overground scene

Propagandhi, intertextuality, and YouTube.

Propagandhi is one of my all-time favourite hardcore-punk bands, a band that constantly develops its style instead of resting on its laurels. They have proved themselves time and time again over their 25 years-long career. One of the things I really like about Propagandhi is that lyrically their songs are quite obscure. In some cases I find their lyrics relatively straightforward, but mostly I experience them as labyrinths of signifiers very difficult to navigate.

A classification I like, although I do find problematic at the same time, is the distinction between “readerly” and “writerly” texts. Barthes (1990) defines readerly texts as those that are there for passive consumption, whilst writerly texts are those meant for active consumption. The reason I am critical of the concept is because I am aware that lyrics I unproblematically decode are not “objectively” more straightforward, reactive, but rather deal with issues with which I happen to be familiar.

Nevertheless, I still think that the distinction between readerly and writerly texts is valuable. To the extent that there are forms and traditions that can be considered mainstream or hegemonic, and others that are counter-hegemonic, those two concepts have heuristic value. It could be argued that most of Propagandhi’s songs are writerly texts; their meanings are not immediately and unproblematically decipherable because they often deal with counter-hegemonic or non-mainstream topics. For this reason, they require dedication and cultural labour on behalf of the listener.

Indeed, I was recently reading the lyrics of “Rock for sustainable Capitalism” off their masterpiece titled Potemkin city limits (2005). It is clearly a song about the appropriation of underground protest music by the Capitalist music industry. The beginning of the song, however, eluded me completely; I had no idea what it was referring to. The same goes for another awesome song whose lyrics I happened to be reading one day, the song “Potemkin city limits” off Supporting caste (2009). The lyrics tell a story of oppression, escape, capture, and death, but the specifics of the story always eluded me.

Recently I found myself listening to “Rock for sustainable Capitalism” on YouTube. At some point I hovered over the comments section, and I came across a discussion that focused on the beginning of the song. Through this discussion I discovered that the song actually refers to Lars Frederiksen and the Bastards‘ song “To have and have not“. This discovery allowed me to appreciate the Propagandhi song even more, although I’ve been listening to it for 12 years. For the first time I appreciated the comedic element of Chris’s lyrics, and even now I find it hard to listen to the song without cracking up. I then looked for “Potemkin city limits” on YouTube. In this case, too, the mystery of the lyrics was quickly solved by reading the comments. The sad story of oppression and murder was about a pig that briefly escaped death in the abattoir and roamed free for months in the countryside, before it was eventually captured.

The YouTube user Tommy Lindberget informed the audience about Francis the pig.

“Rock for sustainable Capitalism” and “Potemkin city limits” are intertextual; they refer to other texts, and knowing those other texts reveals hidden meanings. One of the texts the former references is the Lars Frederiksen video clip. One of the texts “Potemkin city limits” references is a real-life text/urban legend of animal liberation, torture and murder. YouTube and music fans, in this case, work in unison forming an intertextual enabler (Fiske, 1991); YouTube gives the platform to music fans to produce commentary that reveals those hidden meanings that, in my case, were lying dormant in the song lyrics, waiting to be discovered.


Barthes, R. (1990) S/Z. London: Blackwell.

Fiske, J. (1991) ‘Moments of television: neither the text nor the audience’, in: Seiter, E. et al. (eds) Remote control: television, audiences and cultural power, London: Routledge, pp.56-78.