The Power and Politics of Punk and Pop

Sex Pistols

Professor John Street puts the relationship between music and politics in the spotlight. Street argues that we need a deeper ‘appreciation of sound’s political possibilities’, and maps out the various ways in which music has acted as a conduit for the political.

Not so long ago, the man formerly known as Johnny Rotten (now plain John Lydon), published a second volume of autobiography (Anger is an Energy).  It attracted a surprising amount of media attention, from some rather unlikely sources. The Sex Pistols’ front-man appeared on Question Time, and was interviewed on Channel 4 News and BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. He was accorded the status of a leading politician.

Why? It had, I am sure, something to do with the age and the generation of those who now edit such programmes – their musical tastes and affiliations forged in the late 1970s.

But maybe there is another story to be told. It was that punk was not just another pop fashion, but was different because it made a difference. Both the rhetoric surrounding punk’s birth, and its subsequent memorialization in documentaries, autobiographies, photo and fashion collections, and much else besides, has accorded punk the status of a political movement as much as a musical trend.

That opponents to President Putin styled themselves as punks only serves to perpetuate this view of its profoundly political character.  Although Pussy Riot are more of an art work than a rock band does not alter any of this.

What it does raise is the question of how music and politics (or indeed art and politics) are connected, and how such connections might be researched and substantiated.

While we know from the work of psychologists that music can be deployed to manage human behaviour. We know from sociologists about how music is used in subcultural activity, and how musical tastes map onto social distinctions of various kinds. We have learnt too from International Relations scholars of the role of music in the exercise of soft power and the construction of the imagined communities of nations.

Political scientists have also made their contribution. Students of social movements have helped identify how music can help counter the disabling logic of collective action. And Robert Putnam has suggested that musical participation can help restore lost social capital and revive civic life. In my own research, with colleagues at the University of East Anglia, I have explored the role of music in humanitarian spectacles like Live8 and in grass-roots movements like Rock Against Racism. More recently, we have examined the value and meaning of music in young people’s political engagement.

Like Matthew Flinders, I am inclined to believe that ‘the true value of art lies not [or not only] in how it responds to the needs of the economy but in how it responds to the rise of “disaffected democrats” and the constellation of concerns that come together in the “why we hate politics” narrative.’

But in taking this view, much turns on how we move beyond the idea of art as purely instrumental. What would allow us to claim the music as a form of political expression? How does sound signify politically?

For Pussy Riot, music was not just a useful tool for upsetting the church and the state. They chose to fashion themselves as punks because of what that represented and because of how it sounded. So too with John Lydon. While he is just another pop star flogging another celebrity autobiography, he is (or was) also a voice that could embody a sneering disdain, ‘I am the anti-Christ …’

But even here, as the disruptive sounds of punk are incorporated into the politics of the moment, there is a danger of closing off our appreciation of sound’s political possibilities. Punk is, in a sense, a cliché of music’s politics. It is the crude representation of political anger. But what of those protesters in Turkey’s  Gezi Park, who chose not to chant the songs of the Clash or Stiff Little Fingers, but rather ‘Do you hear the people sing?’ from Les Miserables?

Pop may well be as musically and politically important as punk. The singer Lesley Gore died recently. One of her chart hits, ‘You Don’t Own Me’ (1963), gave voice to an emerging feminist movement; she later used the song to encourage women to vote. It hints, I think, at the power of mainstream pop.

The question is how such claims might be substantiated or discounted. With Matt Worley and David Wilkinson of Reading University, and money from the Leverhulme Trust, I am researching the politics of punk. Our aim is to do so without reliance on folk memory and airbrushed autobiographies, but with recourse to the historical record. It is a sobering, but also surprising task. The press release for John Lydon’s Anger is an Energy boldly claimed: ‘So revolutionary was his [John Lydon’s] influence, he was even discussed in the Houses of Parliament under the Traitors and Treasons Act, which still carries the death penalty’. It’s not true. But this does not mean that Lydon and his band did not offer something of significance to ‘disaffected democrats’.

John Street is a Professor of Politics at the University of East Anglia, and author, most recently, of Music and Politics (Polity, 2012). 

This post also featured on the Crick Centre blog.  Image credit: Wikipedia

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