Negotiating Punk Rock: Searching for Liberatory Values in a Conflicted Culture

 

By Alexander N. Riccio

The intersections of privilege and oppression have never been starker for me than the years I attempted to infiltrate Atlanta’s underground rock n’ roll scene. On the surface it appeared that the community united under shared connections through drugs, music, sex, and rebellion; but under the sheen of commonality was a matrix of divisions, prejudices, subordination, and self-destruction.

The moment I remember deciding I wanted to participate in Atlanta’s musical culture was when I witnessed the performance of one of the city’s preeminent garage bands, the Black Lips. Noted for the debauchery, snottiness, and frenetic joy of their stage shows (manifested in one member’s urinating into his own mouth); this band had me hooked. I have always responded to the attitude and culture of punk, connecting it with my own feelings of marginalization and frustration, but with the Black Lips I was reminded that punk could be an outlet for fun, for freedom, and for admiration. They were the unlikeliest of cool kids with their silly cut-off shorts, ratty t-shirts, and purposely dumb act; I wanted to be part of that club.

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I encountered the members of the Black Lips a number of times, as well as other prominent Atlanta bands and cool insiders, like label owners and music writers. Typically I wasn’t shunned to the side or treated poorly by this large cast of characters. On the contrary, I found my small frame and “hipster” style to be the perfect costume for acceptance (key word: costume), and the bits of cultural capital I possessed (such as listening to the “right” punk bands, and being influenced by the most obscure sources) was equivalent to receiving a passport to enter a foreign land. I should qualify that such cultural capital wasn’t easy or automatic. Plenty of admonishments for not knowing a certain artist or purchasing an unpunk guitar were levied at me: “Really? You’ve never listened to The Gories?” But I learned from these negative reinforcements quickly, and many nights were spent poring over online content discovering the likes of Billy Childish and Teisco guitars to ensure I didn’t make the same faux pas twice. I also had all the right ingredients outside of the superficial to be a “true” punk: poor, working a menial job, and a bit of a screw-up. Such was the template of an Atlanta punk rocker, and all the individuals participating in the cultural scene were comprised of these pieces to ensure that they belonged. At least that is how it appeared initially. It was when I began to know the population better that I started gaining a real insight into just who these people were, and what forces were at play in their dominance and domination.

I grew up, as Howard Zinn would say, class conscious. Though the development of my consciousness went through phases (or Bobbi Harro might charge required multiple interruptions during the cycle of socialization), there were no times in my life where I didn’t recognize that my family’s absence of capital was a major factor in our daily operations. I even recall being so cognizant of this reality that in middle-school when our entire grade organized an overnight field trip, I didn’t bother to ask my mom for the $200 required to participate. No one had to tell me we didn’t have the extra money; I knew it. The dissonance between my reality as a child of a poor working class mother and the societal messages I was receiving during the phases of socialization was a primary factor in determining the path I chose to take—what Harro points out as a “critical incident that makes oppression impossible to ignore,” (51) except in my case it was not limited to a single incident but a series of life experiences. What seemed to band together Atlanta’s underground rock scene was a shared class, one where we were all in subpar housing, working in restaurants, and living hand to mouth. This sense was so pervasive that it almost seemed correct, in a strange way, to just dive in and forget about the future. Just get a job flipping pizzas and play rock n’ roll, that’s all you need. Not coincidentally, this is exactly what I did, and as I struggled to juggle jobs and money with a commitment to playing shows and all the effort that is needed for that venture I couldn’t help but thinking I was even more of a screw-up than I initially imagined. How were these other musicians able to get by so effortlessly and play shows all the time when I could barely pay my rent and feed myself due to all the sacrifices I made to play music? Sacrifices like giving up shifts at work for practice or shows, chipping in to purchase merchandise material like stickers and t-shirts, and paying to record music even on supposedly cheap equipment; what were they doing differently?

As I started gaining insights into the backgrounds and lifestyles of the musicians around me, the class divisions and privileges began to become evident. I learned that one member of the Black Lips, now recognized as Atlanta’s most successful garage-punk band, is the son of an evangelical pastor who heads the largest mega-church in the entire South East region. Another member of this quartet was born into a musical family of professors and accomplished performers; granting him both material protection and creative stimulants for his future endeavors in rock n’ roll. And these class privileges were not unique to the Black Lips, all around me when I looked at successful bands or ones that had solidified a reputation within the tight-knit Atlanta clique I found constant positions of privilege and comfort that afforded a safety net for the individuals involved. I do not suggest that these bands didn’t work hard for their accomplishments, the Black Lips in particular exemplify a strong work-ethic and perseverance; however, the buffer from complete destitution class privilege affords is a tremendous advantage in the pursuit of creative expression. Even within my own band these class distinctions were apparent. At a time when I could no longer deny that I had hit a brick wall and the lifestyle I had committed to was impossible for me to maintain, I attempted—just once—to convey my sense of imprisonment and dispossession to my closest bandmate. After explaining that I felt despair over deciding to discontinue my education in order to be in a full-time band, and feared I was doomed to a life of service sector labor, he told me in a clumsy attempt at encouragement to “stop being so serious, you’re not going to be stuck making pizzas forever.” He was not callous, but he couldn’t relate to my situation of having no back-up, no education, and no easy means of acquiring skills to lift me out of poverty. He came from a life of relative affluence, educated in private schools, and effectively mandated by familial expectations to obtain a degree, and while he lived alongside me in a culture of self-destruction and largely imposed poverty he could escape anytime he wanted, whereas I did not have such an option.

