Punk was a revolution, no, wait, punk was a fashion trend. Punk is a music genre, no, wait, punk is a lifestyle. Punk is about anarchy, no, wait, punk is about nihilism. Punk is about NO, except when it’s about YES. Punk was a working class uprising made by middle class art students for the casual entertainment of the upper classes. And vice versa! Conservatism is the new punk! You can’t be conservative and punk! Punk contains multitudes. And that comes off as glibly when punk says it as when spoken by anyone looking to dip their cliche chocolate into their self-justifying peanut butter. And, of course, punk is, above all else, about itself. But even in that, punk comes a distant second to it’s burly niece, Hardcore. Punk; what a joke. What a loser. What an utter hypocritical chump. And just wait till you hear what’s bad about it!
Here at Abundant Living headquarters we take punk too seriously, as shown through our contempt. To the point where, when I post about punk, and get all these earnest replies, I practically chew my own arm off. How can anyone who claims to love punk discuss it with a straight face? Have they even met punk? Anyway, this essay started with the joke of “Punk will be good under Biden.” Oh how we all laughed. But it turns out that was the only joke. Or at least the only joke that I haven’t already used to the point of hideous and blatant self-plagiarism. Or maybe the punk joke well has run dry for us all. We all did spend a lot of juice on that time Chris Brown wore the Corrosion of Conformity jacket. Regardless *extreme Ian McKaye singing “Merchandise” voice* it is what it is. So, with Beki Bondage on one shoulder, and Jes Skolnik on the other, and with both spitting in my hair and calling me a poseur, I have written an essay, in deadly earnest, on how Punk Will Be Good Under Joe Biden. I am so fucking embarrassed.
(btw… I included recent punk albums I like to make all this go down easier. They are not connected to the text and are, as far as I know, blameless.)
The line between subculture and bourgeois parlor game has always been a thin one. Even in the face of utter despair, the siren call of discourse glimmers through the darkness. Like hope, if you want to cut a brother some slack. So, for upwards of tens of dollars and likes on social media, we talk about punk like it could ever matter. In an online tradition I call “The Mitski Effect” (for the periodic dissing of that indie artist by random twitter accounts with limited audience, immediately followed by mass outrage at said dissing by hundreds of accounts with tens of thousands of followers), in 2016, “Will punk be good under Trump?”* was a question asked by a few and derided by literally everyone else on the planet. For the genuinely scared, the question reeked of skewed priority, something akin to white liberals fretting over potentially tense Thanksgiving meals while DREAMers and muslims were facing deportation or worse. For us snobs, it showed a woeful ignorance of whatever we might still consider a “counterculture.” It was like when boomers (of any generation) claim that there is no more “protest music,” confusing their laziness and lack of curiosity for empirical reality.
It didn’t help the cause of “Will punk be good under Trump?” any that one of the only people with any following who posed the question was Amanda Palmer, a cosplayer fetish object who, by dint of being artistically excruciating, Spinal Tap-ically lacking in self-awareness, and (reportedly) not being very nice, inspires a truly special kind of loathing from men, women, and other alike. With the possibility of a hard right, nationalist Trump administration now a reality, the question itself was the height of gauche privilege; akin to telling everyone in the oppression olympics to close their eyes and think of UK82. The very asking was seen as a sign of some deficiency in character, a marking of the asker as one of those Facebook rubes we all claim to have known only briefly, sophomore year, in towns we never returned to once we got a taste of bell hooks and OK Computer. So, if the question held, it did so in the nether regions of Fat Wreck Chords message boards and stray status updates posted by unfavorite uncles. Everyone else inclined to overthinking the music genre of their youth stared at CNN carnage, and/or retreated to the solace of Bandcamp binge shopping, and/or took to the streets and/or drink. Making biscuits of their His Hero Is Gone backpatch until sleep came and another mental line of another day could be scratched on the walls, counting the minutes till November 2020.
Well, four years has finally passed, and with it countless punk and punk adjacent releases. So, regardless of the inanity of the question, we have the answer. Just how good was punk under the presidency of Donald Trump? As the 9th Century Chinese zen master Kyogen said: “It's like a man up in a tree, hanging from a branch with his mouth; his hands can’t grasp a bough, his feet won’t reach one. Under the tree there is another man, who asks him the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming from the west. If he doesn’t answer, he evades his duty. If he answers, he will lose his life. What should he do?” Another acceptable answer is, “What is your original face before your parents were born?” Basically, and please forgive my puckish nature, Ask a Monk. Glad we settled it though. You are very welcome, Amanda Palmer (and everyone).
