Music Can Tell Us Where We’re Going & Who We Are
From about 1977 to 1989, Baltimore had an underground punk scene linked by flyers hung by members who frequented Goodwills for clothes and met in parks and abandoned buildings to party. Having few places to congregate like other kids who had malls as hangouts, these kids gathered where they could between late-night weekend attendance of concerts, often multi-band events held in rented acoustically unfit places, and a handful of legal venues. In dusty, old, wooden warehouses shuddering to electric guitar thunder unsynchronized with drums as the floor threatened to buckle under more than a hundred moshers, punk rock prophesied conservatism and elucidated the need for music’s insight.
The Intrigue of Punk Rock
A friend introduced me to the punk music scene after his older sister became involved, and he soon donned the Sid Vicious fashion like other kids forming the ranks of rebellion. I accompanied him but never adopted the style meant to shock. As a thirteen-year-old unaccepted by any clique, the punk rockers or punks, as referred to, appeared as an inclusive, social-reject tribe until familiarity dispersed this illusion, revealing another coterie, complete with fashion and social motifs.
Despite the effort to individualize rebellion, tattered jeans, chains, and combat boots appeared regularly, but lacking this flare did not exclude one. Plain-dressed people, like myself, hung around and did not suffer the poser accusation that automatically excommunicated once convicted. Posers were inauthentic or uncool persons whose identification held much complexity. You could be cool if you didn’t dress like a punk, but if they thought you dressed to impress, you earned the poser moniker. Many such norms kept me in the observer position, looking to drink beer and perhaps find some friends in the tribe of outcasts.
The punks’ most distinguishing feature was the scene’s music which horrified me. My friend enjoyed music wrought from the talent required to post a flyer, recklessly strum a guitar, and proclaim yourself a band while I nodded in feigned interest. The music sounded the same except for the famous groups, and even those bands could be repetitive.
Once, we attended a party in an abandoned house that sat some distance from the main thoroughfare, Reisterstown Road, near the local high school. The house was one of several slated for demolition by the state to make way for the new highway connecting the area to the Baltimore beltway. Everyone sat around drinking beer until one of the punks turned up the boombox as the tape played the Dead Milkmen. My friend’s face brightened as he turned to me. “I love this song!” I nodded, hearing the punk message for the first time, which inspired much confusion.
In 1983, at thirteen, my understanding of politics limited to Cold War headline news that presented the Russians as an ever-present threat of nuclear holocaust. Cold War viewpoints vacillated between a Road Warrior dystopia and peaceful resolution eventually brought about through some unspecified diplomatic means. Unabated by the existential threat, life proceeded in the predominantly white, upper-middle-class suburbs outside Baltimore, where conservative, or right-wing lune held no real meaning until punk rock vehemently exposed that status quo.
By this age, I felt trapped alone in a cultural gulag of bullying, prior sexual abuse, and identity confusion that Punk Rock named “conservative.” Back then, you suffered that shit alone because telling parents or teachers garnered accusations of lying or stupid advice, like “just ignore it.” Angst invoked curiosity, but I still distrusted punk for seeming as hypocritical as any other group since the movement appeared to fuel a profound hatred of racism and warmongering while inspiring neonazi skinheads. Yet the scene’s boisterous, unapologetic Ronald Reagan-focused rage raised many questions about teachers and parents who now appeared as players in the Republican drama.
In the early eighties, the line dividing conservative and liberal appeared thick with overlapping political positions, blurring Republicans and Democrats. Expressions used often like “liberal Republicans” or “conservative Democrats” had more meaning in a society where the same person who supported welfare might also advocate gun rights. In truth, society just leaned more to the right.
This seeming contrarian politics appeared readily in most people, especially my parents, who appeared as swing voters, having supported Jimmy Carter and then Ronald Reagan. Today’s politics would categorize them as Republican for their party loyalty weighed on the scale of short-term economic benefit. After Carter’s defeat, my mother often declared, “If you have money, you vote Republican; if you’re poor, you vote Democrat.” She and my stepfather, now making more money, marveled over the economic stupidity of Democrats, who just couldn’t seem to get the economy to work, lamenting, “Every time a Democrat becomes President, a Republican has to come behind him and clean up the mess.”
My parents also defied today’s Republican religiosity by placing faith in business: the religion of Republicanism at the time. They often preached, “Never discuss religion or politics.” Conversations with them, if you could call them that, centered on real estate, entrepreneurship, investment, and education. When I say education, academia did not concern any subject other than business or something that translated into a management position.
Infected by their’s and suburbia’s conservatism, punk rock’s demonization of Republicans in songs like “Right Wing Pigeons” bewildered and challenged my endemic beliefs. Until punk rock, my Republican worldview defined everything in absolutes: “Republican equals good.” “Democrat bad.” “People who don’t succeed in life are failures as human beings.” “Yes, racism is sometimes bad, but if you just don’t talk about it, the problem goes away.”
Republican parents or right-leaning teachers typically accused complainers of blowing out of proportion any social injustice. The impossibility of talking to adults about personal problems coupled with bullying, no doubt, made punks’ message receptive, at least to the extent that it labeled the thing that felt very wrong.
