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Foreign Policy: Making Punk A Threat Again

Masked supporters of all-girl punk band 'Pussy Riot' protest near the Russian embassy in London on August 17.
Masked supporters of all-girl punk band 'Pussy Riot' protest near the Russian embassy in London on August 17.

Spencer Ackerman, a former drummer for several punk bands no one has ever heard of, is a senior writer for Wired.com covering national security.

Pussy Riot is — to borrow the Clash's mantle for a second — the only band that matters.

It almost doesn't matter what the court says. The three women of Pussy Riot — an explosive, obnoxious cross between a band and an anonymous Russian dissidents' movement — have, in an important sense, already won their farce of a trial in Moscow. Every day that their trial for "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred" continues, they call international attention to the paranoid repression of Vladimir Putin's Russia. Pussy Riot has skewered Putin on the horns of a dilemma: Either his government convicts the band and martyrs it even further, or it backs down and concedes that prosecuting the masked trio for a cacophonous musical protest at Christ the Savior Cathedral that called attention to the Russian church's alliance with the Putin regime was always a mistake. Three of the five band members now face the prospect of seven years in prison, which has prompted an unlikely international outcry. On Thursday, Aug. 2, ahead of a meeting with British Prime Minister David Cameron, Putin indicated he'd prefer to back down.

This is not supposed to happen. Dissidents do not fare well in Putinist Russia, for one; for another, punk rock — rock 'n' roll's snottier, wittier, and more abrasive bastard child — does not typically win. 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. Pussy Riot, obscure just months ago, is now an international phenomenon, with the three band members proclaimed prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International and the band the darling of long-suffering Russian intellectuals who have rallied to its defense. And while no one may be talking about the group for its music, a look back at the history of punk rock's earlier geopolitical achievements shows that Pussy Riot has already surpassed them — and perhaps given punk rock a future as a global force for justice and freedom.

It didn't take long for punk to move from the no-future nihilism of the Sex Pistols, the legendary mid-1970s British band that basically started punk rock. The Clash quickly turned punk's attention to global struggles. Joe Strummer, the Clash's creative force, had punk rock singing about the Spanish Civil War, the Jamaican underclass, the martyrdom of Chilean leftist poet Víctor Jara, even, on a record titled Sandinista!, about the victims of Soviet and Chinese communism. In Northern Ireland, contemporary Stiff Little Fingers sang about creating a different kind of insurgency — the band called it an "anti-security force," as the group opposed the local militias alongside the British — on " Alternative Ulster." Punk fractured into endless obscure subgenres and spread worldwide, but a common theme persisted: resistance to arbitrary, brutal global power, something that can be heard in everything from the politicized crust punk of Britain's Discharge to the melodic hardcore of Canada's Propagandhi to the abrasive folk of Florida's Against Me!. Punk channeled youthful angst into an anti-war, anti-government, and anti-corporate catechism.

But those ambitions did not yield tangible geopolitical results. Perhaps the high-water mark of punk's geopolitical relevance came from a single British band that had outlived its peak late-1970s creative period. The pioneers of a particularly abrasive kind of punk — you'll know it from the relentless, militant snare-drumming — Crass stood for anarchism, pacifism, and humor (sometimes humorlessly so). But it took an actual war in the Falkland Islands for Crass, by then far past its prime, to spring into action. Their typically caustic single asked British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher " How Does It Feel (to Be the Mother of a Thousand Dead)?" An improbable indie chart-topper, it prompted Tory parliamentarian Tim Eggar to attempt to have Crass prosecuted under an anti-obscenity law.

Escaping the authorities, Crass pulled off a prank that foreshadowed Pussy Riot's success. In 1983, the band secretly provided credulous journalists with a tape purporting to reveal a conversation between Thatcher and U.S. President Ronald Reagan. It seemingly confirmed left-wing paranoia about both conservative leaders: Reagan appeared to urge restraint on a bloodthirsty Thatcher when discussing the Falklands; Thatcher got Reagan to muse about sacrificing Europe in a nuclear exchange with the Soviets. The tape quickly spiraled into an international incident. The U.S. State Department and the CIA claimed it was Soviet disinformation: "This type of activity fits the pattern of fabrications circulated by the Soviet K.G.B., although usually they involve fake documents rather than tapes," read an official State Department statement. The Sunday Timesran a story headlined " How the KGB Fools the West's Press." The point made and the governments embarrassed, Crass band members admitted to the Associated Press that they, not the Soviets, were the architects of the hoax.

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