I’m the youngest of three children, and therefore had the luxury of hanging out with my siblings’ friends and learning all sorts of deliciously mature words and habits. Once, when I was 11 or 12, my sister had some of her high school friends over, who usually tolerated me and my questions about bongs and thongs and other big-kid stuff. There was one guy who fascinated me, named Jason. He wore black Doc Martens, a belt made of rounds of ammunition, a white cutoff T-shirt, and was crowned by a mohawk with spikes like the blades of a ceiling fan. Being young and curious and without much decorum, I poked him on the shoulder and asked, “Are you punk?”

He turned towards me slowly, and spoke in a tone both pained and condescending.

“No, I’m a human being.”

Thus began my history of not understanding punk. I’m not unusual in this — arguments over the origins and aesthetics of the genre occur among both academics and members of the movement. This is made even more confusing by the diverse, often contrasting sub-genres of punk: hardcore, street, pop, gutter and many more. Each one has its own sound, its own style, its own convictions.

So I was nervous, to say the least, when I walked into the palatial lobby of the Michigan Theater last Thursday, where the most recognizable and lauded punk practitioners were making an appearance: Pussy Riot. Two of the founding members — Nadya Tolokonnikova and Masha Alyokhina — would be giving a Penny Stamps Distinguished Speakers lecture about their music and activism.

I walked out two hours later, saying, “That wasn’t that bad,” as if leaving a doctor’s office after receiving a round of vaccinations. My relief didn’t come from some conservative dread at having to listen to two of the most famous feminists in the world denounce patriarchy and homophobia. In fact, their views, and their imprisonment because of those views, is what drew me to them in the first place.

Rather, it was a version of imposter syndrome. Who was I to take up a seat in the audience and cheer for these women? And furthermore, who were any of us to go see them? I half expected Pussy Riot to come onstage wearing their signature balaclavas, and then chastise us all for taking time to see them when we could be out protesting or volunteering or fighting the power.

Instead, Pussy Riot’s lecture was … a lecture. They came onstage with warm, almost shy smiles. They spoke with both wit and passion about feminism, Russian politics, conceptual art, Heidegger, American prisons. They thanked all 1,700 of us for listening to them. They laughed, often. While listening to these two strong, beautiful women discuss Plato’s concept of technê and Joseph Kosuth’s “Art after Philosophy,” I almost forgot the video screened before they came on stage — horrifying footage of them being pepper-sprayed, whipped and otherwise brutalized by the Russian police and paramilitary Cossacks, just for holding a public protest.

The engaging, even fun, lecture was a far cry from the last punk event I went to. That was a hardcore show at a friend’s house, where the audience could have fit on a school bus and the lead singer kicked me in the solar plexus. In fact, Pussy Riot’s global recognition — a LennonOno Grant for Peace, thousands of followers on Twitter, speaking engagements at major American Universities — seems decidedly un-punk.

Well, what is punk? As I mentioned before, it’s a slippery term, but there are a few defining characteristics. Jesse Prinz, a professor at CUNY, attempts to categorize these fundamentals in his essay “The Aesthetics of Punk Rock.” According to Prinz, the defining pillars of punk are irreverence, nihilism and amateurism. By informing the sound, lyrics, fashion and media of punk, these traits form the characteristic anti-authoritarian zeitgeist of the larger genre.

But the problem with punk is that each band’s definition of “authority” is different. For example, The Dead Kennedys wrote songs that pilloried the Reagan Administration and the cultural conservatism of the ’80s. It’s hard to argue with their choice of opponents. But for every band like the Dead Kennedys, there’s a band whose beef is with political correctness, like Dwarves and their album “Thank Heaven for Little Girls.” Because punk is about subversion, even the most open-minded observer will inevitably take issue with what some band subverts.

It goes without saying that becoming a “fan” of any band or genre is risky. Which is why Pussy Riot is, in many ways, the ideal punk band. On the one hand, they’re as punk as you can get. Their sloganeering, technically inept music is so DIY that they don’t even record it — they just play it in impromptu public performances. They protest authority and tradition. They went to fucking jail because of their music. They’re proof that punk is like quicksand: the harder you fight it, the stronger it gets.

At the same time, they don’t just fight “The Man.” They tackle the evils of society: sexism, homophobia, censorship, abuse of prisoners. And they’re really earnest in what they do. After their lecture, Nadya and Masha went to the Washtenaw County Youth Detention Center to visit inmates and, a few days later, were at a massive rally in New York City to protest climate change. They are thoughtfully, rather than mindlessly, transgressive.

During the Q&A section of the lecture, a balding, middle-aged man went up to the microphone, only to launch into an impassioned lecture of his own. He addressed the appalling number of youths in Michigan serving life sentences in prison, and then urged the audience to vote for some candidate who had pledged to address this problem. Many in the audience booed him, and one girl next to me whispered “oh my god, just shut up.” Maybe he was just a disrespectful showboat. Maybe he was inspired by Pussy Riot. Either way, the guy pissed off a large audience by proclaiming his beliefs. Sounds pretty punk to me.

— Buonomo can be reached at gbuonomo@umich.edu or @GCBuonomo

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