the power of punk in the age of instagram influencers and branded content
Why the sounds of 80s hardcore has never been more relevant.
Conversations about garage are incredibly alienating experiences for me. Whenever I'm at the pub, or a party, or any other social intersection, and the topic of discussion shifts to garage (the musical genre, not the place you park your car), sound becomes muffled as if I'm suddenly submerged in a fish tank. An unfamiliar, no-man's land opens up between me and whoever I'm with as they link arms and skip off down the memory lane of shared experience, recalling their favourite tracks or defining moments in their lives that took place to a garage soundtrack. I might be able to identify with what they're saying on a factual level - like, I know who DJ EZ is - but I can't bask in the collective nostalgia because that period of my life was spent listening to punk, not garage.
Although I've come to appreciate it with age (So Solid's 21 Seconds is incredible), back then, I dismissed garage as some lamestream genre that people with tacky dress sense danced to. My teenage experience was hardly a novel one: I was an archetypal punk rock fundamentalist who spent most weekend afternoons trawling Soulseek for grainy .mp3 files of obscure 80s hardcore records released between Bad Brains' eponymous 1978 debut and Cro-Mags' 1985 demo, Before the Quarrel. Like a lot of kids that age, I derived my entire identity from my musical tastes, so I was stubbornly militant about what I listened to: second-wave British punk, d-beat and Swedish crust were my audio staples. Jedi Mind Tricks' Violent by Design served as garnish, but little else passed by my sonic isolationism.
Naturally, I thought I was very unique at the time but with age I've realised how much of a walking cliche I was - not an hugely common cliche, like people who reminisce over garage, but still a cliche nonetheless. As I got older, mellowed out a bit, started going to clubs and engaging in typical clubbing rituals, my love of punk faded away. This, I know, is yet another predictably common right of passage: punk's sonified rage is the language of teenage disaffection, and it becomes increasingly indecipherable as we wither through adulthood. But over the past year or so, punk has inexplicably gained a newfound relevance to my life.
After a period of not listening to any music at all - and I'm not exaggerating here, I really did experience what can only be described as the audiophile's equivalent of libido loss - I found myself drifting back to the bands that defined my teens: Discharge; Wolfbrigade; Tragedy; Aus-Rotten; they suddenly all speak to me in a way that has been inaudible for at least a decade. Unsurprisingly, this has coincided with my own growing sense of estrangement from contemporary culture and the world at large.
Working in new media, most, if not all days, I'm forced to stare down a trough of absolute horseshit. Search engine optimisation. Instagram "influencers". Branded content. Changes to the Facebook algorithm. Yeezy Boosts. These are just some of the things that regularly invade my consciousness, contaminate my mental space and trigger my penchant for misanthropy. Yet they're not just representative of the industry in which I work, but the prevailing values of the 21st century. Culture increasingly takes the sanitised, depoliticised form of marketing, the true triumph of neoliberalism is its success in making us think like brands, social media has abetted that victory by enabling us to act like them, and the Internet degrades us all because it is, by nature, a medium that rewards mediocrity - in my humble opinion, of course.
In a world of Young Thugs, I'm drawn back to punk because it stands in such stark contrast to these aberrations of modernity. Just as middle class cosmopolitan types might undertake a juice cleanse to rebalance their bodies after a period of decadent excess, listening to Poison Idea helps me flush out that feeling of contamination I get from knowing that i thrives by polluting the web while Mother Jones only makes a 1.4% return on $350,000 invested into quality investigative journalism. These things might seem unrelated, but I think that one of the only ways to endure this drip feed of terrible "content", to use a modern term that I so utterly loathe, and mental spam is by immersing yourself in that which has redeeming value.
When Quartz recently quizzed Slavoj Zizek on his tactics for enduring the Trump era, Zizek replied: "The only way to survive such shitty times, if you ask me, is to write and read big, fat books … You know what Lenin did, in 1915, when World War I exploded? He went to Switzerland and started to read Hegel". I can empathise completely. When I see celebrities embody widespread political illiteracy through their impotent and unimaginative protest "art", I turn to Conflict, among other things, as a coping mechanism. It's not too dissimilar to leading a balanced lifestyle: while regularly devouring KFC bargain buckets (or being force fed KFC, to put it more congruently) is undoubtedly bad for you, you can offset some of the damage to your waistline and arteries by generally maintaining a healthy diet and doing some exercise. I have no doubt that the music, art or media that we consume has a similar effect on our minds.
Black Flag might not offer the sort of intellectual value found in the works of Hegel, but there's something unique to 80s punk rock that makes it particularly worthwhile in our modern context. Although this might, at first glance, seem like a nostalgic or a regressive impulse, it's really a matter of values. While I don't think that the music of the past is inherently any better than that of the present but, unlike in theatre or film or literature, I can't think of any contemporary musician that stands so diametrically opposed to these facets of the modern world that I find so repellent.
Kendrick Lamar is widely praised for his social commentary, but he also sells Reebok trainers. By stripping away physical revenue streams, the invisible omnipresence of the internet has rendered culture more dependant upon corporate sponsorship than ever before. It's quite telling that dance music, a genre whose ambiguous form passively abets apoliticism, is the dominant sound of the late neoliberal era. I realise that these are imperfect comparisons: Crass should be measured against Sleaford Mods (however imperfectly), not Richie Hawtin. But still, the politicism of Divide and Exit is utterly anaemic compared to Feeding of the 5000. The musicians of today might believe in their ideals but the punks of the 80s embodied them.At a time when 'YouTube vlogger' is an aspirational career path, a Jerry Springer-style campaign put a philistinic reality TV host in the White House, and the waves of degeneracy crash in at neck height, this isn't just an appealing quality - it's an essential one.
Text Alek Eror
Promotional still from American Hardcore, 2006. Henry Rollins. courtesy Sony Pictures.