The worst thing about the “make punk great again” discussion is that now young people, no matter how out there or esoteric the new music of opposition they create might be, will have to deal with old people calling it “punk.” If they’re lucky we’ll at least throw a “hyphen punk” after or before their chosen term. Sorry, youth. We just love punk so goddamned much.
A perfectly reasonable person might (but usually doesn’t) ask, “Are there a lot of people saying punk/art will be great under Trump?” And the answer is, “So it would seem.” I’ve certainly seen some people say this on both Twitter and Facebook. I mean, I think I have? I’ve certainly seen a thousand people, myself included, say, “Stop saying punk will be good again under Trump!” And I’ve seen some great written pieces by people I respect the hell out of denouncing the sentiment.
It’s something we do and do well: taking a position that few other writers, certainly no writers in our cliques, hold and kicking the living shit out of it until it’s dead. And when I say “we” that’s not a rhetorical device where I passive aggressively mean “you.” I do it all the time. It’s usually consistent with what I actually believe and it’s fun. I didn’t begrudge anyone their Fun Under Wartime during the Bush/Obama years (I’m an Obama fan, if not stan, but the 15-year occupation of Afghanistan continues apace…) so I’m loathe to poo-poo my fellow writers’ diversions. If I could fix cars, I would. But all I know is how to write about punk.
I’m writing here to neither to outrage nor inspire, merely to discuss. (And if you’re looking for a tidy conclusion at the end, feel free to stop reading now. Godspeed.). So, let’s get the initial question out of the way: Will punk (or any art) be better under Trump? Fuck if I know. How could I possibly know that?
If history is any indication, music is really great (or bad) when you have a moribund center-left like Jimmy Carter or UK pre-Thatcher (it was Labour ‘til ’79). And then music is really great (or…bad) when conservatives are in power (if you ignore all lives lost due to governmental indifference to a plague). And then music is great under a triangulating sexual predator creep of no discernible ideology. And then music is great (or bad) under expansionist theocracy. And then music is great under….well, I’m not quite ready to be snide about Obama just yet. History will say what it says, but jeez I’m going to miss the understated, wry, history making and status quo maintaining but essentially decent-if-you-don’t-live-in-any-of-the-places-he-bombed motherfucker.
The quality of music is too subjective to declare an era bad or good. There are time periods (human existence before 1953, mid-’00s NYC) that I’m not super stoked on music-wise. Jessica Hopper is arguably our greatest living writer on all things punk. But she thinks electroclash is bad. Seeing disco (and all its accoutrements of dope, glam, and fucking in the streets) as resistance music, I strongly disagree. Opinions vary. (I also want to be clear that I’m nitpicking at one small aspect of Hopper’s essay, and not one representative of its whole.)
Of course, Hopper’s (and other’s) main point is inarguably correct. It doesn’t matter if music is “better” if people are suffering. But, poorly phrased as it may often be, I think the silver lining brigades aren’t really trying to say, “This is great. I’m glad Donald Trump is president as we will now have more bands like the Circle Jerks. I’m happy about this. *smugly does skanking man dance *” They are, I hope, saying, “This is terrible. I hope something, anything good comes from this. Here’s a Band-Aid for your cancer.” This is...irritating. But in the face of ascendant Sunglass Hut fascism, “just irritating” is kind of nice.
Now, what would a punk renaissance look like anyway? Punk was, in its formation, as conservative and retrograde as any musical movement can be. As much as it was the Greil Marcus “no” and Rock Against Racism, it was also (arguably more so) reactionary in the face of hippie piety and purist by design. And if the initial punks on both sides of the Atlantic deified black and gay dance and soul (in their lofts, if not their aesthetic), by the early eighties, punks, by now more suburban and anti-art in stance…* cough* really didn’t.
For every LiLiPUT or Bad Brains (let’s…set aside their homophobia for a moment), there were a hundred Siouxsie Sioux in a swastika singing about too many Jews, a thousand proto-pop-punk bands whose view of romance hewed closely to that of Beach Blanket Bingo, and a million bands obsessed with “authenticity” and a return to “real” music.
I know some are clamoring for a new Fugazi but I don’t know that I’d want to sit through another “Guilty of Being White” to get there. (Fugazi stans, please don’t @ me. I love them. They changed my life. I’m just saying neither they nor Propagandhi nor Fat Mike and his monetized revolutionary skate ramps feel like a solution right now.) But just because I can’t imagine a renaissance means nothing other than my own failure of imagination, my own attachment to the past, and my attached grievances with it.