This answer is dependent on Joe Biden winning the upcoming presidential election. Pre-Covid, I’d not have put money on it. But even the most xenophobic and racist country hates mass infection, especially when all the buffets are shuttered. Of course, If all the people are doing what they did last time; telling pollsters they’re not voting Trump because they don’t want a stranger on the phone to know they’re racist (UPDATE: whelp), then it’s back up that tree for all of us, for another four years, to hope and pray that either we or our iPod dies before Idles releases another record. For the purposes of this discussion though, and hopefully without jinxing things, we presuppose, with an ambivalent prayer in our hearts and a Bernie and/or Warren t-shirt in our closet, that Biden will be the next president.
Happily, for our needs (or whatever), the question of whether “punk will be good” under a Biden administration is less fraught than the same question applied to Donald Trump. In the shadow of a potential Biden presidency, “who gives a shit,” to borrow a phrase from the kids, just hits different. The question of “will punk be good under Biden” is also significantly more boring. It’s through this being bored that we get our answer. Punk will absolutely be good under Joe Biden. As an anonymous partier outside of Pianos said in March when asked if she was concerned about the Coronavirus: “one hundo… one hundo.”
To be clear, when we discuss whether “punk will be good,” we’re talking about the (admittedly pretty broad) notion of punk music, almost exclusively. Well, music plus attitude. Well, I’m not actually all that clear on what people were exactly talking about when the whole topic came up, but I feel confident that nobody was suggesting that the election of Donald Trump would usher in a new golden age of spikey jackets and being a jerk about the royal family. So the discussion of Good Punk Under Biden has to be confined to what the casual punk fan (meaning someone who enjoys the works of musical acts ranging from X-Ray Spex to The Offspring) would consider “punk.” Meaning; fast(ish), loud(ish), reasonably snotty and/or aggrieved, preferably with singing that a casual punk disliker would consider “not so good.” I realize that there was a fair amount of hedging in the initial conversation, where men my age, deeply invested in being the most reasonable guy in the room, would call for a “new punk” with a “new” sound. But none of these half assed contrarians ever expanded on just what this new punk would sound like, presumably just leaving it to the kids to invent an entirely new language (that hopefully wouldn’t sound like rap) that they would then call “punk.” Calling non-punk things “punk,” as though the term was interchangeable with “stuff I like,” has been a national crisis for years. We don’t need to add to it. If there is to be a punk that is good under Biden, it should be at least be in the same family as the kind that inspires irritating dancing, dying young, and wearing boots on a hot day.
(On the same topic, the initial question was often phrased as “will punk be good again?” That “again” opens up a vortex of discourse beyond even my capacity for irritation. To ponder what the individual asker might consider “good punk” is to stare into the very maw of madness. No fucking thanks. The topic is inherently terrible enough as it is.)
Without retreading a narrative that most readers will, at this point, have tattooed to the inside of their bottom lip, it’s a common misremembering of history that punk came out of rejection of conservative regimes. This misremembering is understandable. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher loom large in our collective imagination of disgust. Though they came into office in 1980 and 1979 respectively, their cartoon villain personalities/policies, and seemingly interminable reigns, inspired much of the music and iconography we, even us pedants, associate with punk rock music. Despite punk’s mid-’70s beginnings, there aren’t a lot of fast & loud songs about Jimmy Carter or (pre-Thatcher Labour PM) James Callaghan. While punk was certainly a real pip under Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, The Ramones, X-Ray Spex, and (even, despite what mad-at-MAGA-John Lyden revisionists may claim) Sex Pistols managed to write a few solid bangers under the (ostensibly) more liberal oppression-lite of Democrat and Labour governments. Nice as it is to think of punk rock as some sort of cataclysmic event, a seismic reaction to square tyranny, that’s not how history or music works. Even if the fashion/youthquake end of punk upended all social mores (and that’s debatable), the music itself rested comfortably within a variety of traditions. Without discounting either the austerity measures that gave young people a sense of debilitatingly finite possibility or the overarching cultural hangover that the ‘60s inflicted, punk was, be it the bubblegum of Ramones or hard rock of Sex Pistols, actually a pretty sensible continuation of the music that came before. While as invested in the notion of “getting free” as any counter culture tradition, punk was slavish in its devotion to an imagined past where rock and roll music was not “fake.” One could argue that it was post-imperial-enterprise stagnation and ennui, more than dogma, that was useful in inventing a music that was so conservative. The ruling parties of the 1970’s were not leftist, but their sole selling points were that they were “slightly better than the alternative.” If that decade is instructive in any way, it’s in showing that punk does not require a repressive regime. It simply requires disappointment; a promise of better days, betrayed.
