Punk rock of ages
that about every 30 years, American politics shift toward the right, and in response, rock music trends a little more toward the antiestablishment. The 1950s saw a surge in the popularity of rock ’n’ roll, in some ways a youth-culture response to a racially divided nation — an avenue, however narrow and rife with appropriation, to some semblance of creative and social equality.
Skip ahead to the 1980s and the birth of hardcore punk. The Reagan years provided volumes of fodder for disenfranchised kids and young adults — some of them white, male suburbanites just angling to piss off their parents, some just wanting a release, and others sickened by public policy and hoping to affect real change.
The bands they listened to were never short on grist for the spiked-wristband mill. From Dead Kennedys’ “We’ve Got a Bigger Problem Now” and Bad Brains’ “Big Takeover” to Youth Brigade’s “Moral Majority” and MDC’s “Bye Bye Ronnie,” a musical subculture could be heard gnashing back against The Man in the grimiest of clubs and the stateliest of homes. Around the same time, hip-hop pioneers Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five released “The Message,” with its legendary refrain, “Don’t push me ’cause I’m close to the edge, I’m trying not to lose my head, It’s like a jungle sometimes it makes me wonder how I keep from going under …” And political hip-hop was born.
I can’t discount the hippie years between rock ’n’ roll and a hardcore place. It was an era rife with lightly strummed folk-protest songs and psych-rock anthems that often bred more drug use than useful dissent. (Sorry if you were at Woodstock or lied and said you were, but keeping to the 30-year theory, I have to leave these great musicians and my thoughts regarding them for another time. You, too, metalheads).
So here we are in 2010, three decades after the release of The Ramones’ fifth studio album, the Phil Spector-produced backpedaling in a new political soup you can conveniently hate, love, or fear from the comfort of your own home via computers, smart phones, iPads, and cable-news talking heads.
The way young people primarily communicate and socialize now — through the Internet — has had as much of an impact on politics as it’s had on the creation, dissemination, and appreciation of music. After the election results rolled in last Tuesday, friends of mine, young and old, began posting vintage videos and lyrics from Reagan-era punk bands on social networks. There was nothing new to be said or sung, apparently. It was more efficient to just recycle the past in the service of expressing frustration over the present. The 21st century and the technological conveniences it provides have created a dearth of aggressive, quick ’n’ dirty, politically charged music. However immediate the Internet makes some music seem, the bulk of what it offers, especially punk rock, is crap.
So, where do we go from here in the next 30-year cycle? Who’s bringing the subversion, and who’s constructing the next audible wall of angst that moves people to challenge and intimidate the status quo beyond its wildest expectations? An old friend explained to me a few days ago that the results of the midterm elections have an upside: it’s a great opportunity for a true punk-rock resurgence. Not one that ends up on Broadway or the MTV Video Music Awards, but one that stirs a younger generation to take control of its destiny by impugning its flawed leadership — conservative or progressive, punk doesn’t discriminate — in creative, and sometimes unpopular, ways. And besides, if we older folks can’t peel our asses away from
long enough to vote, we’re gonna need all the help we can get, and soon.
— Rob DeWalt