I Was a Teenage Anarchist

By Jason Myles / jasonmyles.medium.com
Oct 22, 2021
0
I Was a Teenage Anarchist
Henry Rollins in Black Flag

“But Sidney’s more than a mere bass player. He’s a fabulous disaster. He’s a symbol, a metaphor, he embodies the dementia of a nihilistic generation. He’s a fuckin’ star.”
-From the movie 1986 Film, “
Sid and Nancy

It’s easy to surmise that when punk rock impresario Malcolm McLaren created the Sex Pistols, he was looking for a way to market rebellion. While on the surface that may be true, McLaren wasn’t just a punk rock carnival barker, he was also a member of the Situationist International, an organization of social revolutionaries made up of avant-garde artists, intellectuals and political theorists.[1] A key part of Situationist theory was the concept of the “spectacle”, something McLaren mastered during his tenure with the Sex Pistols.

I’m not here to pass judgment on the music of the Sex Pistols nor do I plan to extensively critique the non-organic nature of their creation. However, I do think the manufactured idea of what they represented visually and sonically both defined the first wave of U.K punk music and later came to inject a snotty anti authoritarian attitude and sound into the hardcore punk scene in the U.S.

 

The Making of the Punk Moment

The Presidency of Ronald Reagan in the US and the Premiership of Margaret Thatcher in the UK — born out of rising inflation, a weakening economy, a deteriorating job market coupled with a war on labor -, were in many ways the perfect catalyst for punk’s musical moment.

“When she talks, I hear the revolution

In her hips, there’s revolutions

When she walks, the revolution’s coming

In her kiss, I taste the revolution!”

Rebel Girl — Bikini Kill

Despite the economic precarity that was the reality for many in the late 70’s, in the US, the culture of glamour was still pervasive. It was an era in which large corporate rock bands selling millions of records, playing to packed out arenas, and traveling by private jet prevailed, while the alluring cocaine-soaked beat of disco dominated the music charts. But if there was to be an antithesis to the ascent of Reagan and the culture warriors of the Moral Majority, it was bands like Black Flag, Bad Brains, Flipper, and The Dead Kennedys. Playing faster and more ferocious than their predecessors in the UK music scene, their sound was a purely nihilistic rebellion. If McLaren was attempting to be more inclusive in his endeavor with the Sex Pistols by selling anarchy as spectacle, the hardcore bands of the late 70’s and early 80’s were not positioning themselves for major label fame and world domination. This music was to be, not just a thumb in the eye to the establishment, but a full-scale assault on it.

Much like the punk bands that came before, your proficiency at your instrument was secondary to your passion. This was coupled with a frustrated antagonistic fervor at a world in which economic opportunities dissolving in real time. This music was a sonic pipe bomb for young people that didn’t want to be the next Alex P. Keaton or hear another self-indulgent 3-minute guitar solo under a laser show and 7 figures worth of lighting equipment.

 

The Music of Capitalism's Crisis

In 1979 the consumer price index (CPI) was up a whopping 13.3 percent. The purchasing power of the average worker’s hourly pay was no higher than it had been nine years prior[2]. The 30-year home loan mortgage rate, a new tool in the start of the 70’s at about 7.3%. By the end of the decade that rate is up to 12.9%. This were to get even worse and by the middle of the 80’s mortgage interest rates had risen as high as 18.4%[3].

Hardcore punk music, as violent as it presented itself, was the rejection to Reagan era neoliberalism and a now more emboldened Christian conservative movement. The ascendant right’s promises of a return to 1950’s era myths of the greatness of America, all while continuing an assault on the “Great Society” programs of the LBJ administration, was a façade that these disaffected youth saw right through. It was as if they were wearing the “magic sunglasses” in John Carpenter’s classic “They Live”, the hardcore scene knew that Reagan’s promise to “Make America Great Again” was only going to be great for a minority of elites, and the image of that greatness did not include mohawks.

But the flame of insurrection against the ruling class couldn’t burn forever. The genre was sonically limited by the subpar musicianship, drug addiction, infighting, bad management, a lack of infrastructure for bands to grow beyond their grassroots, and record labels that didn’t pay their artists. Hardcore also, in my opinion suffers from another problem. The contradictory paradox of “The Culture of Authenticity” and “The Culture of Deconstruction”.

