Punk Versus Reagan

A new book on American punk paints the movement as the last gasp of left-wing cultural resistance in the 1980s.

The punk band, Dead Kennedys. (Wikimedia Commons)

In music, ubiquity breeds misunderstanding. The minute any genre breaks into the mainstream, its gestures and aesthetics become diluted, mass-marketed. The meaning that gave them urgency is boiled away. An insurgent scene, full of rebellion and creativity, is suddenly not so rebellious anymore, and far less creative.

This is what happens when art is commodified. Questions raised by this process are enough to stymie anyone preoccupied with the role of artistic expression. Does “turning rebellion into money,” as Joe Strummer once put it, necessarily neutralize authentic rebellion? Can a scene “go mainstream” without being sanitized — transforming the mainstream rather than the other way around?

These questions apply to virtually any artistic community over the last century, but they seem particularly contentious when punk is brought up. Nobody can deny the transformative impact punk rock has had on culture, evident in everything from couture fashion to the fact that Green Day continues to sell millions of records, with a hit Broadway show to their name, too.

On the other hand, no other milieu contains so many stubbornly crusading for purity, against the boogeyman of “the sellout.” Even the basic definition of “selling out” can spark intractable debates, further confusing the general perception of what punk’s values are and why they even matter. To most Americans, punk is about style over substance. Green hair, torn clothes, fast guitars.

This is truly tragic. Not only did underground punk  — particularly of the late 1970s and early ’80s – have a huge impact on that wide pantheon of “indie rock,” but according to writer Kevin Mattson, it was for a short time a dynamic counterculture, testing the boundaries of a quickly conservatizing country.

In We’re Not Here to Entertain, Mattson paints a picture of 1980s punk as musically diverse, experimental, intellectually curious, and motivated by a growing need for some sort of radical change. There are the usual suspects: Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, Bad Brains, Minor Threat. There are also wildly inventive songwriters; radicals and avant-gardists; intellectuals, sci-fi writers, poets, filmmakers like Jim Jarmusch and Alex Cox; graphic artists like Raymond Pettibon and Gary Panter, and an endless list of scenes and zines.

The zines, many of them little more than xeroxed pamphlets, play an essential role in Mattson’s narrative. Virtually every metropolitan area had its underground scene in the early 1980s. Within each you would find local kids stapling photocopied pages together, containing everything from reviews of local shows to treatises on art and politics. Taken in toto, they are Mattson’s archive of American punk, its samizdat and communiqués, the basic unit of who and what it rejected and desired. Who the scene rejected is, to a degree, obvious. The book’s subtitle is “Punk Rock, Ronald Reagan, and the Real Culture War of 1980s America.”

How Reagan’s Rise Fueled Punk’s Politics

President Ronald Reagan addresses the nation from the Oval Office on tax legislation in July 1981. (White House Photo Office / Wikimedia Commons)

Reagan’s wrinkled, smiling visage peers out from countless album covers and flyers from the era, often with blood pouring from his mouth or mushroom clouds in the background. He was indeed a loathsome figure. But it wasn’t just Reagan who punks hated. Through a countercultural lens, he becomes the avatar for everything that made the 1980s a dismal era, worthy of rage and opposition wherever possible. To call the conflict between Reagan and punk rock the “real culture war” isn’t to discount the very concrete wars he waged on Central America, on poor people, leftists, trade unionists, AIDS patients, or people of color. Rather, it is to say that the way Reagan went about waging these political and material attacks had a huge impact on what it meant to resist culturally, in the realms of art, aesthetics, and creativity.

No prior president had so effectively wielded the auratic power of mass media like Ronald Reagan. Sure, his acting was third-rate, but decades of film experience gave him an understanding of how fanfare and spectacle can blur the lines between commerce, politics, morality, and repression.

Mattson was a young punk himself during the 1980s. He describes the effect that this collapse of the political and cultural had on the psyches and outlooks of young people attracted to the scene:

For a young man in the 1980s, including myself, Reagan seemed scary, more a source of fear, his bully pulpit channeling war-thumping movies like Red Dawn and Rambo and the chants of “USA! USA!” heard during the summer Olympics of 1984.

Though he never mentioned the scene by name during his presidency, the ideologies and political projects that came to embody his philosophy hated punk. It is clear in We’re Not Here to Entertain that Reagan’s agenda shared an affinity with figures like Serena Dank, who painted punk as a scene of violence and moral degeneracy. There’s also the matter of state repression: as in the case of police departments that raided punk shows and shut down venues, most consistently and notoriously in Los Angeles. In at least one case, the FBI threatened the publishers of a zine with criminal charges if they did not shut down.

These attitudes carried into the culture industry itself during the 1980s. The arguments of Dank’s anti-punk crusade are reflected in ridiculous films like Class of 1984. That film in turn complements Red Dawn’s longing for a patriotic youth loyally defending God, country, and private property. Art as commodity informed the needs of Cold War nationalism, and vice versa.

This logic extended into the music business. As Mattson recounts, record labels experienced their own “crisis of overproduction” in the late 1970s.

