Can punk still be a political force?

The music of the band Against Me! has taken many forms since its founding in 1997; what started out as Tom Gabel’s solo acoustic project has today become a punk band that tours internationally and releases records under a major label. The past three years have seen the band go through some of its most significant changes. In 2005 the band released “Searching For a Former Clarity” under Fat Wreck Chords, an independent record label that actively disassociates itself from the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). 1  Shortly after releasing “Searching For a Former Clarity” the band announced that it would be moving to Sire Records, a subsidiary of Warner Brothers Records. This move to a major corporate record label was quite controversial among punk circles and was accompanied by accusations that the band had forgotten its anarchist punk roots. 2 While the move to Sire Records brought significant critique from longtime fans it also resulted in further exposure to mass media outlets like Rolling Stone and the New York Times. Through the work of Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, who provide the framework through which the effects of corporate media can be seen, as well as that Andrew Ross, who analyzes the effects of media intellectuals upon cultural forms, a more complete analysis of Against Me!’s music and political potential can be undertaken. Ultimately, with the move to a more corporate label the music of Against Me! strayed from its anarchist punk roots and become more corporate in nature. The response of media intellectuals and music critics to the band’s music has also undercut much of the potential for the band’s music to stimulate a significant political movement.

Fat Wreck Chords and Sire Records operate with far different goals and guiding principles. Fat Wreck Chords was founded by Fat Mike, a former member of the punk band NOFX. The label is independent of the RIAA; in fact, they actively work to not be listed as a member. 3 Furthermore, Fat Wreck Chords does not confine its bands into exclusive, multiple record deals. As Fat Mike says in an interview with the BBC, “We do one-record deals with our bands so a soon as someone’s not happy or they want to do something else, they can do whatever they want.” 4 This principle creates a focus on the artist and their music. By signing bands to one-record deals they create an environment within which bands can create music without feeling like they owe it to the label to set themselves up for success on later albums. This also allows the band to decide when their record is ready for release which provides musicians the ability to continue to work on their art until they are satisfied with it and decide that it is ready to release. Fat Wreck Chords gives artists more freedom to create the types of music that they want to; furthermore, the music becomes more about artistic expression and less about profit. In the same BBC interview Fat Mike says that, “we put out records because we like ’em and we have a lot of bands that we lose money on. We don’t care as long as it’s a good record.” 5 As a privately held company Fat Wreck Chords is able to disregard the corporate pressures that drive larger labels to produce profit for shareholders. This gives the company the opportunity to focus on releasing quality records that are artistically good while not necessarily profit-making.

A subsidiary member of the Warner Music Group, Sire Records is a more conventional record label than Fat Wreck Chords. In addition, Sire Records is able to provide more financial and musical resources to its bands than Fat Wreck Chords. In an interview with Racket Magazine, Tom Gabel, Against Me!’s founder, admits that, “we got a better royalty rate with Sire.” 6 Along with higher royalties a larger label like Sire provides more well known and commercially successful producers. For Against Me!’s album, “New Wave,” the producer was Butch Vig, who produced Nirvana’s famous album “Nevermind” in 1991. 7 Also, unlike Fat Wreck Chords, Sire Records signs bands to multiple-record deals; this assures the label that if it provides the resources needed to get the band into the mainstream it will be the one to take the profit later. Sire Records provides the resources that Against Me! needs to record a commercial album. The label also creates a situation where there is the underlying expectation that the band will produce a mainstream album that will bring profit to Sire. Overall, the mode of operation for Sire Records is more conventional for cultural forms. Sire allows for artistic expression so long as that form of expression can create a profit that will please the stockholders of the parent company.

Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno’s theory of a culture industry greatly helps in understanding the effects of the current corporate setting for Against Me!’s music. Fundamental underpinnings of the culture industry are vital to the understanding of how Sire Records affects the music; the postponement of gratification, continual consumption, and a focus on the star-power of art are some of the elements in this theory of cultural production.

The notion that the culture industry produces art which postpones gratification and encourages eternal consumption is particularly relevant to the current context of Against Me!’s music. Adorno and Horkheimer write that, “while all needs should be presented to individuals as capable of fulfillment by the culture industry, they should be so set up in advance that individuals experience themselves through their needs only as eternal consumers.” 8 In the case of Against Me!, listening to their current album can create a desire to hear more of their music as well as an expectation that there will be future releases; the only legal way in which to access this music is through acts of consumption: one buys the records, goes to concerts, or downloads the songs. It is this future music that is important to the band’s relationship with Sire Records. With the move to Sire, Against Me! became like many other large bands that sign with major record labels: they agreed to release multiple albums over a period of years. This furthered the notion that their music stimulates consumption. Instead of creating a single album and releasing it as simply that they created the expectation for future albums. The money from the purchase of these albums will further increase Sire’s profits. Thus, it is in the record label’s best interest to turn Against Me! in stars so that their next releases will encourage even more consumption to drive Sire’s profits.

Horkheimer and Adorno’s theory of a star-powered culture industry is also relevant to Against Me! and is particularly applicable to their presence on Sire Records. As part of a publicly-traded company Sire Records needs to not only produce art, but to produce it in its marketable form to drive profit. Against Me! represents the transition from DIY punk to major-label punk if Sire is able to capitalize on this image and make a profit from it then the company accomplishes its drive toward profit. In their essay, Horkheimer and Adorno write that, “The highest-paid stars resemble advertisements for unnamed merchandise. Not for nothing are they often chosen from the ranks of commercial models.” 9 It is these starlets, heros, models, and film stars that come to embody the mediums of art itself. 10 Through the simple portrayal of these people the culture industry creates and promotes art that is driven by star power. In the case of punk music this can be seen in the way that bands become recognizable symbols in and of themselves. Their importance comes to be divorced from their music; their symbolism is as important for a company as their actual art is. Furthermore, it is this symbolism that can be exploited by media institutions like Sire Records and even by smaller companies like Fat Wreck Chords to promote and market the art created by bands. In Against Me!’s case this can be seen in the way that upon releasing their last album on Fat Wreck Chords and then shortly thereafter announcing their move to Sire Records they began to receive significantly more media attention from such large publications as Rolling Stone, The New York Times, and The Boston Globe. This media coverage converted Against Me! into a similar set of adjectives and images that created a public perception of the band. All of this implanted the band in the minds of readers and added to their potential for monetary success.

The change from an independent to a corporate record label is just one shift that the band went through in the last three years. Since 2005 Against Me! has garnered significantly more press, particularly from large media outlets, than it had previously. To properly understand the effect that these media “intellectuals” can have on the interpretation and potential of the band’s music it is helpful to view them through the lens of Andrew Ross’ theory as outlined in his book, No Respect: Intellectuals & Popular Culture. In the introduction Ross writes that, “[a history of popular culture] must also be a history of intellectuals–in particular, those experts in culture whose traditional business is to define what is popular and what is legitimate, who patrol the ever shifting borders of popular and legitimate taste.” 11 These intellectuals gain their authority through formal schooling, which provides them with the necessary acquisition of knowledge that leads to potential freedom, dignity, and self-determination. 12 It is these qualities that give intellectuals the position in society to determine definitions of taste and popularity. This imbued autonomy of authority gives the intellectual the power to judge forms of popular culture as “cool” and “hip.” In addition, this position of authority gives the intellectual the position of being “a inspector of the nation’s cultural health.” 13 Ultimately, the general role of the intellectual in Ross’ theory of popular culture is one of an interpreter. It is the intellectual that is responsible for keeping track of cultural activity that is slightly outside the mainstream and then interpreting it as either worthy or unworthy of the public’s attention. In the case of Against Me! it would be the intellectuals of such institutions as Rolling Stone, The New York Times, and smaller punk magazines that would be responsible for the portrayal of the band’s music to the previously unaware public.

The notoriety that Against Me! gained with the release of “Searching For a Former Clarity” translated into a proliferation of articles that helped to interpret the band’s music to readers. In different instances, these articles focus on such things as the band’s lyrics, sound, concert experience, and political ideology; all of it helps to translate an image of the band to the public. The focus on certain aspects of the band’s music changes throughout time. After the release of “New Wave” on Sire Records the reviews and articles by intellectuals began to focus more heavily on the sound, appearance, and identity of the band and far less on their political ideology and lyrics. Not only is there this split between intellectual opinion through time, but there is a distinct divide between the views of the mainstream and those of smaller, punk-centered writers.

This divide between the mainstream and independent intellectuals is best characterized in the reaction to the band’s last independent label album, “Searching For a Former Clarity.” In December of 2005, just a few months after its release The New York Times published an article titled “All That Is Anger Melts Into Anguish.” This article characterizes Against Me! as an authentic punk band; they are not one of the “tuneful, energetic, clean-scrubbed bands” that this generation has grown up listening to. 14 Instead, this article asks the question “Who knew that punk rock could sound so, y’ know, punk?” 15 Throughout the article various lyrics are quoted in order to describe the style of the band. In addition, a significant portion of the article is devoted to describing the experience of the concert that the author attended: the actions of Tom Gabel and the fans are both described. Overall, this article gives the reader a very favourable impression of Against Me! and conveys the idea that this band is the epitome of punk values and music.