As sociologist Ryan Moore puts it in his Postmodernism and the Punk Subculture: Cultures of Authenticity and Deconstruction. punk was the “response of young people raised within a mass-mediated, consumer-driven environment who have turned signs and spectacles against themselves, as a means of waging war on society.”

Punk was very different from the protest music of their predecessors in the 60s in which bands were singing songs of unity to come together to defeat causes that were larger than themselves. Indeed, if the music of 60’s was fighting against the Vietnam war and for social change in the form of the Civil Rights movement and Women’s Liberation, the sound of punk was that of the “purposelessness of suburban youth socialized to be spectators and consumers”. Hardcore and punk was the self-isolating soundtrack to loneliness. Rock n’ Roll was always sold as rebellious outsider music, but the sound of hardcore punk did not permeate from the Mississippi Delta or the ghettos of Oakland. It was purely a suburban bourgeois phenomenon. It wasn’t designed to build any sort of movement. It was created merely to tear it down society at large. With the ethos of “No Future” brought forth by the Sex Pistols, hardcore punk was walking in the door with the blueprint for aural chaos. But how does one tear down society when the scene is so opposed to being a part of it?

 

The Culture of Authenticity

This brings up the 2nd paradoxical wall in the way of progress, the so-called Culture of Authenticity. As Moore points out: “The second way in which punk subcultures have responded to postmodern society has involved a quest for authenticity and independence from the culture industry, thus altogether renouncing the prevailing culture of media, image, and hyper commercialism.”

The “Culture of Authenticity” must stay underground for anyone in the small social order to approve of whatever endeavor you’re a part of whether it is starting a band, a media publication, a record label, or promoting a venue. To be viewed as “authentic to the culture” one must reject dominant infrastructure, insulating the scene from corruption of our corporate overlords. Thus, the guardians of authenticity become not just gatekeepers of scene, but wardens keeping everyone imprisoned in their own milieu. It was this culture that came to define the punk scene in its early years.

However, more than the pedantic infighting and purity tests, the real death blow to the emerging hardcore punk scene of the late 70’s and early 80’s was the landslide re-election of Ronald Reagan in 1984. For a new generation of artists and musicians too young to be a part of, or even remember the defeat of the New Left, this was their defining moment of failure. The man they rallied against for the previous 4 years was once again victorious. There were no small victories for the “Blank Generation”, just endless defeats. Moreover, the conservative atmosphere was also becoming more violent with law enforcement in areas like Southern California seeing these “punks” (a pejorative) as society’s failures in need of being taught a lesson. The result was that punk shows would often provide an excuse for police riots as the security services sought to punish those they saw as social misfits Ultimately, punk fought the law, and as it usually does, the law won. To many of the seminal bands of that era, punk was dead.

I want to be a star, I’m going to have a car

And you’ll have to admit, I’ll be rich as shit

I’ll just sit and grin, the money will roll right in”

The Money Will Roll Right In -Fang

 

Welcome to the Mall

The 90’s were a different time for hardcore and punk music. Metal, also violent, fast ferocious, was never as nihilistic as the first wave of hardcore punk. You don’t really challenge power when you’re singing songs about slaying dragons and demons and devils. Of course, not all of metal was ripe with lyrics based in fantasy, the hair metal phenomenon of the early to mid 80’s was music that was made for an era of Reaganite bourgeois decadence. It was a time of women, drugs, and more women. It was defined by proficient playing and singers with leading man good looks. Nothing says, “I love the Reagan 80’s” more than Jon Bon Jovi. Like the bombastic over the top rock of the 70’s defined by bands like Kiss, the hair metal guys were turning it up to 11 in the clubs or the arenas. As Poison said it with their 1988 hit single, they didn’t need “Nothin’ but a Good Time”.

While the metal/hair metal party lasted longer and was vastly more successful than hardcore punk, hardcore would finally get to challenge the status quo. In fact, it would actually see victory in its spawn, Grunge, the melancholy sound of Seattle that would be the party crasher in Clintonian 90’s.

Hailing from the northwest, a sound born out of the fire of bands like Flipper and Black Flag was brewing under the overcast skies of Washington state.

