not “thrown in jail for doing absolutely nothing,” as one supporter said, but for deliberately insulting Putin from within the walls of his church.

Most of the people writing about Pussy Riot and punk rock in the Western media, myself included, have no access to the jailed anarchists and so can't ask them whether they're pleased with their ability to reach beyond Russia and gain supporters like Madonna and Chloe Sevigny. But it's ridiculous to assume that they were willing to risk jail time just to have their images in balaclavas and bright colors splashed across front pages. What they had to say matters, and to pretend otherwise is to deny them the same agency that writers who diminish them as “little girls” do.

Carol Rumens at the Guardian translated “Punk Prayer” from Russian and tried to keep the style intact as well:

KGB's chief saint descends/to guide the punks to prison vans./Don't upset His Saintship, ladies,/stick to making love and babies.

To ask why Pussy Riot rather than some other, more traditional dissident (or some other musicians), has captured the public's imagination might be as pointless as asking why, after decades of attacks on workers' rights, Wisconsin was the site of a dramatic protest, or why Occupy Wall Street spread across the US and the world. Sometimes, a combination of drama and luck and timing results in an issue, a person, an artist breaking out of their original context and capturing hearts and minds across the globe. As Ellen Willis, a rock critic, feminist and activist from the '60s until her death in 2006, wrote in Beginning to See the Light:

Implicit in the formal language of mass art is the possibility that given the right sort of social conditions, it can act as a catalyst that transforms its mass audience into an oppositional community. This is precisely what rock-and-roll did for teen-agers, and rock for the counterculture, in the fifties and sixties.

Meanwhile, Paul Ryan might be cheerily listening to Rage or Twisted Sister right now, but it is worth noting that those bands are entirely opposed to his agenda. It's symbolic of something right-wingers so often love to do: entirely ignore the will of the people and impose an agenda on them that has nothing to do with what they actually asked for. Ryan, for instance, was one of the co-sponsors of H.R. 3, the anti-abortion, redefining-rape bill, the third bill the GOP House pushed for after its 2010 election sweep—an election that was about jobs, jobs and jobs. If Ryan can't hear what Rage Against the Machine is screaming in his headphones, how is anyone supposed to trust that he hears what they say enough to enact policies that they actually want?  

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