How Pop Turned Out To Be More Progressive Than Punk
What are your assumptions on the mainstream? They’re quite possibly wrong.
A couple of weeks ago, I stood in a crowd of thousands, most of them a little tiffed that they had to stand so close to each other (obviously they don’t get out to gigs much), as we waited for hours to be blown away by Mrs Carter.
I’d been aware of my creeping disillusionment with alternative culture for a while, yet it was still a momentous epiphany when Beyoncé was the one blasting out the words of Nigerian feminist writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie whilst showering me in bright lights, all beaming from the several-foot-high letters of the word ‘feminist’ on stage. And all this from a tour that had been running for an entire year, across 150 countries.
Weeks before, I almost shook my mum when she said what a shame it was that Beyoncé does what she does with so little clothes on. Mum, that’s not the point is it? Beyoncé’s radical nature incorporates the idea that she should be in control of her sexuality, and for her this includes both sexy outfits and sexy lyrics. But Beyoncé isn’t just a woman of words, she’s a woman of action too. Her involvement in numerous projects to uplift young girls and women, her published writing on gender inequality and her back catalogue of songs with interesting and relevant critiques on gender roles are just a taster of the resounding proof that arguably the world’s most famous mainstream artist lives and breathes more progressive politics than many alternative musicians — who with their shaved heads and anarchist zines profess they would never listen to ‘pop music’.
But we all make assumptions. Some of these assumptions have a lot more impact than others; wearing a hoody might get you killed if you’re black and a cop hasn’t flexed enough of their power complex that day, or you might just get mildly offended when someone deems you incapable of lifting a an average-sized box because of the pretty dress you’re wearing. Who do you think carried it this far, asshole? In a visual culture where aesthetics are everything, many of the assumptions we make about people start with what they’re wearing. Thus, as musical genres have a funny habit of influencing fashion choices, it’s natural that music, aesthetics and the assumptions we create from them are intrinsically related and, frankly, they have us fooled.
Now I think we can all agree that punk, as a genre, carries with it a lot of assumptions about its following. Depending on your generation, you might think that punk is about piercing your ear with a staple gun, or wearing more tartan than a Vivienne Westwood autumn-winter collection. Punk has clearly changed its face a little since the 70s, softened up a bit visually, or has at least had a haircut and bought a pair of skinny jeans. Much of the jaded dad-punk set would probably claim it’s lost its radical edge. I don’t want to spoil the party (actually, I do) but it is bloody ‘bollocks’, and I will ‘mind it’.
Having been a wholehearted part of a punk scene, hardcore to be precise, I can testify that punk’s ‘radical’ nature is questionable at best. I delved straight in; going to shows, making new friends, listening to the thirty-year back catalogue of bands screaming about issues I care deeply about — misogyny, classism, animal rights and the rest. It took me a couple of years and a bit of deprogramming, but I eventually realised that punk is often little more than a probably-well-intentioned-but-still-terrible farce.
Your first warning sign about the ‘radical’ nature of any scene should probably come from looking at the aesthetics, funnily enough. If you go to a gig, any kind of punk gig, the crowd will be almost exclusively white. For a movement that claims to be anti-fascist and anti-racist — why the bloody hell aren’t there any people of colour? It’s because most punks don’t actually give a sh*t about racism. The other thing you’ll definitely pick up on, is that the majority will always be men — why aren’t there many women? It’s because most punks don’t actually give a sh*t about misogyny. In fact, it’s dangerous to try and be involved in hardcore punk as a woman and, although I can’t speak for the experiences of people of colour, I’m sure if they enjoyed it there’d be a few more present in the scene.
For the most part, punk for women is a culture of oblivious misogyny, ironic sexism, violence at shows and Front Magazine, who assert that alternative just means the objectification of tattooed women. Throw in sexual assaults being covered up to protect the ‘brotherhood’ between bands and fans and you have a constant tirade of excusing crappy behaviour because it’s much more convenient than actual radical politics.
Beyoncé is one of a kind in many ways, but that doesn’t change the fact that the diverse range of experiences available in mainstream music includes progressive ideas and politics. It should also complicate our assumptions that just because someone says they’re a punk, left-wing radical, or a ‘liberal’ and prove that with their oh-so-alternative music tastes — that they’re necessarily progressive at all.
Listen to Beyoncé’s ‘Flawless’ here, complete with lyrics and her Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie excerpt: