Why Fugazi's Politics Are as Frighteningly Relevant Today as They Were in 1988
From gentrification to sexual assault on college campuses, Ian MacKaye's dire predictions for the future have all come true.
Fugazi live in Harrisonburg / photos by Kelly Maron Horvath
On the 1988 self-titled EP by Washington, D.C.'s Fugazi, Ian MacKaye sang, "You can't be what you were"—a line directed, perhaps, at fans expecting a new iteration of Minor Threat, Rites of Spring or Embrace. But it could also have applied to the Fugazi of 2002, looking back at a fifteen-year run as it geared up for its final U.S. and European tours. The band evolved musically and lyrically over six albums, three EPs and more than 1,000 live shows played around the world. During that run, Fugazi built its own culture around low ticket prices, offbeat venues and expectations that its audience members would treat one another with respect.
Fugazi's final year of shows, most of which are available for download from the Fugazi Live Series, an online repository of more than 800 shows offered for $5 each—served both as a crescendo and a tantalizing glimpse of how the band might have continued to evolve had it not gone on indefinite hiatus starting in 2003. Fifteen years of touring shaped Fugazi into a tightly knit unit. Drummer Brendan Canty and bassist Joe Lally held down ridiculously tight rhythms influenced by go-go, funk and reggae that left plenty of space up top for dual guitarists and vocalists MacKaye and Guy Picciotto to interweave melodies mixing clean chiming tones with screaming sheets of noise. Song variations appeared often—a minor shift in the beat or a tweaked guitar line making each performance feel different. What sticks out most, though, remains the band's interaction with its audiences. Early on, Fugazi developed a reputation for verbally challenging aggressive crowd members in service of providing a safe space for everyone. Usually that took the form of verbal reprimands but occasionally required going a bit farther. After stopping several times because of crowd fights during a 1995 show in Peoria, Illinois, the band requested the audience all sit down and allow the guys causing problems to mosh by themselves until they grew uncomfortable and left.
The band's albums are packed with political songs that still resonate today, from "Suggestion," a song about rape from the first EP with implications that play directly into the epidemic of sexual assault on college campuses, to "Five Corporations" from 1998's End Hits, which addresses the ever-growing influence of multinational companies. The band's final album, 2001's The Argument, was released a month after the attacks on September 11, 2001, and the performances that followed in 2002 occurred during those bizarre, awkward months before the U.S. invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2003.
MacKaye and Picciotto often devoted time between songs to discussing issues such as patriotism, gentrification and the increasing militarization of America's police departments—topics that remain as crucial today as in 2002. Fugazi took on the first President Bush when they played an iconic protest show in front of the White House. Eleven years later, here's MacKaye in Asheville, North Carolina: "Meanwhile, they're dropping huge metal explosive devices all over human beings, all over the world. Meanwhile, the debate rages. Meanwhile it's not OK to even say this: War is incorrect and bad. And patriotism is a loathsome quality. Because to be a patriot means you have to support the kind of ugliness and violence that is being encouraged all over the world at this moment. Please count me an unpatriot forever."
The band promoted upcoming peace rallies and commended Americans protesting military action during a time in which the political world was pounding war drums. In Harrisonburg, Virginia, MacKaye described the peace rally that took place in Washington, D.C., about two weeks "after all those planes crashed."
"Of course the police misbehaved, but that's part of the situation we have to contend with these days," MacKaye said. "They're very upset or angry or they spent an awful lot of money on these spaceman outfits they're wearing these days when they deal with human beings. I'm not sure if they're just testing their equipment or what. But they just beat the shit out of people for no reason."
Fast-forward thirteen years, and it's all too easy to draw straight lines, not just to the increasingly unstable geopolitics of Eastern Europe and the Middle East, but to the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York City—both of whom were killed by police officers while unarmed. When protests erupted over the deaths, police responded with heavy-handed action that sounds awfully similar to what MacKaye described in 2002. War and police brutality seem fairly straight-forward to gentrification and the link between neighborhoods and the housing market. Last November, Dave Grohl fretted that Austin, Texas, was losing its artsy character during an interview promoting the Sonic Highways series.
MacKaye spoke about it onstage in Austin in 2002: "This first song is about the fact that human beings actually are physical beings that must exist somewhere. So, while there's all this scuffle going on about development and people getting moved in and out of neighborhoods and activists trying to fight to save them and people trying to cash in, all this sort of stuff. Ultimately there's human beings in the middle of all this who are just being shuffled one way or another."
He delivered a similar introduction in Asheville, which last year landed on a Yahoo Finance list of cities where people can't afford homes. The Asheville Blade has prioritized public housing as a major issue. The space where Fugazi played has changed hands multiple times and now houses a martini bar. Fugazi also took on the politics of the music business. The band embedded its politics into its business model, consistently setting ticket prices well below $10 and spurning corporate clubs in favor of alternatives when possible. In Huntington, West Virginia, MacKaye detailed how band worked with a newbie promoter to move the show at the last minute after the city sent building inspectors to the previously scheduled venue on the morning of the show.
Dischord Records helped blaze a trail built around the punk principle of doing it yourself. Today, the music industry seems to moved both closer and farther away from that model. iTunes, Spotify and others have made it easier than ever for listeners to consume music while also making access and profit more difficult for musicians. At the same time, however, technology has enabled bands to more easily communicate and distribute music directly to their fans. The question of whether Fugazi will return from hiatus remains as tantalizing as ever. Dischord's FAQ leaves the door open, but its members' multiple projects make it feel unlikely. Consider the Fugazi Lives Series a stop-gap—a way to engage and hear a band that's only become more relevant since it stopped playing.
A final thought from MacKaye during Fugazi's final U.S. show: "Fifteen years from now, I can almost guarantee, we're going to all sit around and say, what the fuck was that about? What was happening? What was that? They put fences around everything. There's a cop on every corner. What happened to us?"
Mason Adams writes from the mountains of southwest Virginia. Follow him on Twitter.