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PWR BTTM by Ebru Yildiz_41
PWR BTTMPhotography Ebru Yildiz

How punk became personal

Though the genre is known for its aggressive energy, a new generation of DIY artists are channelling their anger away from nihilism into something more inclusive and emphatic

Punk has always been a genre of dissent. Its early days were characterised by grand, anti-establishment statements that have achieved almost meme-like ubiquity when it comes to the written history of the genre, from the Sex Pistols’ cries of “I am an anarchist!” to the Dead Kennedys’ barbed satire. But as the political climate across the globe has changed for the worse, so too has punk adapted, with more modern DIY punk bands approaching social issues with a noticeably softer perspective.

Linked by a tight-knit East Coast scene that puts inclusivity first and centres its activism on sharing personal experiences, bands like Diet Cig and PWR BTTM are providing voices that marginalised groups can relate to. “We have a really young crowd because of the relatability of our music,” says Diet Cig’s Alex Luciano. The New York duo’s debut album Swear I’m Good At This deals, in no uncertain terms, with the objectification of women: “I am bigger than the outside shell of my body / And if you touch it without asking then you'll be sorry,” Luciano asserts on “Maid of the Mist”. But the album’s unashamedly cutesy artwork – Luciano’s embroidery, which she sells on Etsy to raise money for various charities and which features in their recent video for “Tummy Ache” – and the band’s soft, listenable pop-punk sound couldn’t be less abrasive than punk in its traditional sense.

Luciano describes Diet Cig as “radically soft”, and says that she “realised you don’t have to be really aggressive to be really punk. It’s a thing we’re trying to promote – listen to your friends and care about people.” Using empathy instead of aggression feels quietly revolutionary, while the use of embroidery reflects the band’s gentler approach. “It’s interesting how embroidery and craft and things have been seen as soft, (as if they’re) not even like a real artform,” she says. “It’s similar to how women are treated as musicians. I feel like we’re often tokenised and seen as cute and fun, and not taken seriously as musicians. So I definitely think this project reflects the ideas that I’m going to do something fluffy and nice and turn it into something effective and helpful.”

Luciano might not be writing anti-Trump protest songs, but the personal situations she describes in her songs don’t exist in a vacuum: objectification and control of women have been essentially legitimised by Trump through his “grab ‘em by the pussy” comments, his ‘global gag order’ on NGOs with US funding offering information about abortion, and his attempts to defund Planned Parenthood. Transgender people also came in his line of fire when he repealed Obama’s ‘bathroom bill’, that allowed them to use the bathroom that corresponded to their gender identity.

“My existence in public is politicised,” says PWR BTTM’s Liv Bruce, a fellow New Yorker and friend and ex-labelmate of Diet Cig (both bands have released material on San Francisco-based Father/Daughter Records). “It’s not a neutral thing whether or not I get to go to the bathroom in a public place. (I don’t think) there’s this hard line between personal and political statements. We’re not singing campaign slogans or anything like that, but I think that all music has political implications to it – even Coldplay, even the Chainsmokers. And I think we’re just trying to acknowledge that.” For Bruce, the internet has been the catalyst in growing the scene’s diversity. “It’s not true that, historically, punk is a straight white man genre – there’s always been marginalised voices,” they say. “I do think, though, that punk has usually been historicised by straight white men. With the advent of the internet and all these self-publishing platforms, it’s easier for anyone who’s a good writer to get their voice out there.”

“(I don’t think) there’s this hard line between personal and political statements. We’re not singing campaign slogans or anything like that, but I think that all music has political implications to it – even Coldplay, even the Chainsmokers” – Liv Bruce, PWR BTTM

They’re right that the presence of minorities in punk isn’t new. Bad Brains’ H.R. has been open about the racism that the band faced in their early days, while Texas queercore pioneers Gary Floyd (of The Dicks) and Randy Turner (of Big Boys) sang openly of their sexuality and of homophobia (incidentally, accusations of homophobia have followed Bad Brains around for decades, including H.R. having reportedly called Turner a ‘faggot’). X Ray Spex’s Poly Styrene vocally and visually rejected stereotypical femininity, and the riot grrrl movement exploded to counter the overwhelming maleness of punk. What all of those things have in common, though, is their (necessary) aggression and abrasiveness. In its earliest days, punk created a noisy and alternative place for those who weren’t being served by the status quo, and the aggression in its music and lyrics was its vehicle for confronting social problems. But as it splintered into countless subgenres, being loud and nihilistic has evolved into something else: a reassuring voice that quietly empowers. “Being soft can be just as punk and political as being aggressive,” says Luciano. “We definitely have a lot of energy in what we do.”

