Bradford Martin

Ò. . . And You Voted For That GuyÓ: 1980s Post-Punk and Oppositional Politics
Bradford Martin

Bryant College

Driving to school each morning, my kids and I listen to the most listenable radio station in town. I find it heartening that my preteen son favors the guitar-based, punk-pop of Green Day, Blink 182, and Sum 41, as opposed to the pumped-up machismo posturing of much of current hip-hop or ‘‘cock-rock.’’ It’s affirming, perhaps even flattering, that my youngster’s musical tastes reflect a continuity with my own, for whom ‘‘the day the music died’’ evokes Kurt Cobain’s suicide more than Buddy Holly’s plane crash. Yet, I am also nagged by the remark of a friend of mine, a longtime veteran of a recently disbanded Boston band, who satirized contemporary punk-pop’s slickly produced and formulaic sound, observing: ‘‘It just sounds like you put the money in the gumball machine, turn the crank, and out comes punk.’’ As a cultural historian, I have a finely cultivated suspicion of declension narratives that assume a steady degeneration from some mythic rosier era, yet I also recognize a kernel of truth in my friend’s critique of punk-pop. From the beginning, punk music constructed itself in opposition to a number of forces. In the mid-1970s punk rock on both sides of the Atlantic opposed the seemingly discredited countercultural idealism of the 1960s and what punk musicians regarded as overbloated, pretentious, inauthentic, and mainstream rock ’n’ roll music. In the U.S., during the 1980s, the Reagan Administration’s conservative social policies and rising militarism were targets for the rage of hardcore punk particularly and post-punk generally. In other words, there was an opposition in this kind of music and among its fans that tended to be outward-focused, directed at public life. Musicians and fans infused their personal frustrations over the nation’s dominant conservative direction with a politically oriented critique of that rightward trend. This contrasts with the current brand of punk-pop that mobilizes punk’s incisive tone largely in the service of personalized, inward-focused dissatisfactions.

Ò. . . And You Voted For That GuyÓ


During the 1980s, post-punk music in the U.S. existed ‘‘underground,’’ enjoying only limited commercial success. While a handful of college radio stations disseminated the music, mainstream commercial radio ignored post-punk. Post-punk bands went virtually unrepresented in music videos, which exploded as a new popular culture medium in the early and mid-1980s. Yet, post-punk persisted through the 1980s as the strand of music that became popular as an ‘‘alternative’’ music, forging its way into the mainstream in the 1990s. This essay explores the musical and social factors enabling post-punk musicians and fans to develop an identity as a community constructed in opposition to the dominant musical, social, and political institutions of the time. Cultural scholars have examined post-punk’s/alternative’s relationship to the recording industry, focusing on whether a commercially produced recorded music can be used to convey anti-capitalist ideology (Chapple and Garofalo, 300; Frith, 158–63; Garofalo, ‘‘How Autonomous,’’ 77–91). While I certainly want to acknowledge the profound influence of the means of production employed by vertically integrated media conglomerates have over what musics are available to consumers, this is not my central concern. Rather, I want to consider the question of what meaning fans themselves—and to a certain extent performers— ascribed to their own experiences of the music. For this reason, I will concentrate on fan descriptions of live performances; discourse in ‘‘fanzines’’; the cultural texts produced by musicians themselves, including music, lyrics, and writings; and contemporary accounts of post-punk and its fans from the music and popular press. Post-punk music constituted a form of oppositional culture, whose opposition focused in part on the conservative policies of the Reagan and Bush administrations. This opposition possessed both political and stylistic dimensions. People involved in post-punk did not dress the same way or share the same values as their peers who embraced the era’s dominant social values. Post-punk fans often pursued jobs designed merely to pay the rent rather than career-oriented employment. They tended to oppose the authorities of all varieties, from the federal government to the local police. Yet it would be an overstatement to suggest a post-punk community unified in liberal-to-radical beliefs that conflicted with the decade’s dominant political culture. Certainly, some performers and fans within post-punk deplored, for example, the Reagan administration’s intervention in Nicaragua. But what actions did they take to voice their outrage? Was opposition only ascribable to a minority of literate and politically


Bradford Martin

sophisticated middle-class fans, or did post-punk fans of various social backgrounds share the same view (Bondi 2; Maximum Rock ’N’ Roll 23)?1 It seems entirely possible that many post-punk fans did not have an opinion one way or the other, whereas people who never attended a Black Flag or Sonic Youth show opposed militarism in more activist ways, such as demonstrations and tax resistance. Just what was the political content of post-punk? How did the way it was consumed and distributed address contemporary political discourse? Ultimately, multiple political impulses existed simultaneously among fans, exposing the gulf between culture and politics, and suggesting the extent to which a musical genre can unify its fans in many respects limited. Dick Hebdige argues that 1970s punk in England displayed a ‘‘homology’’ or compatibility between alternative value systems and the lifestyles of a group, finding a consistency between ‘‘the trashy cut-up clothes and spiky hair, the pogo and amphetamines, the spitting, the vomiting . . . the insurrectionary poses, and the ‘soul-less,’ frantically driven-music . . . ’’ of the punks (57). In the U.S., during the 1980s, post-punk was not anywhere near as unified either in its musical elements or sartorial style. Even if it were, there are limits on what level of political activism can be reasonably expected from a group of people whose identity is shaped by shared musical preferences. As one observer remarked: ‘‘The problem with ‘culture as politics’ is that it isn’t (and almost never produces) the sort of action that not only challenges, but changes political structures’’ (Wood 14). Post-punk did not foster the kind of critique that mobilized public opinion to oust Reagan or the first George Bush from presidential power. Prior to 1991, it did not achieve sales figures that might have conferred a modicum of social power upon even its most successful performers. Yet post-punk and its fans persisted throughout the 1980s despite the genre’s cultural marginality and in this persistence displayed certain recurring patterns of oppositional attitude and discourse. That, after 1991, post-punk succeeded in extending its cultural influence to the mainstream and diffusing many of these attitudes to a broader audience suggests the value of considering the historical context in which post-punk cohered. From 1980 to 1991, post-punk empowered its audiences by enabling communities of fans to explore identities in opposition to mainstream social and political mores. In making this argument, the author seeks an inclusive definition—not just of politics—but of community as well. The word ‘‘community’’ often conjures up positive connotations of egalitarianism

periodically displayed hostility to those who did not live up to rigid strictures on punk authenticity. Yet on the whole. . While an oppositional identity did not necessarily produce oppositional activism. The 1980s post-punk ‘‘scene’’ was not equally permeable to everyone. . more forcefully at others—through the nuanced discourses on race in post-punk fanzines. .’’ On the contrary. Opposition resided at the core of the identities fans of post-punk explored. whether because of accident. class. post-punk helped its fans maintain attitudes of resistance in their everyday lives that constituted an important critique of the mainstream. in particular. design. replicated some of the oppressions its politically oppositional rhetoric criticized. while revolution made by music is a joke. ranging from the stylistic minimalism of early hardcore bands like Black . This problematizes any pretense to utopian notions of community that post-punk might have harbored and suggests that hardcore exclusivity. by contrasting themselves with ‘‘others’’ on the outside looking in. There is no evidence. . post-punkers tended to deplore Reagan’s policies when voicing their opinions. ‘‘ . ’’ (91–2). and gender. or self-selection.Ò. Different subsets of post-punk. diatribes against privilege and wealth from bands and fans. And You Voted For That GuyÓ 145 and nurturance. Moreover. As Greil Marcus has written. often correlated with lines of race. values. ‘‘hardcore’’ being the most obvious. this essay will argue that post-punk displayed complex dynamics of race. but in fact communities are often defined relationally. and gender politics that over the course of the 1980s tended toward ‘‘progressive’’ political impulses. Defining Post-Punk I use ‘‘post-punk’’ to refer to a wide variety of guitar-based musics. post-punk fans and performers shared a general distaste for the conservative social policies and militarist foreign policies of the 1980s. that post-punk fostered any community that might have called itself ‘‘Post-punkers for Reagan. and politics. . post-punk’s halting steps toward musical hybridity. Excorporation from hardcore authenticity. so that hardcore became coded as a white. working-class. for example. and the emergence of a spate of all-women bands who demonstrated a rigorous attitude toward combating patriarchal assumptions in their self-representation as women musicians. opposition to mainstream culture. class. This impulse echoes—faintly at times. . rebellion sustained by music might not be . The experience of 1980s post-punk fans shows how music sustained a rebellion whose reverberations echoed at the level of mass culture after 1991. it sometimes demonstrated exclusionary impulses. male subculture.