Of course not every band was class privileged, but what was clear was that, while on the surface it appeared we existed on the same plane of opportunity, the self-destructive lifestyles and shabby attire of the music scene was just a façade meant to keep up appearances. A lot of these punkers were purposely engaging in self-destructive behavior for no better reason than to keep up with expectations. Something like the inverse of what Gregory Mantsios described when discussing class in the U.S. was occurring in the Atlanta punk scene. Instead of clothing disguising the poverty that exists in the U.S. that Mantsios points out makes us appear to be a “middle-class” (152) society, Atlanta punkers were masking their wealth by dressing down, purposely putting themselves into precarious circumstances, and engaging in self-destructive behavior.

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Certain traits had become mythologized; to come from a class of struggles and hardships earned one the respect of what was once a true-grit, subaltern community of misfits and miscreants trying to connect and negotiate their worlds. Yet, through years of cooptation and commodification, this once sincere art form had been perverted so much that even on the micro-level of a city like Atlanta the images and connotations of punk rock had thoroughly influenced would-be artists to a point where they internalized the messages and attempted to play out the scripts they thought they were supposed to perform. I was not untouched by such messages as well.

Pushing pass the illusions on the surface, there are inherent contradictions in rock n’ roll for those committed to social justice. For anyone unfamiliar with the lyrical content of an average rock n’ roll song, particularly of the garage and punk variety, one thing that cannot be overemphasized is this: they are not kind to women. This is of course a generalization, but in particular vogue within underground rock scenes today (or at least in Atlanta) is an overt nostalgia for anything 50s, 60s, and 70s, and these eras of rock carried the most blatant sexist overtones. From the pedophilic suggestiveness of Chuck Berry, to the sadomasochistic brash of Mick Jagger, and the oozing hyper-sexuality of Iggy Pop; rock n’ roll has made central the objectification of women, which has contributed to what Caroline Heldman identifies as women’s tendency to “self-objectify, [to] view one’s body as a sex object to be consumed by the male gaze” (347).

Iggy-Pop

Just glance at Jagger’s own words for an illustration: “Under my thumb, she’s the sweetest, hmm, pet in the world; It’s down to me, the way she talks when she’s spoken to; Down to me, the change has come, she’s under my thumb.” Nothing much to revere in such plain chauvinism, but damn! do these guys know how to make a song really move. Sitting down with my cheap guitar (the one I opted for after learning my Ibanez was not acceptable), I used to try for hours to emulate the emotive qualities of such songwriters without recognizing the inherent subordination of women that took place in both the words and practices of such icons. I found myself constantly trying to conjure up the sexual, the offensive, and the degrading so that I could incorporate them into what I thought would be a true-to-form rock number. What I struggled with all the while was a slight awareness of the inauthenticity of my words. I’ve never considered myself much of a sexist even before my awareness on the matter increased, but here I was referring to women as foxes and saturating my lyrics with sexual innuendo and heightened virility. Perhaps this could be an experience in the dysconscious, as Kimberly Roppolo identifies as the ingrained consciousness of society that renders forms of racism (and sexism) completely invisible (73), but I think that would be letting myself off the hook a bit too easily. I recognized the sexism, but I denied or rationalized its presence. My motivation centered on an attempt to blend in, to be accepted, and to be (as juvenile as it might sound) cool. These superficialities guided me toward so many attitudes and behaviors that I should have had a mind to protest, but instead I found myself blurring the reality of both a class-blind and male-dominated culture.

