By: Jeffrey Adelson
Photos by: Isabel Lord
First, a disclaimer: I have not been involved in punk spaces and scenes for a long period of time. Though I have only been to a handful of shows, I wanted to offer my impressions on this topic.
Since its emergence in the 1970’s from the wider world of rock music, punk and its various subgenres have established themselves in opposition to mainstream culture. From explicitly political opposition, to broader opposition of widely held societal beliefs and norms, punk rock music has always been a medium that expresses another point of view. Yet though the establishment’s initial response was resistance, there soon came a point when the mainstream co-opted and consumed punk, stripping it of its bite and satire. Though that moment has already passed and punk has faded in and out of the mainstream several times since then, today the genre is still split between stringent opposition to and cohabitation in the mainstream.
I recently attended a concert featuring three California punk bands, The Frights, SWMRS (pronounced ‘Swimmers’), and FIDLAR (F**k It Dog, Life’s A Risk), at the Howard Theater in Northern DC. In many ways, this concert and these groups serve as a microcosm for the current punk scene. The venue was one historically unusual to punk music; the theater was large, able to hold over 1,000 people, tickets were priced at $20 plus about $10 in fees, and the theater staff clashed with members of the crowd several times, intervening when they thought dancing or stage diving would endanger people in the crowd. Not to mention FIDLAR’s large stage display and lights coordinated for each performance. These details speak to a venue and a production value that is decidedly atypical of punk events – usually played in basements and backrooms for low entry fees in front of small crowds. Today’s reality is that punk is a profitable business for bands like FIDLAR and their record label Mom + Pop Music because of shows like the one at the Howard Theater.
SWMRS’ background and performance particularly illuminate punk’s current flirtation with the mainstream. After playing for several years under the name Emily’s Army, the group of Cole Becker (guitar, lead vocals), Max Becker (guitar, vocals), Seb Mueller (bass), and Joey Armstrong (drummer and the son of punk ‘royalty’ Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong), rebranded themselves as SWMRS in 2015 and released their first record, Drive North, on their own record label, Uncool Records, in early 2016. They have since signed and re-released their album with pop-punk giant Fueled by Ramen (Paramore, Panic! at the Disco, Fall Out Boy, Twenty One Pilots), were featured in two Rolling Stone articles, and were one of the first groups to perform on MTV’s Wonderland in October – a new program featuring performances by various artists in front of a live studio audience in L.A. This amount of mainstream media coverage for a young Punk band is unexpected and has led to the rapid expansion of SWMRS’ fanbase. Plus SWMRS’ debut album is not without pop appeal – huge choruses on songs like “Figuring It Out” and “Drive North”, in addition to pop-culture references like the song “Miley”, are all friendly to audiences who might not immediately be drawn to SWMRS’ surf-punk sound.
Though SWMRS’ media coverage and pop-punk elements have earned them popularity, this proximity to mainstream currents does erode their counter-culture message. When they walked on stage at the Howard Theater, Cole Becker was wearing a white t-shirt with “F**k Trump” freshly emblazoned across the front in black marker. The shirt drew cheers from the emotionally charged crowd (the concert fell on November 10th), which soon chanted along as Becker pointed to the words in sequence. Mid-way through the set, Becker addressed the crowd, urging that it would be the responsibility of SWMRS and bands like it to protect those most targeted by a Trump administration. This statement was reflective of punk historically, which, as a movement, has welcomed the ostracized. However, Becker carried this statement into the introduction for SWMRS’ next song, “Uncool,” having the crowd repeat after him the refrain of the song – “I just wanna be uncool.” Becker finished, saying, “That’s right, because as of yesterday we’re the f**king resistance, baby.” It was a naïve moment – a proud statement of ‘rebellion’ that not only most people in the room agreed with but that, at least currently, many voters and media outlets seem to agree with as well. Punk’s counter-cultural position comes from its representation of a minority opinion, but Becker, appealing to punk’s history of political resistance, conflated this subversion with a mainstream sentiment. SWMRS are still a young group, so some naivety is to be expected on their part. Only the next few years will reveal if the kids who just want to be ‘Uncool’ can grow to genuinely reflect punk’s history of political and social opposition.
By contrast, FIDLAR, the show’s headliner, demonstrated a more mature understanding of both punk and the world it exists in. Veterans of California punk Zac Carper (guitar, lead vocals), Elvis Kuehn (guitar, vocals), Brian Schwartzel (bass, vocals), and Max Kuehn (drums) have been performing and recording songs as FIDLAR since 2009. Their first full-length record, FIDLAR, released in 2013 by Mom + Pop Music, is 36 minutes of pure adrenaline and hedonism, led by songs such as “Cheap Beer,” “No Waves,” “Wake Bake Skate,” and “Cocaine.” This record and FIDLAR’s sophomore effort, Too, are distinctly apolitical, espousing instead a zealous embrace of alcohol and drugs as means to have fun and escape life’s troubles, though not shying away from conveying the consequences of such abuse. Especially on Too, FIDLAR and Zac Carper, who has struggled with drug addiction, address the vicious cycle of addiction and the pain of losing yourself and others to drug abuse and overdose. It is this look into the morning after the party that demonstrates FIDLAR’s maturity when compared to a group like SWMRS.
Not to mention their understanding of punk today. On “40oz. On Repeat,” the opening track of Too, Zac Carper sings “But I got bills to pay, and I got pills to take / Cause I’m born in the USA / And I’ll scream and shout, that I’ll never sell out / I’ll never sell out! / Wait… how much?” This clever verse cuts to the crux of punk’s current dilemma. Punk artists like FIDLAR and SWMRS never want to compromise their message and ‘sell out,’ but musicians have to eat too, which entails selling merchandise, signing record deals, touring, and becoming part of the capitalist system that punk initially targeted for destruction. Especially in countries like the United States, the slow changes to the political system have created a seemingly permanent group advocating for radical transformation, yet in the meantime this group must accept the terms of the current system to live in any kind of comfort. Sometimes political activists and artists must hold day jobs, or commodify and sell their talents to someone willing to pay for them. What I think FIDLAR avoids and SWMRS comes dangerously close to is commoditizing punk itself – transforming it into a ‘cool’ and ‘edgy’ look to be sold in a store rather than treating it as the authentic expression of artists in opposition to mainstream norms.
This leaves the concert’s opening act, The Frights. Where do they fit into this discussion? As the least experienced and recognized of the three groups, The Frights has yet to solidify their relationship with the mainstream. The collective decisions of young bands such as this will determine the future of punk as a genre – to continue to produce music in relative obscurity or to swim into the mainstream and lose part of the essence of punk as a result.