despite the tendency toward musical hybridity by the end of this period. each genre carrying its respective critique of Reagan era conservatism. represented forms of youth culture practiced mainly by white people. can help delineate the . then recorded the 1984 concept album Zen Arcade. the year of the first Lollapalooza festival. that musical hybrids such as Anthrax/Public Enemy or Ice T/ Body Count that mixed elements of rap and heavy metal fully emerged (Bondi 2–25. post-punk. of which hardcore is a discrete subset. Members of Sonic Youth were associated with the No Wave musical movement and New York avant-garde composer Glenn Branca before starting the band (Macnie 14). they were separate critiques with separate followings. Inspired by the musical and attitudinal influences of 1970s punk. Black Flag. The Dead Kennedys. If hardcore and rap formed analogous critiques of Reaganism.’’ it was only after 1991. While rappers Run-D. Garofalo.M. Various observers have remarked that hardcore and rap emerged as analogous musical developments in the 1980s. and Minor Threat to the complicated aural arrangements of Sonic Youth. post-punk carries an association with white youth culture.M. and ultimately signed with Warner Brothers in 1986 for its final two albums which interspersed acoustic ballads with distorted electric guitar songs. The Replacements and R. from the Dead Kennedys’ Jello Biafra’s infamous court battle with the Parents Music Resource Center to Minor Threat’s policy of playing exclusively in all ages venues (Ian MacKaye + Jeff Nelson). produced a pioneering rap/heavy metal hybrid song in 1986 with a remake of Aerosmith’s ‘‘Walk This Way. In terms of its fans.146 Bradford Martin Flag. and especially hardcore.C.2 Hence. These bands struggled to make post-punk music more accessible to fans. about a day in the life of a skinhead.E. the Dead Kennedys. for much of the 1980s post-punk. Rockin’ 325–64). But during the 1980s. 1980s post-punk (including hardcore) had sufficiently established itself by 1983 that the music press began referring to post-punk as a discrete musical genre. Sonic Youth and the Minutemen drew from some of punk’s raw materials and added various musical experiments and innovations to expand the genre. A selective sampling of post-punk bands offers a sketch of the genre’s boundaries. while the Minutemen were once called ‘‘America’s Most Conceptual Bar Band’’ (Carson 81) The Minneapolis-based Husker Du began in 1981 as a hardcore band with a reputation for playing fast. was only minimally racially integrated. and Minor Threat comprise a trio of influential bands associated with stylistically minimalistic hardcore post-punk that emerged in the early 1980s.

yet both achieved popular acclaim well before the genre’s commercial breakthrough in 1991. fans themselves recognized this trend.’’ and yet. Savage). The Red Hot Chili Peppers share similar ‘‘underground’’ roots but heavily rely on African-American musical forms. And You Voted For That GuyÓ 147 boundaries of post-punk. . and hip hop. Rockin’ 367). as one wrote in the ‘‘Letter Section’’ of Flipside in 1987 that the ‘‘independence’’ that punk bands ‘‘once cherished is increasingly being lost as bands get popular and sign record deals. music featuring dissonant aural sounds that consciously challenged mainstream popular music. and live performances that attempted to bridge the physical and psychic ‘‘distance’’ between the performers and audience (Frith 158–63.Ò. . rap.3 What ties these disparate bands together is less a shared musical aesthetic than a set of influences from 1970s punk.’’5 cutting production costs by emphasizing the virtues of strippeddown independent production. post-punk displayed a concern with going ‘‘econo. to create a sound that places them at an outer boundary of post-punk (Arnold 58–9). Simon Frith called this ethos ‘‘a people’s version of consumerism. more than that of the music’s performers or its fans (Shank 218–23). Since the late 1960s. ‘‘has just become a smaller model of the larger ‘mainstream’ record .’’ the same fan letter continued. independent record labels have increasingly served as a research and development function for the majors. Laing. such as funk. the loss of economic independence is implicitly contrasted with an earlier period in punk and post-punk in which independents could exert greater economic and creative control. the idea that record buyers had a right to maximum market choice. On the one hand. who scoop up acts as soon as they reach a level of popularity that certifies them as viable profit producers (Garofalo. that record buying should involve customer expression rather than producer manipulation’’ (Frith 159). transgressive subject matter in the music’s lyrics and in the visual images (such as cover or poster art) associated with the music. Heylin.4 Like 1970s punk. ‘‘The independent record distribution scene. Yet this observation probably reflects the point of view of the major record labels’ corporate ownership. Punk and post-punk formulated ideological justifications of their alternative way of making music. and even establishing fledgling alternative distribution systems. independent label roots that epitomize post-punk. This unique version of consumerism was as central to 1980s postpunk as the 1970s punk Frith described. as both came from the small club. on the other hand. including: a do-it-yourself production ethos emphasizing artistic control and a ‘‘low-fidelity’’ sound rather than technological ‘‘perfection’’.

. one ad stands out..’’ thus reclaiming ‘‘worthless’’ as a positive quality. the appeal was clearly directed at a fan sensibility that sought to resist commodification of its favorite music. A ‘‘bottom up’’ approach to post-punk suggests that fans themselves believed that they were making important consumer choices by buying independently produced records and that musicians believed they were challenging major label hegemony by making their music available through the independents. Likewise. a review of 1980s fanzines shows that the independent labels played to this ethos of ethical consumerism in their advertisements. the distributor Rough Trade’s ads that proclaimed: ‘‘Specializing in INDEPENDENT import and domestic Hardcore. . ran ads with the slogan ‘‘CATCH TROUT .’’ again suggesting through the prominent size and capitalization accorded the words ‘‘independent label records’’ that independence constituted a quality that fans prized. Presumably. a base whose coherence was defined by fans’ loyalty to the ‘‘independent industry. ‘‘alternative’’ distributors such as Mordam Records.S. While these fans’ testimony indicates awareness of the growing dominance of the corporate model of making and distributing music. The Underground has been Las Vegas’ only alternative music store supporting the independent industry’’ (Flipside 52). The Las Vegas record store— The Underground—sought to sell the business with the following appeal: ‘‘Since 1980. Virginia independent. . Among what must be only a suggestive rather than comprehensive survey of this strategy of invoking independence in order to promote independent label fidelity in musical and purchasing loyalty. . Experimental. The California mail order outfit Mamma Jamma’s gambit to sell its stock involved the promise of ‘‘ALL YOUR FAVORITE *INDEPENDENT LABEL RECORDS & TAPES*C. . what The Underground was selling as a business opportunity was its loyal customer base. Industrial. the regret this fan expressed in describing this transformation signifies the substantial meaning that fans invested in independent labels and distributors in the first place. a Charlottesville.D.148 Bradford Martin market’’ (Flipside 52). making music worthless again . and Rough Trade persevered through the 1980s and beyond . When Catch Trout Records. and the Undefinable.’’ Although it has been effectively argued that major labels exerted their hegemony despite independent production through their control of distribution. Certainly. Dance. Dutch East India.’’ suggest through bolding and capitalizing the word ‘‘independent’’ that independently produced music was a quality that fans valued and to which they attached meaning (MRR 58).

MRR 62).Ò. noise acted as a kind of ‘‘rite of passage. but persistent presence of independent distribution constituted another site of opposition for post-punk and its fans. The 1980s musicians as diverse as the Dead Kennedys and Sonic Youth self-consciously used noise. Along with this economic strategy came a potent ideology of opposition to the majors: ‘‘What independent music is about. aural buzzing. . is anger against major labels and the music business on all levels. And You Voted For That GuyÓ 149 (Garofalo. Marcus 3. While it is easy to romanticize independent music personnel and fans’ ‘‘heroic underdog’’7 status. One scholar has even suggested that hardcore musicians perceived the political rhetoric of Reagan conservatism as noise. To post-punk audiences.’’ Schwartz exclaimed in an interview. Just as 1970s punk deployed a new kind of harsh guitar noise. their real commitment and stubbornness should not be overlooked amidst the obvious dramatic sentiment that pervades such populist language. aided by the collaboration of the Dead Kennedys’ Alternative Tentacles label and Tim Yohannon’s preeminent fanzine Maximum Rock ’n’ Roll. They’re not there for the artist’s fans’’ (Sinker 109–18). Schwartz elaborated by contrasting the mindset of personnel involved in independent music at Mordam—‘‘we’re a bunch of fans!’’—with ‘‘big major multimedia corporations. Ruth Schwartz founded Mordam in 1983. it was necessary not only to tolerate the harsh dissonance of the music.’’ post-punk also mobilized noise to its advantage (Heylin 166. band names. 21). cacophony. but to revel in it.’’ In order to become one of the community of hardcore fans. Another important legacy of punk for post-punk involves one of the music’s most recognizable aspects: noise. Postpunk also borrowed from punk’s use of transgressive subject matter in lyrics. and developed a musical style that in effect critiqued this rhetoric by offering up its reflection as a musical convention of the genre (Bondi 2–25). the marginal.’’ as a signifying convention of the genre. from the Sex Pistols ‘‘jagged’’ chords to the Ramones ‘‘primitive buzzsaw sound. ‘‘a jangling.6 The story of Mordam Records in particular illustrates the incomplete nature of the majors’ hegemony over distribution. ‘‘How Autonomous’’ 78. and visual images that sought to shock middle-class . .’’ of whom she claimed: ‘‘They’re not there for the artists. and hoping to benefit from a ‘‘strength in numbers’’ philosophy that would allow independent labels and magazine publishers to band together under Mordam’s distributorship as a tactic for financial viability. Despite the fact that majors exercised the majority of control over what music was available to consumers throughout the 1980s.

