When I was a young lad(many, many moons ago), I discovered the Sex Pistols for the first time. I didn’t bother to learn about the history of the band, and it was years before I watched The Great Rock n’ Roll Swindle…all I did was turn on that first record and the absolute rawness, the complete unbridled individuality that screamed out of my speakers, spoke to me on a deep level. Sure, you’re probably wondering how a band that barely knew how to play their instruments(I always joked that Steve Jones and Paul Cook were the best two man band in punk rock history) could be so influential. It wasn’t the music(as many three-chord punk bands who tried and failed to emulate them found out), it was the dangerous message: I do what I want, you don’t own me. It was a message that any rebellious kid could identify with because I mean who wants to listen to their parents or teachers? Most were content to leave it there, and after they hung up their Chuck Taylors and took out their piercings, they joined the rat race and submitted to one authority after another: their professors in college, their boss at their job, their friends who had their own professors and jobs. Punk rock was anarchy-lite, quickly abandoned for the realism of responsibilities and commitments. Death and taxes. But always, underneath that basic “you don’t own me mom” sneer of punk rock was the idea: If my parents don’t own me….does anyone? It’s that dangerous message, the fish-hook buried in the candy bar, that kicked off a world of discovery for me. Listening to the Sex Pistols scream about anarchy in the UK was the catalyst for a life spent questioning all authority, seeking the ultimate freedom of the individual. But these days, the freedom of the individual seems swallowed up in big government nanny-state rhetoric…I’m more likely to see a Bernie sticker on a punk rocker’s guitar than an anarchy symbol. How the hell did we get here?

There’s always been a left-wing lean to punk rock…the working class’ struggles were immortalized in the music of the Clash, songs like “Let’s Lynch the Landlord” by the Dead Kennedys, and lyrics like these by The Ex: “The bourgeoisie was not needed and we proved it / No church, no masters, no guardians / Property collectivized, we took over the estates / No necessity for money to exist, everyone would work / And exchange with other collectives – no need for the state.” There were precious few conservative punk rockers…the Ramones’ own Johnny Ramone was a life-long voting Republican(to the chagrin of his left-leaning bandmates), and the band FEAR has taken some heat by the punk community for being conservative in their politics. But that’s about it…and it makes sense if you think about it. Punk rock in its very origins was reactionary, a nihilistic scream against the materialism and plastic commercialism of the late 1970s. They hated the status quo, and conservatism most assuredly WAS the status quo. Google “anti-Reagan punk” and you’ll have quite the playlist. Punk rock from its very beginnings was anti-authoritarian, populist, and socially liberal above all. The freaks and outcasts from modern conservative society were welcome, in fact being too “normal” meant you were looked at with distrust.

The reactionary attitude extended to capitalism as well…it was seen as exploitative, anyone seeking a record deal with a major label was a “sell-out” and bands promoted themselves through fanzines and collective efforts. The more DIY you were, the more “punk rock” you were. Later in the 90s when Nirvana was selling out arenas and record stores Kurt Cobain bemoaned the state of the record industry as co-opting what was essentially a grass-roots movement and selling it as a product. He was absolutely right. The music industry had long been controlled by the “big four” companies: Universal Music Group, Sony, Warner, and EMI. Their monopoly privileges and cooperation with radio monopolies(EMMIS, Radio One, and Clear Channel own most of the radio stations in the US)meant that all roads to super-stardom went through them, and with that came contracts ensuring that the companies owned a majority share in any profits the artist might earn. This state-enforced capital funnel meant that the artists were essentially serfs to their record labels.

Keep in mind this was before the advent of the internet and other technologies which allowed musicians to more directly interact with their fans and circumvent the major labels, so many punk rock acts who were looking to avoid “selling out” started their own labels. The music industry was seen as a vampire sucking the life out of productive musicians and something to be avoided as much as possible. Capitalism was the enemy, they declared…while participating in it. Remember how at its core punk rock was reactionary and anti-authority? The main authority later punk musicians had to rebel against was the music industry itself, a monolithic authority propped up by monopoly privileges and an almost inescapable permeation of every facet of popular culture. This leviathan was the target of many later punk bands like NOFX, Rancid, and Bad Religion, who started their own record labels and movements as a reaction to the exodus in the mid-80s and 90s of many punk bands to the major labels. Bands like the Offspring and Green Day were derided as sell outs and turncoats in the punk underground.

Politically, punk rock focused most of its efforts on this monopoly throughout the 90s. Clinton was in the White House by this point and even though there was still some anti-statist sentiment in most punk music, the Democrats were seen as somewhat “safe” compared to the GOP. Keep in mind punk rock rose to prominence in the 1980s as a reactionary political movement against Reagan conservatism and people who came of age during this time listening to bands like Reagan Youth and the Dead Kennedys found themselves more and more turned to leftist politics. Clinton promised change to the left-wing base, and like most who lived through the Obama years can attest, the left wing is pretty silent when one of their boys is in the White House. Kids who were in their adolescence during the Reagan years were voters now and registered Democrats. The Clinton “surplus” and the relative boom of the dot.com years only encouraged them more and more that the Democrats were the party of the future. Social issues became more important, and the ideas of individual freedom and anarchy gave way to pragmatism and “voting for the lesser evil”. These middle-aged punks got married, had kids, and blended into the cycle of responsibility and paying taxes.

Then the 2000 election happened, and the uproar by the left was matched only by the Trump win in recent days. 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq only fueled the fire. All of a sudden high school kids were getting political and getting into punk music again. Old punkers NOFX trotted out anti-Bush albums and Fat Mike, their frontman, even started punkvoter.com…a website with the stated goal of removing Bush by mobilizing the young voting base to vote Democrat. Holy hell! It was a wild decade, with Rock Against Bush and other protest efforts lining the coffers of Fat Wreck Chords and Epitaph with plenty of new fans’ money. This wasn’t the grass-roots anti-authoritarian reactionary movement of the 1970s…this was corporate rock opportunism at its finest. Honed to perfection from decades of working within the music industry, all of a sudden being anti-authoritarian meant voting Democrat! It was hilariously absurd if one hadn’t seen the writing on the wall from punk’s very beginnings. It was always simply a reactionary movement, never an anarchist one. Anarchism in punk was basically nihilism…which is completely unsustainable. One eventually finds values. The punks of the 80s and 90s found value in socially liberal policies and anti-capitalist sentiment. Nevermind that the capitalism they experienced was the result of government intervention in the market, bestowing privileges and monopolies to a few corporations which mined their movement for profit. Their penchant for socially liberal government policies ensured that punks that did vote would generally vote Democrat. Their built up hatred for the capitalist structure(while ironically participating in it wholeheartedly) ensured that they would be receptive to socialist ideas. The rise of Bernie Sanders and the subsequent reaction to the Trump win was, therefore, unsurprising, if not predictable.



How Did Punk Rock Get So… Socialist?

Category: Opinion