Music has been a form of protest for centuries. A glance through any folk song collection reveals that, with people railing against injustice and laws that punished the poor but never touched the rich.
In the 20th century – the era when recordings really began and started to be commercially available, and the radio let thousands listen to something that otherwise might only have been heard by a few – Woody Guthrie, the Dust Bowl balladeer whose centenary was celebrated last month , had a guitar that killed fascist and words that described the plight of those who had little and lost everything anyway as the bankers grew fat.
Bob Dylan, who at the start of his career was very much Woody’s heir, made his reputation as a protest singer, coming out of the very politically aware folk revival (on both sides of the Atlantic) in the 1950s and early ‘60s.
After that, it was reggae and punk that took up the mantle, with Bob Marley, a longtime champion of the underdog becoming a global superstar, and bands like the Clash and others spitting out words of venom against a heavily weighted system. From there, jump to Crass, Chumbawamba, the modern folkies and…Pussy Riot.
The Russian women have taken a stand in a country and time where that’s politically dangerous. It’s easy to be a critic in the fairly liberal air of the West, but in Putin’s Russia words carry huge power. Their actions have been deliberate, their primary-colour appearances cartoon-like with the deliberate anonymity of balaclavas. Anyone could be Pussy Riot; they’re speaking for millions over there.
And now three of them are in court for their actions, for the ‘crime’ of performing a song that dares to suggest Putin should go in a church. It’s sacrilege. But in an Internet world, everything is broadcast, Tweeted and disseminated in minutes. We know what’s happening in their trial, how they’re being treated, and the fact that, on the surface, the trial is a politically motivated farce intended to stifle any opposition to Putin. The man himself told the British PM, David Cameron, that he thought the woman should be punished lightly. It’s an astute move. If the judge gives a very light sentence, then the power of Putin over the courts is obvious. If not, then he can shrug and insist that the judicial system is independent and there’s nothing he can do to influence it.
But the fact that so many people around the world know and care about what’s happening in this courtroom in Russia, that these women have become a focal point, shows that music can still carry a punch far beyond its weight, that it still matters, and that the art of the protest song, whether satirical, veiled, or blunt as a fist in knuckle dusters, is still vital to the well-being of society.
For all the talk of the Olympians competing in London being heroes, these women are the real heroes of 2012. They knew from the start exactly what they risked. They’re putting their freedom on the line to stand up and be counted. And that’s worth remembering and praising. Be glad that we live in a time when we can all learn exactly what’s happening and see the system exposed for the sick, totalitarian sham that it really is.