48–50. while labels like Alien. Social Distortion.’’ which was narrated from the point of view of a cult member and featured the lyric ‘‘We’re gonna kill the California girls. Even artier post-punk bands like Sonic Youth performed songs that explored a fascination with the Manson family such as ‘‘Death Valley ’69’’ and ‘‘Expressway to Your Skull. Punk’s transgressive subject matter reverberated through 1980s post-punk.’’ as punk bands featured names like The Damned. Dave Laing observed that 1970s British punk bands and independent record labels inverted ‘‘whatever was prestigious in the cultural mainstream. the Dead Kennedys. . 92–103).9 . sexual fetish clothing and apparatus. . The Mutants. Another obvious transgressive element of the 1970s punk. as the musicians had little control over how their work was interpreted. Parole. Band-naming strategies illustrated this legacy. resulting in examples such as the Circle Jerks.150 Bradford Martin sensibilities.’’8 While using transgressive subject matter to register opposition sometimes proved problematic. Savage 66–8. sought to shock the mainstream by publicly parading fashion elements previously associated with sexual taboo. Consider the lyrics of the Minutemen’s ‘‘Themselves’’ from their Double Nickels on the Dime album: All you men who work the land/Should evaluate yourselves/And make a stand/ Can’t they see beyond the rhetoric/The lies and promises that don’t mean shit /And all the men who learn to hate them. and the Butthole Surfers. 91–4. and the Snivelling Shits. in order to demystify them by making them commonplace (Laing. in the context of the conservative 1980s lyrics could be transgressive simply by opposing hegemonic ideologies such as Reagan era militarism. Visual images associated with post-punk ranged from the Butthole Surfers’ use of films depicting penis reconstruction surgery at their live shows to the all-women band L7’s T-shirts that inverted sexual exploitation of women by picturing a dominating female forcing cunnilingus on a submissive male. They keep themselves hidden away/they keep themselves upon the hill/ Afraid of the day they’ll have to pay/for all the crimes upon their head . and Rabid proliferated. such as rubber trousers and studded bracelets. Crucifucks.

And You Voted For That GuyÓ 151 ‘‘Themselves’’ fits into the Minutemen’s substantial repertoire of antimilitarist songs. post-punk sought to make music and musicians more accessible to its fans. In the 1980s. In the most literal physical way. advising. D. this is another. venues for post-punk bands offered a cheaper alternative to the high ticket prices charged by promoters of arena concerts featuring mainstream rock musicians. Similarly. U. an A. a Melody Maker article recounted an occasion when The Clash allowed an audience member who had been brutalized by concert security to come on stage and sing the vocals to the band’s songs. Hardcore bands like Washington. Post-punk fans usually experienced shows from a standing position with no assigned seating. Punk’s do-ityourself ethos lessened the gap between audience and performer by eliminating technical virtuosity as a prerequisite for creating music. and democratized attitudes surrounding music-making. This attitude was epitomized by a December 1976 illustration in the fanzine Sideburns that pictured three guitar chords. For instance. this is a third. ‘‘This is a chord. its lyrics challenging the conservatism of mainstream rural Americans who voted for Reagan in large numbers.C. .S. an E.’s Minor Threat . This encouragement made fans feel that they were not so different from the musicians they enjoyed. thus fans were encouraged to make their own music. and a G. It also represented punk’s reaction to 1970s mainstream rock music. Now Form A Band’’ (Savage 280–1). For British society in the late 1970s. this action constituted a gesture of working-class solidarity by the band. . Post-Punk and Its Fans Punk also bequeathed to post-punk a tradition of musicians and performers who tried to reduce the physical and psychic distance between themselves and their fans. Standing spectators also allowed more fans to attend shows because the legal capacity of clubs expanded when there was no seating. which ‘‘ranged the superstars with their banks of technology on the stage against the audience with nothing but expensively acquired ticket stubs’’ (Laing 82). fuck the arenas!!!’’ (Flipside 29). An editorial preface in the California fanzine Flipside bemoans the closing of one punk venue (Al’s Bar) and applauds the opening of an another (Godzillas) proclaiming: ‘‘Bring punk back to the CLUBS where it belongs. allowing fans to roam around the club freely.Ò. this shortened the distance between the closest spectators in the pit to the performers on the stage because there was no first row of seats to delineate where the nearest spectators should be situated.

12 Their rejection of radio and music videos in favor of recorded music—often recorded on independent labels—indicated a preference for controlling what music they listened to at a given time.’’ suggesting that the fans. who relished a section of his questionnaire which asked them to select bands who typified heavy metal (18. country/western. In Washington. despite contemporaneity with the rise of MTV.11 Similarly. Brazilian. Bondi 6). anecdotal evidence suggests postpunk fans’ nearly unanimous rejection of music videos. fun. and even Hawaiian Mambo. For instance. Post-punk fans demonstrated a general resistance to being categorized.’’ Another fan and guitarist listed her reasons for liking the Boston bands Letters to Cleo and O Positive as ‘‘originality. along with post-punk.C. the ‘‘X’’ mark took on symbolic importance as a ritual of fan solidarity in D. they insisted on the individuality of their musical preferences. they took pains to demonstrate their openness to musical innovation. out of respect for the music’s diverse influences. rockabilly. Instead. Later. and showed post-punk fans’ resistance to the power of corporate institutions to shape their musical tastes. one respondent. including blues.’’ and ‘‘no favorites All faves. different from the mainstream. cited ‘‘Interesting and original arrangements. they claimed a preference for listening to recorded music over listening to radio.10 This reluctance to name specific bands as representative of post-punk contrasts with Robert Walser’s heavy metal fans. folk.’’ ‘‘Too many to mention. with responses such as ‘‘Keeps changing regularly.’s hardcore community (Ian MacKaye + Jeff Nelson. did not wish to identify individual groups as representative of the genre.152 Bradford Martin agitated for minors to be allowed into clubs that served alcohol to hear their music. a musician himself. which usually showcased commercially popular artists. jazz.’’ ‘‘Don’t play favorites with innovative music. among musical styles that inspired them (Martin 32–7). classical. demonstrating a tendency to resist music that was popular. Instead.’’ When presented with the somewhat open-ended question ‘‘What are the most important elements of a good band to you?. When asked what elements of his favorite local bands’ music were most important. 175–7).’’ . a compromise on this issue was reached and minors were allowed into the clubs if their hands were marked with an ‘‘X.’’ several respondents who were self-identified post-punk fans refused to be pinned down. When asked in a survey ‘‘What are your three favorite bands?.’’ which meant that they were not going to drink. Cajun. Post-punk fans also described their musical tastes in ways that signified opposition to the mainstream.

