The Rage and the Impact: An Analysis of American Hardcore Punk
(This paper I wrote in my 4th year of university has been extremely popular on the internet. It became a multiple reference in the Wikipedia article on hardcore punk, was for a long time in the top 2% of read papers on Academia.edu, helped make me at one time among the top 1% of viewed scholars on Academia.edu (I’m currently top 2%), and ultimately is a work that took on a life of its own post-UCLA. There are probably some things I would elaborate on further looking back at it, but I still remain very proud of my multidimensional analysis of American Hardcore Punk. It’s a long read, 5,259 words, so pour yourself some coffee and enjoy.)
Music is to many musicians a lifestyle, an extension of their respective personalities and creeds that can be represented to the world. Should one immerse themselves in the world of American hardcore punk, this fact is readily presented, with vocalists screaming about injustice in society and moshers displaying patches of all different ideals. Despite this, American hardcore punk has yet to gain the respect of society, something admittedly that some bands in this genre do not desire. The downfall of such circumstances is a culture in which parents shield their children from the music, envisioning their offspring in crowds of sweaty, angry teenagers shoving each other. Furthermore musicologists rarely, if ever, study the genre, perhaps out of willful ignorance or as a concerted effort. Society as a whole refuses to accept American hardcore punk as a legitimate genre out of fear and disgust. The truth is, however, that society has implicitly and explicitly both influenced, and been influenced by this genre. In this paper, I intend, through various sociological theories such as critical theory and strain theory, integrative practices like cultural studies and theories that pre-date postmodern thought in systematic musicology, to explore how American hardcore punk functions in various contexts, including the societal influences on the genre (from both the light of macro, and micro levels), the hardcore subculture’s function in society, the textual merit of hardcore, and the social significance of the orchestration and music theory of hardcore punk.
Hardcore punk, with its roots in the Oi! music of England as well as numerous punk bands from the Sex Pistols to the Ramones, is distinct in many aspects from its forefathers. Hardcore punk is a faster, more aggressive form of punk rock, with more emphasis on higher decibel levels (instrumentally and vocally), as well as socially-charged messages (Blush 94). Typically American hardcore is found in small music clubs, most famously in clubs such as CBGB in New York City which ,starting in the early 1980’s and ending in the early 1990’s due to violence, hosted hardcore punk bands every Sunday (Blush 34). Certain radio stations gave some airplay to hardcore bands as well in the 1980’s, namely college radio stations (like NYU’s WNYU) as well as Bridgeport, Connecticut’s WPKN (Blush 173). The function of American hardcore punk music is better when viewed through the light of sociological theories, namely critical theory. With critical theory being a sociological theory that aims to change society as opposed to simply analyze it; it will be obvious soon why critical theory and hardcore punk are symbiotic (Agger 106). American hardcore punk bands are truly the embodiment of societal critique. No matter which region in the United States the band originates from, critique and alteration of society is always a central theme in hardcore punk music. Such critiques will be explored further in the following sections of this paper, but generally American hardcore punk desires to change the government (namely its practices), and society (in how it treats various groups, namely those in the minority demographic) (Blush 51). Specifically relating to hardcore music’s function in America, critical theory shows that each and every aspect of the music’s function is related to social change. Especially when hardcore bands acquire American media coverage, the greatest display of social protest is often shown due to the most controversial elements of hardcore punk being shown (such as lyrics, violence in concerts etc.) (Blush 51). No matter where it occurs, be it in music clubs, the radio, or in protests, hardcore music’s function is always intended to make a statement.