Rolling Stone also offered their opinion of the band’s album in October of 2005. Through two articles published within two weeks of each other the reader is again given impression that the band represents core punk values. One author describes the band as “creating a passionate, punk-without-the-pop sound that demands mass singalongs” and the proceeds to describe how the band survived its first tour in 1999 by “dumpster-diving and begging at a fast food chain.” 16 These reviews are also heavy on descriptions of the band’s lyrics, they both quote from multiple songs, as well as their musical influences. They name such bands as Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, and Bruce Springsteen as influences. 17 The favourable impression that these articles give of the band create a far different perception than that given by reviews of the same album in smaller magazine reviews.

Reviews published in two online magazines present a far more critical and disparaging reviews than those published in Rolling Stone and The New York Times. The more negative review was published by Blogcritics Magazine in September of 2005. In it the author expresses doubt over the album and writes that he doesn’t “know if punk rock really needs its boundaries stretched by slowing down the tempos and adding a can of studio polish.” 18 He then furthers his critique of the band by describing them as “whiny” and says their opinions come off as “too chiseled in stone.” 19 Overall, the image presented by this review works decidedly against the characterization of the band as the exemplar of punk that the mainstream articles provided. The review published by Stylus Magazine in January of 2006 is less disdainful of the band, but is still far from the reverent tone that Rolling Stone and The New York Times adopt. This author describes “[Against Me!’s] honesty, their constant self-criticism, and their dedication to broadcasting a message for the next course of direct action” as the things that make them a band worthy of attention. 20 While this review doesn’t entirely portray the band as the ideal anti-establishment punk band it recognizes that by making a mainstream record the band takes the “middle road” between selling out and staying punk. 21 This review suggests that through “Searching For a Former Clarity” the band created a popular album with songs like “Mediocrity Gets You Pears”; however, they are able to do this without forgetting what makes the issue of selling out “such a compelling problem.” 22 Just a year after this last review was published the band took the ultimate step of “selling out” and released an album on a major label. This later album, “New Wave,” was also heavily covered by media intellectuals and was described in a very different manner from “Searching For a Former Clarity.”

Much of what the intellectuals wrote concerning “New Wave” takes a decidedly different tone and outlook on the music. These reviews focus more heavily on the sound and appearance of the band. They’re consequently less heavy on lyrical analysis as well as more approving and promoting of the band in general. The first example of these later reviews was published by the Boston Globe in October of 2008. Titled “Punk gets back to politics” the article addresses whether Against Me! would still have a place in a world where Obama is president. Again, the author reviews the band after having recently attended one of their high-energy concerts. Of this show, he writes that, “judging from the spitting fury Against Me! unleashed in front of a packed, all-ages crowd, they likely have ample stores of indignation, not to mention pop hooks, to carry them over through the hard times to come.” 23 In the mind of this reviewer it is not necessarily the subject matter of the songs, nor the lyrics themselves that make Against Me! worth the attention of the public; rather, it is the indignation and pop sounds that, “The black-clad, four-piece band, [that’s] all ink and attitude” emits. 24 As a characteristic review of “New Wave” this article pushes for the consumption of the music because of an image. An article published by Rolling Stone in May of 2008 also characterizes the band in a similar manner. In the article, entitled “Best Punk Band: Against Me!” the author describes how in the last ten years the band has transformed from Tom Gabel’s solo acoustic project to “major-label rock contenders whose fans include Bruce Springsteen.” 25 Even when describing the band as the best of punk Rolling Stone portrays the band as now being characteristic of the rock establishment: Butch Vig produced their album, Bruce Springsteen likes them, and they signed to a major label. The authors of these articles present the band to a mass public that may not have had significant previous exposure to Against Me! through the construction of an image of the band as one that has the rebellious style (e.g. dressed in black with tattoos) of traditional punk bands with the music of a pop rock band.

