A Good Noise: Playing Punk in the Age of Trump


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A Good Noise: Playing Punk in the Age of Trump

Anyone can—and should—make music.
November 15, 2016, 4:31pm

I've been thinking a lot the last few days about punk rock and the election of Trump. I'm not the only one. Amid the overall eruption of frustration and justifiable horror at the prospect of an openly racist, misogynist, xenophobic, and plutocratic President who also happens to openly revel in committing sexual assault, there's been a lot of talk about how punk rock might fit into all of this. Here at Noisey, Kim Kelly weighed in with a plea for musical activism from the punk and metal scenes. At MTV News, Jessica Hopper cut the crap by pointing out that hoping for a golden age of punk under Trump is myopic and delusional. One term pops in both of their pieces: "silver lining." No matter how much people across social media have been vocally hoping for a bright side to Trump's presidency in the form of better punk rock, waiting for such a thing to happen is the epitome of privilege and I agree. Which is why I'm saying this: Don't wait for music to be vital force in the coming four years. Make it vital yourself. Wait—you say you don't play music at all? You have no musical ability? You've never even picked up an instrument? Luckily, there's a form of music for you. It's called punk.


At the end of her article, Kelly also encourages people to make political music, although she specifically addresses musicians when asking readers to consider channeling their rage into song. In Hopper's article, direct involvement in music isn't brought up at all. Instead, politics in music is framed entirely as a relationship between consumer and pop artist, with an emphasis on whether the Trump years will or won't bring a higher "quality" to music on a mainstream scale.

But why should only musicians be encouraged to express themselves politically through music in these times? And why should we be worried about music's "quality," as gauged by the transactional, strictly capitalist terms of pop?

Punk is protest music, plain and simple. Not all punk songs are an explicit protest against something solid and specific. But even the early punk bands that didn't have a whiff of politics to their music—say, the romantic Buzzcocks or the goofy Dickies—were making a political statement by subverting the dominant macho attitudes and musicians-as-demigods hierarchy of the 70s. (Okay, so Buzzcocks did write the occasional political song, like "I Believe," and you could argue that The Dickies' semi-ironic cover of Barry McGuire's 60s protest song "Eve of Destruction" was political, coming as it did during the Cold War, just as Ronald Reagan was first running for President.)

But there's another, more essential way that punk is political. It was founded on the idea that anyone could—and should—make music.


This is the heart of what makes punk political. It's not only about Greg Graffin lecturing on socioeconomics or Kathleen Hanna giving punk a much-needed shot of feminism, as central and important as those things are. It's about involving people—not just passively, as listeners or consumers, but as participants. I won't whitewash the problems in the punk scene since its inception over 40 years ago. Despite its ideals, it's been dominated by white, straight males. It's been plagued with racism, misogyny, sexual assault, homophobia, transphobia, and bigotry of all kinds. Those things run counter to punk's ideals, but they persist. At the same time, punk is getting better. The rise of recent bands like G.L.O.S.S. (R.I.P.), Downtown Boys, and La Misma has been electrifying, and their impact will reverberate long after they're gone.

They, and many bands like them, are moving punk forward. But even when punk takes a step backward, as it always seems to, I don't see it as a reason to discount it. Punk is like democracy. It's a great egalitarian idea. In practice, it doesn't always work. The election of 2016 is a hideous example. But like democracy, punk is worth fighting for. It's worth getting involved in and trying to make better.

In 1977, Penny Rimbaud was a 34-year-old hippie, performance artist, and former teacher. The tragic death of his close friend Phil Russell after being unjustly incarcerated sparked Rimbaud to tap into the energy of punk that was rising all around him in Sex Pistols-era England. He was almost old enough to be most punks' dad. He had long hair. His previous musical experience consisted of a tenure in an avant-garde collective called Exit that was more of a performance art project.


Despite all that, Rimbaud cofounded Crass, one of the most politically active and outspoken bands in punk history. Crass' emphasis was never on creating "quality" music or hoping to make the kind of impact on mainstream culture that pop bands strive for. They did it because they felt their backs were up against the wall, economically and politically, a feeling exacerbated by the rise of Margaret Thatcher in the late 70s. Rimbaud found in punk a way to amplify his rage at the political system through music.

"We certainly had no concept whatsoever of ever becoming a band, you know, with any sort of trappings of being a band. We certainly never for one minute had any ambition," Rimbaud remembered in a 2007 interview. "Other people would come by and say, 'Can I join in?', and it didn't matter if they could do anything [musically]. That seemed sort of pointless. […] If someone said they wanted to play guitar, well, they did. Andy [N. A. Palmer], who was our rhythm guitarist, never ever learned what a chord was in the seven years we were on the road. He actually wasn't very interested. But he did a spectacular job of making a good noise."

