A Punk Synopsis
About two weeks ago I received a letter from a punker who said he used to be a fan of Bad Religion. Used to be, that is, until we let him down by releasing our last two albums which didn’t fit his definition of punk. There weren’t any songs against the establishment, he claimed (which isn’t true by the way), so how can you call it Bad Religion? Indeed how can you guys call yourself punk? He went on to imply that we don’t know anything about what punk is because we are so out of it. He was clearly angry, and intolerant of what our recent music actually had to say.He believed that the sanctity of the punk establishment had been infringed on somehow by our last two albums (but he also noted that our previous seven albums weren’t guilty of such treason).
The very same day I ran into someone on the street in the town where I live and he recognized me as the singer of Bad Religion. Like the guy who sent me the letter, he too was a punker, but he wasn’t angry or judgmental. We talked for a short while and he spoke about how increasingly these days young people in general are hostile to strangers, and don’t want to listen to anyone but their own comfortable circle of friends. And about how people seem to be motivated these days by some unseen force to be closed minded. His open desire for opinion, and his focus on relevant issues were refreshing and it made me remember all the great things about the punkers I grew up with and still interact with today: open-minded, inclusive, unpretentious and not presumptuous, and willing to confront the people or institutions that seemed unfair or unjust. Instead of being concerned with establishing an institution within which we could exclude others (which, sadly, is what many punkers really want), we were interested in including people who felt estranged by, or disillusioned with their social surroundings. In that one day I experienced some of the best things about punk, the traits exhibited by the kid on the street, and the worst things about punk: the negative, self-righteous, dogmatic thinking of the kid who wrote the letter. Both of them were self-acknowledged punkers yet they were from almost opposite ideological poles. For 16 years now I have been a member of this strange sub-culture, and I have come to realize that there are both liberal and conservative wings of it. In that sense it is a microcosm of society in general. It is an inane task to try and define punk universally. Its meaning is fuzzied everywhere by contextual circumstance. A 16 year-old girl from an affluent religious family who consistently shows up to church on Sunday with her green mohawk and Fuck Jesus shirt is punk. But so is a 42 year old biology professor who claims that Charles Darwin’s ideas were wrong. Neither person has ever heard of, nor met, one another, nor hung out together at the same underground club. And yet their challenge to established institutions and revulsion to dogmatic thinking links them spiritually. Whether this is genetic or learned is unknown. But I too feel a kinship with everyone who shares these traits. I don’t feel allied with those who are exclusive, elitist, and who think that their way of life is a model for how others should live theirs. My philosophy was instilled by the open minded thinking of my parents of course, but also through the turmoil I experienced growing up. While I realize many kids had it harder than me, I have found that a lot of people who call themselves punks had similar experiences.
In 1976, At the age of 11 I moved with my mom and brother to the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles. Like millions of other victims of divorce in the 1970s I had to deal with the fact that my father was now living far away (in Racine, Wisconsin) and I would not get to see him as much as most other kids see theirs. This pain was compounded by the bewildering alienation I felt as a Wisconsin boy at Junior High School in the Los Angeles unified school district. I had entered a landscape unlike anything I experienced in my 11 years of life. I had dark brown fluffy, wavy hair, unfeatherable, impossible to mold into the cool rock-and-roll hairdos of the 1970s that were so popular. I wore velour kids shirts from K-Mart, and corduroys and because they were less expensive than jeans and we didn’t have a lot of money. I had cheap shoes, usually also from K-Mart or Payless, always worn out, with goofy logos that emulated the real popular brands that all the other kids wore.
I rode a Sears 10-speed that was heavy, sluggish, and couldn’t jump or skid. I had a powder blue, plastic skateboard with noisy, open-bearing wheels, totally unfit for the skateboard parks that were so popular in southern California. I had never been to the beach in my life, and thought of it as a place to go swimming, not as a symbol for a way of life. People asked me dude!…..do you party? I thought of our annual kids new year’s parties back home in Racine. We stayed up past midnight and ate ice cream and soda, but other than those I didn’t have much experience throwing parties. It took me about six months to realize that party was a synonym of getting high.