Hearing for the first time the Dead Milkmen negatively describe conservatism opened my eyes, but the Republican worldview still seemed supported by a lot of evidence. The Cold War presented a clear danger that pillared gun rights and even a lot of punks had guns, or their families had guns. Class discussions concerning subjects such as socialized medicine formed a fantasy for an eighth-grade presentation like flying on a space shuttle. Teachers and students described — having never visited to my knowledge — France and other countries as economically troubled places where the government took all your money to provide terrible healthcare, all due to socialized medicine.
The punks’ hypocrisy often supported the Republican worldview because, despite all their rage towards the right, they still made terrible jokes about issues like AIDS which went unsympathetically ignored by Republicans and many Democrats who saw it as a homosexual problem. The word “faggot” punks, just like everyone else, slung at each other in lyrics without a care in the world for what it meant or the effect on others. Punk rock gatherings also rarely included blacks, and I can’t remember ever seeing anyone of any other nationality or race.
Still, the punks were onto something, evidenced by society’s reaction to them. Movies like Class of 1984 depicted punks as violent gangs bent on destroying America. Violent people inhabited the punk nation; neonazi skinheads spoke to this fact, but the skinhead movement originated differently, and most punks were anti-racism, as much as you could be for being a white, right-leaning kid or young adult in the eighties. The best evidence of their anti conservatism and anti-racism manifested in their attitudes towards Reagan, denoted by their flyers but even more so from the moral majority’s backlash that laughably depicted this small movement as violent gangs.
Punk’s ethos took root in inner conflict, mainly because what Republicanism presented as reality held no place for me. In the stomp of combat boots and blaring noise of guitars and ridiculous lyrics, I began to see the right-wing pigeons that punks vied against so passionately. Despite not fully understanding the depth of my conservatism, the punk’s anger and their need to form another group showed me just how many people didn’t fit into the right-leaning society.
My time witnessing the punks ended in 1986 when my parents sent me to military school, but perhaps if I stomped a little harder on the floor or listened a little closer to the lyrics, I might have diagnosed sooner the wrongness of that selfish, Republican worldview diseasing me.
Punk Rock’s Prophecy
By age twenty-one, life spiraled disastrously into misguided education and wrongly-chosen career paths that would persist for many years. Still confused by sexuality and still suffering the schism of conflicting political ideologies, my life worsened in the mystery of what was wrong. I became a living dissonance, unconscious of the half-belief in the business cure-all for life’s woes while witnessing that theology push myself and many others into poverty. The only thing worse than being confused is not knowing what confuses you. Sitting down with my Republican parents, I decided to be honest, not for any reason other than desperation. Struggling with school and feeling the loss of reality’s grip spurred honesty that received only the binary conservative thought. “Well, if you made better choices, you wouldn’t have these problems.” “Are you sure you’re not exaggerating?”
A long time passed filled with confusion, years of depression, separation from that family, and a lifetime of suffering anxiety would eventually conclude these people, my parents, just didn’t give a shit about anything other than themselves. They talk a good game about being concerned parents and how they spent so much money and energy trying to help their shitty son, but in truth, their despise of me started when I was a little kid.
I never fit the sports-minded executive stepfather’s mold of a real man, the controlling mother whose passive-aggressiveness choked life with gaslighting. I never fit their financial worldview where all success quantifies by your degree, your home’s size, and your rung on the corporate ladder. Nothing is ever their fault because everything is your fault. This was the Republican way and remains so today.
They’re right-wing pigeons from outer space, here to destroy the human race.
The punk’s unskilled electric guitar play and grinding lyrics foretold today’s Republicanism now cloaked in Jesus. The political worldview once couched in business rhetoric didn’t fall prey to an evangelical hysteria. Conservatives just revealed their true faith: a selfish, barbaric, disgusting religion that doesn’t give a shit about anything other than privilege, class, and money — even at the expense of their kids.
If books provide the critical social view etched in fiction, music becomes the flash of the oracle’s insight, whether symbolic or apparent. Punk forewarned the rise of the Republican religion seen today, revealing music’s insight in an artistic genre The Wire claims,
…should be viewed in the same light as Dada, surrealism, situationism, and other “serious” cultural movements. These movements didn’t just limit their criticisms to the art world or culture industry. At their height they opposed all aspects of a pointless order, rejecting hard boundaries between art and life; politics, economics, or culture; political activity and artistic creation. They also often allied themselves with various strains of anarchism or socialism. If Reagan was aestheticizing politics, then it was the job of punks to politicise aesthetics.
We look to the music to know where things head, but understand less the inward journey we should take when experiencing music. Had I known to introspect through punk’s lens, I might have understood myself better and navigated life more honestly. Had I applied more thought to my involvement with that music, I might have realized the conservative corruption that cost me decades of effort to cleave away the lies. Had I known to analyze the punk’s appeal and hypocrisy, I would have questioned my parents and other people and recognized their toxicity sooner. Perhaps punk rock advocates strongest the wisdom that helps us see ourselves, an inward divining that rarely occurs beyond nodding to the chords and lyrics. Perhaps if we discussed with our kids their music’s meaning, they might learn more about themselves and us about them.
Republicans argue, “Kids don’t have the critical thinking needed for the self-examination,” or “Kids need to be able to get jobs, not discuss music,” and “Throwing more money at the education problem doesn’t solve it.” This myopic view should come as no surprise in a country where half the people still lean to the right, find no value in music, and cut education funding accordingly. They don’t want that kind of education that teaches kids introspection, exposing the hard truth:
They don’t give a damn about you or me
They just buy guns and watch TV.
Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash