PUNK AND HUMANISM
by Chris R. Morgan
“You’re not punk and I’m telling everyone” is the opening line of “Boxcar,” the anti-anthem of Jawbreaker, who wrote and recorded it amidst accusations they themselves had been receiving of having sold out, or of being on the fast track to doing so, all before they were signed to DGC. It is a song that resonates even after over 20 years. Punks have what I call “Boxcar syndrome,” a tendency to stop and ask what constitutes punk. Though perhaps “declare” is a better term, as it is not so much for exploratory reasons as for political ones, made by ones who either seek to dominate a scene or seek to prevent the dissolution of its purity. And really there’s no other practical application for such a line of inquiry, not in a culture the longevity of which spans generations and the reach of which spans—if not exactly mends—class divisions, for starters. For one to try to do that it would be better to ask why rather than what. Or in any case a variation on what, as in what compels one towards punk?
It’s not boredom, though most say it is. Boredom’s endgames are many, and a poor excuse to pursue any of them, be it going to a sports bar, getting a divorce, getting plastic surgery, or committing tax fraud. Boredom does not explain why punks are so intense about being punk, why so many commit so much effort to extending its lifespan and enriching its culture. More than boredom, punks are created by the absence of something else. In its earliest period—as a named genre anyway—it was propelled by an absence of freedom. What precisely was limiting them, or what expectations of which institutions they were shirking, differed from punk to punk, but each was fairly unison in having those limitations and related pressures dissipated by the primal surge of The Ramones or The Dictators or X. Indeed, they could explore their own limitations whether of aesthetic, physique, or philosophy. In truth, it came to resemble nearly all of the countercultures that preceded it. And it could very well have gone no further, fading, as many in the mainstream have assumed it did, into new wave; this were it not for its singular intensity. Bored punks soon got bored with punk, but they did not abandon it.
1987 is punk’s most significant year; more than 1977, more even than 1991. If the latter years were in any way revolutionary they were more so of marketing. The former on the other hand has a legitimate claim to shifting of paradigms. By that year, punk’s nihilistic streak had run out. Black Flag, Big Black, and a slew of hardcore brutalists had either faded or mutated. At the same time Ian MacKaye, then 25 years old, was founding Fugazi. MacKaye had effectively grown up in public, and his newest band was a long time coming when reviewing the previous seven years. Minor Threat are a staple for punk beginners despite having broken up 33 years ago. Certainly their musicianship was superior to many of their hardcore peers, but then-teenage MacKaye’s vocals and message did as much cementing, stoked as it was by marked self-righteousness laced with deep disappointment. Pleas for autonomy, in his estimation, got punks exactly nowhere. His was an individualism armored in principle, and in expression it reached a near-Lutheran level condemnation, so much so that the rest of the band forced him to clarify his position. After four years—including a self-loathing spell in proto-emo band Embrace—MacKaye, matured in musicianship and message, had retconned punk’s agenda for the foreseeable future.
The idea of principle as a good in itself became specious as the 1980s progressed, practically taking on the form of a luxury good. Those who had it first had to afford to exert it. Those who could afford to exert it did so only when and if it was expedient. Freedom was less of a problem in the collective mind at the time. In fact it was seen as a given. Soon people were less compelled to punk by an absence of freedom than by an absence of morals, for which Fugazi along with other DC area bands gave them a fitting outlet.
“Moral genius, like political genius,” Charles Fried wrote in The New Republic, “is far closer to artistic genius than it is to genius in science or mathematics. It has to do with putting together familiar elements in unexpected ways, combining and recombining the materials to take account of and overcome the constraints of those materials, and finally coming up with a whole that surprises by its power, its aptness, and its sense that we are experiencing something fundamentally new.” Fried was writing about Abraham Lincoln, but, as Alan Jacobs contends, it can apply very widely, and to MacKaye no less so. MacKaye’s father was the religion editor of the Washington Post, and raised his family in the civic-minded Episcopalian tradition, attending a church which, according to Michael Azerrad “was involved in all kinds of protests of the Vietnam War.” If MacKaye had shed the tenants of his religion he kept the fervor under strict maintenance. Fugazi demand an extraordinary amount from their listeners, conscious they are among those few outlets filling the moral absence for them. And they have created some memorable lessons on everyday dehumanization that have undeniable influence over how we address it today. This is most true of “Suggestion,” one of their earliest songs.
“Suggestion” is an impassioned denunciation of female objectification and male entitlement. To say that Fugazi’s ethics—affordable ticket and record pricing, no merch, no moshing—are a greater hallmark for them than their sound is unfair. A feminist perspective in punk was nothing new to bands like The Slits or X-Ray Spex, but where they were abrasive and playful, Fugazi were accessible and earnest. The song is tightly written for an almost rhetorical effect, strengthening rather than undermining the argument. A famous version of this song was recorded during an early DC show in 1988. Fugazi were known for improvising their shows, and here MacKaye extends “Suggestion” into several extra minutes to add a furious aside over Brendan Canty’s drumming, condemning “boys” who had attacked gay men. “Let me tell you now,” he says, “I don’t give a fuck what you are. But you do not beat up people for being gay, you do not beat up people for being black, you do not beat up people for being women, you do not beat up people [the drumming pauses] period.” He goes on for two and a half more minutes, but that’s the point, and it has echoed well into our current mode of discourse. It is the dominant mode, but not the sole mode.