I saw fellow 7th graders come to class with squinty eyes and euphoric smiles reeking of pot smoke (at first I didn’t know what that smokey odor was). Fellow classmates in shop-class had secretive projects that they brought out only when the teacher, Mr. Feers, took his cigarette break. Their works consisted of salvaged polyurethane cylinders, sealed at the bottom, sanded smooth around the top, and a few 1/4 inch holes quickly forged on the drill-press. I was bewildered when one of them asked me: dude!….check out my bong, isn’t it bitchin? Not only did I not know what a bong was….I didn’t understand the adjective he used to describe it, nor why he was hiding it.
All I knew was that there was some weird secret about all this, and I was not one of those who were welcome to the information. Kids moved up the social ladder by revealing their knowledge of rock and roll culture and sharing their covert collections of black beauties, Quaaludes, and joints. If you partook in their offers, you were one of them, a trusted confidant. If you were afraid to partake, you were a second-class loser. In other words, if you went along with the flow, unquestioning and complacent, you were accepted and rewarded with social status. If you questioned the norm, or went against the grain in any way, you were in for a rocky ride down the social ladder.
I shriveled under this pressure. Unable to compete yet unwilling to shut down, I came to be friends with a particular class of people who were labeled geeks, nerds, kooks, dorks, wimps, and pussies (or wussies if you combine these last two). We hung out together and did creative things after school, but the greatest alleviation of my suffering came from music. We had an old spinet piano that I would bang on and sing songs I learned by ear. I desired to gain a musical identity just like my peers at school, but I wasn’t inspired by the bands that formed the fabric of this burn-out drug culture: Led Zeppelin, Rush, Kiss, Journey, Foreigner, Styx, Ted Nugent, Bad Company, Lynard Skynard among many others. Luckily, by the time I was 14, I had discovered a radio show on Saturday and Sunday nights that showcased local bands from L.A. I discovered the station because it was the only one in L.A. that played Todd Rundgren from time to time. My friend in Wisconsin and I had grown to love Todd and Utopia because they were melodic rock, but somewhat beneath the mainstream of popular music. Those characteristics still appeal to me today, and often guide my preferences for other bands. I cannot overstate the importance of that radio show in the development of my musical personality. It was called Rodney on the Roq (on station KROQ) and it proved that there was an entire community of people right there in the same city that used music to share their alienation and confusion about the culture around them. It also proved that you didn’t have to be a virtuoso or signed to a major record label in order to be played over the airwaves. The actual recordings were not slick high-budget productions. Often times Rodney would simply play demo tapes, or acetate pressings (limited-use vinyl singles or e.p.s). It was gloriously vulgar, and inspiring in its simplicity.
I wanted to be part of this community of musicians. The music was heartfelt and desperate. It spoke of the suffering that comes from the pressure to conform, and the burden that is placed on us by those in power, and the celebration of belonging to a community of powerless misfits. Yet it was delivered by such a variety of bands, from different backgrounds. I went punk at 15. I cut my wavy hair very short, dyed it pitch black, and made my own t-shirts. I was creative enough and over the years I had experimented with songwriting on the piano along with my friends playing pots and pans and using cheap tape recorders. We were determined to send in a tape to Rodney on the Roq. But before any of that could materialize, I was introduced by a fellow wussie to the guys who would become Bad Religion. By the end of that same year, 1980, I had made my first record and Rodney played it. Usually this would make anyone a hero at his high school, a veritable recording artist as a classmate! But my high-school peers were violently opposed to this new evolving subculture. It was not the kind of music that glorified sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll. It wasn’t mellow and it didn’t inspire people to get wasted. I was seen as an enemy of their way of life. There were three of us at the school who were punkers. And all three of us at one time or another were physically beaten by people at school who attacked us only because of our musical preference.
This scared me and at the same time made me feel powerful. It made me realize how frail most of the conformists really were, how easily they could be pushed to the point where they lose control. I found great solace in the community of other punkers from different schools, all with similar stories of oppression and abuse. My house became a hang-out and our garage became a rehearsal space (my mom was lenient, but also always at work, so there was no adult intervention). I began to feel like there was a way to deal with the disillusion of my cultural surroundings. But it was through questioning and challenging, not conforming and accepting. This stance probably made me more insightful about human social interaction, and a better critic; but it also made me more cynical, and less understanding of those close to me who weren’t punk, and therefore it definitely retarded my ability to have intimate relationships. We punkers were linked by what we thought was a deeper cause, our desire to overcome societal pressure. It was a tacit assumption that we all had the same feelings, because we were all treated similarly by our society. The emphasis was always on the collective turmoil of our group and not on individual personal issues (there were a lot more songs about us, our, and we than about I, mine, and me). Maybe this is why so many of my friends got hooked on hard drugs, and some killed themselves. My punk friends did not practice understanding, we only exhibited toleration.
