Spiky hair, ripped jeans, facial piercings, and a bad attitude. That minor description will put into mind an entire musical genre and the associated culture that arose with it. The general consensus is that, while influences are still very prevalent in modern rock music, the purest form of punk rock died in the 80s. The anti-establishment themes became lost as the genre gained popularity, becoming a contradiction. How does one fight the majority when the very music being created to do so is mass produced and distributed? And so punk rock music died, at least as the version Western culture knew it.. However, the genre has become very popular in areas across the world where the youth are looking to fight against authoritative ideologies and governments. In order to find out how the punk rock music genre has been used by the global community to fight authority, we must explore the origins of punk music within the United Kingdom. Then, we can examine how the genre has been used in different countries and communities around the globe. It is also important to examine the nature of this subversive music’s prevalence in countries it did not originate in and if it constitutes as cultural imperialism.
The history of punk rock music is complicated and vague. However, Roger Sabin sums it up succinctly. “At a very basic level, we can say that punk was/is a subculture best characterized as part youth rebellion, part artistic statement. It had its high point from 1976 to 1979, and was most visible in Britain and America. It had its primary manifestation in music—and specifically in the disaffected rock and roll bands like the Sex Pistols and the Clash” (1999, p. 2). Again, this summary leaves out a lot in favor of being brief. However, punk rock music came to life to serve a specific purpose. “Punk’s musical conventions are firmly anchored to questions of politics: that is, punk is often approached principally as an expression of youth rebellion and disenfranchisement, rather than as music per se” (Phillipov, 2006, p. 384). Punk rock has always been a product of the youth in any given community and it goes beyond the art form of music. It can be expressed through fashion, literature, traditional art, and even the more modern digital art. It has evolved into it’s own aesthetic that is iconic and easily identifiable beyond the music. For a piece of media or art to be considered punk, it usually has a very rough and unrefined look, often accentuating the differences between mainstream culture and the raw edge of punk rock. And that’s sort of the whole point. “Moreover, punk’s do-it-yourself approach to musical production was seen as a subversion of the capitalist control of music practice,while its musical sounds and lyrical themes appeared to express a kind of classbased political resistance to the economic decline of 1970s Britain” (Phillipov, 2006, p. 384). Punk rock music and culture originated from a class of people who were not favored by the capitalistic tendencies of their environment, so they began to create their own pieces of media. “Finally, those more marginally placed (students, students who work, skilled and semi-skilled workers) seemed to like music that, in one way or another, might be considered oppositional (progressive rock, hard rock, punk and new wave and, maybe, some mainstream rock.)” (Shepherd, 1986, 326). Often times, this media was used to critique the power structures that marginalized the punks in the first place. It was the youth of this class in particular that really created the environment for punk rock to exist. “The musics clearly favoured by younger people are hard rock, punk and new wave, and mainstream rock. Each of these genres starts by being very popular among 15 to 20 year-olds, and then declines steadily in popularity” (Shepherd, 1986, p. 324). But as quickly as punk rock came to be, it disappeared into many facets and influences that can still be seen today.
While punk is used more as a reference than an outright genre in the Western world, many cultures are currently involved in punk rock music to fight their specific battles. For example. “ In South Africa, shortly after the 1976 Soweto Uprising, multi-racial punk bands began to form, with names like Gay Marines, National Wake, and Screaming Foetus” (2013). The atmosphere created by the 1976 Soweto Uprising was perfectly suited for the kind of subversive criticism that punk rock music had offered in the West during the same time. There was a lot of conflict between authoritative ideologies and the communities that were forced to live under them during the late 70s in South Africa.“Meeting and performing under the pall of Apartheid, these bands defied laws against racial mixing and braved constant harassment by police” (2013). Many people seem to forget that African Punk rock “started virtually weeks after its U.K. cousin, first in imitation, then as a true movement in its own right (2013). As this branch of punk expanded, it began to become more influenced by the South African culture until it was less of a product of the U.K. but a hybrid genre. It is also important to note that the invention of punk rock (and rock music in general) would not exist if not for African culture. So, having an African community adapt a musical genre that had evolved from African music in the first place seems almost redundant. “The meeting of black and white sounds and musicians in England, especially in bands like The Clash, The Beat and The Specials. Later African ska bands like Hog Hoggity Hog and The Rudimentals certainly carry on that tradition. But many of the bands profiled—from South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique—melded raw punk energy with African polyrhythms and distinctive local sounds and instrumentation” (2013).
More recently, Indonesia is facing conflict between the youth of the country and the Sharia Law now in place. According to Maria Bakkalapulo and Niall Macaulay, the rise in punk culture is due to the corruption they claim is prevalent under Sharia Law. “Under the tightening grip of Shari’a law in north Sumatra’s Aceh province, punks causing minor transgressions are used as scapegoats to distract attention from the crippling issue in Indonesia – rampant corruption” (Bakkalapulo, 2015). There have been waves of punk popularity in Indonesia in the past for varying reasons. This most recent wave has come about after the 2004 Tsunami which dislocated and disenfranchised a lot of people, including the younger generation. However, the first wave of punk rock music came to Indonesia in response to political leadership. “Punk first took root in Jakarta in the mid-1990’s — when the music’s rebellious spirit perfectly soundtracked the hostility most young people directed toward then President Suharto’s dictatorial regime”(Bakkalapulo, 2015). The current government is actively fighting against the punk rock movement through specific programs created to “re-educated” the affected youth. “The Aceh punks became known worldwide on December 20, 2011 when sixty-four were taken away by the police and their gig, which they had set up to fundraise for orphanages, was ended. They were punished for being punk – subjected to a “re-education” regimen that included having their mohawks shaved, and their clothes burned. They were forced nearly naked into a lake to wash themselves – symbolic of authorities that see them as morally unclean” (Bakkalapulo, 2015).
