Punk & Protest

Summer Soundtrack
The Dead Kennedys (Wikimedia Commons)

Max,

Over the past few months, I’ve been missing live gigs. Since they now seem logistically improbable (or at least highly irresponsible) for the foreseeable future, I’ve unsuccessfully tried to simulate the experience through Zoom dance parties and socially distanced listening sessions. But I doubt there’s any substitute for the charged energy of punk shows, where deafening riffs and moshpits of sweaty strangers offer an incomparable catharsis. With its rowdy solidarity, punk is the perfect genre for airing political grievances—and few bands have capitalized on this potential better than the Dead Kennedys.

The San Francisco band epitomized hardcore punk during the band’s initial 1978–1986 run. Their last studio album from that period, Bedtime for Democracy, is a tour de force that criticizes everything from Reaganomics to masculinist culture, largely driven by the political proclivities of the band’s outspoken frontman, Jello Biafra. The punk masterwork includes forays into jazz, psychedelia, and spoken word, and its title plays on Reagan’s 1951 film Bedtime for Bonzo. The album’s cover depicts the Statue of Liberty’s desecration at the hands of Nazis, bureaucrats, posers, and opportunists. America, it suggests, is a corrupted land, far from the refuge it once promised to be. 

This message reverberates through the album’s twenty-one punchy tracks, most of which are around two minutes or less. Each functions as a contained outburst, with Jello’s astringent screeds amplified by the dizzying, eclectic riffs of guitarist East Bay Ray. Jello was a master of satire, and his verses often confront economic injustice and capitalist neglect with humor that borders on the grotesque. In “Dear Abby,” for instance, a county coroner laments not being able to afford meat to feed his family, and is instead forced to serve them “choice cuts from my / autopsy subjects” mixed with Tuna Helper. Paranoid that his family will find out his secret, he writes to “Abby,” who closes the track in a deep drawl: “DEAR REAGANOMICS VICTIM: Consult your clergyman. Make sure the body’s / blessed and everything should be just fine.”

Throughout their oeuvre, the Dead Kennedys meditate on the hollowness of the American Dream, the glossy façade of which conceals a noxious underbelly. The result is a malaise that permeates middle-class suburbia, which the band confronted in “Cesspools in Eden.” The “ticky-tacky houses” of McMansion Hell, built on “toxic chemicals / and leaking gas” cause “fainting spells.” Kids run crying to their mothers after playing outdoors, and the “cancer rate’s shot up.” In response, “the company laughs / ‘We don’t owe you one damn thing.’”

Such symptoms of state-supported capitalist decay led to punk’s growing popularity.

Such symptoms of state-supported capitalist decay led to punk’s growing popularity. It offered an outlet for discontented young people to express collective, pent-up rage, an intensity exemplified in footage of punk teens thrashing to the aggressive percussion of drummer D. H. Peligro. But the American scene has also been charged with gratuitous violence, misogyny, and at times, even racism. (The Dead Kennedys addressed this head-on in one of their most popular tracks, “Nazi Punks Fuck Off.”) Some critics of punk’s trajectory suggest that the genre’s subversive core was diluted in the mainstream, with young white men using the aesthetics of transgression to reject the respectability politics of their working-class parents. The Dead Kennedys despised this appropriation; they believed it sacrificed the intellectual and political critiques that were the lifeblood of their music. The band was most inspired, after all, by the overt politicality of British punk rockers like the Sex Pistols, and Bedtime for Democracy masterfully plays on the genre’s visceral nature while also criticizing the imminent decay that led to the band’s exit from the American scene. “Chickenshit Conformist” is the most unapologetic articulation of their disillusionment. It opens: “Punk’s not dead / it just deserves to die.”

The Dead Kennedys’ frustrations feel all too pertinent today. Too great a focus on radical aesthetics risks downplaying the hard, grassroots work that’s needed to actually create political change. “Anarchy for Sale” demonstrates this perfectly, as Jello mockingly wails: “T-shirts only ten dollars / badges only 3.50 / I nicked the design, never asked the band / I never listen to them either.”