. however. Shank’s argument about sincerity in live performance suggests the parameters of opposition for the performers and fans associated with the music. Applied to post-punk. the articulation of this refusal through the commodifying structures of popular culture demands a certain disciplined acquiescence. .’’ ‘‘distinct band sound. honesty’’.’’ as reasons to embrace their favorite bands (Martin 32–7). because local music. ‘‘attitude. as a cultural practice in capitalist society. Yet. . And You Voted For That GuyÓ 153 answers often included responses such as ‘‘originality and chutzpah. citing ‘‘a sincere sense of abandon’’. and ‘‘Music much more important than vocals/statement/posturing. the cultural function to which local music performance is put . Still others rejected any overt connection between music and politics. such as the night in December 1981 when a Social Distortion show that was broken up by police continued from the band’s warehouse rehearsal space in the ‘‘underbelly’’ of Orange County. Post-punk. .’’ Although one fan thought that ‘‘beer’’ was vital to a good band and another admitted a fondness for ‘‘cute’’ bands. others considered themselves in the activist/musician mode.’’ and ‘‘fuckedupness. however. remains constrained and constricted. For Shank. The extent to which this opposition can be made explicit. California (Flipside 29). . Sincerity becomes a value that can only be signified through an evident resistance of the disciplinary restraints of the dominant culture. is circumscribed by the commercial dictates of local economies. 250). . but believed post-punk could be an appropriate presence around sites of political activity—such as benefit shows. That the respondents frequently mentioned the importance of sincerity and honesty in live musical performance echoes Barry Shank’s argument that: . 146–60. furnishes numerous examples of local live music overcoming traditional commercial and social authorities.Ò. Nice guys. While some post-punk fans and performers explicitly repudiated any engagement with politics. results in a musical aesthetic organized around a postmodern concept of sincerity. Post-punk fans also valued sincerity and honesty. or saw their fandom itself as a type of political statement. musical originality was clearly prized among post-punk fans (Martin 32–7). ‘‘sincerity’’ represents a signifier of oppositional culture in the context of a local live performance scene emphasizing its independence from the mainstream music industry (xiii–xiv. .’’ ‘‘weirdness and originality.

In 1981. Tom Clancy’s novels of international intrigue such as The Hunt for Red October and Red Storm Rising epitomized a wave of bestseller fiction that buttressed American patriotism against a Soviet menace that in hindsight proved near to its ultimate demise.You’ll go quietly to boot camp/ They’ll shoot you dead make you a man’’ (Bondi 5). featuring lyrics like ‘‘Are you ready for the Third World War?/You too will meet the secret police/ They’ll draft you and draft your niece. or did not take the form of activist political agitation. The 1980s cult of militarism extended beyond foreign policy makers into popular culture. and throughout Central America became commonplace. glorified nationalistic violence. That same year.’’ This song mentioned Reagan by name and deplored the implications of Reagan’s rise to power explicitly.154 Bradford Martin Such ambivalence notwithstanding. the Dead Kennedys rewrote their song ‘‘California Uber Alles’’ and retitled it ‘‘We’ve Got A Bigger Problem Now. 39–40. post-punk musicians—when making their opinions known—consistently opposed military aggression. One observer noted that anti-militarism comprises ‘‘perhaps the most popular single theme in hardcore’’ (Bondi 10–12). As military expenditure rose and interventions in places such as Lebanon. While hardcore’s opposition to militarism may have reflected a self-interested desire to avoid military service. 9–10. MRR 34). the theme of anti-militarism was sufficiently pervasive throughout post-punk to suggest considerable skepticism toward the dominant ideological culture. the cover of Husker Du’s Land Speed Record pictured three officers overlooking several rows of military coffins with American flags draped over them (Husker Du. The Circle Jerks’ ‘‘Stars and Stripes’’ (1982) highlighted the . Post-Punk and Anti-Militarism Post-punk opposition appears most clearly in its rejection of Reagan era militarism. Often this rebellion proved inchoate. Kelley calls the ‘‘subterranean forms of everyday resistance’’ (44) that ultimately exert a subtle effect on power relations. . Post-punk and its audiences rejected Reagan/Bush conservatism in various and diverse ways. . led by Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo character. Granada. Cinematic heroes.G. Land). reflecting rather what Robin D. Mainstream culture and politics embraced the dual ideologies of militarism and nationalism that post-punk sought to oppose (Gibson 6. in a visual indictment of the consequences of militarism. post-punk musicians and fans tended toward rebellion against the dominant social and political ideals of the era of Reagan and the first George Bush.

C. as for instance. citing abridgments of civil liberties such as drug testing and the use of police roadblocks to arrest drunk drivers. Ed Norton for President’’ (Flipside 51). 18). the little publicized ‘‘Rock Against Reagan’’ hardcore tour culminated with a Fourth of July concert on the Mall in Washington. brimmed with fan letters opposing the conservative national political culture.S. the lyrics above focus obvious sarcastic criticism and humorous irony on the U. While the song’s lyrics are notoriously problematic as evidence because they often suggest multiple—and even competing—interpretations. ha you’re all gonna die/and you voted for that guy.S. Indiana who signed her letter ‘‘Somebetty’’ listed progressive organizations for fans to join such as ‘‘Women Strike for Peace’’ and ‘‘Women’s Institute for Freedom of the Press’’ (MRR 62). Post-punk aesthetics allowed for disagreement with institutional authority but sought to avoid an easy connection to any specific political position. the popular mythology of the 1960s had linked that decade’s counterculture with the antiwar movement.S. the simpleton character played by Art Carney on television’s The Honeymooners. . In addition to post-punk lyrics’ critique of militarism. Boon distributed ‘‘U. Significantly. post-punkers participated in more direct oppositional political activity. . Leftwing groups routinely erected information tables at hardcore shows (Bondi 11. D. his iconoclastic response—suggesting that Norton. A letter in Flipside from a fan named Jim deplored a ‘‘trend’’ he perceived in U. In 1982 and 1983. as well as military escalation he compared to ‘‘Nazi era Germany. Ballot). government’s militarism. politics. Even a band as overtly political as the Minutemen prefaced their 1986 live version of ‘‘Little Man With a Gun in His Hand’’ with irony: ‘‘This one’s for the Gorbachevs and the Reagans.13 Jim’s letter illustrates his antagonism against the currents of American politics more clearly than a vision of any direction that opposition might lead.Ò. And You Voted For That GuyÓ 155 consequences of nuclear proliferation and chided Reagan’s supporters: ‘‘Ha.May they sleep well tonight’’ (Minutemen.’’ (Bondi 11). (74) Fanzines. Robert Seidenberg’s account of a 1985 Minutemen show at New York City’s Peppermint Lounge notes how the band’s guitarist and songwriter D. would be a preferable presidential candidate—mines popular culture for an alternative . too. . A fan from Bloomington. . ha. Such irony commonly appears when postpunk addresses politics and reflects a legacy of 1970s punk’s critique of sentimentalism. out of Central America’’ bumper stickers and encouraged fans to boo Ronald Reagan.’’ He ended his letter admonishing: ‘‘Remember a vote for a Republican is a vote for War in ’88.

’’ ‘‘environmental issues.’’ than actually going on record and claiming any individual as a legitimately progressive political force (Martin 32–7).156 Bradford Martin to Reagan. Texas who identified Fugazi with pro-choice. For instance. fans often proved willing to identify specific political issues that they felt were important and even became engaged on their behalf. such answers constitute a repudiation of politics properly. many post-punk fans did not hesitate to identify which political causes and issues they considered most important. and anti-police brutality issues .’’ ‘‘fighting crime. such as a fan from Austin. fans rejected causes on the conservative agenda during the Reagan/Bush years. The declaration ‘‘Ed Norton for President’’ might alternately be viewed as a kind of daily act of rebellion. Support for a pro-choice position on abortion rights emerged at the forefront of post-punk fans’ concerns. there were examples of post-punk fans who embraced bands associated with particular issues. however. which often substituted for serious reflection on the possibilities of oppositional politics. Post-punk bands and fans addressed issues at the intersection of music and politics in patterns that suggest ways to unravel this complexity. while fans tended to reject any connection between their favorite bands and the political causes that they personally deemed important. for instance.’’ At the same time. and ironic irreverence complicate attempts to analyze fans’ politics. Time’s 1990 cover story depicting the ‘‘twenty-something’’ generation as politically apathetic (Gross 56–62). or emblematic of post-punk’s ironic fascination with pop culture kitsch.14 These kind of responses obviously poked fun at the question.’’ ‘‘better education. they displayed a gut-level impulse to reject any interest in politics— perhaps suggesting that post-punk might be more accurately regarded as alternative rather than oppositional—yet upon self-reflection. This ambiguity suggests a much more complex picture of post-punk fans than the mediated rhetoric of. when asked ‘‘Who is your favorite recent public figure?’’ fans more frequently produced ironic responses drawn from popular culture and crafted for ‘‘shock value. poverty. mocking the notion of reverence for public figures. Post-punk’s flirtation with kitsch. followed by ‘‘funding AIDS research. For instance. such as ‘‘war on drugs. In the context of responding to a direct request to address the relationship of music and politics. In one sense.’’ and ‘‘cutting military spending. but they also revealed a salient continuity among post-punk fans with the transgressive discourse of 1970s punk.’’ Post-punk fans ultimately exemplified ambiguous attitudes toward politics. iconoclastic tendencies.’’ and ‘‘cutting welfare spending. Paradoxically.