This shortcoming naturally extended to the sexes. I just assumed that girls were equals on every level. They dressed similarly, had similar hairstyles, and even slam-danced with us boys. Their suffering was our suffering, it seemed to me. I never thought that maybe they saw the punk scene from a unique perspective. Women’s issues were not on our discussion agenda. Both sexes were too busy being stalwart, and tough. It was wonderfully equal, and I was proud of my egalitarian view of the sexes. Unfortunately, it was also an excuse not to address differences between the sexes. To this day, I am great at being tolerant with women’s expressions, but bad at understanding their needs. And the time with my male friends is spent talking about mundane issues or worldly problems, not personal desires or feelings. This has interfered with numerous close friendships, and it has undermined my ability to be a good husband.
I decided to go to college. I anticipated that it would be a place where dissenting voices were recognized and applauded. This romantic vision appealed to me. I loved playing in my band and contributing to the challenge of mainstream music, but I also wanted more. I felt an urge to question more of society than just the music scene and people’s fashions. I figured that I could play in the band on weekends and vacations, and I could write about the relevant issues I was discussing at the university.
But I realize now, in retrospect, that the university was as replete with the pressure to conform as my high school was.Students were rewarded for thinking like the professor. Only rarely did the professors try to educe original ideas from the students. More often we were rewarded for regurgitating the same rhetoric on tests that they professed in the lectures, which were more like state-of-the-union addresses in any given discipline.
Although I was lucky enough to find three wonderful and inspiring faculty advisors who praised my originality and made me feel smarter than I probably am, I was saddened that there were so few like them. I became acutely aware that the usual university experience for most students was one of indoctrination into the prescriptive thinking of a privileged society. It was a recipe for what was acceptable to society. And nowhere in that socialization process did they provide a troubleshooting guide to deal with alternative ways of thinking.
As a result, my undergraduate G.P.A. was only slightly better than average. But thanks to my advisors strong recommendations and insistence that I had original research ideas, I was able to continue and receive a Master of Science degree in Geology. I went on to a Ph.D. program too. Both of my higher-degree programs have taught me that the way to succeed in our society is to walk that fragile line between understanding the dogma that is inherent in the prevailing ideology and showing the people in power that you have your own ideas too but are not willing to infringe on their tolerance.&Originality has a low tolerance threshold. Over the last year and one-half I have been privileged enough to travel with more than most people do in a life-time. As I became more worldly, I realized that at every level of society and culture there are teachings that dictate how people are supposed to behave, and that in some way or another control people’s freedom to express themselves and live happy lives. I feel that it is the gift of being human to be able to challenge and confront those tenets, and share new ways to evoke originality from others. I’m glad that I’m not an animal.
Today, I have a more sophisticated view of my social surroundings.I have children, I own a house, I have insurance, I make financial decisions. My insight into the world comes from disparate sources: geology, organismic biology, music, travel, and fatherhood. This plurality insures my individuality. And learning to be an individual was the best gift I got from growing up punk. I am conscious of stereotypes, and try not to fit them. No geologist I have met is also knowledgeable about the music business and likewise no musician I know understands earth history like I do. I am proud of this unpredictable uniqueness.
Strangely, punk is quickly becoming mainstream. Last year, more people bought punk rock records, tapes, CDS, t-shirts, stickers, and show tickets, than ever before. As in any capitalistic situation, the punk market is experiencing a focal shift away from the original intent of the art (or product) toward the creation of a credo or indoctrination surrounding the marketing of the product. Why else would entire music labels market themselves as punk labels? Because they are selling fashion and building a sub-cultural retinue instead of promoting honesty and creativity of its artists. This is a sad state of affairs in the music industry that occurs at the independent-label level as well as in the majors. Therefore, it is no wonder that there are a bunch of punk police out there monitoring whether bands like ours fit the stereotype, and match their dogmatic view of acceptability. They exhibit the same behavior as the academic clones who graduate by the thousands each spring, ready to discriminate against others who challenge their learned ideology. The letter I received two weeks ago from that disgruntled fan was sadly reminiscent of the persecution I felt in high school from the stoners.It is also a shining example of how easy it is to follow the party line and advocate unoriginal, thoughtless sentiments, which in turn motivates me all the more to provoke.
