Five reasons why punk is alive in 2020
Written by Pete Armitage
Punk rock is widely regarded to have been born in the 1970s in New York City and London. Sid Vicious’s ephemeral moment in the limelight will forever captivate those who investigate 20th century music culture and its legacy.
Without a doubt, those early initiators of the punk rock aesthetic left an indelible imprint on music history. One story from the period comes in the form of the Sex Pistols’ two Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall gigs of 1976. Among a combined audience of approximately 80 punters, were the likes of Morrissey, Peter Hook, Ian Curtis, Mark E Smith and Tony Wilson (as well as Mick Hucknall, although that’s pretty irrelevant; let’s be fair). Those gigs spawned the next generation of British music glitterati; all in one room, soaking up the future zeitgeist.
Those momentous evenings are often regarded as the birthplace of UK punk, and indie rock also for that matter. Check out David Nolan’s excellent book ‘I swear I was there’ for more details1.
Back then the punk ethos was conspicuous by its accompanying medley of artful hallmarks, that even the dewy-eyed conformist could identify and associate with the faction. The term itself described a distinct flavour in fashion, music, poetry, politics and philosophy. And countless other cultural phenomena. It continues to do so to this day.
Bleached mohicans, Doc Martens, studded leather jackets, skull badges, tartan and piercings. We almost take these style choices for granted these days as scenesters utilise them for the most part in a post-modern sense; functioning as purely dress rather than as a reflection of their wearer’s ideological code. But they all hark from the original punk era. Indeed, the movement’s heritage lives on in innumerable manifestations.
From an ideological standpoint, the original incarnation of punk emerged from proletarian malaise2. Economic inequality bred discontent among the newly educated working classes. Members of oppressed communities sought an outlet for their common chagrin, and the wide spectra of beliefs associated with the punk subculture are a reflection of this struggle.
The lyrical content of early punk records addressed issues such as anarchy and anti-consumerism - with an overarching theme of confrontation, and resistance to established power structures. To quote Henry Rollins as interviewed by The New York Times3, ‘[Punk] is a passionless and immediate dismissal of intimidation. A contempt for organized power structures that registers as pure instinct. A desire to confront that is indistinguishable from lust.’
Herein lies our prospective quibble regarding the present state of punk in 2020. Is its original visceral authenticity merely a vestige of the past, or does its spirit live on? Did it die along with Sid that night in Greenwich Village in February 1979? Or is it flourishing in a
newfangled camouflage, its idiosyncratic virtue languishing only in the memories of jaded 60-somethings?
As a smug ‘fuck you’ to the nay-sayers and surfeited has-beens of yesteryear, here are five reasons why punk is alive and kicking in 2020, finally outside of the realm of white, cisgender, straight males:
- Greta Thunberg
Her canonisation as a climate change warrior is entirely justified. She has single-handedly intimidated politicians with the truth, painting them as fools and undermining their authority. Her cold, confrontational style captivates her followers and petrifies her opponents.
Greta’s desire and nonconformist approach to sociopolitical change for the greater good is the essence of punk.
At the age of 17 she wields great influence and power over not only her own peers but members of the European Commision and the U.N. ‘The Greta Effect.’
Let’s face it, Greta is about as punk rock as it gets. To quote Patti Smith, ‘People have the power to redeem the work of fools.’
- Militant Veganism
Once considered an eccentric lifestyle choice with negative health consequences, the popularity of Veganism has extrapolated over the last decade. The Vegan Society quote Google Trends’ statistical data to demonstrate that interest in vegan-related topics has grown sevenfold over the course of the five years between 2014-20194.
Now firmly holding centrestage in mainstream culture, veganism has transcended from merely a lifestyle choice to being a powerful social movement, comprising organised activism, moral protest and resistance to cultural norms - the usage of animal products.
Of course, militant veganism is an ideological movement whose raison d’etre is simply to abide by and promulgate vegan values - by whatever means.
In 2019, arrests were made in Melbourne, Australia, after a number of vegan activists chained themselves to abattoir machinery. Just one isolated example of direct action for the sake of animal liberation.
However, in contrast to other social movements which might measure their success in terms of legislative changes (such as the Feminist movement), veganism defines its success by the spread of everyday practices in people’s lives; that of religiously avoiding animal products5.
Tying in with O’Hara’s6 conception of punk as a movement typified by ‘direct action’, a great proportion of vegans ascribe to clearly defined practices5, and employ militant collective action to spread the word of their plight.
- Abahlali baseMjondolo
This renegade South African housing activism movement was born out of Durban in 2005, initially as a roadblock protest against a ‘slum clearance program’ implemented by the eThekwini Metropolitan Municipality City Council. Roughly translated from Zulu to ‘the people of the shacks’, the organisation have successfully achieved their objectives of demanding proper public housing for shack dwellers, without having to worry about the prospect of eviction.
The group’s direct action campaign methods include the occupation of unused government land as well as large scale marches and strategic use of the legal system to achieve their objectives.
Despite suffering from systematic repression from the government and opponents, including the assassination of local leader Nkululeko Gwala, the organisation utilises slogans such as ‘No Land, No House, No Vote’ and ‘Don’t talk about us, Talk to us.’
Another inspiring example of an activist movement espousing punk ideals to achieve their objectives.
Rapper Barrington DeVaughn Hendricks aka JPEGMAFIA taunts the crowd at his frenzied shows by cleverly reappropriating the word ‘cracker’ in the place of ‘n***er.’ In the process, he illuminates the ease at which his white fans will use the latter racial slur gratuitously without consideration of the former’s offensive connotations.
In a revealing interview with Dazed Digital8, Peggy (as his friends call him) explains the reasoning behind his lyric choices, ‘[white people] don’t like it when the power dynamic is reversed. I was trying to make this point and it worked so well that it terrifies me. There’s white people out there who really want to crucify me!’
JPEGMAFIA firmly sticks two fingers up at the establishment, and successfully uses his art to instigate change, whilst remaining true to punk - tackling social issues such as gentrification and white privilege.
Check him out.
- Nadezhda Tolokonnikova
As a previous founding member of ‘Pussy Riot’, the Muscovite radical feminist punk band, Nadezhda’s chose to speak out in a country that, in her own words, ‘[is] still dominated by the centuries-old image of the woman as keeper of the hearth, and of women raising children alone and without help from men.’
In 2012 shortly after her incarceration, Amnesty International described her as a ‘prisoner of conscience’. The Russian courts accused her and her bandmate of ‘hooliganism’ after they stormed the altar in balaclavas at Moscow’s largest cathedral and performed a ‘punk prayer’, calling for Putin’s dismissal.
She is now free, and in 2016 published her first book, ‘How to Start A Revolution’.
Big respect, Nadezhda.
- David Nolan (2006) ‘I swear I was there’ Independent Music Press
- Elizabeth Cherry (2006) ‘Veganism as a Cultural Movement: A Relational Approach’ Social Movement Studies, Vol. 5, No. 2, 155–170
- Craig O’Hara (1992) ‘The Philosophy of Punk: More Than Noise!!!’ AK Press
- George Mckay (1996) ‘Senseless Acts of Beauty: Cultures of Resistance Since the Sixties’ Verso
- Philip Lewin, J. Patrick Williams (2009) ‘The ideology and practice of authenticity in Punk Subculture’ [Chapter Five in ‘Authenticity in Culture, Self and Society’] Ashgate Publishing Limited
- Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (2006) ‘How to Start A Revolution’ Penguin USA