On the Inability to Remove Politics from the Punk Movement

So, you want to call yourself a punk, eh? Let’s have a chat. 

Recently, I’ve seen a few statements from those who self-identify as punks and support the music industry claiming it is “annoying” that some members of the community turn conversations into political statements, or critique those who find themselves taking issues “way too seriously.” To that I say, no. The punk rock movement is and always will be an intersection of angst derived from inequalities and music. To say that punk is political is not with the intention to gatekeep a community, it’s about understanding your roots, the meaning of the movement, and the musicians behind the music you’re listening to. 

Punk is all about and established in counter-culture. You stray from the norms, radicalize yourself, and fight for an end to working-class struggles and economic inequalities. This is why you cannot be apolitical and understand, listen to, and be a part of the punk movement. Punk ideologies are rooted in support for mutual aid, anti-gentrification, anti-war, civil rights, freedom of expression, and so much more. The true existence of punk music is a metaphorical political statement in itself. Besides just punk music alone, there is an assertion in general punk fashion, as well. Punk fashion includes provocative clothing, hairstyles, jewelry, and more. Punk fashion imposes an emphasis towards individuality, non-conformity, and a rejection of societal norms that are rooted in politics. There is no right or wrong in punk fashion, just a subversion of corrupt authority and systems.

One of the first known punk bands to create the foundation for the genre is the proto-punk band Death. Death began as a funk band in the early ‘70s, but switched their sound soon after. Although it is difficult to distinguish exactly who the first punk band was, many consider Death to be the pioneers of the genre. They were highly unpopular during their time, but shortly started an era of using music to make statements that would expand further and further. Death’s most known song is “Politicians in My Eyes,” which is a song critiquing the intentions of politicians. 

“Politicians in my eyes / They could care less about you / they could care less about me as long as they are to end the place they want to be.”

Before Death was given its recognition, the band that it competes with as the founder of punk is Bad Brain. Bad Brain was a hardcore punk band of the late 70’s who started as a jazz fusion band but gained reputation and changed sound. Because of Bad Brain’s radically political music and aggressive sound, they were banned from playing at some venues during their time. Even today, many associate the punk movement with predominantly men, especially white men, but when doing your research and understanding the roots of what you’re listening to, you learn that in reality, it was founded by Black musicians.

Another well-known and highly political punk band is Dead Kennedys. Dead Kennedys, who were active in the late ‘70s and especially the ‘80s, is considered a defining group for the hardcore punk movement.  Many of their lyrics  are very outwardly political in satirical ways including their songs “Nazi Punks Fuck Off,” “Kill the Poor,” “Chickenshit Conformist,” and many more. Their topics generally revolved around critiquing the punk movement for moving towards commercialization, or “selling out,” and the economic policies of the Reagan administration. Since the band dissolved, the frontman of the group, Jello Biafra, has continued forward as a spoken word political artist and is active in discussions on Palestine, the presidential election, and even made an appearance in the 2019 film The Last Black Man in San Francisco.

An example of a genre of music that derived directly from the creation of punk is what is known as Riot Grrrl. The term “Riot Grrrl” was coined by activist and artist Jen Smith. One of the main ideologies of punk music is anti-sexism and gender equality. As a result, Riot Grrrl began as a genre with the intention to create an intersection of punk, politics, and especially feminism. Riot Grrrl didn’t gain it’s footing until the early ‘90s, a couple decades after the beginning of the punk movement. Riot grrrl ideologies focus on equality for all genders and a fight against gender based violence. Many Riot Grrrl groups were known to host meetings and chapters that aimed to support and uplift women in the punk scene, which still occur today. Riot Grrrl also artistically expressed their politics and movement through zines, occasionally known as “angry grrrl zines.” Influential Riot Grrrl groups include Bikini Kill, Sleater-Kinney, Bratmobile, The Coathangers, and immeasurably more. 

As genres of music generally develop, many of the newer genres that you know and love today evolved from early punk musicians. Genres that derived from punk include, but are not limited to: afropunk, christian punk, queercore, pop punk, psychobilly, and ska punk. Many of these artists that fall under subcategories of the punk genre clearly have political roots and intentions, as well. One of the more common genres amongst many bands these days is post-punk. Post-punk has somewhat of a hazy definition with punk origins that reject rock norms and are influenced by other genres like funk, electronic, pop, and more. Although IDLES claims to not be a punk or post-punk band, many associate their sound with post-punk traits. Whether they fall directly under the category or just have some influence of punk or post-punk music, they commonly vocalize political statements with their music. Some of their political songs that highlight inequality and especially economic struggles include “Mercedes Marxist,” “Mother,” “White Privilege,” and more. Another band that arguably has influence from post-punk is the young English band black midi. Black midi is also generally associated with noise-rock, math rock, and experimental, and they released their debut album Schlagenheim summer of 2019. One of the songs off the EP, “Near DT, MI” subtly discusses the struggles of environmental racism that is occurring in Flint, Michigan. The song moves fast and is relatively simple, but when you put together the title, which references Detroit, Michigan, and the terrifying swirl of lyrics at the swell of the song shouting “There’s lead in the water! There’s lead in the water! There’s lead in the water, and you think that I’m fine?” it is clearly a reference to the lack of government action to aid the water crisis in Flint. 

Punk as a genre of music and all the subgenres that derived from it are political statements. In order to preserve its rich history, it’s critical for listeners to understand the intersection of punk with social justice and politics.

Maya Avendano is a .WAV staff member, she wrote the article. Ren Conger is a .WAV contributor, he made the cover art.