For instance. stylistic.’’ suggesting a general trend among post-punks (Martin 32–7). Asked to name their favorite recent President. Bands playing benefits or quietly making donations to pet projects/causes is fine. . but resistance was certainly present. . yet also affirmed music’s legitimacy as an element surrounding political activity. Singing about social/political issues that everyone already agrees on as if it were a bold or daring statement is silly. A Providence record store buyer typified this ambiguous attitude toward politically oriented music: I prefer music free of statements . while at the same time maintaining an openness to and acknowledgment of a relationship between music and politics. post-punk fans tended to disagree with mainstream America on electoral politics. It is difficult to quantify the extent to which post-punk resisted mainstream ideologies during the 1980s. and musical elements meshed to give both subcultures coherence as a way of life that resisted mainstream society (56–7). . . post-punk fans almost universally eschewed Ronald Reagan and . This fan cited his belief in the futility of bands playing overtly political songs.’’ The majority of post-punk fans approached the intersection of music and politics warily. for the most part. its subjective experience and the musical forms it uses to express and reinforce its focal concerns. While Hebdige’s concept of homology may impose too great a level unity on post-punk culture. revealing a discomfort with music that was intentionally political. Singing a song against child abuse for instance . I believe that Dick Hebdige’s discussion of ‘‘homology’’ between alternative value systems and certain forms of musical culture sheds valuable light on post-punk’s relationship to politics. political. While I certainly would not suggest that post-punk possessed a unified ‘‘Democratic Far Leftist’’ vision. Hebdige claims that in both hippie culture and punk culture. this fan described his own politics as ‘‘Democratic Far Left. Hebdige defines homology as: ‘‘the symbolic fit between the values and life-styles of a group. .Ò. Such an approach indicates an attempt to move beyond what might be described as ‘‘preaching to the converted’’ in favor of a political strategy that engages a broader audience than post-punk fans. . post-punk fits in well with this model.’’ Specifically. And You Voted For That GuyÓ 157 and one from Boston who said ‘‘Most of my favorite bands are involved with women’s issues. Interestingly.

raising questions about power relations in American society. in this way. among other aspects of post-punk politics. class. On the contrary. Fanzine letters to the editor and casual observation of audience composition at live performances indicate that post-punk’s constituency was almost exclusively white. MRR featured several letters in response to an interview with the New York City hardcore band Agnostic Front that had appeared . Although this may suggest postpunk’s rejection of the conservative Republican aesthetic of the Reagan/ Bush era as much as an oppositional cast. In 1985.15 While there were a few post-punk bands that had African-American members. and. Post-Punk. Similarly. Also. Yet post-punk musicians and fans were not indifferent to matters of race. Letters to the editor in Flipside and Maximum Rock ’n’ Roll (MRR) consistently brought discussions of race to the fore. their editorial replies generally attempted to elevate or refine the level of discourse about race that appeared in the fan letters. such bands represented an aberration. Significantly. No evidence indicates that any of these bands included a single African-American musician. while mentioning Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter considerably more often (Martin 36). Difference. Rachel Felder’s survey of ‘‘alternative music’’ contains a chapter on ‘‘American Guitar Bands. Often the letter writers were responding to letters that had appeared in previous issues. whole dialogues about race emerged in the fanzines. racial issues generated significant and often conflicting discourse in post-punk culture. post-punk musicians and fans grappled with a broader variety of issues than electoral politics. the editorial staffs of Flipside and MRR tended to print letters from fans who criticized other fans for what they deemed unenlightened racial attitudes. and gender.158 Bradford Martin the first George Bush. A review of some of the major fanzines during the 1980s shows that the only post-punk band containing African-American personnel that receives significant attention is the Bad Brains. African-American performers and fans were a rarity in post-punk. that it is important to locate post-punk as a form of white youth culture. and Power Relations Post-punk discourse habitually addressed matters of difference along lines of race.’’ featuring 40 bands that occupy similar musical territory to what the author calls ‘‘postpunk’’ (59–83). the American bands that Gina Arnold identifies as crucial in her chronicle of ‘‘punk rock’’ fandom from 1978 to 1991 are overwhelmingly white (3–228). This discourse suggests.

the editors used their editorial power to shape racial discourse to condemn racism. The allwhite Red Hot Chili Peppers fused elements of punk. expanding post-punk musically beyond its reality as a form that. By placing this British fan’s letter last in the series of letters about the Agnostic Front interview. Fans who witnessed Rock Against Reagan’s racially mixed musical lineups tried to . widening the parameters 1970s punk established. Virginia wrote: ‘‘ . and a former racist skinhead from San Francisco explained why he renounced his racist gang and his own racist attitudes (MRR 23). fans formed a group called Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice (SHARP) to counter what they saw as the mainstream media’s unfair characterization of skinheads as racist. This letter quoted a passage from the original Agnostic Front interview that amounted to a damning apologia for the National Front’s racism. The fanzines also portrayed racial prejudice as unique to a specific subgroup of skinheads in the hardcore scene. Thus. I’m sick and tired of being called a nazi and a white supremist by people who watched Oprah Winfrey and Morten Downey. spoofing the artifice of mainstream pop. Some of these letters defended Agnostic Front. a letter from a Boston fan who played in the band Idle Rich implored readers to rebut racial slurs in order to influence peers. While 1980s post-punk represented a largely white cultural form. . . drawing from 1970s punk.S. The next two letters went onto discuss racial attitudes in general. Members of Sonic Youth and Firehose collaborated as Ciccone Youth for a single album that combined punk and rap styles and covered hits by acts like Madonna and Robert Palmer. Tim Yohannan’s editorial reply. often bleached out black musical influences. .’’ The final fan letter was from a British fan who criticized Agnostic Front for defending the racism of Great Britain’s right-wing National Front. Jr.!!’’ (Flipside 57). 97–100).Ò. In 1987. reprinting a section of an interview in which band members defended U. As one female skinhead from Richmond. claiming that they could not be held responsible for the right-wing politics of certain skinhead groups in New York. Organizers of the ‘‘Rock Against Reagan’’ concerts encouraged black rap and Latino bands to perform alongside white hardcore bands. however. The Minutemen similarly deployed bass and guitar riffs from jazz and funk. funk heavy metal. military intervention in Nicaragua as an appropriate response to ‘‘Communist aggression. and rap. And You Voted For That GuyÓ 159 in a previous issue. a few people involved in post-punk self-consciously sought to change this. repudiated this defense of Agnostic Front. MRR editors privileged this letter as the debate’s most authoritative voice. . (Palmer.

While in one sense fan activism for events to promote racial unity indicated lingering racial discord. A letter to the editor in a 1985 issue of MRR from Doug. upon moving to Idaho to attend college. post-punk culture defined itself against a set of mainstream material aspirations driven by hyped media images of affluence and conspicuous consumption. Fanzines illustrated the dual post-punk ideals of anti-consumption and proletarian play.’’ Ultimately. 267). no such easy characterization existed along class lines. . . but rather that punk music thrived in the ‘‘interstices’’ of the class structure. Doug recounted his decision to reaffirm his nonconformity to mainstream society. Doug’s reaction to northern Idaho’s conservative political climate factored in his decision: . If 1980s post-punk audiences and musicians were predominantly white. punk was not the voice of unemployed youth but a strident expression of the bohemian challenge to orderly consumption (Frith 215. Frith wrote: . This was the source of punk politics. described his exposure to ‘‘punk subculture’’ in San Francisco. when he considered becoming ‘‘a contributing member of twisted society. Doug praised the tolerant nature of the Bay Area and its punk scene. He then admitted to a period of disillusionment with the scene. as young people involved in post-punk emerged from various social backgrounds. punk’s cultural significance was derived not from its articulation of unemployment but from its exploration of the aesthetics of proletarian play.’’ During the era of Reagan and Bush.160 Bradford Martin influence fans in other cities to organize similar events and to get bands to perform at benefits for causes such as Anti-Apartheid groups and Chicano/ Mexican community centers to foster racial unity (MRR 33). Simon Frith has argued that 1970s British punk did not represent the uncensored voice of white working class consciousness as some critics claimed. however. With reasoning that could equally apply to post-punk. a fan recently enrolled at the University of Idaho. Like its punk forerunners. it also reflected a growing realization in post-punk culture that its progressive impulses would be better served by musical hybridity and social intermingling with black and Latino cultural forms and communities. post-punk’s class dynamics also reflected this idea of exploring ‘‘proletarian play.

