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A Brief History of Punk Rock and Presidential Politics

on July 13, 2016, 10:00am

Photo by Debi Del Grande

punk as fuck final A Brief History of Punk Rock and Presidential PoliticsPunk as Fuck is a monthly column in which Associate Editor Collin Brennan discusses issues in punk music and culture. With the Republican National Convention one week away, this inaugural column explores the many ways in which punk has inserted itself into presidential politics.

Since its inception in the 1970s, punk rock has never shied from jumping into the ring with mainstream politics. The genre (or the movement, if you prefer) positioned itself as a rejection of political idealism from the outset, whether it was the Sex Pistols hijacking Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee or Dead Kennedys using the occasion of their first single to declare California Governor Jerry Brown a fascist pig.

As punk evolved over the years, it split into subgenres with different ideologies and approaches to politics. In the ‘80s, DIY hardcore bands such as Fugazi and the Minutemen took a more ground-level view, their rigid ethical stance based less on getting out the vote than on playing safe, affordable shows at non-corporate venues. Other American punk bands, such as New York City’s Reagan Youth and Michigan’s Crucifucks, took a different tack, aggressively (and often hilariously) confronting national movements such as the Young Republicans and the Christian Right.

As the years passed and the White House swapped residents, punk saw its place in the national political conversation shift, too. The ‘90s brought the rise of pop punk and emo, subgenres that predominantly cast politics aside in favor of a more palatable brand of male romanticism. Bands such as Green Day and enterprises such as the Vans Warped Tour solidified punk’s connection with mainstream culture, giving the genre more of a platform but making it harder to take seriously.

Rage Against the Machine and other outspoken groups counteracted this trend somewhat, but they also had to work from within an uncomfortably corporate framework to spread their radically progressive, anti-consumerist ideas (“Know Your Enemy”, right?). The disastrous presidency of George W. Bush gave punk bands an easy target in the 2000s, but the genre was growing into an easier target itself.

These days, it’s difficult to tell what role punk rock has in shaping political narratives. In light of the Black Lives Matter movement and the growing focus on racial inequality, hip-hop and R&B seem like the more potent vehicles for social change. While artists such as Kendrick Lamar and Beyoncé steer the national conversation toward more progressive issues (and take legitimate risks in doing so), punk is hanging out on the fringes, a traditionally white, traditionally male genre searching for a new injection of relevancy. Groups such as Downtown Boys and G.L.O.S.S. are a good start, as is, surprisingly, the newly formed supergroup Prophets of Rage.

With the Republican National Convention and its attendant dunghill set to invade Cleveland next week, the US is on the brink of what once seemed unthinkable: a presidential election starring combustible potato sack and progressive Public Enemy No.1 Donald J. Trump. If Trump’s positions on immigration (kick ‘em out), foreign policy (kill ‘em all), and civil liberties (take ‘em away) aren’t enough to get punk engine’s back into full swing, nothing will be. Fortunately, it looks as if things are already headed that way, according to rumors that Prophets of Rage may attempt to crash the RNC and kick off a presidential season in which punk may actually mean something.

In light of this development, and in honor of scumbag politicians everywhere, let’s look back on the past five commanders-in-chief and consider what the prominent punk musicians of the time had to say about them. This is by no means an exhaustive history, but hopefully it functions as a reminder of a time in presidential politics when punks weren’t content to sit on the sidelines.

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The Reagan Era (1981–1989)

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Rock Against Reagan concert flyer

Punk may have been born under Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, but it came of age during the Reagan years. Swept into office on a wave of hardcore conservatism, Ronald Reagan was the direct result of white Americans feeling scared about an influx of minorities and trying desperately to hold onto a way of life rooted in a steep economic advantage over everyone else.

This, of course, was the exact way of life punks at the time were so intent on rebelling against. Black Flag released “White Minority” in 1980, the same year Reagan successfully ran for office, and the song’s lyrics drip with sarcasm. “Gonna be a white minority!,” screams Latino vocalist Ron Reyes, stoking the fears of white suburbanites and revealing the underlying racism fueling Reagan’s campaign.

