Punk as the Establishment

February 10, 2017 § Leave a comment

When Joe Corré, son of Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood, torched his Sex Pistols memorabilia in November, I was left very conflicted as an ageing punk and a public historian.  I felt equally conflicted when I learned that British Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May wears Vivienne Westwood designs.  Or, rather, I was horrified at that, so I pondered Corré’s argument the more.  And I wrote a post for the National Council on Public History‘s blog, History@Work.  It got published today.

Reflections on Feminism and Class

February 6, 2015 § 2 Comments

I watched The Punk Singer, the documentary about Kathleen Hanna, the frontwoman of the Riot Grrrl band, Bikini Kill, as well as Le Tigre and The Julie Ruin, the other night.  Hanna was, essentially, the founder of the Riot Grrrl movement back in 1992; she wrote the Riot Grrrl Manifesto.  I’ve always been a fan, and I remember going to Bikini Kill shows back in the day.  Hanna would insist the boys move to the back of the crowd and the girls come down to the front.  And we listened to her.  She was an intimidating presence on a stage.  The girls came down front so they could dance and mosh and not get beaten to a pulp by the boys.  Early 90s mosh pits were violent places, and they got worse as they got invaded by the jocks after Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and a few other bands went mainstream.  Bikini Kill never did, but their shows, as well as those of L7 and Babes in Toyland, still attracted these wider audiences, at least the gigs I went to.  Hanna and Bikini Kill were unabashedly feminist.  If you didn’t like, you could just fuck off.

Yesterday in class, in a very gender-segregated room (women on the left, men on the right), we had an interesting discussion.  We were discussing Delores Hayden’s The Power of Place, about attempts to forge a public history on the landscape of Los Angeles that gives credence to the stories of women and minorities.  So.  I asked my students if women were a minority.  To a person, they all knew that women are not a minority, at least not in demographic terms.  Women are the majority; right now in the United States and Canada, around 51% of the population.  But.  Women are a minority in terms how they are treated in our culture, how they are second-class citizens, essentially.  The women in my class all knew this, they were all adamant about it.  The men stayed silent, though they nodded approvingly at what the women were saying.

Despite the fact that close to nothing has changed in the mainstream of our culture, that we still live in a rape culture that is designed to keep women de-centred and unbalanced, I was so happy that my students knew what was what in our world, and I was so happy that the men knew to keep their mouth shut.

In The Punk Singer, Lynn Breedlove, a queer feminist writer, singer, and punk, noted that feminism is about the struggle of the sub-altern, about the struggle of the oppressed.  And feminism should fight for the oppressed, no matter the fight, be it race, sexuality, or class.  And I had this lightning bolt moment.  This is why I have always been pro-feminist.  I had a prof in undergrad who argued that men cannot be feminists; feminism is a movement for and by women.  Men could be allies, in fact, they were welcomed, but it was a women’s movement.  Hanna reflects this, she has always worked to create a space and a voice for women, and men were welcome, but in a supporting role.  I like that.

I was raised by women, and my mother instilled this pro-feminism in me at a young age (thanks, Ma!).  But, feminism (along with punk) helped give me the tools I need to emancipate myself from the oppression of class.  From these two movements, I gained a language of emancipation.  To recover from being told by my high school guidance counsellor that “People like you don’t go to university,” because I was working-class and poor.  Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb, in a 1993 book, talk about the ‘hidden injuries of class.”  Hidden, yes, but still very real.

The Suburbanisation of Punk and Hip Hop

April 23, 2014 § Leave a comment

Questlove, the drummer and musical director of the hip hop band, The Roots (and frankly, if you don’t know just who in the hell The Roots are by now, I’m not sure there’s any hope for you), is writing a six-part series of essays on hip hop, its past, present, and future at Vulture.  Not surprisingly, Questlove makes an eloquent argument in part one about the ubiquity of hip hop culture and the dangers that poses to Black America in the sense that if the powers that be wish to quash it, the ubiquity of it is all-encompassing and a quashing would be similarly so.  But he also points out the dangers of the all-encompassing nature of hip hop culture.

I like Questlove’s point about the ubiquity of hip hop culture, which means that it’s no longer visible, it’s just everywhere.  He also notes that it’s really the only music form that is seen to have this massive cultural phenomenon attached to it: food, fashion, etc.  He says that this applies to pretty much anything black people in America do (he also wonders what the hell “hip hop architecture” is, as do I).  But I think this goes beyond black America, such is the power of hip hop and the culture that follows it.

There is a relatively long tradition of white rappers, from 3rd Bass and the Beastie Boys up to Eminem and others, and the vast majority of white rappers have deeply respected the culture.  More than that, as a white kid growing up in the suburbs in the late 80s, I was totally into hip hop, as were all my friends.  This could get stupid, as when guys I knew pretended that life in Port Moody was akin to Compton, but, still.  My point is that hip hop music, fashion, and culture has permeated the wider culture of North America entirely (something I don’t think Questlove would disagree with, but it’s irrelevant to his argument).

