By Ren Aldridge
Punk is my politics, identity, community and the centre of my life right now, as the front woman of a touring band. I was drawn to its volume, passion and anti-authority politics as a teenager, and it has guided my choices throughout life since. At some point, punk passed me the mic, amplified my voice and gave me a chance to be heard.
Anti-authority – counter-hegemonic/fuck the man/radical – politics are the core of punk. It’s meant to threaten the dominant, which is why I find it laughable, at best, when anyone claims that it’s punk to spew sexist, racist or whatever oppressive bullshit; our society is already structurally all of these things. Historically the far right has always tried to lay a claim on punk, but punk can’t be meaningfully co-opted by a politics that is authoritarian at its core. Punk has never been about establishing authority – it’s about attacking it in all its forms.
Sure, punk kicked off in 1976, but people that try to hold punk in the historical moment it began are denying its true essence. Punk is constantly developing, in terms of both its politics and sound. What it meant in ’76 isn’t what it means now. Punk’s messy and flawed but it has a good heart, which is why it has constantly addressed the problems within it: from punk bands like X-Ray Spex and The Clash playing Rock Against Racism in ’78 to the Dead Kennedy’s declaring ‘Nazi Punks Fuck Off’ in ’81; from Riot Grrrl surfacing to challenge macho punk in the 90’s to DIY Diaspora Punks working to decolonise punk today. Punk keeps bettering itself. It has to if it wants to remain true to its politics. Radical politics demand change, so it makes sense that punk has to keep changing itself.
It’s the same with the sound. Punk isn’t tied to a precise sound in the way that a lot of music genres are – it’s more of an approach, an attitude of saying “fuck it – I’m gunna have a go” (whether you’re musically proficient – whatever that even means – or not). The DIY ethos of punk is audible in the beginnings of most bands, when people who don’t know how to play an instrument pick one up anyway, or people who are tired of being ignored grab the mic and let loose. Punk celebrates imperfection and gives us space to suck, but it doesn’t trap us there either. It leaves room for each of us to grow – hence the shredalicious skills of bands like Propagandhi and the sheer variety of bands defined as punk.
The DIY ethos is what makes punk so empowering, and where its historic alignment with anarchism becomes most clear. It’s about learning by doing, whether that’s playing drums or intersectional feminism; it’s about practice as direct action. It’s legitimately accessible. It’s about being an active participant and creating your own culture – whether that’s music, zines, art, whatever! – not just obediently consuming the bland shit that capitalism spoon feeds us. (Yes punk’s relationship to capitalism can be fucked up, often hypocritical and complex, but it remains critical.) DIY culture teaches us that we can do things for ourselves, and this spills over into creating political change. I really believe that disempowerment is a key reason why mainstream society is so often seems apathetic, especially in terms of political struggle beyond the ballot box. People don’t believe they can change anything or even take much control over their own lives – but DIY culture at least begins to show us otherwise.
Do It Yourself is, at the same time, Do It Together. Want to play in a band, go on tour or put on a show? You’re going to have to work with other people. People with different skills, ideas, priorities and personalities (annoying habits). I sometimes feel like being in a band – cooperating with others to make music – is the ultimate test of my political ideals. Because punk requires active participation, it is inherently collaborative. It is simultaneously the context that we practice our politics in, as well as shorthand for those politics. DIY/DITogether culture involves sharing skills and empowering each other. It gathers us physically together in the same spaces, at the very least for gigs, and this fights the feelings of alienation that capitalism increasingly breeds in us, as mainstream society in Western countries becomes more and more individualistic (which I believe is a key cause behind a growing mental health crisis and rising xenophobia). Punk gives us a chance to meet people, and can give us an instinctive feeling of our political potential.
Punk also lets us be loud, and this is especially significant for those of us that society prefers to be quiet. My own band recently sampled what I consider the most iconic vocal moment from the first wave of punk: Poly Styrene yelling, “Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard but I think, OH BONDAGE UP YOURS, 1, 2, 3, 4!” Her voice reverberates through the decades and remains relevant and inflammatory today. Patriarchy still wants those it recognises as women to shut up and take it. I see it everywhere, from attacks on Twitter to the immediate aggression I’m met with if I challenge a man harassing me on the street; from defamation proceedings against women who’ve spoken up about problematic men, to that rank incident recently where a lesbian couple were beaten up on a London bus for refusing to kiss for men’s entertainment. And this demand to be quiet extends to any marginalised group. In a voice workshop that I ran with Janey Starling (lead singer of Dream Nails) at DIY Space last summer, someone described the social constraints to being loud and the way that, “it becomes pretty hard-coded into being a woman or some other marginalised kind of gender identity that you learn to be quiet and use your voice in a particular way.” Similarly, in an interview that I did with them about the politics of voice, artist and vocalist of Screaming Toenail, Jacob V Joyce, spoke from their experience as a person of colour and placed the systematic demand on black people to be quiet in the colonial history of the UK:
“… our parents entry into this country was a conditional one that we respect our place in the empire … there’s been an unspoken rule that they are here to be good migrants … to be subservient, whatever, just don’t complain, don’t be too noisy, don’t be too this or we’ll get you arrested, don’t be too punk basically.”
For people that are marginalised in this society, whether thats due to race, gender identity, class or whatever, volume is resistance and punk offers us amplification. It incites us to take the mic, turn up our amps and raise our voices up loud.
Punk fizzes and sparks with potential. It gathers us together, challenges us and connects people across the world. It’s constantly evolving and must never stagnate. Hold punk too tight – try and freeze it in time or snatch it from the next generation – and it will wither and die inside of you.
Ren Aldridge is an artist, writer and front-woman of feminist punk band Petrol Girls.
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