Fortnightly(ish) Review: Punk Using Its Power for Good and Evil


Iranian nuclear facilities were recently attacked by malware.  The malicious software, of unknown origin, pumped AC/DC’s ‘Thunderstruck’ through the infected computers’ speakers.

It’s probably fair to say that the annual United Nations General Assembly is generally considered to be a bit of a yawn-fest.  This year though a concert called ‘Global Festival‘ is being held concurrently with the UNGA.  Neil Young and Crazy Horse, the Foo Fighters, Band of Horses and the Black Keys are playing, with the aim of raising funds for various causes including polio eradication, which is facing a $500 million shortfall.  The concert doesn’t raise funds through ticket prices: there are none.  Instead, patrons must earn their ticket by completing actions recommended by various global organisations, such as signing petitions and writing letters.

Australian Treasurer Wayne Swan decided to let the world know that he takes his cues from Springsteen this week.  His speech was widely panned for being dorky and embarrassing, but nonetheless praised for being tactically clever.  It both effectively conveyed a message (Swan and the Labor Party are pro-worker and, like Catwoman and Bane in the latest Batman flick, anti-billionaire) and managed to garner significant coverage despite the stiff, Olympic, competition.


Russian female punk group Pussy Riot have been making many a headline over the past couple of weeks because the trial of three of its members has started.  They even have Anthony Kiedis getting political.  If you’re wondering, they have officially been charged with ‘hooliganism’.  Foreign Policy gets a bit overexcited and claims Pussy Riot (who seem to be singularly lacking in musical talent, even for a punk band, just by the way) has “perhaps given punk rock a future as a global force for justice and freedom”.  They reckon that – until Pussy Riot – the “high-water mark of punk’s geopolitical relevance” was Crass’s 1982 song critical of the Falklands War, ‘How Does it Feel to be the Mother of 1000 Dead?’ and subsequent production of a hoax tape, widely believed at the time to be a conversation between Thatcher and Reagan.

The shooting of six American Sikhs in Wisconsin earlier this month is a reminder that punk can also be a vehicle for those with less progressive views.  The shooter was a “frustrated neo-nazi” and leader of a racist punk band.  The same is of course true of any genre.  I always associate hip-hop with progressive, leftist politics because that was its major theme when Australian hip-hop got good in Sydney and Melbourne in the early 2000s.  Here in Mongolia though, the country’s most prominent rapper is proudly xenophobic, frequently rhyming against China and the Chinese.


Inside Story has a brief article on politically and religiously motivated repression of music.  The author draws a distinction between musicians victimised for the content of their music (Pinochet’s exeuction of musician Victor Jara) and for the form of their music.  Apparently the Nazis could not abide twelve-tone music – the form devised by Austrian Arnold Schoenberg.


Fortnightlyish review: Iranian pop, Tunisian hip-hop and one very silly Trade Minister

This 4th of July was about much more than America, but I do like some of the songs highlighted by PopMatters in their 4 July list (of course) of American punk protest songs.


News: Atonal Australian Politics, It’s a Dance Off and Jazz in Kyrgystan

The incredibly divisive price/tax on carbon (dioxide) came into effect in Australia on July 1.  Over the last 12 or so months the opposition Liberal party has been running a pretty successful scare campaign against the measure, which once enjoyed bi-partisan and broad public support.  The governing Labor party was in turn hoping to turn that negativity upon itself by highlighting its absurdity when the world didn’t end with the policy’s commencement.  This is all by way of explanation for why the Australian public was subjected to the horrific spectacle of Trade Minister Craig Emerson singing Skyhooks this week.  What Emerson (and presumably Labor-party strategists) failed to consider was the fact that the public would not be impressed  by a an attempt to discredit cynical political stunts with a cynical (and poorly executed) political stunt.

In other news, Malaysia and Indonesia are squaring off over ownership of the Tor-tor folk dance, with two people arrested outside Malaysia’s embassy in Jakarta.  The Jakarta Globe reports that the dispute has been escalated to Foreign Minister-level talks.

The Washington Times has an article on the flourishing jazz scene in Kyrgystan.  All ‘western’ music was banned under Soviet Rule in Kyrgystan, but for reasons left unexplained, jazz was particularly reviled.

