The phrases “punk rock” and “Donald Trump” now appear in the same sentence. If you remember Trump in the nineties or the “greed is good” eighties—hawking pizza, bungling real estate deals, flashing celebrity kitsch—this will come as a shock (assuming shock is still an available reflex by the time you read this piece).
“Donald Trump is going to make punk rock great again,” Amanda Palmer announced at a press conference this winter, and then proceeded to drop the news that she and her husband, the author Neil Gaiman, would ditch the United States just in time for Trump’s inauguration.
“Being an optimist . . . there is this part of me—especially having studied Weimar Germany extensively—I’m like, ‘This is our moment,’” the musician said, after jetting off to Australia on a five-year visa reserved for people with “distinguished talent.”
Palmer was hardly the only one to spout this sentiment, of course. Women, people of color, immigrants, Muslims, the LGBT community, people who don’t make a lot of money, Jews, the press, and the environment are all in the crosshairs of the new administration—but look on the bright side. Haven’t you heard? With all that bigotry to rail against, protest music is going to be huge.
Surely Trump can’t be punk. But what about our tepid prophecies that punk will thrive in Trump’s America—can they?
And then, on the other side of disbelief suspended, there are the right-wingers who hail Trump himself as punk rock incarnate, a system-smashing frother with zero fucks to give. He bends for nobody and nothing, they say, except his pure, trembling passions—which in his case happen to be making money and sucking up adulation, but still.
I’ve likened the conversation about what punk “is” to a Talmudic debate that knows no end. In Trump, we may have finally found a limit case. Surely he, a mawkish, grudging, game-show-hosting corporate flunky choked by his own vanity, can’t be punk. But what about our tepid prophecies that punk will thrive in Trump’s America—can they?
A better question would leave aside all these squabbles over authenticity and ask not what Trump can do for punk, but whether punk can somehow help us topple a key pillar of Trump’s strength: the dangerous sentimentality of mass entertainment and nostalgia.
After the Ramones, Sex Pistols, Damned, Clash, and Patti Smith supposedly saved rock music from “dinosaurs” like Yes and Jethro Tull, after Seymour Stein realized that punk and the other sounds it spawned sold better when he called it “new wave,” and after a couple years of bands making a handful of great albums under shitty conditions and closing out the 1970s, punk had to deal with Reagan and Thatcher, and it had to do it largely without record companies or big corporations caring.
Now that we’re supposedly headed back to the “Gold-Plated ’80s,” maybe it’s a good time to remember that, at its best, punk was never great; it was merely urgent.
Something I’ve probably been waiting since I was fourteen to say, but that makes me feel awkward as hell to type out in my thirties: Jello Biafra was right. Listen to Dead Kennedys’ 1980 album Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, twist a couple of the references to make them more current, and you’ve got 2017. It has everything: class warfare (“Kill the Poor”), smug liberals who just want everything to be chill (“California Über Alles”), and people taking, watching, or reading whatever will tune out reality (“Drug Me”). Biafra, in his anti-singer voice, was trying to be humorous about how horrible things were while also commenting on how much worse they could get. It all seems eerily relevant today. A lot of songs from the era do.
But it’s important to note where that eeriness comes from: the power of hindsight. Yes, it turns out that the Subhumans had a pretty good point when they screamed, “We’re going nowhere,” but when you lift the music out of the myth, you hear not arrogance but raw desperation.
Discharge urged us to “Protest and Survive,” not “Protest and Make Yourself Legend.”
If you want your new art to feel confidently prescient in the here and now, rather than searching or risky or improvised, then you’re just asking for a bunch of fake prophets to blow smoke in your face. Discharge urged us to “Protest and Survive,” not “Protest and Make Yourself Legend.”
When Amanda Palmer says that punk can only now be vital again, she makes it sound like we’ve all just been sitting around and waiting for permission (or more to the point, a gap in the market). Fast-fashion marketers may have swooped in years ago to co-opt and mythologize the punk music of the seventies, but why should we suddenly rush to join them in believing that iconoclasm can be iconic? Why do the marketers’ work for them?
Let’s face it—unless the consumerist world order crumbles soon, the music we make in protest now could easily, a few decades down the line, end up tinkling over the speakers of an antiseptic big-box store. That’s all the more reason to stop worrying about how our anti-Trump music will sound to the future and start listening to the people who have been busting their asses all along trying to make change. Our imaginations have been hamstrung by the sentimentality of the booming punk nostalgia industry. And wasn’t it nostalgia—for a fantasy past devoid of automation, feminism, secularism, and most of all, multiculturalism—that got America into this mess in the first place?