The Scene-Police Punker in All of Us

Every couple of years I get bitten by the nostalgia bug and revisit musical obsessions […]

Matt Johnson / 4.4.19

Every couple of years I get bitten by the nostalgia bug and revisit musical obsessions from my teens and twenties. Maybe it’s nostalgia, maybe it’s just what happens to you post-40, right? Maybe it’s just me.

Of late, I’ve found myself climbing into endless YouTube wormholes. Before I know it, it’s 11 PM. There are tortilla chip crumbs all over my keyboard, and I’m binge-watching low-budget documentaries about obscure punk rock music scenes.

In my teen years, punk rock used to equal non-conformity and freedom. But these days, I’m not so sure. Back before I was a married norm (with a job, kids, and a mortgage), concert-going, performing, and record-collecting took up an inordinate amount of my time. Punk was the ideal soundtrack for my younger, angsty self. It was high-energy, sloppy, and seemingly dangerous but purposeful.

Listening to punk felt like freedom. Freedom from the lame, over-indulgent classic rock my older brothers passed on. Freedom from the ideas of overly strict parents and teachers. Freedom to maybe, one day, be in a band and rock out without the bloated corniness of rock-and-roll excess.

Beyond the ferocious energy of the music of my youth, one underlying theme I’ve noticed with fresh grown-up eyes is just how scathingly judgmental these underground communities can be. The unspoken rules and codes of ethics can be as demanding and unforgiving as at a Baptist youth-group summer camp.

In a recent New York Times piece, commentator David Brooks wrote with probing insight about an Invisibilia episode that chronicles the same sort of law-laden punk-rock culture (commented on here on the Mockingbird site). Interestingly, the original story hails from Virginia, near the stomping grounds of punk-rock elder statesmen Ian MacKaye. In the 80s and 90s MacKaye was a pioneer in the punk world, first with his band Minor Threat, and later Fugazi (with a handful of lesser known bands peppered throughout).

In the Invisibilia episode, a woman named Emily with deep roots in the hardcore music scene calls out another musician friend for sexist, abusive behavior and publicly breaks ties with him. Ironically, she is later called out by him for participating in a form of online bullying from years previous. The whistleblowing judge outs the perpetrator, and the perpetrator is shunned from the scene. In response, the shamed perpetrator outs the hypocritical judge, and the cycle continues ad nauseam. As that dusty old confession states, “the law always accuses.” No one gets out alive.

In order to turn the tide of toxicity within cultures, maybe public shunnings need to happen in order to self-correct. I don’t know. In the Invisibilia episode, sociologist Richard Wrangham suggests that “society enforces norms by murdering the bullies who break them.” From his vantage point, this is just the way society moves forward.

I’ve seen microcosms of this sort of fervor first-hand as a Fugazi concert attendee in the 90s — though admittedly, the stakes were much lower. There was a “no-assholes allowed” mob-mentality in the air, and when some bone-headed tough guy got too rowdy in the mosh-pit, MacKaye and company would unleash a caustic public shaming — a staple at most Fugazi shows.

Listen a few minutes to this amusing, laugh-or-you’ll-cry 45-minute mix of onstage banter clips where MacKaye and bandmate Guy Picciotto police, berate, and publicly shame misbehaving concertgoers (foul language alert):

I hate to admit it now, but 22-year-old me felt pleased to be in solidarity with a righteous group shouting down the clowns. But then, what did that collective Good Feeling Righteousness say about the crowd? As it turns out, MacKaye has always sort of been known for his righteous indignation, and many a scenester have loved him for it.

MacKaye is the founder of Dischord Records and started the above-mentioned and influential 80s hardcore-punk band Minor Threat, a band known in part for starting “Straight Edge”. MacKaye coined the Straight Edge term in a song where he claimed to have a clear-headed “edge” on others in the punk scene who he saw wasting away through drug and alcohol abuse. MacKaye created a personal credo for himself that involved no drinking, no smoking, and no promiscuous sex. The idea caught on and Straight Edge bands started to pop up in DC, Boston, NYC, southern California, and Reno, and became its own sub-genre. Straight Edge has gone through multiple musical style changes, spawned hundreds (likely thousands) of bands, and lives on in one form or another today. The wormhole goes deep, of course, but here’s MacKaye in his own words circa the early eighties from the documentary Another State of Mind:

(If Straight Edge seems a little judge-y and, well, silly, you might be right. Though I’d argue there are plenty of bands from that scene that still hold up.)