Opinion: Simone Felice, Excentrik and Sociopolitical analysis via mp3

The Australian‘s Denis Atkins loves Simone Felice.  I’m not a huge fan of the production – ‘uplifting’ piano and handclapping is rarely a good thing – but otherwise reckon ‘New York Times’ is a great song.  I guess it’s about how it’s better to stay anonymous and out of the cynical big city and its newspapers.

Rebel Frequencies has an excellent piece on Palestinian-American musician Excentrik.  I highly recommend checking out the article and the track below.

Dusted has a review of the compilation Rangarang: Pre-revolutionary Iranian Pop.  Perhaps Googoosha (refer previous post) took some inspiration from Iran’s Googoosh, who is a million times better, by the way.  The reviewer praises the music but is critical of the motives of the label.

I don’t think the Dusted reviewer would like this article from The Atlantic which does the old get-to-know-the-real-country X-through-its-underground-music routine with Tunisia and hip-hop.


We’re about to go on Naadam holidays here in Mongolia, so expect it to be quiet (well, quieter than usual) around here for a bit.

Uzbekistan, Mexico and the Sudans via The Damned

Soundtrack for this post: ‘Democracy’, ‘I Just Can’t be Happy Today, ‘Neat Neat Neat‘ and ‘Smash It Up (Parts 1 & 2)‘ by The Damned.

Inspired by Indonesia, I’m sticking with punk for this week’s wrap up of the good, the bad and the ugly in world politics.

Pioneering goth-punk band The Damned are generally not considered all that political compared to their peers, particularly The Clash.  That’s not because there isn’t politics in there, The Damned just don’t wear their politics on their sleeves quite like Strummer & co did.  As I alluded to in the preceding post, punk’s political message is in its mode anyway.  Content can be complimentary, or not, but either way it’s secondary.  With punk, style is substance.

The Damned do in fact do political content quite often as well.  The most overt example is ‘Democracy?‘ off 2001’s Grave Disorder.  But this is an older, disillusioned punk’s political statement: “revolution changes nothing, and voting changes even less”.

In good news for Uzbekistan’s authoritarian leadership, the United States announced this week that it is waiving military assistance sanctions, in place since 2003.  The waiver is partial and temporary: only non-lethal equipment can be provided, and only until September 2013 (the deadline is extendable).

The ban was in place due to the dire human rights record of President Islam Karimov’s regime.  Karimov has been in power since the country gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.  He is a straight-up dictator who violently quashes any potential sources of opposition and controls every aspect of Uzbek life, as in the Orwellian ‘I Just Can’t be Happy Today‘ (from 1979’s Machine Gun Etiquette):

A lot of you know there’s nowhere to smile
There’s no feeling fine without being fined
It’s a price on your head
No point being sad when justice is red

The waiver however has nothing to do with the human rights situation in Uzbekistan, which if anything slightly worsened in 2011 in reaction to the Arab Spring.  According to Human Rights Watch’s 2012 World Report,  torture in the criminal justice system is “endemic”, opposition figures and journalists are routinely targeted by authorities, the state sanctions child labour and even religious worship is strictly controlled by the state (Karimov is an avowed secularist).

The waiver instead reflects the importance of Uzbekistan geographically for US and NATO supply lines into Afghanistan.  The Uzbek route is the only land alternative to the Pakistani route, closed since NATO helicopter attacks killed 24 Pakistani soldiers on their own soil last November.  The move is likely also motivated by this week’s announcement that the US plans to withdraw troops from combat roles in Afghanistan by mid 2013.

There’s plenty of violence and anarchy in The Damned’s songs.  The first song off their first album ‘Neat Neat Neat‘ is dripping in the stuff.  Kind of like bad ol’ Mexico.  Apart from the violence in the music itself, lead singer Dave Vanian sings of cannons, guns, a lack of crime “if there ain’t no law” and “no cops left to mess you around”.

Mexico’s violence speaks for itself: the border town of Juarez has one of the highest murder rates in the world, violence has now spread throughout the country, including to formerly immune areas, and it seems barely a week goes by without another headline about a grizzly mass murder.

