Personal Expression vs. the Powerful’s Repression
Personal expression takes on many forms. Got something to say? Write a song. Draw a picture. Compose a poem. Do a dance. Heck, you can even express yourself by going for a run – as proved by Kevin Bacon in the film Footloose. As everyone knows, Bacon used running and dancing to not only express himself, but to help solve his problems and save the youth in his town from the repression of Jon Lithgow. Oh, and I guess he used gymnastics too.
Lithgow thought he was keeping kids safe from the dangers of rock ‘n’ roll. He decided that music and dancing threatened youth, and used his authority on the Town Council to get them banned. He connected personal expression with societal ills that were a blight on respectable values, and kids’ safety. Dancing was a gateway drug to trouble.
This happens all to often, especially in movies. Take Swing Kids, for example. That’s the film about Nazi Germany starring that one doctor from House, and Batman. Although not quite a documentary, it still showcased German kids identifying with American jazz music. The Swing Kids acted and dressed like their American counterparts. Their yearning for personal expression, and to do something outside the status quo, was seen as subversive by the state, even though for the most part it was just kids having fun. Although they didn’t have plans to shave Hilter’s moustache off or anything, they were still repressed – they had stepped out of line, listening to something other than Wagner and all.
And ironically, jazz was seen as subversive in the United States as well. In 1938, Professor Harry D. Gideonse gave a lecture at Columbia University to over 400 undergraduates arguing that “[s]wing is a musical Hitlerism.” Students were being told by those with authority that it was TROUBLE. Powerful and influential folks either didn’t recognize, or didn’t like, that it was a form of identity, expression, and fun. Jazz a Hitlerism? As if Hitler could even do the jitterbug.
Often, personal expression through outlets like music or fashion aren’t subversive by themselves. It’s when the state starts to perceive it as a threat that it becomes one. Once they react harshly, it turns law-abiding citizens into dissidents. It also creates a rallying point to unify support against the state. A good example of this was a band called The Plastic People of the Universe (PPU).
Formed in Czechoslovakia in February 1969, they took their name from a song by Frank Zappa. Additionally, they were heavily influenced by The Velvet Underground, and numerous other Western groups. Although they strived to imitate stylistic forms from the West, such as psychedelic light shows and singing in perfect English, the PPU wrote original compositions.
In the political climate of Soviet “normalization” following the Prague Spring, the 1970s started amid Communist attempts to reassert cultural hegemony in Czechoslovakia. Their 1975 album Egon Bondy’s Happy Heart’s Club Banned, outside the specific range of normalization, had to be illegally produced and distributed. Even though the PPU’s songs dealt with drug addiction, alcoholism and insomnia rather than overthrowing the government, addressing these ills was seen as dissent against normalization, and the members of the band suffered a backlash for self-expression and non-conformity.
By the mid-1970s the underground music milieu had grown around the efforts of the PPU and associated dissidents and artists. Subsequently, the government decided to take action against them. The bands’ mentor, poet and historian Ivan Martin Jirous, was jailed for a year and a half. This tactic rendered the opposite effect, however, as the subversive elements in society banded together in support of the musicians.
Indeed, as Václav Havel reflected in his memoir, he and other dissidents had “built on the solidarity for the imprisoned musicians of The Plastic People of the Universe and created Charter 77.” This formation was no small feat; in Charter 77, “there were people with a broad range of positions, from Trotskyites to reform communists, various types of socialists, people who defined themselves as liberals, Christian Democrats, or conservatives, as well as many people who refused to be put into any kind of political pigeonhole.”
And Václav Havel, of course, became the first leader of the Czech Republic following the fall of Communism.
Throughout Eastern Europe during the Cold War, music, especially emulating western forms like punk, was repressed by governments afraid of its potential in protest and subversion. And on the western side of the Iron Curtain – style held codes of subversion as well. Haircuts like the mohawk were charged with political meaning. These days, in the West, the fashions and styles associated with music don’t hold the subversive power they used to. The same is not the case elsewhere. These forms of personal expression still hold subversive potential, and have met the full repression of those with the desire, power, authority, and means to do so. Here’s some examples:
The first example, admittedly, aimed to be fairly subversive right from the start. It’s a group of Russian riot grrrls – feminist musicians that call themselves Pussy Riot. They’re protesting what they perceive is the “rotten, broken system” of Russian politics. Taking advantage of social media, the group has a youtube account where they post videos of their protests, and explain why they’ve taken up the cause.