Only the advent of MTV, which dramatically changed the way we conceived of music, turned this crisis around. The possibilities of cross-branding, of deepened commodification, were endless. Reagan himself participated, most notably when he invited Michael Jackson to the White House, just as Pepsi was releasing its commercials featuring the iconic pop star.

This analysis is significant. Virtually every book on punk and hard core takes the political content of the genres’ anti-corporate stance as a given, making the mistake of assuming what needs to be explained. In its deft juxtaposition of the artistic and the political, of the mainstream and the underground, Mattson is able to illustrate just what it was that made punk’s hatred of corporate America and its DIY ethos so alluring. More than just a means of escape, punk was a scene in which youth were able to discover and shape their own identities in a world that viewed them as disposable.

The Countercultural Mission of Punk Rock

Young punks were regular fixtures in some of the era’s most significant social movements, albeit often confined to the margins within them. Many organized against Reagan’s interventions in Central America via the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador. Others participated in mass demonstrations for nuclear disarmament. Still, others were involved in housing and squatters’ rights.

It wasn’t uncommon to see these and other struggles featured on flyers for fundraiser shows or supported in the pages of zines. It was also common to see the tactics of some of these movements (in particular the anti-nuke movement) derided as too passive, too hemmed in by liberal respectability, or sometimes just too boring. Various initiatives emerged out of the punk scene pushing for more direct action or more youth involvement through projects like Rock Against Reagan (morphing out of Rock Against Racism), War Chest Tours, or Better Youth Organization.

For all its dislike of hippies, punk was a receptacle for radical politics and utopian experiments the same way the former counterculture had been in the 1960s. Yes, the co-optation of peace and love had been cemented by the time of Reagan. Calls to “mellow out” in the face of Armageddon were rightly skewered throughout punk. But as Mattson writes, plenty of punk’s elders had been involved in the militant activism of the 1960s, too. Tim Yohannan (aka Tim Yo), for example, participated in the infamous struggles around People’s Park in Berkeley. He would go on to cofound both the Gilman Street venue in Oakland and Maximum Rocknroll, one of American punk’s most important publications.

Punk, therefore, 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 politicize aesthetics.

To Mattson and others, punk already pointed in this direction. Dispensing with the dichotomy between rock star performer and passive audience was a matter of preserving a democratic culture. The barter of zines and cassettes wasn’t just because kids were broke. It mirrored the ethics of potlatch and circumvented the record industry. Putting on a show in a squat or abandoned warehouse was often a conscious attempt at reimagining urban space for something other than commerce. As for the music itself, its confrontational sound wasn’t just about provocation, but about pushing people out of passivity and into changing history.

Two artists that Mattson repeatedly returns to in order make his case are among punk’s most inventive: the Minutemen and Hüsker Dü. The Minutemen were that rare group who integrated radical politics into not just their lyrics but the music itself and managed to actually pull it off. Their short, frenetic, jazz-and-blues-influenced missives could double as theses on working-class alienation, socialist politics, and existential anxiety. They invited friends and other musicians to author their lyrics. Their entire philosophy of recording and performance (“We jam econo”) revolved around knocking the rock star off their pedestal.

Their double album Double Nickels on the Dime is rightly considered a masterpiece. Its lyrics are layered with multiple meanings and wordplays. Even if the album expressed skepticism about social change, the Minutemen respected the intelligence of their audience enough to invite criticism. This is music as negative critique.

In the case of Hüsker Dü, the Minneapolis-based group engaged in a nuanced and urgent examination of youthful isolation and hopelessness. Their punker-than-punk challenge to scene orthodoxy was to release their own double album which was also a concept album: Zen Arcade. Released the same month as Double Nickels, and on the same record label (SST, run by Black Flag’s Greg Ginn), this is the story of a kid from a broken home, searching desperately for meaning as everything in his life tells him he’s already been condemned to misery. What the band throws overboard politically they make up for in introspection. “Though less hopeful about political change,” writes Mattson, “the band remained committed to principles of exchange, communication, empathy, and open conversation.”

The Last Days of Punk Resistance

Why recount all this? Why revive and reexamine this history? Because it is forgotten in the first place. Just as surrealism can be used to sell deodorant, punk can be the soundtrack of cellphone sales, and we got here somehow.

By 1986, Black Flag had broken up after years of their experiments with metal and free jazz had alienated much of their fan base. In ’85 it was the Minutemen who met their demise after singer and guitarist D. Boon unexpectedly died in a car accident. Hüsker Dü soldiered on until 1988. They released more albums, including the masterful Candy Apple Grey, but the fact that they did so on major labels is in Mattson’s view further proof that punk as a social movement had hit the skids. The music industry rebounded by the middle of the decade — its representatives had become savvier, its marketing sneakier and more insidious. A great many punk bands felt pressure to appear on MTV, sign to major labels, twist their sound in distinctly “non-punk” directions.

Punk was always struggling to overcome its isolation. The hippies emerged from a time when movements were on the ascendancy. The movements of the 1980s, however — against nukes, against racism, against American intervention abroad — were increasingly embattled.