The only other form of music that has an ethos and culture that follows it, really, is punk.  Punk and hip hop are spiritual brother movements, both arise from dispossessed working class cultures.  Both originally emerged in anger (think of the spitting anger of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five in “The Message” or the Sex Pistols in “Anarchy in the UK”) and were heavily political and/or documented life on the downside.  But, both also went viral, both exploded out of their original confines and went suburban and affluent.

Punk and hip hop are the two musical forms that informed me as a young man, they continue to do so as I hit middle age.  But punk and hip hop are both deeply compromised by sinking into the affluent culture of middle class suburbia.  The anger is blunted, the social message is reduced, and it becomes about “bitches and bling,” whether in hip hop (pretty much any song by Jay-Z) or punk (pretty much any song by The Offspring, Avril Lavigne, Blink-182, or any pop-punk band you hear on the radio).  And then these counter-culture voices become the culture, and, as Questlove notes, they become invisible in their ubiquity.  But more than that, the ethos they bring is divorced from their origins.

Questlove talks about the social contract we all subscribe to. He references three quotes that guide his series (and, I would guess, his life in general).  The first comes from 16th century English religious reformer, John Bradford, who upon seeing another prisoner led to the gallows, commented, “There but for the graces of God goes John Bradford.”  The second comes from Albert Einstein, “who disparagingly referred to quantum entanglement as ‘spooky action at a distance.'”  Finally, Ice Cube, the main lyricist of N.W.A. (yes, there was once a time, kids, when Cube wasn’t a cartoon character), who, in the 1988 track “Gangsta Gangsta,” delivered this gem, “Life ain’t nothing but bitches and money.”  Questlove also notes that Cube is talking about a world in which the social contract is frayed, “where everyone aspires to improve themselves and only themselves, thoughts of others be damned. What kind of world does that create?”

And herein lies the rub for me, at least insofar as the wider culture of hip hop and punk and their suburbanisation.  If you take the politics and intelligence out of punk and hip hop, you’re left with the anger, and a dangerous form of nihilism.  We’re left with Eminem fantasising about killing his wife and his mother.  Charming stuff, really.

This is not to say there is no place for bangers in hip hop culture, nor is to say there’s no place for the Buzzcocks (the progenitors of pop-punk in the late 1970s), it just means that this is a many-edged sword.

An Alternative America

January 30, 2014 § 4 Comments

A couple of days ago, an interesting article appeared in the Des Moines Register.  I knew of it because my social media friend, and a geographer at Mansfield University in Pennsylvania, Andy Shears, had a map published with the article.  Andy’s map is an alternative United States, based on historically proposed states, none of which came into existence.  He created the map 2 1/2 years ago for his own blog.  The Register also mis-identifies Andy’s map as one of what the country would look like if all the separatist movements in history had actually worked.  But, either way, it’s actually a really interesting map, put together in what I image was after agonising research, Andy came up with an alternative United States based on a country of 124 separate states, all based on proposals that never came to be.  In the case of Massachusetts, there would actually be two states: Massachusetts and Boston.  Of course, anyone who lives outside the Hub, especially in Western Mass, would say there already ARE two Massachusetts.  Cascadia, in this version, is a state that straddles the mountains of eastern Washington and Oregon.  And then there’s a wonderful little state called Forgottonia carved into what is today the border between Illinois and Missouri, just north of the hypothetical state of St. Louis.

The America That Never Was, map courtesy of AndrewShears.com

The America That Never Was, map courtesy of AndrewShears.com

But I digress.  The column in the Register was written by Steffan Schmidt, a political scientist at Iowa State.  In it, Schmidt ruminates on an apparent proposal in California to split the state into six smaller states, based on a proposal from Silicon Valley.  Schmidt notes that this would give the general California region 12 senators compared to the 2 it has now, which means that it would have much greater power in Washington.  Schmidt, though, seems to assume that the 6 Californias would all elect Democratic senators, which is incredibly unlikely.

Schmidt’s larger point is about the apparent immutability of the United States, that Americans consider the national boundaries to be sacrosanct.  He ties that back to the Civil War, just another legacy of that war in American life.  But then he goes on to note that countries fracture into newer ones continually, pointing to various examples from Slovakia to Scotland to South Sudan.  Interestingly, he does not mention Québec and Canada.  But that’s an entirely different kettle of fish (though, interestingly, both Canadians and Quebecers consider their national borders to be sacrosanct).  But it is a point well worth considering, at least to a degree.

The difference between, say, Scotland and the United States is simple.  Scotland was annexed by England to create Britain in 1707.  The United States is comprised of states that all chose to be part of the Union.  By that I mean the European settlers of the territory that is now the United States of America all petitioned to Congress to be admitted to the Union.  And even if the Confederate States were defeated and then had to be re-admitted to the Union, they also did so willingly (or at least as willingly as they could).  In contrast, Scotland was annexed.  Slovakia was annexed.  We all know how Yugoslavia was formed and what happened when that came apart.

