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Yelling and listening: youth culture, punk rock, and power.


At a time when the world seems so troubled--war, poverty, hunger, corruption surround us--many young people have found their voices and are speaking up for change. Historically, youth activism was usually found on college campuses and addressed a variety of issues. Today, the issues may still be the same--war, racism, sexism, human rights--but the activists are getting younger and their movement has become global. Thanks to the ease of sharing information through the internet and popular culture, young people are sharing knowledge, ideas and actions firmly establishing themselves as vital members of global civil society. They attend protests and marches, distribute pamphlets and lead workshops, and write music and create weblogs. This article discusses the power of music--particularly punk--as a means for youth activism.

Youth Culture

A review of media propaganda and political rhetoric easily demonstrates how youth today are scapegoated and vilified. However, the media and politicians are not the only groups misrepresenting youth. For many years, psychologists, anthropologists and social theorists have attempted to develop a clear definition and picture of adolescence along cognitive, moral, and social parameters. Yet, adolescence as a construct is not only difficult to define but also poorly represented by biased research. A perusal of literature on adolescent psychology and development provides yet another example of adolescents being misrepresented. Psychologists, sociologists and other adolescent theorists often stereotype youth, placing them neatly into constrictive developmental boxes. As Nancy Lesko (2001) states, "while the developmental framework is supposed to accentuate attention to youth, it also works to mute their conditions" (p. 172). According to Erikson's (1959) eight stages of development, adolescents are self-centered, concerned with who they are, how they appear to others, and who they will become. The adolescent stage is characterized by interactions in which adolescents try to find themselves, as well as their hopes and aspirations. Erikson claims that, as adolescents try to establish their place in the larger social order, they usually incur a "crisis of identity versus role confusion" which is defined by overwhelming alternatives, causing them to worry about their future place in the world. According to his stage theory, adolescence is a preparation for adulthood. This categorization is controversial in that it brings to question how youth are supposed to find their identity when they are being contained or held in "expectant mode" (Lesko, 2001, p.123). This "becoming but not being" (Lesko, 2001, p. 123) is conflictual and offers further evidence of the lack of acknowledgement of adolescent agency. Youth use their voices in ways adults do not understand. Their navigation of their "limbo" often leads them to use youth culture--including music--as a powerful medium to assert themselves as activists.

Since the concept of 'adolescence' began, young people have been marginalized. As early as the beginning of the 20th century, a youth sub-culture was created mainly due to the societal view that youth possess a potential for delinquency. The youth subculture "enforces on participants conformity to norms, customs, modes of dress, and language fads that are different from those of adults" (Kett, 1977, p.258). Though lost on many adults and not traditionally categorized as art, the expressions, symbols, signs and art of young people have cultural significance. Young people invest meaning in their social practices and life spaces, their personal style, clothing choice, use of music, television, friendship groups, music-making and dance (Willis, 1990). These pursuits are not trivial or inconsequential. They "can be crucial to the creation and sustenance of individual and group identities, even to cultural survival of identity itself" (Willis, 1990, p.2). These forms of symbolic creativity are a necessary part of everyday life for young people and should be seen as integral to the human condition.

Willis (1990) utilizes the term "grounded aesthetic" which he defines as "creative element in a process whereby meanings are attributed to symbols and practices and where symbols and practices are selected, reselected, highlighted and recomposed to resonate further appropriated and particularized meanings" (p. 21). Grounded aesthetic provides motivation to recognize alternate futures and to understand oneself as a powerful, creative force that can bring those ideas to fruition. Through their grounded aesthetic, youth interpret media and make art, and derive meaning for themselves.

Youth culture is most obviously observed through television, video/film, computer/internet, magazines and music. For example, young people are very knowledgeable about music--it is a site of their common culture. Lyrics call up imagery and symbolism that express the feelings of young people--often allowing them to define oneself through popular music. Music can often serve as a form of informal education socially and politically. Music has long been an outlet for youth to express their voice. In the past, folk music as performed by Joan Baez and Bob Dylan represented the voices of youth. Today when Chuck D of Public Enemy raps "fight the power" and Rage Against the Machine screams for justice, rap, hip-hop, and alternative rock become the voice for disenfranchised youth. (1) Music, as well as stories, art, poetry and film-making become the outlet for those on the margin. According to Bhabha there is tremendous power in the margins or in-between spaces. It is at these locations where collective experiences, community interest and cultural value are negotiated (Bhabha, 1994). By expressing themselves by whatever means, those on the margins, including young people, can offer others life lessons--on how the larger society thinks and lives. bell hooks in Yearning talks of these 'spaces' as the location for counter-hegemonic cultural practice. Being on the margin speaks to the need for the oppressed to move out from oppressive boundaries, "It shapes and determines our response to existing cultural practice and our capacity to envision new, alternative, oppositional aesthetic acts (hooks, 1990, p. 145). The margin, the location of the oppressed, is the space of "radical openness", a site of "radical possibility--a space of resistance" (p. 149). The struggle lies in finding that voice, and through popular culture youth have a viable alternative.