Self-awareness is nice. Nostalgia is bad, or at least antithetical to our shared ideas of what punk is, if not the reality of it. So discussing, even setting aside all questions of implied privilege or misplaced priorities, whether punk will be “better” is a perversion of the former and a perverse heightening of the latter.
The counterculture, be it Parisians in ’68 or Ramones in ’76, never said, “Well, looks like nothing but spectacle and horror for the next decade…let’s reinvent pop music.” Being aware of pop’s history and trying to recreate that, whether out of necessity or out of a need for a silver lining, is to consign future resistance to the fate of all sequels. Worse, it’s to buy into the Boomer-esque hagiography of so much punk reminiscence. It’s to attach meaning we need to yesterday’s fashions, making the past simplistic and the future impossible.
I’m clearly of two minds on all this. On one hand, the discussion is too stupid for words. So many lives in balance and people (like myself) care about the parlor game discussion? It’s grotesque! On the other hand, art matters. It gives people hope. And in the absence of every single person in opposition to Trump running for office protesting in the streets or joining whatever version of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade is currently in app form, presumably some people will want to make music.
So wondering how this new music will sound, what its historical effect and quality will be and encouraging young people by implying that their lives might take form and greater meaning through art does…no harm at worst. Does it distract people from the “real” work? Maybe. But, in the same way I wouldn’t want Lemmy as my nurse, do you really want the Richard Hells of the world manning the barricades? Is PWR BTTM more politically effective standing on the corner of Tivoli collecting signatures or as a band that quite literally (it certainly appears to me) saves lives? It’s complicated but not entirely.
Simply put, I want Trump to not have happened. Ever. My rage at his existence is as much directed at NBC for giving a longtime racist and charlatan a platform as it is at all the people who (for whatever reason) voted for the corpulent goon. I also want, as I naively always have and always will, want something artistically new. These are two impossible desires. But what is art if not the embrace of impossible desire?
Of course I want us all to “do the work” and I want us to avoid the ahistorical bullshit that is part and parcel of Making America Great Again. But I also want those who can be saved through art alone to be saved. I want to assume not only good faith in those who may come across as being myopic in their subculture desire but also, to borrow from our hellish Il Duce, the best faith in said subcultures’ ability to deliver. I must renounce my own innate cynicism as it does no one any good. I choose to embrace the cliché of “If we do not do the impossible, we face the unthinkable.”
So, fuck it, I think I’ll side with the Facebook idiots and stray Twitter idealists and against my beloved peers though I suspect they’ll live and say: if it saves you, or anyone you might know or share aural proximity with, or even the illusion gives comfort, now that all our years of crying wolf about fascism has summoned exactly that, then…please make punk great again. Make it revolutionarily and genuinely subversively great again, just like it never was.
Here is also where I return to my jerkiness of the soul and I’m sorry. I ask not just for a setting aside of cynicism and an openness to possibility but also a necessary accompanying of toughness of spirit. Nazi punks must, yes, fuck off. But the state apparatus that will be hurting the most marginalized, making a Muslim registry, deporting millions, and overturning Roe v. Wade won’t be wearing Doc Martens with white laces or a Pepe flip cap. We can’t find the easiest Nazis available and say, “Yes, phantom, I banish you.” That’s a form of self-flattery. We can’t fall apart or pretend we’re saving the Second Spanish Republic every time we have a punk-in because a (probable) teen scrawled a squiggle-tika in a park devoted to our favorite white, reluctant-Jew rappers*.
Opposition can’t afford to be as credulous as Trump’s followers and if the counterculture is just going to approach all this with the same discernment it approached JT LeRoy, I’d just soon the counterculture stayed the fuck home. A punk reinvigoration would be swell but it’s not needed if it’s just going to alternate between preening in the mirror and shadowboxing its reflection.
Artists will give solace and strength in whatever medium or genre is available. Like they always do. Every last night a DJ saves a life. So if we don’t get another “Waiting Room,” that’s fine. I have to believe that we will, we must, get another “Is It All Over My Face.”
*As with Fugazi, I love the Beastie Boys. I’m not (entirely) just kowtowing to a contrary need to put the knife into potential allies in the intelligentsia. More than bourgeois self-loathing though, I fear a romanticism of past vaguely revolutionary gestures on the part of alternative culture/music that veers into mass misremembering. I wholly believe in the complicity in our current situation by the liberal class and I don’t think we get to paint ourselves as Anne Franks in waiting just yet, when there’s so much solidarity work to be done. We must not let fascism make us corny. So, yeah, sorry. Paul’s Boutique is still very good.
By Zachary Lipez, distributed under a Creative Commons CC-BY license.
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