For decades, describing the voice of iconic punk performers has constituted the normalized narrative of punk rock critiques. The supposed raw power and authenticity of the genre link to such orality. The “barbaric-yawp” of Joe Strummer, much-idolized singer and guitarist of the Clash, shapes perceptions of his stirring streetwise ideology. Johnny Rotten’s persona, in turn, is subsumed by the filth, ugliness, and vitriol of his “ruthless-growl,” endlessly dissected by writers preserving such tropes. Those voices act as memes emanating from the shabby urban milieu of London in the mid-‘70s.
In particular, writers fetishize Strummer as a shrewd punk messiah figure and a late-20th century soapbox orator-style radical subsumed by ‘passion as a fashion’. Often strikingly glib and pithy, his tumultuous, breathless, bunched-up words still sprinkle punk’s imagined collective memory. They become the fodder for folk hero status, signal his clairvoyance, and define him as a ‘common Joe’, in American parlance, on the brink of genius. He became a dialectician of ardor and gut feeling. In death, his voice became paterfamilias.
Meanwhile, Poly Styrene’s bristling howl, which could disinfect a toilet as writer Greil Marcus posits in the seminal , In the Fascist Bathroom: Punk in Pop Music, 1977 -1992 (1999) , or perhaps strip away the deodorized cruelties ensconced behind television’s glow, continues to stir debates and delight writers. Karina Eileraas argues punk women used such “impure” voices for “cathartic expression” to articulate their sense of self and “revolt against grammar and syntax” (“Witches Bitches and Fluids: Girl Bands Performing Ugliness as Resistance” 1997: 122).
In songs like “Warrior in Woolworths” and “The Day the World Turned Dayglo”, Styrenes’ teenage voice and assured, acute choice phrasing quickly became a codex for living in the age of commodity-hypnotized culture. Her voice interrogates the vacuumed corridors of the bourgeoisie, including the supermarket glares, hedge rows and genetic engineering, and the pretexts of comfort without satisfaction.
This emphasis on ‘think-oral,’ however, may eclipse other legacies of punk, including how the community fostered liminal social spaces, translocal community-building, performative rituals such as distressing dances and rough-hewn dress, and the inventiveness of punk texts, which Deaf punk participants can fully experience and appreciate. (More on this in Left of the Dial: Conversations with Punk Icons, PM Press, December 2012)
In punk, the voice is potent and invokes an oral terrain that critics and academics shrewdly dissect. Jello Biafra’s (Dead Kennedys) trademark seismic shrill, warbly vocals—dubbed a “unique quiver” by Trouser Press—deliver sardonic axioms ranging from “Kill the Poor” to “Die for Oil, Sucker”. Even when his utterances are garbled, rushed, indecipherable, and no more than caterwauling and mewling, they are deemed authentic, as if equated with a force meant to extinguish the last bits of disco, country, and pop conventions.
Punk voices are ground zero, even more so than the discordant, stripped down, bare-boned guitar chords of punk. Everything seems staked on atavistic, aggressive, and defoliated vocals. The stressed syllables, battered rhyme schemes, and the subversion of symbols become lore. The Sex Pistol’s snarling “We mean it, man,” uttered on “God Save the Queen” does not merely evoke pop reflexivity, it amounts to a fiery declaration of punk’s merciless power of wit.
Punk voices act as tropes: voices of teenage news scavenging poetry from cities of ruins … voices charring the vocal chords of margin walkers … voices scraping away the plastic of mass consumption …voices stemming from the psychological detritus of leisure society … voices embodying seismic shifts from Me Generation to Blank Generation … voices becoming soundtracks to doomsday vibes… voices teaching how to bully and how to survive when being bullied … voices calibrating dissent … howling in art-rage … voices acting as commodities in fractured free markets … low-life voices projecting disobedience, dissidence, and dissonance … voices cataloging ramshackle rebellion and wanton sweat … voices indexing angst, anxiety, and chemical imbalance.
By the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, critics argue, punk and hardcore scenes often fossilized into a male monoculture disposed towards adrenalized aggression and sexist derision. In this era, Kathleen Hannah from Bikini Kill felt a need to reclaim a “place/voice in punk rock – a voice we’ve always had that’s been trampled on.” Riot Grrrl and female led garage rock subcultures seized back the microphones and fanzines, the spoken word stages and practice pads. They resurrected punk’s voice as a power broker, a leveler, and a feminist staging ground.
Years later, such movements and critiques appealed deeply to Hard of Hearing and Deaf punks. “Punk rock and feminism inspired me to look into Riot Grrrls,” recalled Muslim Deaf punk filmmaker Sabina England to me in 2010, “then I became interested in women’s rights and women’s issues, and I discovered there was a disability rights movement within feminism!” “Riot Grrl has definitely been more radical and critical than other parts of punk,” wrote Hard of Hearing punk fan Christine Jensen in a 2010 communiqué to me.
“Lots of feminist circles in the punk scene also tend to critique other privileges,” she adds. “I think once you get into the conversation of gender privilege it’s hard to overlook all of the other ones… Many parts of feminist punk communities are openly critical of other isms. After all, if you critique gender roles, then a whole bunch of problems unfold. It’s hard to avoid.”
Still, even radical subcultures can fall short by failing to address ableism, as well. “As for an example of sexism and racism being more important than tackling ableism,” continues Jensen. “I would point to zines and workshops. There are tons of zines and workshops in the radical community here (which is a sister of punk) on racism and sexism, but none on ableism. The fact that workshops are oral presentations is also problematic.”
The punk community, despite its posturing and pronouncements, Jensen reports, is entangled in “old ideas about disabilities. It’s not something people say out loud. Plus, there are very few people with visible disabilities in the scene. I recall that there was one guy in a wheelchair who played guitar for a band, but I was not close to him … There is just the general ableist comments: saying things are retarded, Helen Keller jokes, and telling people with disabilities that they’re not trying hard enough, etc.”
So, most punks carry on the master/normalized narrative,” posits Jensen. “They really don’t harbor different views than the average person, in terms of discussing and dealing with disabilities. In fact, may they be a little self-satisfied and smug—not realizing their shortcomings/biases?”
Sometimes instead of solving problems, punk is the problem, as Jensen seems to infer.