MacKaye is a strong personality and whether it was Straight Edge or taking a strong stance on how to make music accessible, throngs of fans and musicians alike have taken his lead on how to build an indie music culture based on a self-restrictive, anti-capitalist ethos. (Fugazi kept concert prices at $5 for years, and CDs were only $10!) Although Fugazi sounds more grown-up than his hardcore pioneering days of Minor Threat, the bossypants vibe shows through once again as evidenced in the aggressive stage banter clip above.

As I look back fondly over the cultural themes of my punk-rock fandom over the years, I’m half-amused, and half-nauseated by the self-righteous judginess of it all. And yet, when I read through interviews with MacKaye from recent years, he reflects on that sense of freedom that got him into music in the first place. That feeling resonates with me, too. In one of my more recent punk history binge-fests, I came across this quote from MacKaye, who said it well:

My definition of punk is the free space. It’s an area in which new ideas can be presented without having to go through the filtration or perversion of profiteering… Punk was an area, for me at least, where [profiteering] didn’t seem to matter. I didn’t know any punk rocker who thought, ‘I’m gonna make a living out of this.’ The ones that did quickly left. What I received from the counterculture was a gift; the permission to create freely. And my reaction was to take care of this gift and keep it alive because it continues to give.

I get the same feeling from Emily, one of the key characters from the Invisibilia podcast. She recalls how, once she went to college and had some time away from her constraining upbringing, she discovered the hardcore scene, a community where she had the freedom to be herself.

Reinstating or creating codes of conduct is important for making healthy culture. In Emily’s case, she was empowered by a community that would not tolerate sexually abusive behavior (as it should be). MacKaye unwittingly created the sub/sub-culture of Straight Edge in response to substance abuse in a scene that he didn’t want to see self-destruct. Fast forward a decade and MacKaye’s Fugazi created a welcome “No Assholes Allowed” environment so that the majority of concert-goers would be free to have a good experience.

And yet these (probably) necessary codes of conduct, which are meant to ensure a sort of flourishing, have never had the power to change a single human heart. As the saying goes, the law cannot empower what it demands. In actuality, the law creates its opposite. I’m reminded of Paul Zahl’s memorable take on this from Grace in Practice:

The Law in society is a double message. It calls for perfection but stimulates rebellion. It creates the very thing it wants to control. The law is a dud…

It’s ironic to me that a subculture bent on creating a “free space” simply cannot get away from either the demands of the law or the creation of new laws in reaction to the old laws. Our rulebooks inevitably make it into every facet of our lives, even those sacred spaces where we most long for freedom.

So take your pick. There are rulebooks for whatever you’re into. Rulebooks centered around political affiliations, correct parenting methods, clean eating, ensuring you’re not leaving a carbon footprint, only buying fair trade products, getting your kids into the right preschool, and the list goes on.

As for me, in my more honest moments, I realize my knee-jerk proclivity to choose the law has been pervasive throughout my life. I glommed onto Straight Edge as a teenager. I’ve recently found myself licking my own spiritual wounds after spending years in fundamentalist church communities. These days, my law proclivity pokes its head out when I evaluate whether a church’s theological system is “grace-centered” enough. Egads, the law runs deep. I don’t have the answers for how micro-punk subcultures, church communities, or big western cultures really change for the better. It happens somehow, I suppose. And it happens, in part, through boundary-making laws, compulsion, fear, and power. But I do know those 500-year-old words still ring true, “The law says, do this, and it is never done. Grace says, believe in this, and everything is already done.”

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3 responses to “The Scene-Police Punker in All of Us”

  1. Ian says:

    Matt, this one speaks my language! The constraints of straight edge felt more like a wide open space when I happened upon it, but you’re absolutely right— if it isn’t MacKaye doing an about-face and becoming asshole scene enforcer, it’s the lower-downs who think they embody what is truest about the scene who will eviscerate every last shred of your falseness once you cross the threshold of the scene event horizon. No “Come and see”, it’s “Get it 100% right immediately or don’t even bother coming around here.”

  2. Matt says:

    Agreed, Ian. I think what surprises me is the religious sort of fervor that these scenes put off (even though they tend to be agnostic/atheist.) It just goes to show the levels people go to for self-justification of self and the demonization of others. It’s the same merry-go-round as norm-culture.

  3. NickB says:

    Always grateful for your writing Matt. Keep it up!

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