Voices from the Margin

The dichotomy created by rational versus embodied thought typifies the division of knowledge; a crisis of knowledge that comes from the division of disciplines. Bhabha comments that the division of disciplines and subsequent dividing of knowledge creates exclusion on the margin and between disciplines. He believes that these spaces--the in-between spaces--are where collective experiences, community interest and cultural value are negotiated (Bhabha, 1994). There is tremendous power in these spaces for those who find themselves located there. Through alternative means of expression, those on the margins, including young people, who have suffered "subjugation, domination, diaspora, displacement," can offer some of the "most enduring lessons for living and thinking" (Bhabha, 1994, p. 172). Giving youth the opportunity to express themselves through their culture, whether in song, film, poetry or art, gives validity to these marginal voices and the notion that knowing does not need to be clearly defined or expressed. According to hooks, however, the marginalized or oppressed have a struggle to find their voice--a voice which is broken and embodies pain and suffering. The struggle comes in where the voice comes from--articulating the voice because language/words can leave gaps so voice can be seen "in habits of being and the way one lives" (hooks, 1990, 149).

Expressing one's habit of being or way one chooses to live can be difficult to articulate. Finding alternate ways of relaying this has been a subject of interest for Alice Walker (1983) in her work In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens and Gloria Anzaldua's (1990) anthology Making Face, Making Soul. These writings make the case for alternative forms of expression of the under-represented. The writings they present call upon the special history of artistic expression that women of color have possessed and passed on. Through alternatives, such as storytelling, poetry, personal narrative, even song and media, expression can be cathartic and empowering giving value to marginal voices.

Repeatedly, marginalized populations struggling to find a voice for resistance have found a viable alternative through punk rock and other more mainstream popular media. Activism in these contexts can take many forms utilizing a variety of media. For example, young people use their music, dress, photography and video, street arts, such as graffiti, and the Internet, as a way of expressing their voices and creating a global youth movement. Not only do these modes of expression unite them, but they also educate them--many get their understanding of world politics from lyrics, videos and web sites. These media serve as a call to action--the youth activists I have spoken with often report a personal transformation related to song lyrics they heard or a web-site they visited that allowed them to see the world differently.

Culture and Expression: Motivation to Action

Some years ago I began my research on youth activism, speaking with New York City youth (mostly teenagers) who are active in pro-social, political organizations. My primary objective was to ascertain what motivated them to become active. Emotional experiences were considerably powerful motivators for quite a few of the participants. While some were able to clearly express those emotions during the interview process, others could not quite put it into words. They instead offered me an explanation using an alternate form of expression to share these feelings. Perhaps because the methodology was different, or because they were so rarely asked to share their words or art with adults, very few participants took me up on this alternate form of expression option. One young woman showed me her artwork, another gave me an essay he had written, a few showed me videos they had created, and one young man used song lyrics. Roger provided the lyrics of the song Look by Reggae artist Bounty Killer, which connects issues of structural and direct violence to capture what he is feeling.</p> <pre> Look into my eyes, tell me what you see? Can you feel my pain? Am I your enemy? Give us a better way, things are really bad, The only friend I know is this gun I have. Listen to my voice, this is not a threat Now you see my nine, are you worried yet? You've been talking 'bout you want the war to cease But when you show us hope, we will show you peace. Look into my mind, can you see the wealth? Can you tell me that I want to help myself? But if it happens that I stick you for your ring Don't be mad at me, it's a survival ting. Look into my heart, I can feel your fear Take another look can you hold my stare? Why are you afraid of my hungry face? Or is it this thing bulging in my waist? </pre> <p>I found these lyrics to be quite intense, but even more meaningful was Roger's use of them to relay feelings of being oppressed and ignored. This response led me to explore the work of other artists that give voice to what many disenfranchised youth are feeling today.