A good noise. That's punk. That's its simplicity. That's its power. Punk was founded on the idea that a lack of technical ability shouldn't dissuade anyone from getting onstage. That's more important now than ever. Granted, many other forms of music are open to those without experience or expertise—with the understanding that you have to practice for years, hone your craft, then hope to someday make it to the stage before possibly rising high enough for anyone to take you seriously.


The metric for most forms of popular music today, at least when it comes to direct involvement, is this: Once you get good enough, you can be a part of this. Once you've reached some basic level of competence demanded by the genre, your music might be worth something. Much of that is dictated by a commercial benchmark, and that hierarchy is as symptomatic of classism and social inequality as any other barrier in America today. We're used to being consumers and adhering to that silently acknowledged gulf between musician and audience. Not coincidentally, raw, naked outrage is rarely acceptable in this paradigm. Anger in music, we're told, is like crudeness in playing: It's something that must be smoothed, euphemized, coded, made palatable. Of course, we're implicitly encouraged at every turn, wouldn't it simply be nicer if we didn't make angry music at all?

Punk, on the other hand, contains in its DNA a unique mix of accessibility and anger. It's a level playing field. If I've had a problem with punk's development over the decades since I got involved, it isn't that punk "sold out" or "went pop." It's that the price of admission, musicianship-wise, has slowly and steadily risen. The bigger punk has gotten, the more it's inched away from the idea that sloppiness and chaos can be musical virtues. That said, it's still among the easiest kinds of music to start playing without any prior experience.


Just as importantly, it's also one of the cheapest. This is why punk is so vital right now, with economic disparity set to grow even more vast under Trump, and with more of a need than ever for voices of those without privilege. Got a beef? You can pick up any old piece-of-shit guitar or bass or drums or keyboard and start playing punk immediately. The keyboard can have three keys. The guitar can have two strings. The bass can have one. Run them through a $20 practice amp cranked to 11. The building block of punk, the power chord, can be learned with two fingers in a day. Not that punk is so strict as to require the use of its own building block, as Crass can attest to.

Then there are the vocals. Punk asks nothing of a singer except the will to be up there onstage. You don't need to carry a tune. You don't need to be a poet. You don't even need to be confident. Punk doesn't care about that. You can play punk to inspire, communicate, and catalyze, or just to get shit off your chest. Loudly. So gloriously fucking loudly.

Not only are scrappiness and rawness and cheapness allowed in punk, they're celebrated. It's part of the aesthetic. Essential to it, even. I grew up poor. Very poor. As in, constantly-evicted-and-food-insecure poor. As a kid, punk's economic accessibility meant so much to me. This was in the 80s. I loved pop artists like David Bowie and Prince. But did I ever think I could play music like them, with their immaculate looks and clothes and equipment and songs? No. It took punk for me to realize that I could own—not disguise or artfully reinvent—my poverty.


Punk became my catharsis. There's a visceral quality to punk that's like nothing else. Of course, punk isn't the only music that can be used for protest, and of course, simply playing punk isn't going to be enough. But it's a start, especially for those who don't have the the time right now for refinement or finesse. Punk not only allows for the attack and abuse of your instruments—it encourages it. You pound the fuck out of them. You sweat and bleed all over them. And if they break, it's not tough to afford another cheap piece of shit to replace them. Not even the crappiest laptop, should that be your instrument of choice, is so easily replaceable.

Punk, I found out as a kid bashing away at his dinged-up, thrift-store bass, is also magically immediate. You don't need to hone your riffs or lyrics to perfection for weeks and weeks. You can put together a band, throw together some songs, and play a show next week. Hell, this week. With punk, you can react in real time much more quickly than you can with many other forms of music. I'm not trying to say punk is superior—but on a scale of sheer utility and reactiveness, it's as high it gets. That's so important right now, with news coming in by the hour of the latest heinous hate crime or jaw-dropping appointment to Trump's inner circle. Because, as we all know, this is only the beginning.

Imagine staying at home practicing how to march in a protest rally for months before actually going out in marching in one. Punk isn't just protest music; it's the musical equivalent of marching in a rally. It's something done when the need arises, swiftly and messily and urgently. And with the election of Trump, that need has arisen. Of course, punk is by no means the only way people can protest through music—but it is one of the few forms that's open, right now, for anyone to do literally tomorrow.

That might not make for a golden age of punk. Then again, unless you're a bigot or a tycoon, the next four years won't be the golden age of jack shit. Still, playing punk rock is one of the quickest, most immediate, most bluntly direct ways people can express their anger, outrage, despair, and frustration in the face. It doesn't matter if it's relevant to a larger audience or pleases the music-journalist class or makes any big websites' year-end lists in 2017 or beyond. It's about what you can do, right now, to fortify, galvanize, and energize yourself for the imminent onslaught of Trump's America. Because making a good noise, a righteous noise, a chaotic and untrained and ad hoc and joyously disruptive noise, is one of those precious things that can keep despair at bay long enough to resist for another day.

Jason Heller is on Twitter - @jason_m_heller