Nearly 30 years later, the furor is forgotten. Crass is better remembered for its first two albums, The Feeding of the 5000 and Stations of the Crass, than for the so-called "Thatchergate Tapes." For people like me, who continue to take this music far too seriously, that unfortunately says a lot for the geopolitical relevance of punk rock.
Ever since, to the degree that punk has political objectives -- and there has always been a sizable contingent within the punk scene dissenting from that proposition -- they've manifested in two forms: protest and local challenge. Washington, D.C.'s legendary 1980s hardcore punk scene symbolizes the first. In the summer of 1985, a year punks nationwide remember as D.C.'s "Revolution Summer," local punks like Guy Picciotto of the band Rites of Spring brought drums to the South African Embassy to harass the representatives of the apartheid regime. "We thought we'd inject a little spontaneity into it," Picciotto, dissatisfied with the then-rote protests, recollected. Jeff Nelson, co-founder of the crucial D.C. hardcore label Dischord Records, plastered area walls on Christmas 1987 with a poster mocking Attorney General Ed Meese. The Justice Department called the public propaganda "obnoxious"; its origins stumped the Washington Post. Soon afterward, Picciotto's subsequent band Fugazi, Dischord's flagship act, would perform shows on the National Mall, denouncing the Gulf War.
The other option has been localized action -- either to change local communities or to change the way people exposed to punk rock see the world. In every American city that has a punk scene -- which is to say every American city -- you'll find its members in parks, usually on weekends, cooking vegetarian food to distribute free to all comers, served up with anti-war pamphlets, in a political ritual called Food Not Bombs. Alternatively, other bands have worked to desegregate punk itself, an overwhelmingly white, male, and straight subculture. One of the best bands of the 1990s, Chicago's Los Crudos, was an all-Latino band that sang almost exclusively in Spanish, provoking white youth to consider what it's like to be a cultural outsider; its singer, Martin Sorrondeguy, went on to start Limp Wrist, a rare out, gay hardcore band.
All these efforts have meant a tremendous amount to the millions of people whose lives have been enriched by punk, which, at its best, instills an ethic of personal responsibility and self-reliance that outsiders can find difficult to reconcile with punk's shambolic aesthetics. (When no large venues will book your band, you have to build a tour network of people's basements and couches yourself, after all.) But they haven't meant much for international affairs -- admittedly, a near-impossible goal for what remains a youth movement. Punk protest has become something of an end to itself -- "Protest and Survive," as Discharge ironically sang -- a merit badge to earn or a ritual for punks to uphold. Punk still confronts war and injustice in its lyrics -- Crudos' still-amazing "Asesinos" is about U.S. support for Central American despots -- but like most artists, its geopolitical impact is marginal. The motto of the venerable Minneapolis anarcho-punk label Profane Existence is -- revealingly and somewhat pathetically -- "Making Punk a Threat Again."
Pussy Riot may not reverse that trend. Punk remains primarily a Western phenomenon, which means, as Propagandhi sang, "I recognize the irony that the very system I oppose affords me the luxury of biting the hand that feeds." Punks who don't actually live under real authoritarian governments don't face the high stakes that the members of Pussy Riot do. But while punk rock mobilized heavily against the 2003 Iraq war, releasing fundraiser albums for activist organizations and throwing anti-war concerts on the National Mall, they didn't so much as attract George W. Bush's attention. Pussy Riot, however, clearly has Putin's.
But maybe it takes a punk visionary to truly recognize Pussy Riot's potential. The band's "method of protest hinges on anonymity. They have created a method of protest that is full of possibility and can be used globally, across international borders," Tobi Vail observed to the indie culture magazine Dazed & Confused on Aug. 2. "Putin can jail individual members of the collective, but how can he stop the potential for new members to join or keep the movement from spreading beyond Russia?"
If anyone knows about creating a method of protest that's full of possibility and applicable across international borders, it's Vail, one of the most inspiring figures punk rock ever produced. The bicoastal band she drummed for, Bikini Kill, transcended its punk roots to become arguably the most important feminist rock group of all time. The "riot grrrl" movement that Bikini Kill helped forge represented a watershed for women demanding representation in an overwhelmingly male underground culture, and it quickly went global. Bikini Kill's caustic performances were political events in miniature: They double-dared women to be who they will and demanded that men confront their privilege, rather than congratulate themselves for being enlightened enough to attend the show.
Indeed, consider what Vail recognized. Pussy Riot performed anonymously at the Moscow church, its members' faces covered in colorful balaclavas. They can be anyone and that might be the inspiration for the next Pussy Riot. It just so happens that as their trial began, punk's most influential chronicle, the fanzine Maximumrocknroll, published its 30th-anniversary issue. The only article about the impact punk continues to have internationally was about Pussy Riot -- an implicit recognition that three women haven't just shamed Putin and indicted his gangsterism, but have redeemed the aspirations of a global protest culture.