Trump Won't Make Punk Great Again
“A folk singer’s job is to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” –Woody Guthrie
An article by Patrick Madden on WAMU’s Bandwidth wonders, with it’s clickbaity headline: “LISTEN: Could DC Punk Thrive Under a Trump Presidency?” . Madden discusses the legendary 1980s protest against Reagan’s attorney general orchestrated by Dischord Records co-founder Jeff Nelson, when local DC Punk kids went about town wheat pasting posters proclaiming, “Meese is a Pig.” He explains that the catchphrase has been revived and projected onto the president-elect’s new DC hotel, formerly known as the Old Post Office Pavilion. Madden interviews our harDCore heroes Ian MacKaye and Marc Andersen and some other dudes who are fighting the good fight.
This is all a perfect and perfectly local response to our new Grand Wizard-in-Chief. The projection is not the problem. In fact: it’s brilliant. Millennials sporting “Trump is a Pig” t-shirts makes everything old new again. Tying our new troubled times to our old troubled times honors the traditions of our Punk Past, provides a bit of historical context, and invites our younger compatriots to take our memes and make them their own. Another instance: old SoCal Punks Green Day made the news recently when they cited the Texas band MDC’s 1982 song “Born to Die” during their 2016 American Music Awards performance, when they inserted the revised lyric “No Trump, no KKK, no fascist USA” into their own hit “Bang Bang.” These actions connect Punk and harDCore histories to our increasingly frightening present.
Madden isn’t the first to suggest that we might get some good tunes out of Trump. I heard the idea of a "Punk Silver Lining" floated during the election on multiple social media formats. Imagine just how great the musical response to tyranny will be, I was told! Remember the 80s? Minor Threat and the Dead Kennedys! Bad Brains! Black Flag! The Trump-inspired musical renaissance wouldn’t be limited to punk, either; after all, humanitarian crises in the ‘80s gave us Live Aid, Farm Aid, Band Aid, and the catchiest benefit song of the bunch: I-I-I-I-I-I ain’t gonna play Sun City, a protest song of the highest order that has been name-checked by artists, musicians, athletes, and other Americans of the most elite talents who are pledging to never set foot into the White House while Trump is in charge.
I remember those 80s. I lived and loved those 80s. But, I also remember the cheesier, poppier, neon non-political 80s (rather fondly, actually). And I also remember that there was a lot of great Punk during the Clinton administration. Three of Fugazi’s six albums were released during Bill Clinton’s presidency. Bratmobile’s studio albums were released between 1993 and 2002. Sleater-Kinney made their debut in 1995, a year before the Clinton/Gore ticket won a second term with 379 electoral votes. A year after that the aforementioned Green Day broke into mainstream radio with their third album, Dookie. While it is true that there was a fair amount of important Punk happening in the Reagan 80s, it is also true that we listened to a lot of music that was not, in fact, Punk at all. And it’s also true that even during a time associated with a less conservative agenda, Punks still made songs worth singing.
Inside the Punk Bubble, our protest may not be as perfect as we think it is. Madden’s article is informative, even nostalgic. It looks back at a time when much of the local youth felt disturbed by Reagan’s policies and countered with art and activism. But, we also must remember and recognize that the many players performing this protest during the harDCore era were men with Upper Northwest DC privilege. The main characters in the “Meese/Trump is a Pig” story as told by Madden are white dudes (well-meaning, but white dudes nonetheless). How do we recognize and transcend the masculinity and whiteness of the original Meese moment? How can we use this story to empower new, all-inclusive actions? We must be careful that as we rally ‘round, we don’t make statements that are essentially a Fuck You to the people who will be marginalized the most. If you see a Trump administration primarily as an opportunity for great art, then you probably have the least to lose in this most tragic of American moments.
This is not to say that there won’t be incredible protest music performed and recorded during the next four years--I’m sure there will be. But those who are excitedly claiming Punk to be the Thing That Gets Us Through might be doing a disservice to, well, anyone who isn’t a white dude. To be clear: declaring that Punk is going to be the Super Awesome Silver Lining to the next four years is trivializing the white supremacist-approved Trump presidency. How will women, people of color, people who aren’t Christian, people who aren’t heteronormative, people who are old, people who have experienced sexual assault, people with illness and disabilities — how will Punk be enough for these populations when their rights are taken away and the scaffolding that holds our lives together is slowly and completely dismantled? It is flippant, at the very least; a statement that can only be uttered by someone who will be relatively safe from the kinds of legislation likely to come from an administration sanctioned by the KKK.
The music and art that will happen during the next four years will be best if we stop thinking of it as a silver lining. No folk movement is a silver lining. Let's draw a direct line from Woody Guthrie’s “Old Man Trump,” through Arlo’s Thanksgiving song along about the Vietnam Draft and the potential of collective action; let's draw a line connecting Joan Baez and Fugazi, connecting Bikini Kill and Public Enemy. The Punk of Now can reflect our outrage. But it requires sensitivity to create and courage to shout. It will not be easy.
Instead let’s talk about how to amplify the voices of the people most affected. We look to Punk to counter the mainstream. In the 80s, harDCore did challenge the upper Northwest white kids who drank too much and smoked too much pot to recognize injustices East of the River. 80s Punk in the rest of the U.S. essentially asked its audiences to think past their own comfort and rise above it. To a much greater extent, that’s what folk music does, and 80s Punk and harDCore are genres of Folk. The participation they encouraged points to an historically and culturally important activism. What must happen in the next four years is a new folk movement in a long line of folk movements that will actually (wait for it) challenge the status quo. Folk, in it’s various incarnations and genres, doesn’t save us: it gives us an outlet to counter the systematic racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia and bigotry that has been and will continue to be part of who we are as the United States of America.
Let's remember that Punk didn’t save us the last time. The LGBT community was decimated by AIDS. The Equal Rights Amendment was dead in the water before the 80s even began. Minor Threat apologized for slavery in “Guilty of Being White” but we’re still talking about reparations in the 21st Century. In These Troubled Times, women, people of color, members of the LGTB community, Jews, Muslims – the marginalized—will be at the front because we have the most to lose, and hopefully, we won’t have to go at it alone. Our New Activism will most certainly be Punk, but it will not save us because nothing will save us. Instead, our Punkest response to our deep dive into Fascism will be the thing that we do because this is our world and we have to. At it’s least, we will shriek ourselves hoarse at people who may or may not be listening. If we are lucky, it will inspire us, empower us. It won’t be how we survive; it will be how we rise up.
Art by Craig Gates
Craig Gates is an Atlanta-based dad who does graphic design for money and makes music for fun. His illustrations and writing have appeared in several now-defunct alternative weeklies and a smattering of zines no one has ever heard of.
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