Now, without a crystal ball, it’s impossible to say whether a Biden America will recreate the perfect combination of crushing cultural vapidity and state violence status-quo-mongering, draped in mewling therapeutic language, of the kind that initially helped spawn legions of ripped-shirt degenerates to rediscover situationism and the Big Bopper in the 1970s. But it’s safe to say that a Biden administration will certainly do its best. Clintonista Resistance types and Lincoln Project imperialists alike have touted the promise of a Return To Boredom as a Biden selling point. There’s no reason to doubt them. (Aside for all the reasons to doubt them.) This is not even taking into account the sheer sense of betrayal young people will be feeling by, say, year two. After Trump’s vileness, and afraid of making common cause with his proud boy or Q-slopped-brain adherents, new punks may be hesitant to make implicitly anti-government music. But it’s a fair assumption that, as all the grey mist settles and the sheer impossibility of our aspirational rebels’ situation becomes apparent to them, Baudelaire sales are going to go through the roof. Again, historically speaking, frustrated options and high minded dissolution make for a potent blurt to follow a 1,2,3,4.
Speaking of QAnon slop brain; while that particular population is unlikely to contribute anything of cultural value outside of overly busy, sub-happy house, t-shirts, there’s still something to be said for the increasingly conspiracy minded nature of the general population. Even in the extremely unlikely case that all the current conspiracies, from both the left and the right, are false; that’s not necessarily bad for art. Politicians who believe impossibly dumb shit are frustrating and dangerous. Musicians who believe impossibly dumb shit are High On Fire. Who rule. So let’s not write off the friends of the friends of the lizard people entirely.
Another key counterculture feature of a Biden administration will be that the “In These Dark Times” market is going to crash. Regardless how much darkness is actually lifted. Without casting doubt on anyone’s politics or intentions, the music coverage with headlines like “With Their New Single, Emma & The Goldmans Destroy Redlining” will not be sustained. Without Donald Trump as The Big Bad We Can All Agree On (and monetize opposition to), the arts industry will realign to its natural state of vaguely liberal apolitic. Media and musician grifters, along with perfectly honest folks (who maybe just find other’s oppression personally tiring), will segue way (further) back into nuance and bothsideserism. Without having to shoehorn any geopolitical narrative upon it, solipsistic songwriting will once again let its unfreak flag fly. Expect musicians who discovered fascism and racism, in 2016 and 2018 respectively, to release “their most personal album yet.” Maybe a little something about finding “anger exhausting” for kicks. The term “refreshingly just about the music” will appear in a major music publication by February at the latest. Slowly at first, but with increasing speed, Brooklyn will become lousy with the smell of problematic artist t-shirts being brought out of mothball storage. Pinegrove will sue to have their asterisk removed. Maybe Biden will grant them a pardon. Under a Biden administration, all the straights will go back to hating hate. There will be the occasional twitter mob mandated righting of the ship but, for the most part, the establishment has been chomping at the bit for the anticipated lessening of being yelled at that Trump’s absence will bring. Political correctness will be out and fun, terrible, terrible FUN, is coming back in a big way. Not having learned nothing over the last four years, music sites will have the forbearance to call it “joy.”
On the plus side, the term “grifter” itself will maybe be put away for a bit. Just to rest.
While all this will be, on many levels, grating, it will also give those who stay on an oppositional course a bit of room to stretch. Aside from the original popular explosion, punk has always thrived on indifference. If you think what you did was secret before, just wait till “tired of being angry all the time” is the law of the cultural land. Punk will be good under Biden because the application of the term itself will go down 73%. (“Punk energy” usage will remain high but that’s neither here nor there.)
There’s the famous Auden line about how “poetry makes nothing happen.” Under Biden, punk will do the same. There’s a great malaise coming, willed upon us all by those who thought America was some seriously hot shit prior November 4th, 2015. Without romanticizing it too much (punk, after all, is ridiculous), punk thrives on impotence like few music/fashion genres do. (And not just because of all the cocaine.) None of these theories on why punk will thrive under the next administration are meant to imply that punk should or will become apolitical (god forbid) or to diminish the value of oppositional music. But punk is half a century old. It’s practically ragtime. And it has always been rank punk exceptionalism to act as though punk has anything resembling a monopoly on rage or activism. It’s part and parcel the grotesque nostalgia inherent to the genre (and its partisans) that the conversation of whether it, as opposed to literally any other kind of music of the last fifty years, will be good (again). But one thing punk has still got going for it, the one thing that no other music genre can claim with such authority, is an unmatched commitment to boredom and disappointment, a glorious petulance in the face of well intentioned monsters, a willingness to have a bad time no matter the circumstance. The Biden For President campaign slogan is “Our Best Days Still Lie Ahead.” The compilation practically presses itself. Set that shit to some ransom note typography and wait for history to repeat itself.
So don’t forget to vote. Punk will be good under Biden. I mean it, man.
Worst case scenario: we get a Blatz reunion.
I promise I’ll never do this again until the next election. Thanks for reading!