Much of United States hardcore punk’s material rests on the political and social climate in America. Typically, hardcore music focuses on issues such as class inequality, government corruption, anarchism/communism, the deluding of the punk genre by other artists, and the response other music genres have had to hardcore (Azerrad 63). Without the aforementioned factors, there would be a severe lacking in material presented from hardcore bands. Consider for example the band Agnostic Front, a pioneer of the hardcore movement in the United States. Agnostic Front formed in New York City in the early 1980’s and came to prominence in a time of turmoil. New York City in the early 1980’s was marred by heavy crime (such as homicide and sexual assaults), debt, and overall distrust of the municipal government (Blush 197). Agnostic Front translated this rage into an aggressive music that was intended to wake city officials and the world up to the injustice that was occurring on a nearly daily basis in New York City (Blush 198). Much of Agnostic Front’s rage was undoubtedly influenced by society, and this showed in their music. This leads to the point of exploring the sociological implications of this movement, as it is certain that society’s influence is not exclusive to Agnostic Front, but rather all American hardcore punk. Admittedly, most hardcore punk bands in the United States are anti-establishment, but such a fact directly relates to the influence of society on their lives. Hardcore punk can in many ways be considered to be a social response to injustice, as seen through the eyes of the members of the hardcore bands. Contemplate another band, this time Hermosa Beach, California’s Black Flag (who are considered to be one of the founders of the hardcore punk) (Azerrad 17). Black Flag was known for not only exploring the ideas of the macro element of society causing oppression, but the micro element as well (Azerrad 17). Once lead singer Henry Rollins joined the group in 1981, the themes of mental illness, namely its side effects, were explored in great detail by the band. Such elements of mental illness include feelings of severe paranoia, depression, anxiety, isolation, all in many ways compounded by society (Azerrad 18). The American society claims to treat all individuals with equal stature, yet individuals with mental illnesses and disorders are often viewed as outcasts, as untouchables, as unequal. This societal rejection is touched on heavily in the songs of Black Flag, but is better understood when analyzed by the light of cultural studies. Cultural studies have proven to be an effective tool for music scholars when used to understand a music work or genre (Mclary 69).
When looking at American hardcore through the light of cultural studies, certain characteristics become evident. One characteristic, social class, is a defining factor in the culture and subsequent music of the American hardcore genre. Most, if not all, of American hardcore musicians are in the income class of middle or working class (some are poor, and a few are upper middle class, but this in particular is rare). The proletariat philosophy of rising against the bourgeoisie, as found in Marxist philosophy, is often seen in hardcore music (Blush 268). Many musicians in the American hardcore punk scene view the wealthy classes with suspicion, and believe that they must revolt, through song, against the influence that the wealthy have in society (be it political or otherwise) (Blush 154). Further continuing with a cultural studies analysis, ideology often plays a role in the development of American hardcore music. Ideology can be broken down into various contexts, but truly the only logical context with regards to hardcore music is political. All hardcore punk bands in the United States hold to some type of political ideology. Such ideologies include communism, anarchism, minarchism, progressive liberalism, moderate liberalism, centrism, libertarianism or rarely moderate conservatism (Blush 268). Political views are nearly always an integral component to lyrics, actions of the band (such as political statements on stage or participating in protests), and the ethos of the concert-goers (as like-minded individuals are typically found at hardcore punk shows).
Another important component to the analysis of American hardcore punk is analysis of nationality. Nationality is quite possibly the most important cultural studies topic when applied to the research of American hardcore punk. National identity is a concept of varying opinions in the hardcore movement. With regards to the United States, there are bands who hold that “dissent is the highest form of patriotism,” in that, they believe that being proud to be American is to consistently stand opposed to the government (Blush 352). Consider the song “Subdued and Arrested” by Avail which sings, “and I wait for an end/but what about them/with broken wings/what about them we’ve become so indifferent/is there a stance one could take/to break the infrastructure/is there a single thing that you would die for?/when all’s said/I don’t see what you see/but you believe truthfully/there’s a stance you can take/to break the infrastructure/there’s a single thing that you would die for/it’s blood red (“Subdued”).” This particular song refers to dissent being not about hatred of the government, but love of the citizens of the United States. How Avail believes this can be manifested is through fighting for the ideals that they believe the American government should uphold, no matter the difficulty. Other bands take this concept on step further and refuse to associate themselves with the label of being “American,” believing that the term within itself is vile. Bands of this nature are solely of the anarchistic ideology, believing the government of the United States to be an incurable evil (Blush 58). An American hardcore band, Anti-Flag, expounds a hatred of the United States government which is evident in songs such as “F**k the Flag.” The lyrics (note, these may be considered offensive to some) state “Brainwashing/Piece of Rag/Take it off mast, and stick it up you’re a**/Now it’s time to slaughter/In its f***ing honor/What a bunch of f***ing s***!/Here’s a flag/Take this match/Burn, that, f***er!/F*** the flag and f*** you! (“F**k”).” The content of this song, and a large percentage of Anti-Flag’s songs, is quite typical of the way that hardcore punk bands think if they are truly Anti-America. Anti-Flag in particular is a quite popular band (many music critics consider them to be pioneers) that is intent on expressing hatred through song (Blush 58). Anything related to the government of the United States, any form of patriotism, is considered to be an enemy of ethics and logic, as evidence by the song “F**k the Flag.” Other bands are indifferent to the label of nationality, and may even take pride in the fact that they come from a region in America (such as the band Agnostic Front which frequently declares pride in their hometown of New York, New York, although they do express distrust of the American government) (Blush 219). Take Agnostic Front’s song “Anthem,” which sings “Changes that were hardly noticed/Until time itself became a chain/Once hot blood began to cool My ever slowing heart–beat in vain/From the nightmare I wake in another dream/And stare at an unbroken sky/Try to distill a cure for the plague/That’s put to rest everything–I once felt inside To never again be bound by United Blood/A sense of purpose lost forever more/Is this the way I’ll die? No!/I’ll find the sense of honor–that I held once before/The Blood–The Honor–The Truth/Thought it would never end/The Blood–The Honor–The Truth/Can be part of our lives again (“Anthem”).” This song speaks specifically about the longing for brotherhood among all members of the New York Hardcore scene, a scene that the band Agnostic Front believes is a true extension of the fighting spirit of New Yorkers. Regardless of where on the spectrum of nationality identification American hardcore bands fall, there is no denying the significance of this aspect of cultural studies factoring into the analysis of said bands.