which corporations fund the contras. . Doug’s choice of villains reveals that his disaffection involved not only the prevailing Reagan era militarism. Similarly. . rich supremacy) became strongly reinforced in the eyes of myself. . not merely the subduction of society on the basis of government progress (as is exhibited by the media). The shocking. denying access to fans who lacked sufficient economic resources to see its concerts (Strauss 30). one reader responded to a previous article that suggested boycotting Coors products. corporate-control. . mind control. For Doug.’’ a publication that he promised covered ‘‘everything from the destruction of the rainforests to . I immediately observed . In a 1986 MRR. Although the courts . as he characterized the personal sacrifice involved in an oppositional stance as ‘‘resisting the fruits of Reagan’s reign’’ and described how he often encountered physical and verbal harassment for his nonconformity (MRR 23). arguing that the surcharge inflated already high ticket prices. held to a policy of only playing all ages shows and never playing at shows for a charge of greater than $6 per ticket (Arnold 52). Pearl Jam struggled with Ticketmaster’s exorbitant and inconsistent surcharges for reserving tickets. hideous truth of those in power (pro war. This refusal could be exercised whether the fan in question had parents who were doctors or capitalists or who hailed from legitimately working-class backgrounds. as being one who had opportunity to become exposed to the sources of information based on reality and humanity. as for many post-punk fans. . Post-punk attitudes toward consumerism often expressed class politics. but also what he called ‘‘rich supremacy. . (which is located in an extremely conservative part of this country). . like his previous band Minor Threat. . For many years. Ian MacKaye’s band Fugazi. sexism.Ò. I quickly regained my senses upon my arrival at the U.’’ A subsequent letter protested high ticket prices at shows by urging fans not to attend and bands not to play high-priced shows (MRR 40). informing readers of the ‘‘NATIONAL BOYCOTT NEWSLETTER.’’ Doug’s concluding words highlight what he meant by this phrase. Several bands sympathized with this position and took steps to provide access to their shows to the widest range of fans. of I. oppositional politics often involved a refusal to consume or to participate in any rituals that might be seen as class privilege. the intense brain-washing and propagandization of the government-controlled media. And You Voted For That GuyÓ 161 . racism.

It is funny that I have to speak of looking a certain way in order to be accepted in a scene that is supposed to condemn conformity (MRR 62).’’ putting ‘‘parameters around physical violence. Pearl Jam’s stand against Ticketmaster demonstrated a measure of resistance in an era when the vast majority of musical acts remained content to perform arena shows at steep ticket prices without questioning such policies. when my lip bled. someone wiped it off. I felt I had finally found a place where I belonged. In 1988. ‘‘moshing releases aggressions. I suppose I could become a skinhead girl and if I acted tough enough. It was dangerous. maybe I would be accepted that way. She considered her options for coping with the problem: . when I was knocked down someone picked me up. I was sure I was becoming part of a group that was unified and supportive. . In those days I was very optimistic. but pain was not new to me and the feeling of camaraderie in the crowd of dancers was well worth any bruises I accumulated (MRR 62).’’ Frith refers to subculture participants who do not truly belong to the working ranks of society but merely play at being working class. I thought we were going to change something and make a difference in the world .’’ Felder observed. The female hardcore fan quoted above related her growing disillusionment with the increasing violence of slam pits. .162 Bradford Martin ultimately upheld the surcharges. an anonymous female fan remarked of her initial attraction to the hardcore scene: . Slamming was a trip.’’ but also allowing young fans to express anger (87). This idea of exploring proletarian play suggests one reason why young people participated in post-punk scenes. to me it was a perfect manifestation of the chaos inside of me. but throughout post-punk. . Explaining his idea of exploring the ‘‘esthetics of proletarian play. . Fans’ experiences of post-punk’s proletarian play reflected important gender differences. When I was hit I felt the pain. . blaming skinheads for the violence. The first show I went to was great. . it was senseless. This female fan’s exhilaration with the roughness of slam dancing and the sense of community it embodied existed not only in hardcore. and by the early 1990s entered the mainstream as ‘‘moshing. .

McRobbie’s argument applies to 1980s hardcore in the U. For instance. By the late 1980s and early 1990s.S. this subversion of traditional feminine style amounted to one of post-punk’s everyday rebellions. Her letter suggests her frustration with hardcore fans’ reconstitution of traditional gender roles. McRobbie argued that punk as a youth subculture was constructed as exclusively male by cultural analysts like Hebdige and by punkers themselves. stage persona. The 1980s post-punk continued a 1970s punk trend. Babes in Toyland. Gordon’s songwriting consistently addressed issues that affect women specifically. Her argument echoed Angela McRobbie’s feminist critique of Hebdige’s discussion of 1970s punk subculture in Great Britain. The battle over women’s public sexual persona persisted as a primary concern of post-punk women. playing a variety of instruments. such as sexual harassment and anorexia. And You Voted For That GuyÓ 163 This fan criticized gender exclusionary tendencies in hardcore. Kim Gordon. as women asserted themselves musically. Furthermore. . all-women post-punk bands flourished. in postpunk outside of hardcore many women experienced expanding musical possibilities. led by L7.Ò. While female hardcore fans may have faced limitations because of gender. and songwriting themes influenced the wave of all-women bands mentioned above (Felder 77–9). . as her style. deserves special mention in this discussion of post-punk’s gender politics. who exploited her sexuality . and Bikini Kill. another female fan from Iowa City wrote to MRR recommending feminist texts by authors such as Simone De Beauvoir and Susan Brownmiller to enlighten male and female fans on gender politics (MRR 40). Hebdige 56–65). observing that such exclusivity contradicted the professed politics of hardcore. and did little to question traditional gender roles (McRobbie 66–80. given that it remained male-dominated. members of L7 remarked that they tried not to wear clothing that was too revealing because they feared that their music would not be taken seriously. Since the 1982 release of Sonic Youth’s first extended play album. questioning how radical punk subculture really was. Typical sartorial strategy for women post-punkers juxtaposed traditionally feminine clothing such as undersized ‘‘baby doll dresses’’ with tough-looking boots (Felder 77–80). and escaping the stereotypical vocalist role. For instance. Sonic Youth’s bassist. they condemned female heavy metal artist Lita Ford. almost as readily as to British punk. These bands used post-punk as a forum for wide-ranging expression and challenged gender stereotypes. In an era when mainstream popular culture aggressively buttressed patriarchy (Faludi 75–226).

which sold 3. L7’s lead vocalist and guitar player. These articles surveyed the mainstreaming of post-punk. Lollapalooza. however. wearing garter belts and pantomiming sexual intercourse with the microphone in videos. 26–7) and ‘‘Is Lollapalooza Losing Its Outsider Status?’’ (Pareles. while palpably opposing mainstream cultural politics. in 1991. British punk led by the . Major record labels rushed to sign bands previously regarded as without commercial potential. and fear of compromising artistic integrity that accompanied mainstream success.5 million copies in the last four months of that year alone (Arnold 4–5). and the Politics of Co-optation During the 1980s. The popular press lauded ‘‘Smells Like Teen Spirit. post-punk remained marginal in the marketplace as bands enjoyed little commercial success. Commercial success changed the discourse surrounding the music. Suzi Gardner.S. But why did post-punk become popular at that particular moment? Felder compares British punk circa 1977 to music in the U. After 1991. guitar-based rock ‘n’ roll music in the ‘‘post-punk’’ tradition made a quantum leap commercially led by Nirvana’s Nevermind. Of course. ‘‘Grunge’’ rock. 26). post-punk exploded into the cultural mainstream as betokened by a documentary film on the phenomenon entitled 1991: The Year That Punk Broke (Foege 219–20). that both periods of musical innovation emerged when their respective countries were mired in economic recessions. prompting articles in the mainstream press with titles such as ‘‘Alternative to What?’’ (Sullivan. as a generational anthem. anxiety about co-optation. capitalizing on the genre’s newfound popularity. According to Felder. a post-punk subgenre associated with a group of Seattle bands including Nirvana. 1991: Nirvana’s Nevermind. which had once prided itself on its challenge to mainstream popular music. spawned its own fashion trend as pricy designer lumberjack shirts reached high fashion runways.164 Bradford Martin as a ploy to increase her popularity.16 Post-punk women’s thoughtful discourse about gender representations underscored the difference between these women and women in mainstream music at the time. and that both cultural moments were ripe for a resurgence of music with a rebellious spirit.’’ the album’s hit single.’’ connoting ‘‘malfunction. arguing that both cultural moments were dominated by superstars who remained distant from their fans.’’ embodied the skepticism. implied that she felt adopting a version of female sexuality such as Ford’s would encourage fans to trivialize the band’s music (Flipside 57). In 1991. the other sense of the word ‘‘broke.