Lyrics were not the only area where women were subjected to a male gaze. Something transparent (even often times acknowledged) in rock n’ roll is the utter lack of female performers. These things have changed in some significant ways, particularly with the rise of Riot Grrrl punk popularized in the 90s, and Atlanta’s music scene does include a handful of all-female rock bands, but the fact remains that men comprise the majority of rock n’ roll performers in both the underground and mainstream markets. Additionally, a pervasive tendency to infantilize women rock n’ roll performers is solidly intact within the Atlanta culture. Certain modalities of this phenomenon in rock n’ roll are analogous to what Pat Griffin recognizes as the perceived trespassing of women in men’s sports. Where Griffin establishes that women’s participation in sports “threaten an acceptance of the traditional gender order in which men are privileged and women are subordinate,” (399) rock n’ roll too has claimed itself as a male-dominated, male-only space. The role women do seem to occupy quite often is that of either the groupie, or the musician’s girlfriend. In a small-scale rock culture like Atlanta, groupies aren’t much of a presence though they still do exist. For Atlanta, the girlfriend was a constant fixture, and attitudes toward this particular company were often belittling, hostile, or dismissive. Even in writing now I cannot overlook that these women are still relegated to the role of someone else’s girlfriend, which was exactly the view adopted by the men within the music scene. Hardly was there ever an acknowledgement of someone by their own name, personality, or merits; instead it was “that’s Bob’s girl.”

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For the women wanting to simply come out and experience the performances happening, they were either regarded with suspicion for being unattached or as prey for the hunt. In my own house, which I shared with two of my bandmates for a while, an episode occurred where one of my roommates pretended to forget the name of my other roommate’s female partner in front of a large crowd. This particular roommate, being a bit dense and immature, was particularly susceptible to the messages being broadcast about expected behaviors and attitudes, and his disingenuous attempt to portray himself as so aloof he couldn’t even be bothered to care about remembering the name of a woman he had met at least a half dozen times speaks volumes about the tacit conventions of the music scene.

Another unavoidable observation to make about the composition of rock n’ roll today is its strict racial component. Atlanta was no different in this regard, even amidst a fairly diverse ethnic climate, the rock n’ roll scene in Atlanta was disproportionately white occupied. Then, and still now, I did recognize this brutal irony: the development of rock n’ roll is almost an analogy to the history of U.S. colonization and capitalism. Here is an art form created and popularized by a near exclusive black population, even in its earliest roots within blues and Gospel, rock n’ roll is the product of black culture and labor. Whether one wants to link its creation to the likes of Chuck Berry, Ike Turner, Little Richard, or stretch further back in time to Sun House and Robert Johnson; there is simply no dispute that rock n’ roll began in the heartland of the U.S. by one of the nation’s most marginalized populations.

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As Andrea Smith makes pointedly clear, there are pillars of white supremacy and two of the pillars she identifies conform to the history of rock n’ roll: 1) the logic of slavery which “renders Black people as inherently slaveable—as nothing more than property,” (87) and, 2) the logic of genocide, which “holds that indigenous people must disappear…in fact, they must always be disappearing, in order to allow non-indigenous peoples rightful claim over land” (88). In regards to rock n’ roll, African Americans were both the slaveable population for capitalistic means, as well as the indigenous population that had its rightful claim on the genre, or space, stripped away. The subsequent colonizing of rock n’ roll by white artists as disparate as Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, and then The Beatles and Rolling Stones, was an unquestioned (outside of the black population) development of the art form and the residual effects of such colonization are abundantly clear today. Whether looking at Atlanta, New York, or Seattle, no city in this country has a balanced representation of white and black rock n’ roll artists; black populations have been effectively pushed out of rock n’ roll—and this is the very genre they invented! It needs to be recognized that rock n’ roll is a colonized genre, and while there have been since the 60s and today great contributions to the genre from a plethora of ethnic populations, rock n’ roll is patently white.

This disproportionate representation was all the more transparent in Atlanta, a city sometimes referred to as “Black Hollywood” due to the large number of famous African-American musical artists, movie stars, and professional athletes representing the town. While there are integrated parts of the city, Atlanta’s history of racism still contaminates its cultural and physical environment. As Heather Dalmage notes, “because of the segregation in society, racial groups are often geographically defined…geographies are controlled including what school a child attends, choice of classes, choice of lunchroom tables, and how leisure time is spent” (100). De facto segregation and informal apartheid are very much interwoven into Atlanta’s structure, and the underground rock scene is illustrative of some effects such a culturally dissociated community produces. Thinking now, I can actually count the number of non-white people that actively participated in Atlanta’s rock scene. Of course, I couldn’t be so bold to claim that I knew all the bands and the entire population of this clique (it was a considerable amount of people), but I was well aware of the bands with solid reputations and representation in the community, and a very small number were people of color. For someone that might impulsively respond that music is subjective, and people of color might have different cultural artifacts that appeal to them so it shouldn’t be seen as an exclusionary element of rock n’ roll to be predominately white—nonsense. Culture often acts as a reinforcement of customs, norms, beliefs, and expectations that we are taught to absorb, and the reproduction of a predominately white genre of music is not inherent in the music itself, but is a product of cultural reproduction. Remember, rock n’ roll was invented by people of color, so to challenge the notion that people of color just don’t like rock n’ roll is to ignore history and the influence of private sector intervention (which repurposed and packaged rock n’ roll for white teen audiences). On the whole, Atlanta’s punks were not making open appeals to people of color, they were not attempting to incorporate people of color into the art form, and they were not exploring the music of people of color. Again, this is on the whole; many of the individuals that were truly attracted to music as artists did attempt to bridge these divides, but they were the minority. Overwhelmingly, Atlanta’s rock n’ roll crowd was perfectly content with the cultural makeup of the scene.