Nirvana wasn’t the first band from that scene that would become forever be known as “grunge”, a problematic term in itself as it defines a fashion aesthetic more than it does a music genre. However, they were the most successful and influential. Their hit single off their 2nd album Nevermind“Smells Like Teen Spirit” was the death nail to the overproduced, hypersexualized hair metal that dominated the rock charts. Nirvana was bringing back “important music”. Cobain was speaking a new crop of disaffected youth in Generation X that looked a lot like kids that flocked to hardcore punk in the late 70’s and early 80’s. There was one very big distinct difference though, and that was this rebellion wouldn’t be underground. Nirvana embodied the “culture of authenticity” and the “culture of deconstruction”.[4]They also were the embodiment of the capitalist realism of punk.

As the late Mark Fisher puts it in Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? about the cooptation of culture:

“Witness, for instance, the establishment of settled ‘alternative’ or ‘independent’ cultural zones, which endlessly repeat older gesture so rebellion and contestation as if for the first time. ‘Alternative’ and ‘independent’ don’t designate something outside mainstream culture; rather, they are styles, within the mainstream. No-one embodied (and struggled with) this deadlock more than Kurt Cobain and Nirvana

Every magazine article touted Cobain as the tortured genius who despite the fame embodied the “punk ethos”. Yet a problem remained: how can you be punk and wealthy? Cobain was constantly at odds with his success. Rock stardom was the polar opposite of what hardcore punk personified. Cobain seemed to understand that as Mark Fisher writes, “Cobain knew that he was just another piece of spectacle, that nothing runs better on MTV than a protest against MTV… Here, even success meant failure, since to succeed would only mean that you were the new meat on which the system could feed.”

This paradoxical existence coupled with a severe heroin addiction contributed to the untimely suicide of Cobain in 1994.

After the suicide of Cobain, Nirvana was tragically no more. Bass player Krist Novoselic went on to join 80’s first wave of hardcore punk band Flipper, and Dave Grohl enlisted the help of another founder of the hardcore sound, the Germs Pat Smear to assist on guitar with his post Nirvana project, the Foo Fighters. Labels looking to cash in on the sound of Grunge signed as many Seattle bands as possible, punk was back, and unlike in its 1980’s Reagan era iteration, it was more profitable than ever. So profitable in fact that a new punk subgenre was formed, and this one, to the chagrin of many punk purists, was the most successful: Pop-punk.

Borrowing a little bit of the look and attitude from skate culture and hardcore punk, this genre was hooky, and non-threatening. If Nirvana was an unpredictable, or ‘dangerous’ band, Green Day, Blink 182, the Offspring, were more comical than topical. This wasn’t about a movement against authoritarianism, it was about selling products. From skateboards to energy drinks Pop-Punk powered festivals signified the end of the old guard.

Major label backed and corporate sponsored Punk was everywhere. Tattoos and lip piercings were no longer visual signifiers that you were part of the counterculture, they had become a ubiquitous component in suburban mall culture. Where you can see in old photos of the 80’s hardcore punk scene handmade shirts with the ‘anarchy’ logo, by the 90s you could just go down the local Hot Topic and by some anti-authoritarian clothes with holes or without. You know, so you can ‘keep it real’ and cut those holes and put safety pins on that Anarchy shirt yourself.

Some of the larger bands of the earlier hardcore punk era weren’t going to miss out on the cash grab either. They were once the symbols of political unrest who sang anthems of overthrowing the status quo. However, in this new age next to the hot new Pop-Punk Warped Tour band merchandise were the t-shirts of the bands that came from punk’s foundational generation. Bands that handmade not only record sleeves and merchandise but carved out an independent niche as a finger to the of the eye of establishment were now in the mall too. At it wasn’t just the mall, but on the corporate sponsored festival circuit and in playing corporate owned venues. Some would even go so far as to play with corporate sponsored gear.

Had they become what they once despised, or had they been posers all along? Was their earlier DIY ethos steeped not in rebellion against the status quo, but rather in anger at not being a part of the status quo? Was 80’s hardcore simply a cottage industry formed out of, not just a nihilistic outlook at a world that was becoming economically barren, but simply a lack of access to mainstream success?

 

Lessons for the Left

I recently watched a documentary on the North American 1st wave of hardcore punk bands called, “American Hardcore”. It came out in 2006 and was a kind of coffee table book with some amazing photographs of that era before it was a film. While I enjoyed the genre’s origin story as told by the people that were there, the film ends with a montage of them all saying that punk is dead. Their scene is dead, and in that moment, I was reminded of what I see in a lot of the left and the online left podcast sphere.

