With Trump in Office, Punk Gets Personal
Where there has been an establishment, there has been counterculture. For the past three decades, like smoke with fire, when conservatism has been on the rise, all flag pins and family values, there has been a cadre of artists and musicians primed and ready to push back against the swell. Reagan had the Dead Kennedys, Government Issue, and Reagan Youth to name a few. George W.’s administration saw the likes of NOFX, the Descendants, Against Me! and Anti-Flag. Aside from the leather jackets and spiked-up hair, one thing tied these artists together – their anger. With songs like D.O.A’s “Fucked Up Ronnie,” the Dead Milkmen’s “Right Wing Pigeons,” and Anti-Flag’s “Die For Your Government,” the message was clear: these bands were active, they were political, and they were pissed off.
Which brings us to today. Trump is in office, like it or not, and with his arrival was bound to come some pushback from the usual suspects. At this point it’s almost taken for granted, with headlines aplenty popping soon after the election such as “Rise above: will Donald Trump’s America trigger a punk protest renaissance?” and “In Trump era, at least the punk rock will be louder.” What’s interesting, though, is that here we are, almost a year after the election, and that wave seemed to never arrive. Sure, bands like Anti-Flag are pumping out their ant-Trump anthems (“The New Jim Crow” is a track that comes to mind), but we haven’t really seen a mass response to the Trumpian era in the way that conservative administrations before had experienced. That’s not to say that punk rock is gone, though. It’s simply wearing a new face.
The punk of the 80’s and early 2000’s was defined by its anger, volume, and immanence. Punk of the Trump era has taken on a decidedly different tone: positivity, community, and self-love. More thematically akin to the message-music folk of the 1960’s, modern punk music is a little quieter, a little more refined, and content with the simple idea that what we can change is ourselves, the personal, and that the personal is most certainly political. It has also become markedly more feminine.
A notable standout of this current praxis is Diet Cig, a much lighter, more upbeat group lead by Alex Luciano. Luciano is a fantastic female vocalist and songwriter (something that is rarely seen in early punk movements, barring notable exceptions such as Patti Smith), and that in and of itself sends a message if one cares to listen: that the white-rich-male status quo is on its way out, and the feminist, positive politics that bands like Cig champion are here to fill the void. A seemingly simple song like “Bite Back,” goes from being about an argument with an ex-lover, to being about navigate the complicated patriarchal landscape in which women are told to be quiet and their grievances dismissed (“I feel like dying/ I don’t know why I’m not trying/ To feel better/ Don’t tell me it’s always about the weather”). While a great case-in-point, Diet Cig is far from the only band riding this new wave. Others artist I should mention, whether they’d be considered punk or not, include Chastity Belt, Girlpool, Cherry Glazerr, Frankie Cosmos and so many more. Much the spiritual successor to early-90’s Riot Grrrl bands, these voices take the mundane and shine an important critical light on them.
All of this might seem irrelevant to the fact that Trump is in office, but the two are tightly entwined. Trump did not rise to power alone – alongside him came a renewed culture of far-right values and a closer eye on the role that those beliefs play in the day-to-day. Under scrutiny for racism, homophobia, and misogyny, the current political status quo stands in direct opposition the values and beliefs that these artists hold, and somewhere in the middle, a battle is taking place. That middle is where all of us live every day. On the streets, in the workplace, in high schools and gyms and clubs – these places, not Washington, are that which Trump era punk strives to change.
As our world gets more and more connected, and personal space has become harder and harder to find, punk and indie music, in general, has become decidedly more intimate, inviting introspection and change on the level of the personal. One less catcaller on the street, one less boss ignoring their female employees, one more person who stands up for the marginalized. It’s a slow build, but all of those ones, when put together, can add up to tangible change. It might not be “Fucked Up Ronnie,” but in the end, it may just work.