Punk, Voice and Power

Activism today takes many forms and utilizes a variety of media. No longer just about protests, rallies and campaigns, young people use the arts--including street arts such as graffiti, music, video and the internet--as a way of expressing their voices and creating a global youth movement. As previously stated, music serves as a powerful outlet for those on the margin. Many groups today--made up of young rockers and rappers--write political music a la Bob Dylan, with an edge.

Punk rock has long been the voice of counter-culture and current punk artists are using their voices as political activists. Punk (or hard rock) lyrics created by youth and for youth, express concern--or anger--over pressing political issues. The music provides youth with both an opportunity and an outlet for consciousness-raising. As youth are being denied political and social authority, they often search for outlets to become more vocal, political and present. Alternate forms of expression--including music, art, video and the Internet--have provided a medium for the global youth movement to flourish. While many adults may dismiss youth culture and the music it creates, youth know full well the power this outlet has. It becomes a way to unite and work together for social change.

Punk rock is an example of the grounded aesthetic Willis speaks of. Youth use the lens of punk rock to interpret media and derive meaning for themselves. Consumption is also a part of this aesthetic as it helps shape identity and cultural forms and leads to cultural empowerment. For example, the music youth purchase, or download, or share, contributes to youth empowerment--if they are taking part in political punk or hip-hop they are either making a statement or embarking on a process of self-education.

Bands such as Rage Against the Machine, Propagandhi, and Anti-Flag, have not only produced numbers of albums filled with political call-to-action lyrics, but also have been on the forefront of organizing a global youth movement. The lyrical content of these groups as well as Intro5pect, Against all Authority, Thrice, Bouncing Souls and others have addressed issues of racism, poverty, injustice, George Bush, the War in Iraq, USA/Mexico relations, labor politics and rampant militarism. Contrasting the glib sexual lyricism of more mainstream pop acts, contemporary punk rock lyrics are educational, motivating and often profound.</p>

<pre> Anti-Flag created "Operation Iraqi Liberation (O.I.L.)

This is a tale of liberation, this dedication song Broadcast it from all stations! This tribute, this salute, cold hard facts can't refute #1 Liberators in the world, can kill better than ice is cold!

To save you WE MAY HAVE TO KILL YOU! For freedom, YOU MAY HAVE TO DIE! #1 at liberation liberating life from bodies, helping spirits fly ... Freedom from ... LIFE THE GOVERNMENT LIES! THE MASSES DIE! THE MILITARY LIES! AND WE ALL DIE! BROADCAST IT FROM ALL STATIONS! THIS IS OUR LIBERATION SONG! </pre> <p>Propagandhi, on its album "Today's Empires, Tomorrow's Ashes" in the song F-ck the Border sings:</p> <pre> A friend of mine dropped me a line, it said "man, I gotta run to the USA. I got no money, got no job." She skipped out of Mexico to stay alive. You've got a problem with her living here, but what did you do to help her before she fucking came? What did the country do? What did the people do? I stand not by my country, but by the people of the whole fucking world. No fences, no borders. Free movement for all. Fuck the border. It's about fucking time to treat people with respect. It's our culture and consumption that makes her life unbearable. Fuck this country; its angry eyes, its knee-jerk hoarders. Legal or illegal, watch her fucking go. She'll take what's hers. Watch her fucking go. Fuck the border. </pre> <p>In "Profit Margins," Intro5pect sings about consumerism and materialism:</p> <pre> Presented like a product, placed in a black box the promise of salvation, is enough to make us watch

there is no thought, and there is no concern we can't retrace our steps across the bridges that we burn but we're content to be getting what we're getting for free so we lock our chains and we throw away the key but the free comes at a price that we'd rather not think about the free comes at a price we'd rather not think about. well we don' think much about much these days so the chance of that happening quickly fades away into another haze of emotion, another blur of product far from any pretense and removed from any context but nothing really seems to be in context anymore we sold our integrity and now we are the whores with our blue plastic checking cards and silicone implants our pre-constructed world that has all us trapped (and) All we are ... is a tool to be used to pay for someone else's rent a profit gain of 23% (and) All we are ... Pieces of paper to be torn into shreds a small piece of capital to be worked until our death salvation in consumption is an absurd way to live products as religion is too much to give

so we fill our lives with useless items to make up for ourselves

and we fill our heads with excuses to justify our wealth but the greed that fuels our consumption seems to be accepted and not just as a fault, but as a trait to be respected how we got to this point is a question without answer we can blame it on TV, but we set the standard all of this hypocrisy just leaves me more confused