Recently, members of the group were arrested after being suspected of participating in Pussy Riot protests against the recent Russian presidential election. Here’s one where they held a “punk prayer service” last month. It’s in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow.
Most of the suspects were released from custody until trial, but two young mothers were kept locked up. They all face “hooliganism” charges, and could be thrown in jail for up to seven years (or maybe even eight). Such a harsh reaction to peaceful, albeit colorful, protest, is surely only going to rally more people to their cause, and inspire more dissent from Putin’s hold on power.
The second example, however, shows you don’t have to be engaged in protest to suffer state repression, you just have to dress differently. Recently, authorities in Indonesia have moved against those that participate in the punk community, in an effort to stamp out what they perceive as a threat to conservative values. Police targeted audience members attending a concert – forcing them to cut their hair, remove piercings, change their clothes, and BRUSH THEIR TEETH. They then had to undergo a course in “reeducation” at a police school. There, they participated in military-esque drills and took classes on proper behavior.
The response to the repression? One said: “They can’t change me. I love punk. I don’t feel guilty about my lifestyle. Why should I? There’s nothing wrong with it.” Another: “They can say what they want, but I like life as a punk,” The punks remain defiant of reeducation, and human rights organizations are now getting involved. Once again, reacting harshly instead of trying to understand youths expressing themselves, is serving to undermine the state’s authority.
The third example is the most striking. In the West, youths labelled “emo” are the punchline of jokes about kids upset their allowance isn’t high enough. In Iraq, however, these “emotional” punks are being attacked and murdered. Feeling disconnected from the ultra-conservative mainstream, some youths have decided to express a bit of individuality.
Subsequently, they became targets of a lot of festering hatred. Extremists have equated personal expression with threats to social norms, and the government certainly isn’t helping matters. Iraq’s Interior Ministry, according to the BBC, recently accused emos of being Satan worshipers, and that’s made things even worse. Conservative militias have distributed the names of dozens of youths they feel deserve to be punished, and nearly 60 (some reports as high as 90) have already been shot or stoned to death. Well, that’s what activists are saying: the Interior Ministry says there haven’t been any anti-emo killings. These murders are being committed for “revenge, or social, criminal, political or cultural reasons.”
(It’s not really translated, sorry)
Youths out of step with traditional values – taking an interest in Western culture, happen to be gay, like dressing in black, and/or enjoy growing their hair out – they are dying for showing a little individuality. A 19 year old gay man, fearing for his safety, fled Baghdad to escape the killings. He told journalists: “We are young men, and everywhere in Iraq we should be free to do whatever we want, to wear what we like, cut our hair how we like.” “We have not hurt anyone. Why are they doing this to us?”
A lot of what I’ve discussed here involves youth, from outside the West, adopting Western cultural forms in order to express alternatives to the norms in their own country. They may have imitated the medium, but these kids have their own message.
Just like swing music was threatening to Nazis and Democracies alike, punks in Indonesia and Iraq are stressing individualism, BUT are not necessarily choosing the West over their own country.
And just like the Plastic People of the Universe were influenced by the attitude of musicians like Frank Zappa, they still wrote songs that were relevant to what was happening in Czechoslovakia. The same goes for Pussy Riot, and the kids in re-education camps, or those being hunted down by extremist death squads. The repression being conducted by those with the power and will to do so, could, in fact, succeed in removing the perceived threat. Or, the backlash could inspire others to join their enemy, and build a movement that really is a threat.
Personal expression can indeed take on many forms, but whether your a kid that just wants to dance, dress differently, or listen to loud music, it can be considered subversive by those in power, wherever you live. The youths aren’t trying to start a cultural war of The West vs. The Rest, it’s about kids having their own voice, and gaining agency for themselves. Point out other interests yes? Indicate a generational divide? Sure. But it’s the reaction by those in power which brings the notion of a culture war into the mix.
It shows what can happen when self-expression is deemed a threat to the ideological status quo.
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