Why would I have been so enamored by this music in the face of all these unpleasant realities? I should go further; why am I still enamored by this music? The truth is, for all its contradictions, hypocrisies, and posturing, rock n’ roll can be used as an instrument toward liberation and communality. The development of underground circuits is a testament to the collective spirit of individuals wishing to create spaces for their own expression and participation. This is reflected in the presence of small, self-owned labels dating as far back as Black Flag’s SST which has turned into a largely informal network of thousands of self-managed labels typically run by a few people in their basement using tape-decks and 8-track recording material to keep themselves in operation. This is a genre that saw the rise, and encouraged the growth, of feminist-laced Riot Grrrl bands like Bikini Kill that helped pave the way for radical Queercore bands that are simply out of place everywhere else.

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I found a lot of my political awakening through the music of rock n’ roll, with the pointed anti-authoritarian lyrics of Bad Religion and the experiences that I had during the period of my life when I actively tried to produce the music that most resonated with me. The underground needs more awareness, it needs more cohesion, and it needs more reflection; but these things are happening and they can happen. Barbara Love makes a powerful call for liberatory consciousness that she states gives “every person a chance to theorize about issues of equity and social justice, to analyze events related to equity and social justice, and to act in responsible ways to transform… society;” (602) rock n’ roll has such liberatory consciousness potential. Once rock n’ roll starts coming together as a source of liberatory values, it can be a useful tool for larger social justice movements to spread their message and touch the lives of many disaffected populations. And it fucking sounds good!

Works Cited

Dalmage, Heather. “Patrolling Racial Borders: Discrimination Against Mixed Race People.”          Readings for Diversity and Social Justice. Eds. Marianne Adams, Warren J. Blumenfeld,           Carmelita Castaneda, Heather W. Hackman, Madeline L. Peters, and Ximena Zuniga.         New York: Routledge, 2013. 96-102. Print.

Griffin, Pat. “Sport: Where Men are Men and Women are Trespassers.” Readings for Diversity    and Social Justice. Eds. Marianne Adams, Warren J. Blumenfeld, Carmelita Castaneda,      Heather W. Hackman, Madeline L. Peters, and Ximena Zuniga. New York: Routledge,       2013. 398-400. Print.

Harro, Bobbi. “The Cycle of Socialization.” Readings for Diversity and Social Justice. Eds.           Marianne Adams, Warren J. Blumenfeld, Carmelita Castaneda, Heather W. Hackman,      Madeline L. Peters, and Ximena Zuniga. New York: Routledge, 2013. 45-52. Print.

Heldman, Caroline. “Out-of-Body Image.” Readings for Diversity and Social Justice.         Eds.     Marianne Adams, Warren J. Blumenfeld, Carmelita Castaneda, Heather W. Hackman,      Madeline L. Peters, and Ximena Zuniga. New York: Routledge, 2013. 346-349. Print.

Love, Barbara J. “Developing a Liberatory Consciousness.” Readings for Diversity and Social      Justice. Eds. Marianne Adams, Warren J. Blumenfeld, Carmelita Castaneda, Heather W.       Hackman, Madeline L. Peters, and Ximena Zuniga. New York: Routledge, 2013. 601-        606. Print.

Mantsios, Gregory. “Class in America—2006.” Readings for Diversity and Social Justice. Eds.    Marianne Adams, Warren J. Blumenfeld, Carmelita Castaneda, Heather W. Hackman,      Madeline L. Peters, and Ximena Zuniga. New York: Routledge, 2013. 150-156. Print.

Roppolo, Kimberly. “Symbolic Racism, History, and Reality: The Real Problem with Indian        Mascots.” Readings for Diversity and Social Justice. Eds. Marianne Adams, Warren J.   Blumenfeld, Carmelita Castaneda, Heather W. Hackman, Madeline L. Peters, and   Ximena Zuniga. New York: Routledge, 2013. 73-77. Print.

Smith, Andrea. “Heteropatriarchy and the Three Pillars of White Supremacy: Rethinking Women of Color Organizing.” Readings for Diversity and Social Justice. Eds. Marianne            Adams, Warren J. Blumenfeld, Carmelita Castaneda, Heather W. Hackman, Madeline L.    Peters, and Ximena Zuniga. New York: Routledge, 2013. 86-92. Print.

 

 

 

 

 

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