Diet Cig and PWR BTTM aren’t the only bands who prefer to be revolutionary in a quieter and exuberant way; further down the coast in Philadelphia, Modern Baseball became unofficial spokespeople for mental health after frontman Brendan Lukens wrote frankly of his struggles on their 2016 album Holy Ghost. The band is currently on hiatus, with guitarist Jake Ewald explaining in a Facebook post that “the project we started as a source of joy and positive expression had become something that was slowly eating away at our mental health and our friendships.” The power of their advocacy was reflected in the fact that, instead of being angry or disappointed, fans simply wished them well.

“It’s really cool when bands like Modern Baseball can be that voice for people who struggle, and show them, ‘Hey, it’s okay to feel this way and think this way and we’re here to help,’” says fellow Pennsylvanian Greg Barnett of the Menzingers. “It’s working, and attitudes are changing.” The band’s latest album After The Party deals with things many people have, or will, experience, from feeling old to being skint. “There’s a song called ‘Midwestern States’ which, on the surface, (sounds like) a song about a guy and girl who are down on their luck, so they travel across the country because they don’t have anything else,” says Barnett. “But it was written in a much bigger context. Coming from the Midwest, the Rust Belt, we lost a lot of jobs during the housing crisis. You’d drive through those cities and (the buildings) were all boarded up. I’ve always been an introspective writer; I think my political voice shines (when I write from a personal perspective).”

“A lot of young kids just get it the way we get it... They’re so much cooler than I was when I was a kid!” – Alex Luciano, Diet Cig

While Liv Bruce cites the internet as one of the catalysts for this change in punk attitudes, Barnett offers another theory for the genre’s personal growth: that it’s the scene confronting its own ills. “Our bands are in a community that we love and treasure so much, and we want to protect it,” he says. “Our community has to grow and has to evolve. We can’t let things that we’ve maybe pushed to the wayside for a little too long over the years continue to happen. Any sane person would think that a woman getting groped at a show is a disgusting thing that needs to be stopped, and as we’re trying to preserve and grow our community there are things that we need to talk about and change.” As for its growing popularity as a songwriting approach, Diet Cig’s Alex Luciano thinks it appeals to the mindset of modern young people. “A lot of young kids just get it the way we get it,” she says. “It’s really exciting because they’re going to shape what goes on in the future. They’re so much cooler than I was when I was a kid! It’s really inspiring to meet these kids who are ready to listen and care about each other and understand our music.”

Personal-but-revolutionary songwriting isn’t confined to the New York or Philadelphia DIY scenes. Florida punks Against Me! released arguably one of the most bracing examples of personal songwriting in 2014 with their album Transgender Dysphoria Blues, which deals with frontwoman Laura Jane Grace’s own transition. It’s a source of inspiration for Em Foster, vocalist and guitarist with British emo-punks Nervus, whose soft, melodic approach has more in common with the likes of Diet Cig. “I think people want to see themselves represented in art and music and television,” says Foster, a non-binary trans woman. “For a long time, lots of people haven’t seen themselves accurately represented in punk. For trans people, queer people, and people of colour in punk, you can’t really separate the personal from the political. Your very existence in that scene is political, because it’s been heavily dominated by straight white men for so long. As a trans person your existence is called into question on a daily basis by governments and people in general. Most of the bands we play with share that sentiment with us. I think the DIY scene definitely has more of a voice because they don’t have massive labels telling them what they can and can’t say or telling them to take things down.”

These bands might not be directly instructing their listeners to start protests, but that’s not to say they aren’t helping to politicise their listeners by reflecting them in their lyrics and offering a reminder that revealing struggles or vulnerabilities is a strength rather than a weakness. For every new voice that joins the conversation, taboos around topics like social status, mental health, and gender struggles are broken down and new spaces for political action are opened up. As Barnett puts it: “When you’re telling human stories that are real, the personal becomes the political very fast.”