After Reagan’s second victory in 1984, it became more common to see shows invaded by Nazi punks and skinheads. A new generation of hard-core bands adopted outwardly macho, misogynistic postures, often with a dose of lunkheaded patriotism mixed in. The Reaganite project’s cultural conservatism had reached the barriers of punk, and the scene wasn’t able to stave it off. Again, the significance of Mattson’s argument is in painting the cultural as always political, and vice versa.

Jello Biafra in court, 1987. (Heather Harris)

It’s somewhat baffling then that there is no mention of the Dead Kennedys’ fate. In late 1985, San Francisco police raided front man Jello Biafra’s home and the office of their record label, Alternative Tentacles (also run by Biafra). They took Biafra’s private mail, a few copies of the Dead Kennedys’ then recent Frankenchrist album, and several posters of artist HR Giger’s Penis Landscape painting, which had been included in the album. This was in the context of an increasing focus in Washington on the content of music. Tipper Gore and Susan Baker had founded the Parents Music Resource Center earlier in the year, and in August the Senate had held its infamous hearings on “offensive content in music.”

Biafra and label general manager Michael Bonanno were charged with distributing harmful material to minors. Their three-week trial in August of 1987 ended in a hung jury in favor of acquittal. It was a victory, but a Pyrrhic one. Alternative Tentacles was nearly bankrupted, and the overall burden contributed to the breakup of the Dead Kennedys the previous year. This was the first time in American history that an artist had been prosecuted over the content of an album. It also lends credence to Mattson’s argument, that the process of punk’s defanging was one where direct repression and censorship comingled with the general persistence of music as commodity.

There is another matter unaddressed in the book, far trickier to untangle. Mattson paints some other genres as thoroughly more corporate than punk was in these years, in particular synthpop, heavy metal, and punk’s old nemesis, disco. That each genre had notably more backing from the music industry than punk did during these years is uncontroversial. Executives and A&R departments found them far easier to market. But this did not fully neutralize the possibility more mainstream genres could provide a language of opposition, even radical subjectivity.

Disco in the late 1970s was one of the few artistic spaces that featured women, people of color, and the LGBT community taking leading artistic roles. Synthpop, too (at least its more serious iterations), provided the space for critique and alterity, albeit far more mediated than in punk. Devo, mentioned by some in the book as pinnacle MTV sellouts, is a band whose entire aesthetic is built around parody of American consumerism. With this in mind, We’re Not Here to Entertain is perhaps best considered in conjunction with other books that attempt to chart the meaning of punk’s trajectory.

To be clear, Mattson’s book deserves its place among these books: Simon Reynolds’s Rip It Up and Start Again, Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life, Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces. Like these other books, We’re Not Here to Entertain is a joy to read, erudite and stimulating, capturing the excitement of creating art and music against the grain. The book’s sticking points merely highlight the need to better understand the conflict between culture and counterculture. It leaves unanswered the question of how an insurgent art movement might overtake the mainstream. Perhaps that’s because, ultimately, the contradictions of artistic expression under capitalism cannot be solved by art.

Halfway through We’re Not Here to Entertain, Mattson rehashes a 1983 debate between cartoonist John Crawford and Bill “Virus X” Richman. In the pages of his own zine All the Drugs You Can Eat, Crawford argued that the left-wing arguments of Maximum Rocknroll, the attempts to deepen punk’s politics, did little to counter the Reagan agenda. A veteran of the 1960s, he blamed the hippies and yippies and other cultural radicals for the backlash that elected Richard Nixon.

“In the past 20 years radical politics in America have been reduced to little more than a form of entertainment,” Crawford argued. If punks wanted to affect real change, they should “go out and join a labor union and organize workers like real radicals.”

Richman, the drummer of Articles of Faith (and member of the Revolutionary Communist Party), called out Crawford’s arguments as wooden and narrow in his own piece for Bullshit Detector. Not only had Crawford ignored the civil rights and Black liberation movements, Richman argued, but he had dismissed the role of art and anger in exposing people to new worldviews. “You can’t have it both ways,” he wrote. “You can’t really oppose the fucked up way the world is and not anger Joe Average, cause he thinks he got a stake in it.”

There may be more than a bit of Maoist grandstanding in Richman’s arguments, but looking back at them, he’s got a point. But then again, so does Crawford. Almost forty years later, it’s clear that cultural radicalism with no political strategy is doomed to turn inward and atrophy, withering into a subculture, prone to all manner of infighting and elitism. By that same token, a political strategy that dismisses the importance of culture and aesthetics merely abandons them to the enemy. We only need to look at how successfully corporate America employs aesthetics to make its ruthless exploitation attractive, or how the alt-right uses them to mobilize anger and disaffection, to see how this bears out.

What might have become of punk, or any other number of other brilliant cultural movements, if the politics of resistance were up to the same task? We might envision spaces of both political and cultural dissent feeding off each other. The vibrant creative and intellectual rebellion of art and music begins to spill into work and everyday life. Likewise, the experience of political resistance opens new horizons for human creativity.

Maybe then the ultimate lesson of American punk is that there is no refuge in American capitalism. Culture is not politics, but neither is politics culture. Both must be transformed.