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Fast Food and the Music Industry
Since I am known as a person who usually sings about serious issues, I figured I had better keep things very serious here today. I’d like to begin by relating a story to you about…Arbey’s Roast Beef.
I like fast food, I think it is a good product and a great invention. Last week I was standing in line looking over the simple menu and I decided I would get the #1 value meal. Then I realized my craving for lots of fries and I said “Can I have a large fries with that instead”? The cashier said: “Why don’t you just supersize? After I said okay, she reached for the supersize cola and I saw that this thing was the size of a small trash can. Who can drink that much cola? Who can carry it? You would have to strap it in, to a child-restraint harness, if you ordered it at the drive-thru window. I said, “That’s okay, I just want a regular cola but keep the supersize fries”. This is the point that all hell broke loose. The cashier said: “UUUUMMMM, we can’t do that sir. It was as if I asked her to derive Kepler’s law of orbital rotation or something! Apparently, the keypad on the cash register didn’t include an option that allowed a supersized fries without a supersized cola. Three other employees came forth from their posts to help out their confused co-worker. None of them could figure out how to accurately charge me for my simple request. I said “Don’t worry about it, just give me the regular sized drink and I’ll pay the full price of a supersized number one value meal. All of the co- workers, let out an appreciative sigh of relief. And the people behind me in line were relieved too: “Who is this guy holding up the line, taking all the employees for his own special needs? “That’s when it dawned on me: Things in our society have become too efficient. There is an over-efficiency problem to the extent that institutions offer you only a limited set of choices and what results is a subtle determinism of your behavior. I believe that this isn’t what people want. They want to be more free. They want to exercise their freedom of choice. Do you remember the old marketing slogan of Burger King? “Hold the pickles, hold the lettuce, special orders don’t upset us. Today, special orders might not upset them, they just short-circuit their brain synapses. The “Have it your way” mentality of the past is no longer valid. Today, virtually all of the fast food chains are saying “Have it our way”. You are not free to choose. And this is a serious issue.
The music industry itself is not immune to this kind of simplistic, over-efficient, marketing mentality unfortunately. And I think this is something that needs to be addressed. It requires a lot more discussion than we can have here today, but I will break it down for you quickly and add some of my own analysis and maybe inspire some change.
Step One: Is there a problem?
I think so. Why do so many bands and artists sound the same? Artists have always emulated other artists, that’s not exactly the problem. Today, it seems, the similarities are getting profound. Lead singers are sounding identical to other singers on other labels. Combine that with the producers, using the same techniques for different bands, and we are left with: singers sounding the same, production sounding the same, two different labels, the same product, value meal mentality. Consider this: Epic has Pearl Jam, BMG has Creed, Sony music has Silverchair, Epitaph has NOFX, but MCA has Blink 182, Interscope has NIN but they figured they could amplify that so they offered us Marilyn Manson, WEA has Pantera, SONY has Korn, Geffen had Berlin in the 80’s so 10 years later they figured they could offer it to us again in the form of Garbage, WEA has Alanis Morrisette, ULG has Meredith Brooks, Arista has Sarah McLaughlin, WEA has Paula Cole. The list could go on and on….
Why is this the case?
I think it’s because art is hard to make, so artists copy other artists. But art is even harder to sell to the public, so the sellers copy the marketing strategies of other sellers. The artist and seller then form a bond of self-congratulation that destroys their desire to try something novel. The result is a lower diversity of musical styles and a more programmed, less realistic image of the artist. The other result is higher, more predictable sales, and thus a greater proportion of signed bands selling boat loads of cds. Why do we buy it? The music lover doesn’t have much of a choice. We either buy the music that is presented to us or give up listening to it. Most of us would choose the former.
Part Two: How does this problem come to be?
