Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Great Rock n' Roll Swindle

Commercial co-option aside, punk-rock ceased being relevant as a cultural and musical genre when contemporary bands became shills for the Democratic Party.
Long-running L.A. punk-rock band, Bad Religion, which plays Portland’s State Theater next weekend, represents, in many ways, everything that is wrong with “punk-rock” in the 21st century.

I actually really liked these guys back in high school. Like so many people my age, Bad Religion—along with other early 1990s “pop-punk” groups like Green Day, Blink-182, Rancid and The Offspring—served as my introduction to the Ramones, Sex Pistols, the Stooges, Black Flag, the Clash and other late ‘70s-early ‘80s punk progenitors.
While punk luminaries like the Sex Pistols and the Dead Kennedys established the genre’s uncompromising DIY (or “Do It Yourself”) sound and aesthetic as well as their savage anti-establishment lyrics, the so-called “pop-punk” bands that defined the ‘90s were polished and hook-laden, considerably less controversial and found a large degree of commercial success.

Indeed, for all of modern punk’s defiant, rebellious posturing, acts like Against Me!, No Age, Anti-Flag and Rise Against are about as musically subversive as Taylor Swift.

Beyond questions of punk-rock “authenticity,” the pop-punkers, in direct contrast to their musically diverse and experimental forebears, seemed all too happy to find a formulaic, power-chord-heavy punk-inspired sound (typically three chords, a catchy hook, and an anthemic, shout-along chorus) and rarely deviate from that song-writing blueprint. As a result, Bad Religion, Pennywise, NOFX and their peers continue to churn out a series of mostly indistinguishable albums, seemingly more intent on delivering fans the comfort food predictability they are used to than mining their music to its furthest artistic depths.

Consider, in contrast, how the Clash willingly risked alienating a large segment of their audience when they followed up 1978’s slick, Sandy Perlman-produced Give ‘em Enough Rope with the eclectic, genre-leaping double-album, London Calling—widely considered one of the greatest rock n’ roll albums of all time. Yet, Bad Religion’s newly released, True North sounds like it could just as easily be 2007’s New Maps of Hell, or 2001’s The Process of Belief, or 1994’s Stranger than Fiction.

But the biggest indication that punk had finally and irrefutably died came during the 2004 presidential election, when a slate of popular punk bands, in an effort to “rock the vote,” actively endorsed and campaigned for John Kerry.

Certainly, punk music has never been a stranger to politics, and rock musicians in general have been telling us how to vote for years. But it is one thing when Madonna, Bruce Springsteen, Dave Matthews and members of Pearl Jam urge fans to vote for the Establishment Democrat in the next presidential election. It is quite another when you have groups whose music is ostensibly rooted in anti-imperialism, anti-capitalism and overall anti-establishmentarianism doing the same. Much as most of the nation (nay, the world) loathed George W. Bush, the fact is Kerry’s positions on foreign policy, civil liberties, the economy and social issues were virtually identical.

And yet, in the run-up to the 2004 presidential election, NOFX’s Mike Burkett (better known to fans as, “Fat Mike”) started a MoveOn-esq liberal organizing group, made up of 30 or so of his fellow pop-punk bands, called PunkVoter. The goal of PunkVoter was basically to rally young, first-time voters for Kerry.
NOFX's Fat Mike (left) and fellow PunkVoter bands.

In their 2003 song “Franco-Un-American,” NOFX hammered home its no-voting-outside-the-box stance with the lyrics, “The president’s laughing ‘cause you voted for Nader.”

Bad Religion, likewise, jumped on the anti-Nader bandwagon. Bassist Jay Bentley, contributed an article to titled, “Looking Forward to 2004,” in which he, too, buys into the asinine argument that Ralph Nader’s 2000 candidacy “cost” Al Gore the election. In his Op-Ed—which is devoid of citations, references or links but contains a number of run-on sentences—Bentley calls voting Green an “uneducated” decision “based on popularity [and] advertising.” He even makes the spurious claim the Republicans offered to pay Nader’s 2004 campaign costs—an entirely bogus assertion.

“In my opinion, ‘Voting Green’ [sic] or for any third party in a presidential election, is not a solution or a statement against the current government,” he writes. “…The very idea of a ‘protest vote’ is without merit…”

Nowhere in his article does Bentley mention the fact that it was the Supreme Court that voted to halt the ballot recount which would have confirmed Gore’s win. For that matter, the words “Supreme Court” do not appear anywhere in the piece. In 2008, Bentley—I assume speaking for the entire band—came out for Obama.

All of this corporate shilling from a band that once wrote the lyrics, “We’re all being oppressed by the upper-middle class/The government you vote for is the one that you possess” (“Politics”). Unless, that is, you vote for a third-party. Then you are just throwing your vote away.

As if to prove their Democratic allegiance was not merely part of the “anybody-but-Bush” desperation of 2004, many of the same pop-punkers rallied around Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. Against Me! frontman, Tom Gabel (now Laura Jane Grace) expressed his support for Obama in a 2008 interview. “I really think that him [Obama] being elected would be an overwhelmingly positive thing for the U.S. and the world in general,” Grace said.

The band’s “rock-the-vote” style music video for “Stop!” almost seemed like it needed a promotional campaign disclaimer (“This ad paid for by the Democratic Party,”) attached at the end.  This is a band, mind you, that prides itself on its “anarchist” credentials and lyrical themes. In fact, Grace frequently brags about the satisfaction she derives from smashing white-crosses on church lawns—the inspiration for the anti-Christian rant, “White Crosses.”

And, of course, Green Day, pop-punk’s reigning kings in terms of commercial success and critical praise, were vocal in their support for both Kerry and Obama. On the eve of the 2012 election, singer/guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong and his wife both Tweeted their support for Obama’s re-election.

Fast-forward to 2013, and no longer exists. Apparently Fat Mike’s passion for “educating and motivating” young voters lasted all of one election cycle.

The resignation the heretofore energized singer expresses in a story last fall in Huffington Post Canada (10/22/2012) suggests a lot about PunkVoter’s true ideological motivations. “I did my time of civil duty in an election that was very important, which we lost, and because of that the world is a worse place to live in,” Fat Mike said. “I’m not involved [in the 2012 election] in any way, except that I’m going to vote.”
Green Day with Sen. John Kerry in 2004.
In other words, if the goal is to oust a Big Bad Scary Republican from office, it is all-hands-on-deck, the fate of the world is at stake. The fact that Bush’s successor has continued (and in many instances, expanded) his most egregious policies seems to matter little to Mike and his bandmates. The truth is, the world is still a pretty lousy place to live in, largely due to Obama and the U.S. government’s imperialist, corporatist policies that favor the wealthy elite over the many. Yet liberal punk musicians—most of whom have become shills for the Democratic Party--either do not understand that, or simply do not care.

And, really, why should they? Most of these bands work for corporate record labels, play sold-out arena tours, and, despite all their claims to DIY “authenticity,” nonetheless live the luxurious rock n’ roll lifestyle.

Punk today is not rage against the machine. It is the machine.

I think The Clash put it best in “(White Man) in Hammersmith Palais”:

“The new groups are not concerned
With what there is to be learned
They’ve got Burton suits—ha!
You think it’s funny
Turning rebellion into money.”



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