Dead Kennedys also led the charge against Reagan, helping to organize a series of concerts called “Rock Against Reagan” in cities such as San Francisco, Washington, DC, and Dallas. Joined by MDC and other political punk bands featured on singer Jello Biafra’s independent Alternative Tentacles label, Dead Kennedys drew headlines with public, provocative performances at Dolores Park and DC’s National Mall.

Perhaps the best way to calculate punk’s response to Reagan, however, is simply to look at the artwork that dominated punk singles and LPs at the time. The Gipper inspired an impressive amount of obscene and hilarious illustrations, several of which poked fun at his penchant for jellybeans and others which made no qualms about comparing him to hate groups such as the KKK and Hitler’s Nazis. Flyers everywhere advertised bands with names like Reagan Youth, Domino Theory, Agnostic Front, and Capitol Punishment, all expressing their distaste for the neoliberal policies that dominated the Reagan era.

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The George H. W. Bush Era (1989–1993)

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Fugazi at the White House // Photo via Dischord Records

The milquetoast George H. W. Bush failed to inspire the same level of rage as his predecessor, but punk maintained a healthy stance of opposition throughout his short presidency. No event embodies the punk spirit of this era more fully than the Gulf War protest concert staged in front of the White House on January, 12, 1991. Organized by the activist collective Positive Force and headlined by DIY post-punk legends Fugazi, the event was initially conceived as a response to America’s homelessness problem. It morphed into something more geopolitical in scope when Bush announced the beginning of Operation Desert Storm.

Thanks to the genre’s rise in mainstream culture, other punk bands were pulled into Desert Storm in ways they had never intended. The Clash’s “Rock the Casbah” — a song loosely inspired by Iran’s ban on Western music — was reportedly the first song Armed Forces Radio chose to broadcast during the operation, which probably isn’t what the band had envisioned. In any case, punk remained a vital force throughout the first years of the ‘90s, as evidenced by the rise of riot grrrl, an explicitly politicized feminist movement with origins in DC’s self-publishing culture.

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The Clinton Era (1993–2001)

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Album Cover: Fugazi – In on the Kill Taker (1993)

If you think a Democratic president might incite less ire among the punk community than a Republican, you’re both right and wrong. Bill Clinton’s election in 1993 was less of a reaction against conservatism than it was an indictment of Bush’s ineffectual first term, and the new president was about the furthest from revolutionary a politician could be. Punks gave Clinton some time to prove them wrong, but they responded with vigor once they realized he was more of the same. A case in point: Rage Against the Machine hosted a radio broadcast in Los Angeles on the night of Clinton’s second Presidential inauguration, inviting other musicians and political commentators to voice their displeasures over a rigged political system. Later, the band would hold a free concert at the 2000 Democratic National Convention to usher in a tumultuous end to the Clinton era.

Still, the Clinton years are defined more by general angst than by a direct movement opposed to the sitting President. While punk shifted to a more pop-friendly sound in the mid-’90s, popular bands such as Green Day, Blink-182, and The Offspring steered away from controversy by writing more or less apolitical songs. Bands such as Rage and Fugazi carried the mantle, with the former attempting to fly the American flag upside down on SNL in protest of Republican presidential nominee Steve Forbes and the latter releasing two of their most politicized records, 1993’s In on the Kill Taker and 1995’s Red Medicine, during Clinton’s first term as President.

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The George W. Bush Era (2001–2009)

George W. Bush gave punk rock the easiest, juiciest target since Reagan, and bands took the bait with a level of enthusiasm that hadn’t registered since the late ‘80s. Presiding over one of the most disastrous presidencies in US history in the aftermath of 9/11, Bush came to represent everything wrong with American politics, from the corporate greed that led to the invasion of Iraq to the Christian conservatism that led to a radically right-wing remake of the Supreme Court (and thus restricted rights for gays and women).