Sonic Youth’s career trajectory challenges typical arguments about ‘‘selling out’’ and cultural co-optation. and perhaps most importantly Sonic Youth. but punk and post-punk shared a sense of aggressive difference from mainstream popular music. And You Voted For That GuyÓ 165 Sex Pistols and American post-punk led by Nirvana each emerged to fill a national void (2–4). Obviously. opening cultural space for Nirvana’s popular success. Yet ‘‘underground’’ bands like Sonic Youth toiled in the 1980s fruitfully.’’ that the independently produced music of this era bubbled with creative ferment (Foege 2–3). Dinosaur Jr. and Sub Pop. The band’s early work was characterized by aural experimentations. Sonic Youth worked almost a decade to garner a fraction of the popularity that Nirvana achieved virtually overnight. some of Husker Du’s original fan base felt alienated. In 1986. Touch and Go. the band’s politics actually became more .17 Other seminal post-punk bands that signed with major labels by the end of the decade included Firehose (two-thirds of whose members were the Minutemen) the Replacements. Beginning with Goo.. Prior to signing with Geffen in 1990.Ò. Husker Du’s Bob Mould defended the move to a major label as a bid to reach a greater fan base. For instance. . one post-punk enthusiast argued that while rock ‘n’ roll music in the 1980s was often viewed as lacking innovation. arguing that the band remained true to its ideals. . As with many ‘‘overnight successes. Husker Du left SST and signed with Warner Brothers for its Candy Apple Grey album. such as tuning the band’s two guitars one-quarter note apart to produce a dissonant wall of sound. and that its conception of politics was broadening beyond the formula of topical songs. Debates such as this over the meaning of Husker Du’s major label deal were carried out in the pages of the fanzines and closely foreshadowed popular press debates in the wake of Nirvana’s success after 1991. Blast First. that the 1980s was actually ‘‘rock music’s most fertile decade. the major labels had caught on to the music’s commercial potential.’’ closer analysis suggests the deeper roots and gradual development of the post-punk phenomenon. and impressionistic lyrics often delivered with an ironic distance that resisted cogent interpretation. and SST. In the wake of this signing. and charged the band with ‘‘selling out’’ and abandoning its politics. each addressing individual issues (MRR 33). this analysis is more suggestive than scientific. by the late 1980s. Sonic Youth’s 1990 major label debut. While many of post-punk’s most influential bands started out on independent labels like SST. Sonic Youth was affiliated with a number of independent labels such as Homestead.

Dave argued . . .166 Bradford Martin overt. I don’t. but the things that we hate. namely.’’ clearly reflect oppositional political ideas (Macnie 14. people talk about bands all being generically political. . Along with increasing major label interest in ‘‘underground’’ music.’’ and praised them for broadening the reach of their message. Patrick urged fans to pool their ‘‘collective power together against the system’’ as a strategy for survival (MRR 23). war. and selecting Nirvana as the opening act on its 1991 European tour (Azerrad 162. Finally. Foege 218–9). A shared political outlook helped this community to cohere.’’ echoing McRobbie’s argument. cops and governments. nuclear holocaust. People think that enough has been said about Ronald Reagan. Felder 74–7. and as long as they keep pulling their shit. Much of this had to do with Kim Gordon’s emerging feminist voice on songs like ‘‘Swimsuit Issue’’ and ‘‘Tunic (Song for Karen). .’’ advocating moving beyond political lyrics that simply preached to the converted. Patrick of Colorado Springs defended the presence of politics in post-punk: . most notably ‘‘Youth Against Fascism. etc. Foege 207). Sonic Youth also aided Nirvana’s success from a standpoint of networking and personal contacts within the music industry. another factor contributed to the cultural moment that enabled Nirvana’s commercial breakthrough. Well. So why should I not sing about what sucks and what should be done about it just because others feel the same way and have voiced their opinions before me? That’s dumb. Many of the letters to the editor in the fanzines actively tried to promote unity among fans. have not gone away. a coalescing sense of identity among post-punk fans.’’ but some of guitarist Thurston Moore’s songs. A lot has been said and a lot of people have been working really hard. Patrick proceeded to defend the Dead Kennedys against charges of ‘‘selling out. Another fan named Dave called for a move to ‘‘other directions of political work. we’ll keep fighting any way we know how. Sonic Youth’s increasing politicization after signing to a major label serves at the very least as a caveat to the idea that bands automatically become co-opted by signing to a major. cops and government . Punks keep saying the same thing because the fucking system keeps playing the same fucking game. He also cautioned fans not to fall into what he called the ‘‘subculture trap.. providing a liaison with a Geffen A & R man in 1990.

18. Pareles. offering to compile a contact list of fans’ addresses so that ‘‘serious political punks’’ could ‘‘get together and start talking. Regardless of whether the politics of Lollapalooza were radical or reformist. ‘‘Is Lollapalooza’’ II: 26.18 Young post-punk fans consistently differentiated themselves from 1960s youth. Leland 55. Although it is ultimately impossible to prove why post-punk music became popular after Nirvana’s success in 1991. a Day’’ C11–2. Drozdowski 2 : 12–4). the lead singer of Jane’s Addiction. Farley 17). Pond II: 28. The festival also featured information display tables sponsored by various political and social action groups. While some have claimed that information tables emphasizing non-radical political initiatives such as voter registration and condom distribution are evidence of post-punk’s mobilization for a more reformist political use. Farrell and his partners organized a lineup of seven bands and announced a tour to 17 different locations in the U. The initial Lollapalooza proved successful. post-punks also defined their politics in contrast to previous generations. ‘‘Lollapalooza.’’ Besides the kind of opposition to the dominant political culture evident in the ‘‘Rock Against Reagan’’ concerts and ‘‘I hate Ronnie’’ contests. the first Lollapalooza tour helped solidify the post-punk community’s self-image. Pareles. as Newsweek referred to Lollapalooza as ‘‘A Woodstock for Post-Punks’’ (Pareles. the festival’s success promoted a feeling of generational cohesion. and made a plea for a more inclusive post-punk community. but a shared culture of opposition most likely also figured in its breakthrough. . In the summer of 1991. such as voting. drawing large crowds to listen to a ten-hour show of varied musical fare in which post-punk received prominent representation. Watrous C13–5. Tattoos’’ C13. 17. Pareles. did not preclude rebellious music. ‘‘Lollapalooza. this also suggests that the post-punk community began to realize that participation in traditional politics. Even the mainstream press appreciated this heightened sense of community.S. . and several of Farrell’s associates involved in music management. ‘‘Lollapalooza’94’’ I: 13. several factors converged serendipitously at that moment. Letters from fans cite examples of 1960s radicals who have renounced their politics and ‘‘traded in their lovebeads for three-piece suits’’ (MRR 23. Increasing major label attention and the cohesion of post-punk fans through festivals such as Lollapalooza and The International Pop Underground Convention (Arnold 164–6) contributed to post-punk’s rising popularity.Ò. The Lollapalooza festival was the brainchild of Perry Farrell. Rock writer Jon Garelick compared . And You Voted For That GuyÓ 167 that post-punk was vulnerable to charges that it was exclusive and maledominated.

