On Punk Rock as a Conservative Political Force

One of my resolutions this year is to make this blog less “political” in nature, so you can expect me to write more about the two other things that interest me a lot: music and professional sports.

I consider myself a life-long fan of rock music — especially the rock music that extends from the punk rock tradition (most of the music that came to be known in the 1980s as “Alternative).  So, musically speaking, if I don’t consider myself a punk, I certainly consider myself a descendant of them.  It’s hard to be a punk now anyway: so much of the music that gets called punk today is over-produced pop candy for the Hot Topic set of adolescents (which is to say that it distances itself from the historical aesthetic and ethical commitments of punk music).

Recently, a few people who know me have mentioned that my politics and my musical tastes don’t really square: how can an adherent of conservative political philosophy have such a reverence for the tradition of punk and alternative rock?  Or course, there have been a number of “conservative” punks (most notably Johnny Ramone), but I think there is a stronger argument to defend myself against these implicit charges of political (or musical) heresy (depending on which side you’re coming from).  So many people believe that a) punk rock is a political force, and b) that its political commitments neatly parallel those of the Democratic left.  I argue that while the former is certainly true, the latter is false: there is a strong case to be made for the conservative spirit of punk rock.

First, since its inception, punk has been more invested in creating a tradition than perhaps any other new sub-genre of music.  From the clothing to the instrumentation to the production to the song structure to the attitude to the marketing practices, the punk community has worked to uphold a tradition of how punk music should sound, how it should be produced, how (and where) it should be performed, and how it should be disseminated.  This reverence for tradition is certainly a hallmark of conservative politics, and although the political left certainly has its traditions, it nevertheless pushes its critique of the value of tradition ever further.

In the punk community, these traditions are enforced through a logic of authenticity: if you don’t make THIS type of music in THIS particular way, well, then you just aren’t REALLY punk.  Casualties of this authenticity game are bands like Blink-182 and Green Day, who deviate from these historical norms in certain ways.  I will be the first to admit that this authenticity game can be over-simplistic, exclusive, and damaging for the health of a community, but aren’t these some of the very criticisms that the left throws at conservative thinking?  Further, I will also be the first to say that this authenticity game does some important and legitimate work in maintaining the historical narrative of punk music: I don’t think Blink-182 should be mentioned in the same breath as Husker Du or Minor Threat, and I think it is a good thing that there is a critical mechanism in place to ensure that they aren’t: after all, Blink-182 really isn’t punk.

Another way that the punk tradition parallels conservative politics is in its vision of individual agency and freedom.  Punk music demands that YOU write the songs, YOU play the instruments, YOU do the singing, YOU do the recording, etc.  In other words, it valorizes hard work and the individual (rather than collective) pursuit of personal goals and aspirations.  Punk music has little patience for compromise or the intervention of “well-meaning” institutional interests — it is for that reason that the punk doctrine insists that YOU do all the work: to ensure that those compromising interests stay out.  This do-it-yourself ethos stands in stark contrast to the collectivist impulses that saturate left liberal American politics.

Punk also has a healthy suspicion of rapid innovation or change that is also latent within the American conservative tradition.  This was the reason for the rejection of New Wave in some parts of the 1980s punk community: what place does synthesized sound have in rock music?  Using a sampler is just a way of dehumanizing (and thus de-personalizing) art.

The punk insistence on independent marketing and production of music is often viewed as a rejection of rapacious market capitalism, but it can just as well be read as an endorsement of private property.  In claiming a right to decide how their work will be promoted, where is will be sold (and for how much), punk musicians implicitly claim a personal ownership of their product.  This claim flies in the face of modernist claims that art is irrevocably separated from the “author,” and challenges the leftist assertion that art should ideally be a communal experience.

All of the arguments presented above are value-based or ethical arguments, but there is also more tangible historical evidence, such as most second-wave American punk bands’ explicit rejection of the politics of the New Left and the hippies of the 1960s.  This rejection was usually undergirded by a critique of the left’s suppression of individual agency, its ambivalent views regarding the value of hard work, its unwarranted idealism, its beatification of peace at all costs, and its general intellectual laziness as embodied by the slogan “Turn on, tune in, drop out.”

All of that said, in the true tradition of punk, there isn’t really any need to defend one’s politics: why should one move with the herd?


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