Did punk change the world?

Examining the socio-political legacy of punk music. Photo: Rainer Theuer

SANTA CRUZ, October 22, 2013 — The origins of punk music are a cloudy and debatable business. Some trace its genesis to artsy, new wave rock from New York City in the mid-1970s, others say it began with the London scene, and still others claim it was The Ramones.

Whatever the musical spark which ignited a worldwide movement, the starkly political aspect of punk will always be attributed to beginning with the Sex Pistols.


Theirs were the first songs to be overtly political, using satire to question Britain’s monarchy and its economic policies of the time. Following closely were the Clash, Sham 69, and many others. Across the pond in America, bands like the Avengers, Negative Trend and the Dead Kennedys were singing about uniquely American politics during a time of tremendous social and political cynicism following the Vietnam conflict and the Watergate scandal.

Not every fan of punk music became politicized as a result, but for those who did, the music and lyrics served as a gateway to self-education and activism. The stridency of the lyrics and the intensity of their delivery struck a chord with many who were silently questioning the world around them, but feeling isolated in their queries.

Punk music, and its immediate community, gave these people numbers and introduced them to others with like minds. No longer alone, they felt empowered by the thundering cries of protest and the biting political fury of the music.

Future musical or social historians may wonder why punk was never able to realize its potential as a true social phenomenon. The bands and the music changed over the years but punk did not go away, and yet it never managed to foster any lasting political change, at least as a broad, coalesced movement. Media news outlets were quick to dismiss it as a brash, teenage phase, with nothing valuable to offer the world.

SEE RELATED: Punk Bands and mainstream music: Keep ‘em separated

Where punk succeeded was in the quiet politicization of thousands of individuals, who then went out into the world armed with fresh empowerment. Many were inspired to educate themselves and others, some ran successfully for public office, or started their own bands to spread the message. Still others became educators or authors, finding new avenues to influence future generations to question the myths of their existence. 

The lasting effects of punk music on social and political life cannot be discounted simply because it never formed its own political party or endorsed a particular candidate in any election. There is a generation of people who found purpose in the lyrics of so many bands, and who now engage in their own quiet activism through their daily choices, where they spend their money, and what many of them teach their children. While history will show that punk rock failed as a sweeping, worldwide political movement, its effectiveness reflected in the lives of those who found true purpose in it can never be accurately measured. 


Russ Rankin writes about hockey, music & politics. You can find him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter. He also sings for Good Riddance and Only Crime. Find out what he’s up to by checking out his website.


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Russ Rankin

Santa Cruz, California native Russ Rankin is the vocalist for the seminal California punk band Good Riddance, the hard rock band Only Crime as well as currently performing original songs as a solo artist. Rankin is a dedicated vegan, an avid animal rights advocate, a political activist and has been a regular columnist for AMP Magazine and New Noise Magazine as well as contributing to various magazines such as Alternative Press, Razorcake and others. 

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