Pussy Riot take first step in new chapter of punk protest

 

OPINION:Social media have been central in spreading band’s freedom of speech message

‘This is a chord, this is another, this is a third. Now form a band.” Those were the words accompanying an illustration in English punk zine Sideburns in December of 1976, perhaps the first definition of the punk rock spirit. Anyone can be in a punk band, anyone can make music, as long as they have something to say.

Prioritising the message was key to the punk ideal, as bands all over the word espoused democratic change, in music and in life. Making the tools available to everyone was just as important. It didn’t matter if you had some beat-up guitar or half a drum kit, as long as you said what you felt needed to be said and you weren’t waiting for anyone else to tell you that you could, you were punk. You still are.

“We are all Pussy Riot,” said Kathleen Hanna, former singer in riot grrrl band Bikini Kill and feminist icon, in a recent interview. It’s a simple enough sentence, though one pregnant with power. Hanna noticed the radical and important link between the actions of the Pussy Riot group in Russia and the original impulse of all punk music. Three members of that group were jailed last Friday on the grounds of hooliganism and incitement to religious hatred after performing a “punk prayer” song of protest in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow.

Pussy Riot were anonymous and, with the exception of the three jailed women in the spotlight, they mostly remain so. Covering their faces, they became a singular force rather than a collection of individuals. Where the early punk bands dressed in denim and leather, Pussy Riot appeared in neon balaclavas and colourful clothes: an inverted uniform, designed to make them stand out as one. Their songs are fast, simple and full of chanted slogans. It is music anyone can make and anyone can join in with.

There is no barrier to entry into Pussy Riot, beyond the courage and conviction to protest against injustice and oppression. This is the core power of their movement and all punk movements: anyone can do this, so join us.

There are some factors, however, that make Pussy Riot a new chapter in the history of punk protest, some things that could only be happening here and now that help to account for the lightning rod effect this has had on the global imagination. Most important is the ease with which the story is spread. Pussy Riot and their supporters have taken advantage of the democratisation of the means of distribution.

Much in the way that musicians can now release their music to a potential audience of millions through various social media and sharing platforms, Pussy Riot’s story has spread through Twitter, blogs and Facebook. They are not waiting for the major news outlets to come to them – their lawyers are tweeting from the courtroom. They are spreading information faster and more widely than authorities can control it.

In this day and age, nothing is shared more than music. YouTube links fly back and forth over social media at a terrifying rate and mp3 blogs rose up in their thousands over the last 10 years. Music is everywhere on the internet. When Pussy Riot chose a band to be the centrepiece of their protest movement, they tapped into this sharing mentality. They chose the medium most open to shares, embeds and re-blogs. They understand web content and its importance, creating videos and mp3s that could be spread worldwide at the touch of a button rather than attempting to sell records bearing their message. News about them spread through music websites as much as traditional news outlets, reaching people who never read the news.

The second element in this equation is the audience that Pussy Riot’s message went out to. In the last year, the Occupy movement spread across the globe, giving anyone predisposed to activism an outlet to express their feelings. The movement inspired solidarity, uniting hardened protesters with wide-eyed undergrads behind one banner and one word. Though that initial spark has fizzled out, it left a hugely increased audience primed for action.

Suddenly, there was a worldwide demographic charged up and ready to actively support causes for positive change. It is this group of people, from all countries and all walks of life, that Pussy Riot has reached out to. There are no borders to this message.

Their idea is clear: they want the freedom to do, say and think as they wish, without the undue pressure and influence of the government. It’s a basic civil right. The message is simple enough to resonate with people around the world who are used to the apparent luxury of free speech. It has been presented in the right form, with enough flair, to reach that sympathetic audience and it has affected them deeply enough to spark a new round of activism where everyone can get involved. What’s more punk than that?


IAN MALENEYis a freelance writer and musician. ( interstate808.tumblr.com)

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