I will attempt to illustrate the process of how I think this problem is perpetuated through the industry. I would like to borrow an analogy from biology to show how evolutionary systems can progressively enhance efficiency through time, but only at a high cost…the cost of diversity. The music industry evolves just as a species evolve. In nature there is natural selection: Species must adapt, or they become extinct. In the music business, bands have to either sell records (a form of adaptation itself) or they get dropped (a form of extinction). Evolution depends not only on natural selection, but also on probability. The variety of animals that can be created in the next stage of evolution are not a random sample. They are determined to some degree by the variety of animals that exist today.
This can be stated simply in the following way “whatever comes next in any evolutionary system is dependent on what is available at present”. Biologists call this phenomenon a markovian process, a process of non-random probability that constrains the outcome of the evolutionary sequence of events. Think of how monkeys came to be. They didn’t just appear suddenly like some aliens landing from outer space. They were derived from animals in a previous stage of evolution that looked similar, but weren’t quite monkeys. The music industry also has evolved through a markovian process. For instance, it is not a random chance that we have Alanis Morrissette. She didn’t evolve out of the null-and-void. She came from a former template. She borrowed styles and sounds from a very limited set of other artists. The important thing to be learned is that it is possible to predict with some degree of accuracy what the next stage of evolution will look like, based on what things look like today. And if the music industry doesn’t cultivate a diverse array of artists today, they will extinguish the possibility of future musical revolutions.
Every time a species becomes extinct, its genes are removed from the gene-pool of the future and they don’t re-appear. Likewise, every time a band is dropped, or an artist’s catalog is discontinued, there is a negative effect on the next stage of music-industry evolution. Dropping bands severely limits the range of choices from which the next generation will take its inspiration. The crop of artists-to-be of the future is determined by the artists that exist today. Inspiration is analogous to hereditary.
So the question in the music industry is the same as the biggest question in modern biology: “How do we maintain diversity”?
If we continue to clear natural habitats, and pave them over with cities or agricultural land, we will cause a lot of species to go extinct because they cannot adapt to our rapid destruction. The net result: Fewer types of organisms in the next stage of evolution. Likewise, if the record labels only promote carbon copies of each other’s artists rosters, and ignore bands and artists that are qualitatively unique, there will be a very restrictive set of artistic styles available in the next decade. And a limited array of products is bad for any institution’s long-term prospectus. Now comes the difficult part: Suggesting reparations.
I think our values are askew. We have come to measure quality in the wrong way, usually in terms of dollars and cents and not in intellectual or emotional stimulation. This is probably both a symptom of our society, as well as an arrogant irreverence by those who wield the power. There is a common attitude among music industry people. I’ve heard numerous executives say: “Who are we to judge the music we release? The kids love it! We are just giving the people what they want to hear”.
In short this means that the reason they are putting out crappy music is because it is what the people really want. I don’t agree with this. I think it is logical to ask: Is it what they really want to hear, or does the industry determine what the people hear through “un-natural” selection? I think there has to be a set of quality standards other than how much money an artist generates. Less-popular bands deserve to be sustained. Their value should be measured by projecting their influence forward, into the future, and not merely by calculating last year’s profit and loss statement.
In order to maintain diversity, we need label executives who are willing to stick their necks out and say “This is good music, and this is poor quality. This has integrity, and this is a blatant rip off”. Artists need to be told when they sound like someone else. It helps them recognize what is and isn’t unique about themselves. It helps them develop. I think there has to be a more sophisticated approach to developing artists and bands. I know that bands need to be educated. They don’t need the pressure of their labels simply throwing money at them while they cross their fingers and hope for a hit. This isn’t real development.
Bad Religion took a long time to develop into gold-record- status artists. Every step of the way we learned and applied our knowledge. Atlantic helped us reach a larger audience all along the way. And although we are a unique situation, I still think we prove that real development can occur in the industry without sacrificing artistic integrity.
In conclusion then, I think there has to be an acknowledgment by the people who sell the music that they play a significant role in determining the public’s musical taste. By overlooking unique artists in the search for superstars, and by forsaking long- term development in lieu of instant one-hit wonders, industry executives actively winnow the choices of the musical styles and images that are presented to the public. Thus, the industry, through a markovian evolutionary process, facilitates its own demise, and contributes to the progressive senility of our society. It is as much a truism in music, as in politics: If you offer the people nothing but mediocrity, you will create a mediocre people.