So there is a huge difference between the American model and those Schmidt offers in comparison.  Similarly, Canada was formed in a manner very similar to the United States.  But Schmidt is correct to note that it is remarkable how resilient the American state has been since 1776.  I was recently thinking about this when I saw news that the population shift in the United States, based on recent census data, will make the South and the West stronger politically, at least in the House.  This led me to think about my current research, of course (The far right of American politics and history), and I began to wonder if the relative decline of New England and the Northwest in favour of greater power in the South and Southwest would lead to separatist movements throughout the nation.  Not that I think they’d ever be successful, any more than I think Québec will ever separate.  But it’s fun to have such idle thoughts.

And then I got one of the great classics of punk rock in my head, “Alternative Ulster,” by Belfast punks Stiff Little Fingers.  The song dates from 1978, the height of the Troubles, and the Stiffies, two Catholics and two Protestants, simply wanted a different future for themselves.

“We Jam Econo” D Boon and the Minutemen

February 8, 2013 § 1 Comment

While laid up sick this week, I finally got to see “We Jam Econo: The Story of the Minutemen,” about the iconic punk band, the Minutemen.  The Minutemen came to an untimely end on 22 December 1985 when frontman and guitarist, D Boon, was killed in a car accident just outside Tucson, Arizona, as he and his girlfriend made their way to visit her family for Christmas. The other two members of the Minutemen, bassist Mike Watt and drummer George Hurley, were devastated, of course. To this day, everything Watt produces is dedicated to D boon’s memory.

d-Boon-Dennes-Dale-Boon-April-1-1958-December-22-1985-celebrities-who-died-young-30595186-700-556I first got into the Minutemen a few years later, around 1990 or  so when I got my hands on fIREHOSE’s 1989 album, fROMOHIO.  This was the band that Watt and Hurley formed in the aftermath of D. Boon’s death with Ed Crawford.  I was drawn to the mixture of Crawford’s jazzy guitar, combined with Watt’s amazing bass sounds.  But, what attracted me the most was Hurley’s drumming.  I honestly don’t think there’s another drummer I’ve ever heard that touched Hurley, except for maybe Jimmy Chamberlin in the Smashing Pumpkins.  But as I obsessed about fIREHOSE, I was directed towards the Minutemen by one of the guys who worked at the old Track Records on Seymour Street in downtown Vancouver.

The Minutemen blew my mind.  D. Boon’s was already legendary.  Vancouver had been central to the development of North American punk in the late 70s, and the city’s biggest band, DOA, had shared several bills with the Minutemen down in California.  Track Records even had a Minutemen poster on the wall.  I quickly became obsessed with the Minutemen’s 1984 double album, Double Nickels on the Dime.  I loved Watt’s explanation of how this title came about; it was a response to Sammy Hagar’s complaint that he couldn’t drive 55.  Apparently ‘double nickels” means 55mph, the speed limit in those days.

Every time I listen to the Minutemen these days, I just get incredibly sad.  D Boon has been dead for longer than he was alive by this point, he was 27 when he died 28 years ago.  Watt has aged, he still makes incredible music.  But, simply put, and as trite as it sounds, D Boon never got a chance to age.  His music always had a sneer in it, but what I loved most was always his political bent.  He was a good working class boy (as were Hurley and Watt), and the politics of the working classes pervade his music.  I was always drawn to this as a working class kid myself.  In fact, this is what drew me to punk in the first place, it was a working-class movement.  D Boon sang about how the working classes got screwed, his music reflected his own values of hard work, something instilled in him by his mother, who had died young herself, in 1978.  More than that, D Boon was articulate, he didn’t look like a dumb punk trying to find big words when he spoke, he sounded like a smart working class dude.  I liked that most about him.  Too many other working class punks sounded like stupid mooks when they spoke (I’m looking at you, Hank Rollins).

But the Minutemen weren’t just anger.  Their music was smart, a mixture of punk, funk and jazz, anchored by the incredible skill of Hurley.  This jazz and funk influence (especially through Watt’s bass) added a level of fun and bounce to the music that other punks lacked.  And Watt and D Boon were also just as influenced by The Who and Credence as anything else.  These influences made them probably the most musically and technically proficient punk band of the era.  They also mellowed as they got older, as both D Boon and Watt grew into their talent.  This is what makes Double Nickel so sad for me (to say nothing of Three Way Tie (For Last), their last album, which came out a week or two before D Boon died).  The Minutemen were evolving away from punk, they still sounded so unlike anything else out there.  They weren’t becoming a basic rock band, they were far too smart for that.

Watt carries this spirit on in everything he does.  His bass guitar was instrumental to the Minutemen’s sound.  This is precisely what makes it all so sad, I always imagine what Watt would sound like if he and D Boon and George Hurley were still making music together. The Rolling Stone review of Three Way Tie (For Last) prophecies that “You can bet that in ten years there’ll be groups who sound like the Minutemen — maybe they’ll even cover their songs.”  In 1996, no one sounded like the Minutemen.  In 2006, no one sounded like the Minutemen.  And in 2016, no one will sound like the Minutemen.  They were a unique, one of a kind band.

This last clip comes from an interview the Minutemen did in the early fall 1985, just a few months before D Boon checked out.

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