While the response to the punk rock community in Indonesia may seem harsh, groups unaffiliated with the government in Iraq have had even more drastic responses. In early March of 2012 “At least 14 youths have been stoned to death in Baghdad […] in what appears to be a campaign by Shi’ite militants against youths wearing Western-style ‘emo’ clothes and haircuts, security and hospital sources say” (Rasheed, 2012). The militant Shi’ite group had also left lists of more youths that would be targeted if they did not change their style from the ‘emo’ culture they identified with. (Rasheed, 2012). It is speculated that this attack occurred due to Iraq’s interior ministry focus on the subculture, “labeling it ‘Satanism. and ordering a community police force to stamp it out” (Rasheed, 2012). However, leaders in the Shi’ite community condemn the killings. “Abdul-Raheem al-Rikabi, Baghdad representative for Iraq’s most influential Shi’ite cleric, Ali al-Sistani, called the killings ‘terrorist attacks’ “ (Rasheed, 2012). The Reuters article claims that “Today, the militias have largely disappeared, Baghdad is far more peaceful and many youths experiment with Western styles, although much of Iraqi society remains conservative” (Rasheed, 2012). One member of the community went on to say of the youth participating in ‘emo’: “If they are close friends who have something in common, that’s all right. If other things we hear about them are true, like sucking each other’s blood or worshipping the devil, that is not accepted in our society. But I think this is just a trend to imitate the West” (Rasheed, 2012).
The Russian President Vladimir Putin has had plenty of opposition from people within and outside of Russia. In 2012, an all female punk rock band “were arrested in Moscow’s Red Square after they performed a song ridiculing Prime Minister Vladimir Putin” (Flintoff, 2012). The band, known as Pussy Riot, “were dressed in summery short dresses and tights, but brightly colored balaclavas masked their faces. Dancing frantically to keep warm, they launched into a song that could be delicately titled ‘Putin Got Scared,’ though the lyrics in Russian were ruder than that” (Flintoff, 2012). The brightly colored feminine clothes and ski mask has become an iconic marker of the band and has even evolved to represent a new subgenre of punk rock. Women have taken a special interest in how punk rock music and culture can help in their pursuit of equal rights. Pussy Riot is one of the first feminist punk groups to use the genre as a means of protest. One band member “says feminist groups had campaigned all summer against government legislation that placed restrictions on legal abortions. They were further outraged by the announcement that Putin and current President Dmitry Medvedev planned to change places after the next election” (Flintoff, 2012).
Women in Mexico are also using punk rock to fight back against the misogynistic act of cat calling. In a Youtube video published by AJ+, a group of women in in Mexico City find a creative way to fight back against street harassment. “When we are walking down the streets and someone harrasses us in any way we run after this person, we grab our confetti guns, we shoot once, we turn on the speakers, and we sing ‘Sexista Punk’ “(2016). Some of the lyrics the women sing are” “What you’ve done to me is called harassment. If you do this to me this way, I will respond” (2016) and “You talk to me as if you were going to rape me” (2016). This use of punk rock is different from previous examples as it is used to fight back an institutionalized issue concerning sexism rather than a specific authority. These young women who approach their harassers do so to retain their power in a situation that was meant to demean them. One woman went on to say in the video “We certainly don’t think we are going to change the world. But we sure know that we’ve changed ours” (2016). This is a key point in the punk rock culture, to create a change on a large enough scale that it is felt, to take action in controlling one’s own life experiences.
One common theme we can see from all these examples of punk rock culture around the world is the resistance of the established culture. This is a typical response from an institution that is being threatened by a subculture but there may be another level of apprehension towards it. “The arrival of the music was precisely seen as a form of cultural invasion by many ideologues and governments […] But how far was its effect on its listeners one of invasion, of their submission to alien values” (Laing, 1986, p. 338). From the perspective of the ideologues and governments, punk rock culture has coerced the youth into becoming rebellious. However, it can be argued that the punk rock culture in their community is a response to the rebellious motivations they already had. But to examine whether or not the prevalence of punk rock is cultural imperialism, we must first understand how it got distributed to these cultures in the first place. “To understand the economics of the music industry at a more global level, another dimension must be introduced, that of piracy” (Laing, 1986, p. 335). While it is true that punk rock music became mainstream and thus something to be bought and sold, it was never so prevalent to be exported in excessive amounts. That right was held for the more popular disco and pop music genres of the time. So the most popular punk rock bands found another way into the hands of the disenfranchised youth of world. “The Exploited, The Clash, The Sex Pistols, Discharge – bootleg cassettes of classic punk rock migrated across the whole archipelago through tape sharing”(Bakkalapulo, 2015). The main way punk music found its way into these heavily conservative areas of the world was through piracy. So, does this count as cultural imperialism when the Western world didn’t look to sell this portion of itself in the first place? Would punk rock have found it’s way into these areas without the other, more prevalent forms of cultural imperialism? It’s a very difficult question to answer on both sides.
I can understand the disapproval of rebellious youth to find their voice through Western means rather than generating their own form of dissent derived from their cultures. However, I do think it is important that the youth have a voice in the first place, and if the only way they can find that voice is through punk rock music, it might just be worth it. In the examples above, each culture started off with a western genre of music but shaped it overtime into a hybrid representing their struggles. The anger and passion that is so vital to punk rock culture is so easily adaptable to situations concerning dissatisfaction with oppressive forces. It is truly in the spirit of punk rock to take something established and tear it up into something new. The Western idea of punk rock is dead but to the rest of the world, it’s alive and well and looking to fight.
[AJ+]. (2016 January 27).Fighting Street Harassers With Confetti Guns And Punk Rock [Video
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