Mexico is also arguably a study in anarchy.  Anarchy can be taken to mean a society without a government or, more broadly, without authority.  There is authority in Mexico, but it doesn’t come from the elected government.  Every human manifestation of the state has felt the wrath of the drug lords who really control Mexico since President Felipe Calderon declared a war on drugs in December 2006.  A particularly striking instance of Mexican anarchy, or the state’s inability to fulfill state-like functions, is the fact that the state is now attempting to protect (by hiding in hotels) those whose very vocation is themselves to protect: the police.

Things are tenser than ever between South Sudan and Sudan.  Of course no one ever expected that carving out a new country after a civil war that cost around 2 million lives would be without its complications.  Straight after South Sudan’s birth last July there were disputes over border demarcation, particularly the contested region of Abyei.  Ethnic clashes in border states of Jonglei, Blue Nile and South Kordofan have been worsening.

Now arguably the most flammable issue of all has reared its ugly head: oil.  The majority of former Sudan’s oil lies within South Sudan.  The new, land-locked country can’t export the oil on its own and existing pipelines go through Sudan.  To use these pipelines South Sudan pays its northern neighbour fees which in some way compensate that country for its lost oil revenues.

The two sides disagree about what is an appropriate amount for those fees.  As a result the north has allegedly been skimming oil to make up for what it considers to be unpaid dues.  The south calls that oil stolen and has retaliated by halting all pumping; a drastic measure by any standard, downright reckless for a country who relies on the black stuff for 98 percent of its income.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon is worried the current stand-off could lead the Sudans back to war.  South Sudan says it won’t recommence pumping until its oil is returned and all other outstanding issues between the two countries are resolved.  ‘Smash It Up (Parts 1 & 2)‘ is the ultimate “fuck you all, let it all go to pieces” statement and so, I think, an appropriate adjunct to South Sudan’s approach to negotiation.  It’s also one of the best rock’n’roll songs ever written.

Indo Punks Unite!

Soundtrack for this post: ‘Kuta Rock City‘ by Superman is Dead and ‘Negara Dunia Ke 3‘ by Marjinal.

In December 2011 authorities in Indonesia’s Aceh province halted a charity concert called ‘Aceh for the Punk’.  Police apprehended dozens of suspected punks and detained them for just under a fortnight.  They were held, without charge, for ‘re-education purposes’.  Re-education included being forced to bathe and have their mohawks shaved off, and being subjected to religious lectures and mandatory prayers and marching.  There were also reports of beatings.

These events are not isolated.  They are part of an ongoing anti-punk campaign by Aceh’s semi-autonomous government.  Aceh enjoys significant political independence from Jakarta thanks to a 2005 peace agreement between the Indonesian government and the separatist group that spearheaded the decades-long Aceh insurgency, the Free Aceh Movement (GAM).

Formerly a Sultanate, Aceh has long been known for its independent mindedness.  This rebellious nature is matched by a deep religious conservatism (in fact the latter motivated the former).  Even before the 2005 treaty Jakarta had made a number of concessions to Aceh, allowing it to institute local Islamic bylaws.  Today the province has shariah courts, shariah police and local shariah laws that can contradict national laws.

Punks around the world reacted with outrage to news of the crackdown in Aceh.  A YouTube search for ‘Aceh punks embassy’ brings up footage of demonstrations across Indonesia and at Indonesian embassies or consulates in Turkey, the UK and United States.  A Seattle-based punk label instituted a heart-warming mix-tape initiative.

Punk by its very definition is about the rejection of authority and conservative modes of life.  As in many other countries, it has been used in Indonesia to express opposition to prevailing political and societal forces.  Punk and other underground genres like metal became important in Indonesia in the 1990s after then President Soeharto and his New Order regime co-opted dangdut music, Indonesian pop music created and promoted as a deliberate response to the influx of western music from the mid 1960s.

Punk likely has additional currency among Indonesian youth precisely because it provokes extreme reactions such as those in Aceh last month.  It seems punk still has the power to shock in Indonesia, a power it has long since lost in the west.

Unfortunately I couldn’t find any Acehnese punk music, so the songs accompanying this post are by bands from Bali and Jakarta.

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