Musings —07.12.2016 12:00 AM—
Punk: anarchy, class warfare, contempt for political institutions, right?
Not quite, maaaan.
Punk rock, like all youth subcultures, possessed myriad internal contradictions. It decried racism (as did Joe Strummer of the Clash) whilst some of its proponents (like Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols) wore swastika T-shirts. It angrily scorned the upper classes (as did the Clash and Iggy Pop) and then later licensed their songs to serve as soundtracks to Jaguar and Audi commercials (as did the Clash and Iggy Pop, respectively). Punk rockers loudly extolled anarchy (as did the Pistols, notably) and then ran for public office (as did the Dead Kennedys Jello Biafra, DOA’s Joey Shithead, and NDP MPs Charlie Angus and Andrew Cash, among others).
But the biggest punk double-standard, probably, was always this: the punk ethos was always about individualism and doing-it-yourself, to the extent that “DIY” became the predominant philosophy among punks on both sides of the Atlantic. But punks, at the centre of their gritty, grimy tattooed hearts, have always been collectivists. They fiercely promoted individualism – but, at the end of the show, always agreed that a lot more can be achieved by working together.
“If the kids are united, they will never be divided,” Sham 69’s Jimmy Pursey sang way back when, and all of us agreed. We didn’t know anything about politics or unified action, but in places as far-flung as London (for Pursey et al.) or Calgary (for me and my punk friends) we came together to organize gigs and rallies, for causes ranging from Rock Against Racism to Rock Against Bush.
And, along the way, we sort of became internationalists.
In its essence, punk rock was always anti-racist and pretty progressive, so our willingness to go along with something like the European Union shouldn’t have surprised anyone. Besides: if we could piss off isolationist conservative types like Margaret Thatcher – who infamously hollered “No no no!” to increased powers for the EU in 1990, in a House of Commons speech that ultimately precipitated her downfall – well, then so much the better. If Messrs. Reagan and Bush were against something, we punks were generally always for it.
So what, then, do punks think about the decision of a majority of British citizens to leave the EU? Not much. It indisputably represents a triumph for the angry old white folks we thought we had beaten back in then bad old days. And it is a shocking loss for us, the punks who championed gay, lesbian and minority rights around the time of the very first Pride parades.
“Coming out would be like going back to Little England,” said the Pistols’ drummer Paul Cook, a few days before the Brexit vote. His band mate, singer Johnny Rotten, was similarly unenthused, after the vote: “It is not a good idea to lose all the friends we have made in Europe. I am not satisfied.”
Nor, apparently, is Laura Jane Grace, the lead singer of Florida punk giants Against Me! – and one of the most listened-to voices in punk rock today. Having just completed a memoir – and finished a record and a tour with her band – Grace sat down to talk in Toronto, and expressed despair about the Brexit result.
“I always felt like the world was getting more liberal,” she said. “And then something like this happens. And it’s a swing to the Right, no question….Racism, too, I think is at the heart of it.”
While the economic and political implications of Brexit have been mooted at length in the media, Grace agrees that the cultural significance of it all remains elusive. “As an artist, there’s nothing wrong about writing about your feelings or whatever. There’s nothing wrong with that,” says Grace, who is known for writing deeply-personal songs – about race, gender and religion – for the band she started in Gainesville in 1997.
“But to me, coming from the punk scene, it’s always important to be part of resistance culture. There’s always a need for music that is protest music. It’s a way to rally people, it’s a way to educate people.”
In the Trump and Brexit era, she says, some people are dearly in need of education. “We need art that shakes people out of their comfort zone,” she says, adding that she still believes Trump could win the White House. Against Me, she says, will be doing that at their shows, and on their next (as-yet untitled) album.
“It’s a frightening time,” she says. “So artists need to subvert that. They need to revolt against that. They need to create change.”
The stakes, she says, are too high for any of us to be apathetic, and to just stay home.
“People,” she says, “need to start paying attention.”