“Savory” is the debut single off of Jawbox’s third album For Your Own Special Sweetheart, released in 1994. Like “Suggestion,” it is about female objectification and male entitlement, and like “Suggestion” it is one of the band’s best remembered songs. But with Jawbox there has been erected a kind of dark covenant in which explicit comparisons to Fugazi can only go so far. Jawbox had been a staple of MacKaye’s label Dischord in their early career. The label is as bound to ethics as any other MacKaye venture; it pools only DC-based talent, does not use contracts, and even encourages what some might consider competition. Sweetheart was released by Atlantic, making Jawbox one of only two Dischord acts to ever formally sell out (Shudder to Think being the other, releasing Pony Express Record on Epic the same year). The language of selling out is cruel at its heart, much more so in punk where it is used to impose aesthetic and ethical standards. It denies one’s agency. Yet Jawbox, through it all, were not much of a Dischord band. Or at least they were nothing like its ideal. They were individualistic, worldly, and aloof rather than communitarian, ascetic, and engaged. They made an easy transition to, if not a comfortable home in, the alt-rock world of 120 Minutes airplay, appearances on late night, and opening spots for Stone Temple Pilots. Jawbox, for all concerned, were a fine band for a different world. And yet the unified politics and divergent aesthetics between “Suggestion” and “Savory” invite further examination.
Storytelling is an odious term brandied about today’s media. I wish misfortune on people who use it in earnest, and of course my reluctance is excruciating when I use it here because it relates closely and dangerously with what “Savory” is accomplishing. Though it lacked the impact of its 1994 peers “Longview,” “Say It Ain’t So,” “Closer,” and even “In Circles,” “Savory” outlasts them with its far reaching intent and artistic depth. It is a portrait of evil, retelling the premise of “Suggestion” from the viewpoint of the objectifier. Its tone is cold and sinister; its groove is subversive, akin to a strip track for a depressive bachelor party. Though the lyrics are cryptic on the surface, they rather aptly detail a nature of control, obsession, and idealization, of being rapt with power yet misunderstanding who is holding it:
Hey angel, fly over and bless me
See you feign surprise
And I’m all eyes
And you’re all you need to be
It is not apolitical but political through implication. “Suggestion,” by contrast, is a song that shifts perspective between victim and bystander while still retaining a consistent didactic voice. Ian MacKaye’s lyrical stance is akin obviously to the preacher, but also the cable news broadcaster and other predominantly secondhand communicators whose renditions of events and ills are more detached and abstract than the passion, empathy, and clarity lead on. “Suggestion” may well be the first thinkpiece.
Fugazi got their name from a Vietnam War slang term for “a fucked up situation.” An irony of the band’s success is that as its name has grown more apropos over time its actual meaning has become more obscure. Since the start of the band’s ongoing “indefinite hiatus” in 2002, life outside of punk has shown no improvement in reversing moral errors. Yet Fugazi have ascended into institution and MacKaye into authority. They are the George Orwell of punk, whose sentiment is pervasive among right-thinkers while their message is a calcified moralism. If Fugazi are something to be gotten beyond, Jawbox’s modernist punk (with their nods to E. E. Cummings and J.G. Ballard) would seem a way through. In the former you have the accelerant, the clarifier and revealer of that which is always staring one in the face as one gazes haplessly around it: “We owe you nothing/You have no control.” In the latter, however, one finds the commitment and the cost: “What would you risk to rescue me?”
“Punk’s not dead,” Jello Biafra declared in the Dead Kennedys’ song “Chickenshit Conformist,” “it just deserves to die.” It is as close as anyone in punk has ever come to a kind of baby boomer sense of possession. Yet it is also half-right. Not that one era of punk is inherently purer than another, but that under fairer circumstances it should not live. Punk’s catalyst is error. It thrives on the relentless failings of the society that surrounds it. There was no other design inherent in it that would give it destiny or reason to take on the feat of giving substance to humanism. Our benevolent authorities, the ones we trusted rather than feared, simply failed to do so. They made it a niceness rather than a good, a call for calm because there is too much noise, a wishful thought experiment to fill a privileged boredom. Through punk culture it assumes a defiant cast not in favor of a new utopia of good but against an already sprawling and rusted utopia of indifference. It does not champion humanity but reasserts it as a kind of burden. It demonstrates the distinction between confronting and engaging with the realities of existence against managing it or downgrading its value.