One of the few exceptions to these later characterizations of the band is an article published on The Nation’s website in September. This article portrays the band in a more balanced manner that is more fitting with their music. For example, the author writes that, “if there’s one thing besides talent that sets Against Me! apart form the hordes of anarchist punk bands who wear their dissent on their sleeves, it’s the ability to recognize their own bullshit.” 26 He describes the band, largely through the quotes of Tom Gabel, as being able to recognize that they are white, middle-class, and lucky enough to be a band that travels the world. In addition to this characterization of the band is a more in-depth look at their politics and how these are represented in their songs; the author even goes back to a 2001 record to illustrate this. As part of this examination the author quotes far more lyrics than either the Rolling Stone or The Boston Globe articles. He even quotes the opening lines of the new album (“We can control the medium. We can control the context of presentation…We can be the bands we want to hear. We can define our own generation.”) to show how the band has not entirely lost its desire to change the music industry. 27 While this review by The Nation is far more of a critical look at the band’s music and less of a stimulus to consumption it is still the rarity among reviews of “New Wave.” This review could fairly easily be lost in the midst of the consumption-driven reviews by mainstream publications.

A characteristic of Against Me!’s music from the very founding has been the way in which the lyrics focus on political themes. While the relative attention that these are given by media intellectuals varies the presence of political angst and dissatisfaction has remained. There is a difference, however, between the simple presence of politics and the ability for these songs to stimulate a political movement Much of this political potential rests on how the band is presented to the portion of the public that is not already familiar with Against Me!’s music. The representation of the band by intellectuals does nothing to further their political potential, instead it undermines Against Me!’s politics. Even in articles like the one published by The Nation, that focus fairly heavily on the political themes of the music, fail to elucidate political movement of which the band is a leader. This all begs the question of whether there is any potential for a political movement to be present in the music or whether the representation of the band by intellectuals has undercut this.

By looking at the music itself one can see vast potential for the rallying of a political movement. The band litters its songs with energetic calls to action; however, many of the more provocative of them are from earlier albums that are simply not mentioned in reviews of the band’s current music. For example, their song “Those Anarcho Punks are Mysterious” opens with the verse:

We’re all presidents, we’re all congressmen,

We’re all cops in waiting,

We’re the workers of the world,

There is the elite and the dispossessed,

And it’s only about survival,

Who has the skill to play the game for all it’s worth,

In addition, “Burn,” a song from an even earlier album, has a similar message. In that song Against Me! sings:

Beautiful to live in poverty

Just to spite what they’re selling

Take a thousand hits to prove the rest and I’ll move in

Millimeters still won’t mean shit against well-done subversion

These songs convey a decidedly anti-establishment message. They preach empowerment and self-determination as well as advocating for living a life that works against the social stratification present in society. These songs are not simply political, but they work against the existing structure of society; they ask that people think about and go about their daily lives in different ways. These themes have become more the exception and less the norm in their later music.

Songs from “Searching For a Former Clarity” and “New Wave” are certainly still political, but the message is more one of anti-Bush and anti-record industry. For example, in the song “From Her Lips to God’s Ear (The Energizer),” which is from “Searching For a Former Clarity” they open the song by singing:

Regime change under a Bush doctrine of democratic installations.

Constant war for constant soldiers.

What are we gonna do now?

De-escalation, through military force.

Increase the pressure, Oh Condoleeza

What should we do about the situation in Iran and North Korea?

Other songs direct their anger toward the mode of operation within the record industry. On “Searching For a Former Clarity” Against Me! likens participation in the recording industry to unprotected sex with multiple partners. In a song by that title they open by saying:

Everyone’s a critic, but hey they really respect your talent.

Have your manager call my manager, and we’ll make records together.

At this level of success in entertainment, there are certain connotations.

It’s a “you give we take” relation.

No the kids wouldn’t understand it.

Come on now, how long do think this is really gonna last?

How long can you hold their attention before they move on to the next band?

While still obviously political these later two songs exist within the established system of affairs more than previous music. They question the current state of affairs but ultimately advocate more for reform than revolution. Instead of urging listeners to be aware of the socioeconomic exploitation present in society and advocating that they do something to change it this later music is simply advocating for a different political position concerning military aggression or for less exploitation of artists by the music industry.

By combining the messages of earlier albums like “Reinventing Axl Rose” and the EP “Crime as Forgiven By” with later messages from “Searching For a Former Clarity” and “New Wave” a quite encompassing political movement could be created. A movement that opposes many fundamental structures of society as well as taking on topical political issues could be synthesized. While this could all be possible it is severely undermined by the presentation of the band by intellectuals and their presences on a major label. As Ross writes, it is the role of the intellectual “to define what is popular and what is legitimate.” 28 This can be seen in the above descriptions of the band by Rolling Stone, The New York Times, Racket Magazine, and The Boston Globe. These media intellectuals create a very definite image of the band and their music. Furthermore, for a band that until the last year or two was largely under mainstream radar these representations by intellectuals were, for many people, their first exposure to the band. Thus, it was these writings that created the initial image of the band in the public’s mind. Due to the way in which these media portrayals of the band almost entirely focus on the two most recent albums the potential for vast social change that was present in earlier records is lost. In addition, since Against Me!’s label requires them to release future albums fans will have the expectation of future releases. Since the type of Against Me! music that these new fans are accustomed to deals with current political affairs and is more concerned with critiquing political institutions than the superstructures of society this will be what is expected in future releases. If this is what fans expect to be buying from Against Me! it is understandable to believe that there will be considerable corporate pressure on the band to produce albums similar to “Searching For a Former Clarity.”