But this commercialization of revolution isn’t solely the fault of aspiring aesthetes, hipsters, or punks. I’m reminded of Mark Fisher’s argument in Capitalist Realism: individuals are not really to blame; rather, the true problem lies in capitalism’s pernicious ability to commodify—and thus subsume—its own critiques. In that sense, the Dead Kennedys’ warnings about punk’s corrosion couldn’t ring truer in our feel-good era of consumerist, performative activism. To quote from “Fleshdunce,” which has my favorite bass line on Bedtime for Democracy: “We strip-mine your underground culture / take the bite out and rinse it clean / give ourselves credit for creating it / then sell it back to you / at twice the price.”

*

Nicole-Ann,

I must admit that, for many years, hardcore punk was simply not my genre. I had insubstantial—and fairly unjustifiable—aesthetic complaints with hardcore. (“I wish they would play a little slower”; “Could we get a touch more melody here?”) And, frankly, while I recognize the sonic power of Bedtime for Democracy, it’s not something I'm naturally drawn to. My primary aversion to hardcore, however, was with its political content—especially the stuff that veers toward agitprop (or, as Pitchfork once described the Dead Kennedys, agit-punk). That’s because, as a somewhat snobby teenager, I judged what I heard of hardcore to be unnuanced in its politics. Okay, I get it: fuck the government, fuck capitalism. Do you have anything else to say?

More recently, though, I’ve warmed up to musical agitprop. There’s nothing wrong with subtlety, but this political and social moment also demands art that’s harsh and direct. And as I’ve listened more to punk, I’ve come across plenty of artists—Dead Kennedys among them—who manage to be smart and thematically experimental without sacrificing any of their revolutionary energy.

Wide Awake!, the 2018 album by New York-based rock band Parquet Courts, is chock-full of straightforward, revolutionary literalism. However, thanks primarily to the considerable literary talents of frontman Andrew Savage, it’s also one of the richest, funniest, and sweetest records to come out in the past few years. Savage is quite comfortable working in the “pissed-off punk guy” idiom: he describes feeling pressured to adapt to “this perverted status quo”; he describes our political and social moment as “a pornographic spectacle of black death”; he fears that action on climate change won't occur “until the rich are refugees.”

Blunt revolutionary critique is, of course, firmly in the lyrical tradition of the Dead Kennedys. This rhetorical mode, in the wrong hands, can come off as dour or self-serious. And for me, dourness without humor or grace makes music unlistenable. One way around this trap is through humor, a method both Parquet Courts and Dead Kennedys use to great effect. As you mention, Nicole-Ann, the Dead Kennedys are masters of satire. Parquet Courts opt instead for irony and self-effacement.

On Wide Awake!’s infectiously danceable title track, Savage pokes fun at his own tendencies toward dogmatism, declaring: “I’m wide awake! / Eyes so open that my vision is as sharp as a blade.” The frontman is also self-effacing about matters personal and minute; on “Extinction,” he announces that he’s “making a decision about steamed or fried” and that he “wanted to be needed so I fed my cat.” There is a compulsion in Savage’s writing to signal that he’s in on the joke, that he knows it’s a little ridiculous to ask listeners to take political cues from a guitar player. There’s a similar humility to be found in Bedtime for Democracy. On “Where Do Ya Draw the Line,” Jello Biafra documents his simultaneous attraction and revulsion toward political dogmatism, singing, “anarchy sounds good to me / then someone asks, ‘Who'd fix the sewers?’”

I usually find myself an irony defender. But...dark humor can hamper us from fully feeling the weight of the world’s unnecessary suffering.

In discussions about the political utility of irony, I usually find myself an irony defender. But it’s hard to deny that dark humor can hamper us from fully feeling the weight of the world’s unnecessary suffering. If Wide Awake! is about any one thing, it’s about this problem. In a particularly prescient line, Savage gutterally shouts, “I want, I want, I want, I want not to feel numb about death.” The song “Normalization” explores the fear of growing accustomed to cruelty and misery, the “immunization of human sympathy”; in its opening stanza, Savage asks, “What do I call bullshit?... Can I allow this?”

If an answer is provided to this contemporary dilemma, it comes in the final stanza of the album’s closing track, “Tenderness.” I’m going to quote the whole thing because it made me cry. Atop a piano lick fit for a pub sing-along, Savage acknowledges the addictive power of temporal power: “Nothing reminds the mind of power like the cheap odor of plastic / leaking fumes we crave, consume, the rush it feels fantastic.” But this high only lasts so long, and soon enough we crave higher things: love, kindness, humanity. “But like power turns to mold, like a junkie going cold / I need the fix of a little tenderness.” Whatever our political idiom—irony, lamentation, agitprop—it’s worthless if not guided by a little tenderness.