Despite this. combined with Bill Clinton’s election. there are cultural antecedents. In a recent up-tempo punk-pop . the compatibility of a musical form with commercial success in one epoch does not necessarily negate the oppositional stance it projected as it cohered in another. If Garelick was right. my first thought was. Certainly.’ had gone to number one the first week of 1992. citing Jon Landau’s memorable review of John Wesley Harding. Articles such as one entitled ‘‘Alternative To What?’’ point out that this supposedly rebellious cultural form was easily retrofitted to sell Subarus and Miller beer. That commercial enterprises mobilized a musical form that only a few years before the industry had regarded as lacking commercial potential illustrates capitalism’s capacity for overcoming aesthetic obstacles as well as those of time and space.’’19 Don Henley sings: ‘‘Out on the road today/I saw a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac. such as acts like Fabian and Frankie Avalon that represented a ‘‘watered-down’’ version of Elvis Presley. This premonition proved correct. then Nirvana’s rage on Nevermind may have constituted one of those important acts of everyday rebellion that ultimately wielded a cumulative effect on power relations. as the greatest number of young people to vote in a Presidential election since 1972 turned out to vote George Bush out of office. the Stone Temple Pilots.’’ and suggesting that they were part of a rush to imitate a successful musical form once it proved popular. ‘Bush will not be reelected’ ’’ (Arnold 5). The success of post-punk. In perhaps the most memorable lyric of his mid-1980s hit ‘‘Boys of Summer. such as Pearl Jam. It was not surprising that advertisers and the mainstream music industry sought to cash in on post-punk’s commercial success. Writers in the mainstream music press questioned the authenticity of some of the most popular ‘‘alternative’’ acts.168 Bradford Martin Nirvana’s Nevermind to Bob Dylan’s 1967 John Wesley Harding album. Garelick contended that Nevermind exhibited a similar consciousness about the 1991 Persian Gulf War during which Nirvana recorded the album (2: 16). or ‘‘alternative’’ music as the recording industry came to call it. an album whose first line is ‘Load up on drugs and bring your friends. which argued that although Dylan does not mention the Vietnam War explicitly. As one Nirvana biographer wrote. shifted the cultural context in which the music operated. ‘‘When I heard that Nevermind. and Blind Melon. a ‘‘profound awareness’’ of the war and its consequences on American life could be felt throughout the album. criticizing the ‘‘second-rate imitators.’’ exemplifying a 1980s popular culture trend of bashing 1960s idealists as sellouts engaged in a headlong capitulation to materialist values.

the Ataris morph the line to: ‘‘Out on the road today/I saw a Black Flag sticker on a Cadillac.’’ 4. 2. Rapper Chuck D of Public Enemy contributed an effective cameo performance on this track (Foege 209). Black Flag—along with countless post-punk musicians and fans of similar bands—constituted an authentic voice of opposition. In my discussion of how fans may have experienced post-punk in ways that transcended record industry control. a voice unwilling to yield to Reagan era militarism and cultural conservatism.’’ The dominant reading of the Ataris’ variant suggests that formerly oppositional post-punks have become as morally bankrupt and crassly materialistic as the 1960s sellouts Henley lamented. . I take my cue from Shank. ‘‘Ultimately. majorstudio produced music. 6. that concludes. ‘‘Econo’’ is the Minutemen’s term of choice for describing the do-ityourself production ethic. Sonic Youth’s 1990 Goo LP contained a track entitled ‘‘Kool Thing. And You Voted For That GuyÓ 169 remake of this song. . The letters to the editor in Maximum Rock‘N’Roll 23 (1985) are representative of fans’ debates surrounding the issue of American intervention in Nicaragua. This stands in contrast to high-budget. Listening to the recent Green Day. Bondi ascribes political opposition to Reagan conservatism to a ‘‘small group of marginalized young people’’ (2).’’ which foreshadowed this kind of musical hybrid.M. 3. Clearly. this outward focus represents part of post-punk’s usable past and a needed component of a music of resistance in this ‘‘preemption’’ era of American foreign and military policies. Arnold’s personal memoir of her experience as a fan of American indie rock includes a discussion of R. Blink 182. it’s clear that these musicians would do well to look outward. Yet. which many post-punk fans and performers viewed as inauthentic and/or insincere.E. Notes 1.’s feet. who criticizes analyses of popular music that privilege recording industry practices: .’s influence on the genre’s trajectory toward commercial success.E. you can lay it all at R. 5.M. and Sum 41 cycle of punk pop. an alternate reading would acknowledge that. The identification of these four elements of 1970s punk’s influence on post-punk owes much to the section entitled ‘‘The Case of Punk’’ (Frith 158–63). in its time. which is designed to keep production costs low and punk authenticity high. and to find a larger structural context with which to link their personal frustrations.Ò.

That so many resisted answering in the most straightforward way may also indicate that they felt unsure of post-punk’s boundaries and did not want to risk appearing ignorant by choosing a band that they felt might not classify as post-punk. who refers to ‘‘the continuing tendency to depict independent labels as heroic underdogs even though the structural relationship between independents and majors has long since been transformed’’ (Garofalo. 8. . Most music critics have interpreted ‘‘Death Valley’69’’ and ‘‘Expressway to Your Skull’’ as a critique of violence in American culture (Passantino 78. 7. . . Ironically. 9. thereby contributing to the reification of music and the ideological dominance of the concept of a music industry . I received 22 completed questionnaires.’’ and he laments the fact that ‘‘too often the study of the recording industry has stood in for the study of popular music’’ (204). 11. I distributed the questionnaire in record stores. 10. Watrous. then. . these studies . . This piece of language is borrowed from Reebee Garofalo. Thus. ‘‘Sonic’’ 85. rather than quantitative. All Rights Reserved. Post-punk displayed resonance and meaning for fans and performers that extended beyond the music industry’s purview. reduce the human performance of musical sound to the practices of the recording industry. Out of the approximately 100 questionnaires I distributed. to musicians. post-punk fans were expressing this view at precisely the moment their music had become popular. Because of the relatively small size of this sample. The first question in the ‘‘Post-Punk/Alternative Music Questionnaire’’ was intended to be simple to answer and to ease the respondents into engaging their music intellectually. ’’ He contends that such accounts run the risk of conflating ‘‘the production of music with the production of records. Used by Permission. using the ethnographic technique of ‘‘snowball sampling’’ (Margolis). . . the questionnaires received relatively wide geographic distribution. [I]n their focus on the systematic production and exchange of recorded commodities. It is difficult to interpret Sonic Youth’s fetish with the Manson killings. ‘‘Themselves’’ Written by Dennes Boon Ó New Alliance Music (BMI)/ Administered by BUG. I also envisioned it as an opportunity for respondents to proclaim allegiance to bands that possessed special meaning to them. My observations about post-punk fans draw liberally from a ‘‘PostPunk/Alternative Music Questionnaire’’ I distributed in 1995 as part of my research for a Master’s Thesis in American Studies at the University of Massachusetts/Boston. Rockin’ 367). the questionnaire results are useful mainly as qualitative. and to employees in clubs that served as live performance venues for post-punk music.170 Bradford Martin ‘‘ . Foege 119–23). evidence.

14. 19. but peaked in 1985. see ‘‘What th’ fuck!!!. . Azerrad. For debate on the meaning of Husker Du’s signing to Warner Brothers. Michael.’’ he offers an excoriating critique of music video as a cultural form (345–9). The comment about trading love beads for three-piece suits was a tacit reference to ex-Yippie radical Jerry Rubin. In Marcus’s article ‘‘Born Dead. . along with ‘‘Madonna’s left breast. 18. Route 666: On the Road to Nirvana. Simpson trial. ‘‘Feeding the Noise Back Into the System: Hardcore.’’ a column featuring an interview with Bob Mould. . 1993. two of the most renowned and enduring fanzines. 16. And You Voted For That GuyÓ 171 12. Another emblematic example of the cynical attitude in much of 1980s popular culture toward 1960s idealism was the 1986 hit film The Big Chill. I reviewed dozens of issues of Flipside and Maximum Rock’n’Roll.’’ New England American Studies Association Conference Paper.’’ and Sonny Bono. There were fan letters that expressed a conservative point of view printed in the pages of MRR and Flipside. in MRR 33. 17. Bondi. reaching the Top 10. Hip Hop.Ò. May 1993. whose abandonment of radicalism for a new career on Wall Street was much celebrated in the popular media as an example of 1960s activism’s demise. who had severed the genitals of her abusive and unfaithful husband. and Lorena Bobbit. For a critical view of Lita Ford’s representation of femininity. see the Sut Jhally’s documentary video Dreamworlds (1990). For this study. One of Marcus’s main arguments is that music video is a form that seems to encourage insincerity. ‘‘What Th’ What Th’ Fuck’’ in MRR 34 (1986). and Heavy Metal. Martin’s. 15.J. New York: Doubleday. 13. the freeloading houseguest in the O. These letters were used as a foil for the editors to elevate their own oppositional views at the expense of fans with more conservative views. and Ruth Schwartz. 1994. Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana. The song debuted on the Top 40 charts at the end of 1984. For instance. Gina. 2–25. Frith develops a detailed discussion of how the structure of commercial radio mitigates against musical innovation (117–26). Works Cited Arnold. some of the responses included Kato Kaelin. but the editors of these fanzines consistently used their editorial power to refute the positions these letters expressed. New York: St. Vic.

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