Books

A Contemporary Look at Punk From the Global to the Local

To understand what it is to be punk in the 21st century, a group of scholars who identify as punks, have gathered their research into an insightful book.

(image courtesy Intellect Books)

If you ask kids these days what “punk music” is you’ll be casting a wide net. You’re just as likely to hear about Lil Uzi Vert or Warped Tour (RIP) as you are the Ramones or CBGB. If the query is extended to lifestyle, punk might align with the politics of AntiFa or the rise and fall and rise again of Hot Topic. Of course, these are decidedly United States-centric examples; elements of punk have colored a vast swath of global culture while maintaining a countercultural hue. To understand what it is to be punk in the 21st century, one has to become comfortable with double vision, looking at global cultural exchange while digging into local contexts. A group of scholars who, by and large, also identify as punks, have gathered their research into a book that embraces this double vision.

“Punk is not perfect and neither is this book” acknowledge the editors of The Punk Reader: Research Transmissions From The Local and The Global (Intellect), which “documents disparate international punk scenes, including [those in] Mexico, China, Malaysia and Iran.” The book includes an introduction by the editors and 13 chapters by various contributors. “The purpose of this book is to present the first collection of academic studies on the contemporary (post-2000) global punk scene,” editors Russ Bestley, Mike Dines, Alastair “Gords” Gordon, and Paula Guerra explain. The result falls somewhere between an academic study and a collection of scene reports.

At their best, “scene reports” delve into the specificities of a scene, placing it in a larger context and letting its participants speak as much as the reporter, as in the iconic documentary film series by Penelope Spheeris on the Los Angeles punk and heavy metal scenes, The Decline of Western Civilization. At its laziest, it relies on novelty, presenting scenes as listicles that both mythicize and oversimplify. Entire movements and nuanced social networks are boiled down to trend pieces (Allure’s globe-traipsing take on punk fashion) and gonzo documentaries with click-bait titles (“Punk Rock Vs Sharia Law”). Unlike these documentary works, The Punk Reader is crammed with in-text citations, references to movements in subcultural studies, and charts of ethnographic research. Given the diversity of chapters and topics, it could prove a valuable reference for anyone looking for granular details on certain scenes. Within its 300-plus pages, insights from many of the authors and their subjects reveal punk to be a constellation of values and trends that arises from many uneasy histories.

“‘Crack in the System’: A Bottom-Up Analysis of the Anarcho-Punk movement in Mexico” goes beyond the typical scene report, quoting interviewees extensively while providing political context for their views. Part of the chapter shines a refreshing light on the complexity of Mexico’s Zapatista movement, a political and militant group comprised of mostly indigenous separatists based in southern Mexico that has popular support among the global radical left. Interview subjects describe the material support provided by anarcho-punk collectives to the Zapatistas and political affinities between the two, but bring up doubts about the cult of personality the global left has fostered for the movement’s leaders and the actions of the National Liberation Zapatista Army. As one interviewee stated: “Yes, we support the Zapatista peoples and the Zapatista struggle and we will always do so, let’s be clear on this. This doesn’t justify the Zapatista army […].” Yet, despite doubts, they will “go down to the streets to stop everything” when there is an attack on the Zapatista community.

This tension between global conceptions of scenes and their local politics and lived experience is explored extensively in the chapter “‘We Just Make Music’: Deconstructing Notions of Authenticity in the Iranian DIY Underground.” The author, Theresa Steward, brings up the 2009 docu-drama No One Knows About Persian Cats and its reception as exemplary of the fraught relationship between this local underground and the outside world’s perceptions of it. The film was well-received by English-language critics, film and music alike, although the music critics made extensive comparisons between Iran’s punks and Western rock legends without considering the lush networks of creative exchange in which musicians in Tehran take part.

The flipside of this willful ignorance of the scene in Iran is a fixation on the political context of the music, what Steward calls “the romanticized politicization” of Iranian music. The Iranian music scene is de facto underground since popular music, with the exception of traditional and religious music, is heavily restricted by the Islamic government. Some of the musicians who participated in the film, and others who are simply part of the scene, protest the perception that their music is political above all else and express frustrations with a global public that is more concerned with their story than music. The chapter’s title borrows from a quote by British-Iranian rapper Reveal: “We just make music, but people push things on us rather than discussing the quality of the music and expression.”

The collection is weaker when it loses sight of a scene’s sociopolitical nuances and individual participants and spins into a diatribe on punk values. In the chapter “A Profane Existence? DIY Culture, Sonic Extremism, and Punk Identity in Twenty-First Century Malaysia,” Marco Ferrarese makes the claim that the punks in this scene are more concerned with their “global subcultural capital” than fostering their own communities. Yet Ferrarese fails to frame his claim with examples of the community successfully coming together and instead focuses on an anarcho-punk house’s use of English-language slogans written in a traditionally UK-punk typeface. Counterexamples, such as an account of the value of bootlegging in Malaysia, are notably absent from his argument.

In her chapter on emergent punk in China, “The Punk Subculture in China,” Jian Xiao considers the value of past academic theories about subcultures and punk, such as the influential theories from the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham University (CCCS), but stipulates that “future research needs to be undertaken with substantial empirical evidence to avoid the problem of being over-theoretical due to the lack of indigenous perspectives from subculturists concerned.” While some of this book falls into the “over-theoretical” trap, much of it is backed by comprehensive research. The Punk Reader encourages prudence on the part of the reader when it comes to evaluating a scene and offers many instances where there are multiple sides to the subculture’s story.

The Punk Reader: Research Transmissions from the Local to the Global (2019) is published by Intellect Books and is available from Amazon or your local independent bookstore.

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