I remember my first DIY punk show. It was in a warehouse that housed a makeshift stage, a halfpipe, and graffiti on the walls. There were hundreds packed into that 400 square foot space. It was nauseatingly hot and extremely difficult to catch a breath in the haze of cigarette smoke. The bands made their noise and racket while a sea of leather jackets and neon colored hair sang along at the top of their lungs. I was convinced the scene was a collection of individuals screaming obscenities and incomprehensible lyrics. Standing as far as possible from this commotion I never felt more out of place. I was the outsider and from that position I was convinced that this was the culmination of Bakhtin’s carnivalesque. I swore to myself this was my first and last punk show because I would never return.
Despite the spectacle, curiosity intrigued me as it does the cat. I wondered what was so appealing about the music, the scene, the chaos that drew these people in. There had to be an overwhelmingly captivating quality to the music that I had obviously failed to understand – and I couldn’t possibly be satisfied with remaining out of the loop. I endeavored through the catalog of ‘classic’ and ‘essential’ punk albums, songs, and bands. After my makeshift crash course in punk, I did find an empowering and captivating essence to the music. I was especially drawn to the lyricism – whether they were advocating for political and social change or bringing awareness to mental health and gender equality. I was astounded by the scope of issues that punk music was engaging. No longer did I view this genre as an anarchic collective poised towards complete destruction, but it became evident that it was activist poetry juxtaposed and overlapped to a melody.
As an art form, the music and lyrics did have an essence of mastery in their exposition – however rough around the edges they may be. Similar to other forms of poetry, prose, or creative writing there were nuances in the verses that aimed to engage the audience in tackling issues plaguing society and the political climate. The music and the scene provided a medium and avenue through which all types of antipathy could be discussed and shared with like-minded activists. The ultimate agenda of punk, I began to realize, was not to destructively tear everything down, but to foster change amidst such a horrific national condition.
Similar to William Butler Yeats’ ‘The Second Coming,’ much of the aim of punk lyricism is directed towards addressing troubling political and social conditions. Although punk lyrics don’t embody the style and flair of Yeats’ poetry, the circumstances that give rise to such artistry is much the same. Yeats’ ‘The Second Coming’ was penned in the aftermath of World War I and many activist punk songs are written during past national catastrophes and wars, as well as, the current condition surrounding immigration and women’s rights. Yeats prophetically proclaims “things fall apart; the centre cannot hold” to signal a need for mass social awareness and consciousness surrounding the political climate. Similarly, much of the lyricism in punk centers on dragging from the shadows the unpleasant and horrid truths of society that are often brushed under the rug. Punk lyricism actively seeks to bring to the light disregarded social conditions in order to encourage discussion and activism. Just as Yeats recognized that “the Second Coming is at hand,” punk is also cognizant that history is a repetition of itself. Therefore, just as Yeats’ poem prophetically and preemptively urges for social change, punk lyricism embodies within it the same agenda.
Closer to the raw and candid writing style of punk lyrics is Langston Hughes’ ‘Let America Be America Again.’ More than simply sharing similarities in brevity and colloquial language, Hughes’ poem and punk lyrics also share a desire to uncover the shortcomings of society and political agendas. Hughes powerfully proclaims the plight of immigrants and minorities by stating, “America was never America to me.” In similar fashion, current punk lyrics also center on the heated political climate that disparately contends on issues regarding immigration law. However, both Hughes and punk lyrics don’t remain bogged down in the negativity of difficult times nor do they become apathetic in pessimism. Rather, there is always an eye turned towards change. Amidst the horrid revelations of the current state of affairs punk lyricism does still hold out hope for a better tomorrow brought about by the activism of its conscious members: “we must take back our land, America!”
Despite the parallels between poetry and punk lyricism, the overarching question remained regardless of the quality of the music: what drew people to don on the leather jackets and jump headfirst into the bustling and spiraling pit. It wasn’t until I went back to the shows and kept going back that I started to realize the intrigue. In a casual conversation pre-show, a friend said, “punk is for the people that need it.” Such a simple statement. It seemed so obvious, but it came as a revelation to me and I’ve held onto that saying for so many years. It’s not the music, the lyrics, the clothes, or any other external factor that draws people back into the scene. What compels us to continue engaging in the punk community is the sense of acceptance and like-mindedness we experience after so many years of being shunned and ostracized. On the surface, the scene and the individuals that compose it may seem very gruff, but at the core the community acts as a surrogate family to many.
At the heart, the punk scene is a collection of disconcerted misfits who have come together to form a collective based upon a common struggle and desire for social change and empowerment. There are those who “wear punk rock like a shield” because it provides them a safe haven from the battering words that beat down their sexuality and mental health. For others, the punk community provides solace – a place to be yourself and find support rather than contempt and rejection. In the words of a dear friend, “I grew up as a Jehovah’s Witness [and] got kicked out when I was seventeen. They shun you when you leave, [but] I found acceptance in punk rock [and] a family that will always be there for me.” There is a beautifully ironic quality to the DIY punk community – we are perceived as society’s destructive outcasts, but we feel completely at home amongst ourselves. Although each of us is drawn to the artistic and poetic nature of the music singly, we begin to recognize the similarities of our struggles and desire for change collectively.