While traveling recently I came across this New York Times piece by Jessica Bruder on the op-ed page of the International Herald Tribune, extolling the subversionary merits of punk rock and lamenting that “you won’t hear it in the U.S. and the U.K., the countries where punk was born.”
Bruder trots out a list of various places where politically minded punks have been detained, arrested or have fled, then clumsily contrasts the dangers of playing punk in Moscow, Tehran or Myanmar, with New York, where art has clearly rolled over for commerce because CBGB became a high-end clothing boutique.
“While punk’s heirs around the world continue to defy autocrats, risking their freedom to stand against social injustice and economic polarization, it’s been many years since British and American punk had that kind of raw influence,” Bruder writes.
But that’s a false equivalency.
While it absolutely takes an incredible amount of courage to rebel with punk against the oppressive social and political order of places like Tehran, it’s an open question just what kind of “raw influence” those autocrat-defying punks actually have. Who’s listening? Apart from the ominous interest of paranoid government functionaries, it’s not at all clear what kind of reach these bands have. In part, that’s because theirs is necessarily an underground rebellion, over which hangs the very real threat of brutal reprisal. Such reprisals have never been part of the picture in the U.S. or Britain, where punks haven’t had to risk their freedom to speak out. While that certainly ratchets up the stakes for, say, jailed Moscow band Pussy Riot, it’s a mistake to assume, as Bruder does, that “punk’s moral force grows with government suppression.”
It’s also a mistake to assume that America lacks for “real punk” with the power to “rattle the windows in, say, the White House,” or to think that Bruce Springsteen is the only American musician addressing contemporary crises in a meaningful way. (For what it’s worth, Springsteen’s stature makes him far more likely than most punk bands to rattle White House windows, unless Chelsea Clinton went through a Ramones phase).
American punks have been highly visible in the Occupy movements: Anti-Flag is among the acts that performed at Occupy Wall Street last fall, which led in short course to the band’s new album, “The General Strike.” Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello hosted an Occupy SXSW show in March at South by Southwest in Austin. Rapper Boots Riley, Morello’s bandmate in Street Sweeper Social Club, has been active in organizing Occupy actions in his native Oakland. Even Green Day — as mainstream as punk gets — took a political turn on its “American Idiot” and “21st Century Breakdown” albums.
There’s certainly a role for punk rock in helping to subvert repressive regimes abroad, but it’s short-sighted at best of Bruder to conclude that punk is a spent force here at home, when so much evidence points to the contrary and with so much yet to do.