*

Max,

Your mention of Parquet Courts makes me nostalgic. Last June, I watched them play under the stars on a warm evening in Central Park. The gig blended those two qualities you mention, political agitation and tenderness. One minute people were moshing to “Extinction,” and the next they were gently swaying as Austin Brown began singing the first few lines to “Death Will Bring Change.” This track was particularly poignant live, since Parquet Courts had invited a children’s choir to join for the signature chorus: “The bottom of this well is rich with bitter water / It lays still, drowsy, dreaming, dying to get out.” The oscillation between Brown’s atonal roughness and the sweet innocence of children’s high pitches gave me chills.

Nina Simone famously declared that it’s the “artist’s duty to reflect the times in which we live.” In our current times, mistrust in career politicians and any self-appointed intellectual elite is at an all-time high. There’s a desire to diffuse control of the political imagination through beacons of culture—I’m not sure that it actually is, as you suggest, ridiculous to take political cues from a guitarist. Call it dogmatic, but punk’s unapologetic certainty is one of the things I admire most about the genre: unified outrage geared toward collectivism (which, as Savage rightly put it, is not mutually exclusive from autonomy). And humor is most powerful when employed in service of collective action, not in defense of postmodern diffidence. Parquet Courts are at their strongest when they reject self-effacement in favour of brutal honesty about political urgency.

Take “Almost Had to Start a Fight,” in which Savage grapples with the maddening nature of tragedy that surrounds him. “almost had to start a fight / don’t know how to react so I won’t. / What do you do when you are provoked? / When does something start being a joke?” He reckons with his inability to make sense of overwhelming injustice after “reading about how many people died and / can’t someone tell me the reason?” Humor may be a way of coping, but it should compromise neither tenderness nor a confident diagnosis of what needs to change. And it’s the former—a deep reverence for our shared mortality—that builds the solidarity required to know the latter.

The essence of this politics—as Matthew Sitman put it, a politics “based in human frailty, the understanding that we’re less free than we want to admit”—resounds through hardcore punk, though it might initially be concealed by its “angry” sound. In fact, I think the physicality of punk shows can affirm this collective frailty: moshing is an act of surrender and vulnerability, derived from our shared need for release. By appealing for change through an acknowledgement of our human weakness, punk possesses something not far from a liberation-theological impulse. It evokes St. Óscar Romero’s description of “the violence of love,” which contains overwhelming passion derived not of hatred but of “brotherhood, the violence that wills to beat weapons into sickles for work.”

In Latin America, punk was crucial throughout the 1970s and ’80s for several of the continent’s liberation movements against widespread poverty and the political repression in military dictatorships. In Chile, for instance, the Pinochet Boys combined classic punk with new-wave cues to create aural resistance that gripped Santiago’s underground music scene. Though the band only managed to record four songs, their track “La Musica del General” (“Music of the General”), is a masterpiece, repetitive and succinct: “Dictadura musical / nadie puede parar de bailar la musica del General / Nada en el cerebro, nada en el refrigerador.” It translates: “Musical dictatorship / nobody can stop dancing to the General’s music / Nothing in the brain, nothing in the refrigerator.” The group’s antifascist message had undeniably higher stakes than the Dead Kennedys’ angst: military police frequently interrupted their shows, which were classified as treason against the state. The Pinochet Boys gigs provided a spot for activists to meet and organize, and the youth movement it helped create was vital in bringing about Chile’s 1988 referendum.

Similar musical resistance was vital in organizing throughout Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico, though the sonic subversion of bands like Rio-based Coquetel Molotov and Buenos Aires’ Los Violadores remains largely unknown in the West. And when considering the genre’s impact well beyond American boundaries, I’m reminded that punk was revolutionary zeitgeist: its role in engendering political change by its capacity for bringing people together cannot be understated. Tenderness, after all, can take many forms.

Max Foley-Keene is a writer and doctoral student at Brown University studying political theory, and a former Commonweal intern. Nicole-Ann Lobo is an MPhil candidate in Modern South Asian Studies at Christ's College, Cambridge. She was the 2019 John Garvey Writing Fellow at Commonweal.

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