Ultimately, the expectation of future releases and the characterization of the current album both serve to marginalize the political potential for Against Me!’s music. Now that the public has been exposed to the band’s music it is conditioned by the culture industry to expect further opportunity to consume similar music. Against Me! has become the type of stars that Adorno and Horkheimer describe as stimulating consumption. Also, the band’s current music has become framed more as political entertainment than as a call to action. In addition, the band itself has not maintained its devotedness to an anti-establishment, socially revolutionary message. Tom Gabel admits as such when he says that when fans ask them to play early songs such as “Burn” the reaction is “God, we don’t want to play [those songs] anymore.” 29 Finally, the band is not seen as leading a movement; at the most, they are simply a small part of a much larger political movement. Songs like “From Her Lips to God’s Ear (The Energizer)” are seen as part of the anti-Bush movement. Ultimately the band has become punk entertainment, not a punk movement. Any potential to stimulate a mass political movement was lost with their ascension to the mainstream and the recognition from intellectuals that accompanied that.

Here’s a link to the original .pdf file that contains all original formatting and footnote citations.

Notes:

  1. Author Unknown, F.A.Q.: Community: Fat Wreck Chords, http://www.fatwreck.com/community/faq.
  2. Akiva Gottlieb, “Political Punk: Rage Against the Band,” The Nation, September 28, 2007 http://www.thenation.com/doc/20071015/gottlieb/print.
  3. Author Unknown, http://www.fatwreck.com/community/faq.
  4. Author Unknown, BBC Jan-16-2003: Fat Mike on The Lock Up – NOFX Wiki, http://www.nofxwiki.net/w/BBC_Jan-16-2003:_Fat_Mike_on_The_Lock_Up. 
  5. Ibid.
  6. Aaron Hale, Racket Magazine, http://racketmag.com/interview_againstme2.html. 
  7. Brian Hiatt, Best Punk Band: Against Me! : Rolling Stone, http://www.rollingstone.com/news/story/20274088/best_punk_band_against_me. 
  8. Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception,” In Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments, ed. Gunzelin Schmid Noerr, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002), 113.
  9. Horkheimer and Adorno, “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception,” 126.
  10. Ibid, 112-126.
  11. Andrew Ross, No Respect: Intellectuals and Popular Culture (New York: Routledge, 1989), 5.
  12. Ibid, 6.
  13. Ibid, 51.
  14. Kelefa Sanneh, “All  That Is Anger Melts Into Anguish,” The New York Times, December 5, 2005, http://www.nytimes.com/2005/12/05/arts/music/05agai.html?_r=1&pagewanted=print
  15. Ibid.
  16. Brian Hiatt, “Against Me! Get ‘Clarity’.” Rolling Stone, October 12, 2005, http://www.rollingstone.com/news/story/7699916/against_me_get_clarity/print. 
  17. Ibid.
  18. Wally Bangs, “CD Review: Against Me! – Searching For a Former Clarity.” Blogcritics Magazine, September 26, 2005, http://blogcritics.org/archives/2005/09/26/095348.php. 
  19. Ibid.
  20. Ken Cheesy, “Against Me!.” Stylus Magazine, January 20, 2006, http://www.stylusmagazine.com/reviews/against-me/searching-for-a-former-clarity.htm. 
  21. Ibid.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Luke O’Neil, “Punk gets back to politics,” The Boston Globe, October 16, 2008, http://www.boston.com/ae/music/articles/2008/10/16/punk_gets_back_to_politics?mode=PF. 
  24. Ibid.
  25. Brian Hiatt, “Best Punk Band: Against Me!,” Rolling Stone, May 1, 2008, http://www.rollingstone.com/news/story/20274088/best_punk_band_against_me
  26. Akiva Gottlieb, “Political Punk: Rage Against the Band,” The Nation, September 28, 2007, http://www.thenation.com/doc/20071015/gottlieb/print
  27. Ibid.
  28. Andrew Ross, “No Respect: Intellectuals & Popular Culture,” 5.
  29. Aaron Hale, Racket Magazine, http://racketmag.com/interview_againstme2.html.