The biggest punk pushback against the Bush presidency came in the form of the Rock Against Bush and Punk Voter projects, both founded by Fat Mike of NOFX and Fat Wreck Chords. A direct descendant of the Rock Against Reagan campaign of the ‘80s, Rock Against Bush consisted of a series of concerts and compilation albums conceived in opposition to the Iraq War and the Bush presidency in general. The compilations featured entries from the likes of Alkaline Trio, Sum 41, Descendents, and other hugely popular punk bands that weren’t exactly known for taking a strong stance on anything beyond their current love life.

This is probably what made Rock Against Bush so impactful; whether Fat Mike knew it or not, he was mobilizing the punk community in a way that hadn’t been seen in over a decade. All of this in spite of the rising emo trend, which showered itself in eyeliner and male insecurity and threatened to push punk rock permanently into joke territory. Thankfully, Drive-Thru Records and the like didn’t succeed.

Fat Wreck Chords, on the other hand, had a goddamn field day with Bush. Aside from the comps, the label featured some of the most pointed Bush criticism of the era. Against Me!’s 2005 album, Searching for a Former Clarity, stands apart as the best of the label’s anti-Bush screeds (it even features a bizarro love song for Condoleezza Rice). Against Me! have obviously come to symbolize the struggle for gender equality, but before that, the band did everything they could to position themselves as a force in presidential politics. Hence their appearance in a PSA for Rock the Vote in the lead-up to the 2008 presidential election, which met with mixed reviews from the true believers but probably did end up getting some butts off the couch.

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The Obama Era (2009–Present)

Looking around America circa 2008, it would have been difficult to find any progressive voices — punk or otherwise — criticizing Barack Obama. The moderate liberal US Senator from Illinois rode into the office on a wave of goodwill, promising sweeping changes from the way things had been under Bush. Not everyone from the punk community bought into Obama immediately, though. In an open letter posted to the Alternative Tentacles website, Biafra voiced his hesitance:

You are the first president in my lifetime to have a bona fide grassroots movement behind you and ready to rock. I hope those crowds’ hope and urgency has penetrated deeply enough that you won’t let that bridge be washed away.

I remember another person who had the audacity to exploit and toss aside people’s hope, and his name is Bill Clinton. Democrats fail time and again when they shirk responsibility and settle for being dealmakers instead of leaders. As important as it is to find common ground and build consensus for change, our situation is so dire we cannot afford any more dealmakers. The people voted for a leader. Anything less risks breaking the hearts of an entire galvanized generation who may then decide it is not worth it to get involved and participate any more.

Other politically outspoken punk musicians took a softer stance on Obama, including Fat Mike, who hailed his second election in 2012 as a “slam dunk” and sent Punk Voter to an early grave. Punk music in general has lost a great deal of its anti-establishment mojo in the years since Obama came into office, partially because the critics have become less outspoken and partially because, well, punk may not be the prescription we need anymore.

Just look at the 2016 election and its most vocal progressive candidate, Bernie Sanders. Though Sanders bowed out of the race this week, his campaign was notable for inspiring a level of support among the music community that had never been seen before. The 74-year-old Vermont senator’s democratic socialist platform inspired events such as Brooklyn Is Berning and the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Feel the Bern concert in LA. Smaller punk benefits have been held in cities across the country, but prominent punk voices have largely been muted. The sexier and/or more vocal endorsements — Killer Mike, Lil B, Jenny Lewis — came from other genres (though punk notables, including Biafra and Mike Watt, did sign an endorsement on Sanders’ website).

bernthewhitehouse1 A Brief History of Punk Rock and Presidential Politics

Design by Mark Mendez and Rob Campbell

Sanders may no longer be an option, but the punk community needs to get its political act together in a hurry. Whatever Prophets of Rage are planning for the RNC next week may serve as a catalyst or invitation for punk voices to return to mainstream politics. But it’s just as likely to register as a blip, an aberration in an era when punk and alternative music don’t hold the same cultural sway they once did. For the sake of the genre and the country’s health, it’s high time that punk rock started fucking shit up again.

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