expecting something more when I should just be amused at the pettiness, the irony, the ignorance, and abuse the individual twines we braid into one collective noose cause at the age of 24 you can't expect me to accept that the standards of humanity could possibly be less all we ever wanted was to be something more than this all we ever wanted was to be something more than this! </pre> <p>Given the content of their lyrics, it is not surprising that all of the aforementioned punk groups have also at some time or another been involved in political and community activism. They play benefits (for children's rights or medical services for the poor), run shelters, and most have been actively involved in promoting voter registration among youth. For example, in 2004, the organization Punk Voter organized a series of concerts called Rock Against Bush to raise awareness about the importance of the youth vote and offer voter registration. The punk rock web-site, offers online voter registration and educational materials regarding President Bush's presidential record, the global repercussions of Bush's actions in response to 9-11, and information on both candidates for the 2004 election. Punk Voter supports coalition building, education, registration and mobilization of young voters. Their aim is to unite youth, promote activism and work for political change. Based on the response to Rock Against Bush in terms of concert attendance and sales of the compilation CDs, the politics of modern day punk rock resonates strongly with contemporary youth. Indeed, many of the punk bands affiliated with Punk Voter or Bands Against Bush--another organization whose tagline is "your apathy is their victory"--have information on their individual web-sites regarding the Bush administration and ways to take action for social change. Listeners are encouraged to talk politics on online message boards, connect with other bands and organizations in the movement. For example, the group Bouncing Souls has a "Letters from Iraq" feature where soldiers weigh in on the reality of the War. The Rage Against the Machine website features a "Freedom Fighter of the Month." These are just two examples of the politically active content of contemporary punk rock--created for and by youth whom most adults would label as loud, unruly and ignorant. Further disproving these stereotypical ideas and supporting the power of punk, the group Anti-Flag articulates a very clear message regarding the connection between punk and activism--showing themselves to be leaders in this necessary movement.

While punk rock has always been "angry" and counter-culture, contemporary punk rock is not only angry, but also political and highly educational. Punk rockers are using their voices to take back the future they perceive as stolen from them by corrupt politicians, greedy businessman and an apathetic, materialistic public. Of course, political music is not solely the domain of today's alternative rockers. Folk music and Hip-Hop have long-offered a political education to their listeners. One brilliant example of all aesthetic genres coming together to counteract the war machine and work for peace is the 'AWOL' project of the War Resisters League. Through art, music, poetry and prose young artists involved in this project seek to raise consciousness and unite voices.


A perusal of alternative youth media demonstrates that (a) there is in fact a global youth culture, (b) it is thriving through global communications, namely music and the Internet, and (c) it is firmly focused on political and social change through supporting youth voice. Punks existence clearly demonstrates that life on the margin is perfectly situated for stirring things up, that being marginalized is an ideal way to raise awareness, that music is an important motivating and educational factor, and that politics as usual does not have to be the case. Punk rock addresses local and global issues, allowing creators and listener to take the following path: marginalization leads to alternate music which raises awareness and sparks activism, in turn changing social conditions to support a global youth movement. Simply, youth culture equals youth power.


Anzaldua, G. (Ed.) (1990). Making face, making soul, haciendo caras: Creative and critical perspectives by feminists of color. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books.

Ardizzone, L. (2001). Getting' their word out: Youth peace-builders of New York City. Unpublished Doctoral Dissertation. Columbia University, Teachers College.

Bhabha, H. (1994). The location of culture. London, UK: Routledge.

Erikson, E.H. (1959). Identity and the life cycle. Psychological issues, 1:1. New York: International Universities Press.

hooks, bell. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. New York: Routledge.

hooks, bell. (1990). Yearning: Race, gender and cultural politics. Boston: South End Press.

Kett, J.F. (1977). Rites of passage: Adolescence in America 1790 to the present. New York: Basic Books.

Lesko, N. (2001). Act your age! A cultural construction of adolescence. New York: Routledge Farmer.

Walker, A. (1983). In search of our mothers' garden. San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace & Company.

Willis, P. (1990). Common culture. Milton Keyner, UK: Open University Press.


(1) Willis also believes that what teens buy whether it's music, videos, or clothing has meaning. "Consumption is itself a kind of self-creation of identities, of space, of cultural forms with its own forms of cultural empowerment" (Willis, 1990, p.82).

Leonisa Ardizzone is an assistant professor with the Graduate School of Education at Fordham University, New York City, New York.
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Author:Ardizzone, Leonisa
Date:Sep 22, 2005
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