Thu. November 8
Punk Rock’s Moment
With the re-election of President Obama, punk rock (and perhaps the arts as a whole) has an opportunity to become relevant again. Liberalism has become a slow-moving target for a clever satirist, and some of the smartest satirists I’ve ever known have come out of punk rock.
Punk is often considered an anarchic or at least liberal art form, but politically it has been all over the map. Most famously there was Johnny Ramone, the right-wing guitarist for the Ramones. And while the famous Washington, D.C., harDCore scene, once lead by Fugazi, was–is?–full of left-wing activism, the “straight edge” philosophy of some of the band–no booze no drugs–could almost be considered monastic. The Replacements was always more about parties and poetry than elections.
Arguably the greatest satirical punk band of all time was the Dead Kennedys. To be sure, the band and especially its leader Jello Biafra are not Republicans; Biafra, a Green Party member, was last seen at an Occupy event in New York City. But in its prime, the DKs did something that liberal artists these days seem incapable of: they questioned their own beliefs. In songs like “Hop with the Jet Set” and “Where Do Ya Draw the Line?” the group second-guessed left-wing dogma. It mocked celebrity worship. It expressed healthy self-deprecation. And it did so in a style of high literacy and humor. Hearing the DKs today makes Green Day sound like Britney Spears.
Satirical art has collapsed under Obama. The left is afraid to touch its messiah, and the right is reduced to silly gestures like doing “freedom raps” and other ham-fisted foolishness. When I was coming up in the 1980s, punk groups like Fugazi, Husker Du, the Replacements and the Dead Kennedys meant energy, passion, and, sometimes, political activism. But they also meant self-reflection and aiming the lance at even your own sacred cows. I can think of nothing more energizing for the current arts than to take on the assumptions of liberals–because let’s face it, politically correct spoofing of the right is done and done. Huge, depersonalized bureaucracies, a Messiah-King leader, the cartoonish Hollywood love fest–in capable hands this stuff can be made into comedy gold.
After the election I came across one of my old favorite songs, the Dead Kennedy’s “Where Do Ya Draw the Line?” It’s from 1986 but deserves to be quoted at length, as an example of what a sharp-witted, reflective, and thinking artist can do. It even predicts Obama worship:
Seems like the more
I think I know
The more I find I don’t
Every answer opens up so many questions
Anarchy sounds good to me
Then someone asks, “Who’d fix the sewers?”
“Would the rednecks just play king
Of the neighborhood?”
How many liberators
Really want to be dictators
Every theory has its holes
When real life steps in
So how do we feed
And make room for
All the people crowded on our earth
And transfer all that wealth
From the rich to those who need it
Where do ya draw the line
Where do ya draw the line
I’m not telling you I’m asking you
Ever notice hard line radicals
Can go on star trips too
Where no one’s pure and right
“I’m cleansed of the system.”
(‘Cept when my amp needs electric power)
Or-”The Party Line says no.
Feminists can’t wear fishnets.”
You wanna help stop war?
Well, we reject your application
You crack too many jokes
And you eat meat
What better way to turn people off
Than to twist ideas for change
Into one more church
That forgets we’re all human beings
Where do ya draw the line?
Young punks, you have your homework.