In a similar way to which the hardcore punk movement emerged out of the defeat of the New Left, much of the online left and the left podcast-sphere comes out of the defeat of Bernie Sanders in 2016 and, more importantly, 2020. Trump was the type of comic book villain that launched MANY podcast careers, just as fear of Reagan inspired so many bands and songs. But what was the unifying bond beyond Trump? Beyond Reagan? The 1984 election is the moment where the rallying cry of the movement dies on a countrywide level. Sure, certain bands and scenes persevered, but for the many, bands and fans alike, it was over. When you are part of the “Culture of Deconstruction” all you have is “no”. A middle finger to the establishment, but what if you can’t really see beyond the establishment? Where is your utopian vision for people to build on and work towards? If I spend my time critiquing four progressive members of congress, that, while popular on social media, don’t have the power, or the grassroots movements behind them to really shake things up like people want, what am really doing? I’m just saying “no” and offering no viable alternative.

The “Culture of Authenticity” also works in tandem to neutralize any sort of real progress as well. Through constantly having to pass cultural purity tests to appear “left enough”, the sectarian squabbles in the online left and the left podcast-sphere have sucked a lot of the oxygen out of any real movement building beyond simply brand building.

People wearing their political affiliations like the mall youth with their pre hole cut Hot Topic Anarchy shirts. It makes me wonder, if the revolution won’t be televised will it be streamed by a cosplaying radical sloganeering into the void from a parent’s basement? (Followed by a link to the Patreon/GoFundMe/$CashAp)

The capitalist realism of the online left and the left in general remind me so much of hardcore. Are you raging against the machine? Or raging to be a part of the machine? Or does the machine just consume you no matter your intentions?

“The long, dark night of the end of the history has to be grasped as an enormous opportunity. The very oppressive pervasiveness of capitalist realism means that even glimmers of alternative political and economic possibilities can have a disproportionately great effect. The tiniest event can tear a hold in the grey curtain of reaction which has marked the horizons of possibility under capitalist realism. From a situation in which nothing can happen, suddenly anything is possible again.

-Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative

 


[1] See Sadie Plant,The Most Radical Gesture (New York: Routledge, 1992).

[2] From the January 26th Washington Post article, “Inflation in 1979 is Put at 13.3 Percent by John M. Berry

[3] The 30-year fixed-rate mortgage started off the decade at about 7.3 percent in 1971, according to Freddie Mac. By the end of 1979, in a time of heightening inflation, that rate rose to 12.9 percent. While inflation doesn’t directly influence mortgage rates, if it rises too fast and wages don’t keep up, borrowers have less purchasing power overall.

Mortgage rate trends in the 1980s

The 30-year fixed mortgage rate reached a pinnacle of 18.4 percent in October 1981, according to Freddie Mac, seesawing down to the 9 percent range by 1986 and closing the decade at 9.78 percent. The 1970s oil embargo against the U.S., which drove up inflation quickly, contributed to the increased borrowing costs. From Dhara Sing for Bankrate.com August 5, 2021

[4] It is not my intention to argue that either the “culture of deconstruction” or the “culture of authenticity” is more effective or politically progressive than the other. Rather, my analysis identifies both empowering possibilities and regressive limitations within each of punk’s responses to the condition of postmodernity. The culture of deconstruction has allowed some punk performers to enact dramatic refusals and parodies of power, periodically capturing the media spotlight and inspiring further acts of defiance among the young and disaffected. But these gestures of resistance have typically proven to be as fleeting and ephemeral as postmodern culture at large. Moreover, punk’s spirit of negation lacks a utopian counterpart, and as a consequence its aggressive nihilism occasionally expresses itself as an attack upon the powerless rather than the powerful. The culture of authenticity and the do-it-yourself ethic, on the other hand, have led to the creation of relatively durable communities and alternative media, which have not only maintained a measure of autonomy from the culture industry but sometimes also served as a forum for facilitating political critique and action. Yet even the most political hardcore subcultures have typically fetishized the imagined purity of commercial independence as an end in itself, and as a result they have willingly reinforced their own marginality rather than attempt to make subversive inroads into the dominant culture. Likewise, the pursuit of purity has often led hard-core subcultures to enforce a startling homogeneity of dress and sound, which effectively stifles artistic creativity and obstructs the participation of various types of “outsiders.”

From Ryan Moore’s Paper, “Postmodernism and Punk Subculture: Culture so Authenticity and Deconstruction

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