|Rhode Island's Downtown Boys in New Brunswick this past September.|
Everybody's got a definition of "punk." Songs have been written about it. Comment threads have grown into the thousands of responses over it. I'm not a music historian or authority on punk; but, to my mind, the term often applies to two not always related things: aesthetics and ideology.
If I were to say that a band had a punk sound, you'd probably develop an idea of what I was talking about. Loud, fast, lots of power chords, etc. If I said that a band looked punk, you'd probably form some image for that as well. Neither of those really tell you much about a band's ideology, though. Lots of bands, for lots of reasons don't wear their ideology on their sleeves. They're just there to make music, put on a good show, have a good time. Nothing wrong with that.
Bands that subscribe to and live a punk ideology are harder to find. They're harder to find because living your ideals while trying to make a living is hard. They're harder to find because doing things outside "the system," calling out authority, and speaking up for those who find it difficult to speak for themselves aren't things that generally get you recognized by the mainstream.
Acts that do all these things -- who consciously decide to exist outside of the musical-industrial complex and who espouse a radical / activist message -- are punk. It doesn't matter what they sound like. It's their approach that makes them a punk band.
It's in that sense that I've often described Rhode Island's Downtown Boys as one of the punkest bands I've ever seen. Their shows are emotional affairs during which the band give voice to the concerns of the oppressed and the marginalized, fearlessly calling out some the institutions we're taught to revere like the police and our mainstream version of history.
Downtown Boys have partnered with DemandProgress.org, Future of Music Coalition, and Impose Magazine to launch Spark Mag, a new culture website whose aim is to publicize the music of radical and politically-minded artists from all genres and to connect them with fans and the organizing campaigns these artists have been working on for years. Spark Mag aims to highlight artists who may receive less coverage for their work because of their radical views.
The site launched yesterday. It's edited by Downtown Boys' Joey La Neve DeFrancesco and Victoria Ruiz and already includes contributions from Ruiz, Liz Pelly, Jes Skolnik, Priests' lead singer Katie Alice Greer, and more. Spark Mag also includes an online store through which artists will sell their work directly to fans with most of the proceeds going directly to the artist and the rest going to support DemandProgress.org who have mobilized their membership in the past to fight for net neutrality, to defeat the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), and to advocate for reforms in the area of money and politics.
This is all extremely important and interesting. It's important and interesting if you agree with the points of view of the artists featured in Spark Mag because it is true that artists with a radical message often don't get heard by the mainstream. But it's also important if you don't agree or have some misgivings about the positions held by the artists featured here. The online world can be an echo chamber in which it's too easy to find things that reinforce our beliefs. It's important to seek out alternative voices, to understand opposing positions, and to have respectful and reasoned debate. I hope that Spark Mag can get some of that going. That would be pretty punk.
Spark Mag is running an Indie Go Go campaign to help them with the launch.
I'm adding them to the blog roll. Check them out at thesparkmag.com.