About ten years ago, when I was in The Black Math Experiment, I made a prediction. As a band we used to dress in shirts, slacks and ties. When we handed out flyers, we did it as mock moral majority protesters with menacing nonsense slogans on our signs. I remember telling some reporter that the conservative look was where punk rock was going. Dress like a young Republican and people would cross the street to get the hell away from you. Much more effective than safety pins and mohawks if you were looking to make an uneasy impression.
I just meant the clothes, though. I never thought that actual conservatism would try to become the new punk rock. It needs to die. The lawyers want me to tell you I mean this metaphorically.
Looking back on punk rock with hindsight, you can see that there were always going to be some problems in this regard. Most English and American punk was overwhelmingly male and white, though you of course had bands like Bad Brains and Death. Johnny Ramone turned into a Bush-worshiping lap dog before he died, and Johnny Rotten’s been calling Trump a “friend” being smeared as a racist by the left-wing media so he’s bloody useless. Thank God for Henry Rollins.
And locally, thank God for James McDowell II of Gen Why, who has a new EP, Rotten Few, coming out November 9. Earlier this year he famously went off on white power advocates that invaded a punk show at White Oak Music Hall, and has been waging a minor online war against Proud Boys ever since. It didn’t come to blows, but not for lack of trying on McDowell’s part. The disturbing thing, though, is how welcome the white nationalists seem to think themselves in the punk scene. Half the time, they aren’t even wrong. There are a ton of punk and metal bands in Houston I no longer check in with anymore because their members turned into authoritarians completely beholden to the American military and conspiracy theories about political correctness run amok. These days, whenever I see a friend of a friend on Facebook denouncing the rape allegations against Brett Kavanaugh or antifa, too often they’re holding a guitar on a Houston stage in their profile pic.
The simmering bigotry is troubling, but beyond all that is how thoroughly un-punk so much of what goes under that label has become. There’s anger, but it’s the anger of the privileged being left behind rather than the downtrodden fighting back. White dudes upset that life hasn’t been their oyster attack marginalized groups instead of the system that keeps their dreams from being fulfilled. I’m reminded of something Lindsay Ellis said when she was deconstructing Rent , how its bohemian pretentions were at odds with the fact that Broadway ticket prices generally mean the audience is mostly the one percent, and they have to be very carefully challenged lest they take their money elsewhere. The result is something bratty, not revolutionary, because the people doing the yelling want to benefit, not destroy.
Punk rock that aggressively upholds the traditional hierarchies like heteronormativity or white supremacy is weak bullying. It’s just the illusion of rebellion while holding onto all the perks of the system.
I just finished reading Tim Mohr’s book Burning Down the Haus, which is about the rise of punk rock in East Germany in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Your average 21st century free speech whinger doesn’t have anything on these kids. They went to prison or were beaten in the streets for their music. The Honecker government waged an all-out war on punk rock as an enemy of the state that didn’t until after the Berlin Wall fell. Teenage girls (East German punk was far more gender equal than ours) had secret police files. These were kids who saw the absolute power of their dictatorship, knew full well the terrible consequences of defying it and yet did so in the most public way possible.
Punks in Fred Perry shirts with a few Jordan Peterson videos queued up on their smart phones don’t have a clue. They equate being called a racist with censorship and see society’s growing apathy for their dull hatred as a conspiracy. They aren’t under threat, partially because they are a great recruiting tool for angry young men. They make the entrenched power structure look rebellious and cool. It's an age-old trick of painting the establishment look like the underdog.
Antifa was a big part of the East German punk scene. Though the government was ostensibly founded on anti-Nazi ideas, that didn’t stop soccer hooligans and other deplorables from invoking Hitler’s gas chambers when they went to war on the punks. The government saw the rise of neo-fascism in their borders and they did nothing because the punks were seen as a greater threat to power. Sort of like how our government is so keen to let fascists run wild while drafting antifa bills despite the outright murder the former has committed.
Antifa holds conservatives with bigot-boners accountable, and when you live under a regime that builds concentration camps for immigrant children and rolls back gender-sex minority protections that becomes the enemy. Conservative punks disguise themselves as freedom fighters when they’re just stormtroopers for the establishment. Considering what Donald Trump says he wants to do with journalists that criticize him, I’m in way more danger from writing this article than any conservative punk is from the dreaded PC police.
Times like this I’m really mourning the loss of Giant Kitty, who stood up loud and proud and carved a big Fuck You in the Houston music scene before the Cassandra and Trinity Quirk relocated to the Pacific Northwest. They wanted to inspire the marginalized to take back the scene by their example. We’ve got some bands,* but I have no idea if it’s enough to hold back the regressives who want to cosplay punk while pissing on everything it ever meant.
If you’re singing about how the leftists are keeping you down, unplug your guitar and take several seats. The right is large and in charge in this country, and if you’re going to sing their propaganda you’re less punk that Raffi. Conservative punk is classic rock for the soul-denuded. It has nothing but empty anger. English punk lamented No Future, East German punk fought Too Much Future, but American conservative punk is All Past. It’s a dead body the scene is chained to, and we need to cut it loose.
*For the record, I want to hear more unapologetically anti-fascist bands, so please, get in touch for coverage.
Keep the Houston Press Free... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Houston with no paywalls.