Another integral component to cultural studies that applies to hardcore punk is that of gender. The vast majority of bands in the genre of American hardcore are male, and as such most of the concert-goers to hardcore shows are male (there are however female hardcore bands, like Bikini Kill of Olympia, Washington) (Blush 36). The male majority in American hardcore has an effect on its social action campaigns, namely in that such campaigns fight for gender equality. This may seem odd to some individuals, as they might expect a predominantly male (especially “masculine” male) dynamic to fight for issues related to their gender. The truth is, the musicians in the hardcore movement, especially in America, fight for equality for many different groups other than their own. Consider Ian MacKaye, lead singer of the band Fugazi. MacKaye is known for heavily promoting the Riot grrrl movement, an underground feminist punk movement from Washington (Blush 36). This movement is known for raising awareness on domestic violence, sexual assault, patriarchal attitudes in society, and the positive effects feminism can have on society (Blush 36). By aligning himself and promoting this punk scene, MacKaye is showing how an American hardcore leader feels with regards to the fight for gender equality.
This statement leads into the final area of importance with regards to cultural studies and American hardcore punk, the area of sexuality. Most musicians in the hardcore punk movement are heterosexual, but often make political agendas of the LGBT community a top priority. Take for instance Henry Rollins, the lead singer of hardcore punk pioneers Black Flag. In his side projects of spoken word performances, Rollins frequently speaks on the issue of gay rights (from gay marriage to stronger hate crime laws), and has even hosted a benefit concert called WedRock which raised money for gay marriage causes (“Wedrock”). No matter which component of cultural studies is applied to American hardcore punk, it is certain that the study of the genre is better understood through this academic discipline.
In the United States, punk subculture takes numerous forms, but most of these could be classified under the sociological idea of deviance. With deviance being a rather broad topic, it is important to specify which theories the hardcore punk subculture truly emulate, namely the deviance theory of Emile Durkheim and Robert K. Merton’s strain theory. With regards to Durkheim’s theory on deviance, hardcore subculture emulates the idea that claims deviance ,in its most extreme form, crumbles moral boundaries and reforms new ones (Erikson 307-308). The concept of moral boundaries is one of great significance to the hardcore movement, as issues of moral significance are found in nearly every song. Consider Black Flag’s Police Story which chronicles the band’s personal fight against police brutality. One segment of the song states “This f***ing city/Is run by pigs/They take the rights away/From all the kids/Understand /We’re fighting a war we can’t win/They hate us-we hate them /We can’t win-no way/Walk down the street/I flip them off /They hit me across the head /With a billy club/Understand/We’re fighting a war/We can’t win/They hate us-we hate them/We can’t win-no way (“Police Story”).” An obviously emotionally charged song, Police Story illustrates how, often through vitriolic speech, hardcore punk bands cry out for a new moral order. This moral order is not necessarily uniform, as political views differ (such as the extremes of communism versus anarchism, even libertarian and republican views are represented as a minority), as do many other social views such as the straight-edge movement against drug use, alcohol overconsumption, and environmentalism (I personally belong to the straight-edge subculture) (Blush 268). Regardless of the differing views, the fact remains that deviance exists in all strains of American hardcore punk subculture (and truthfully in all regions of the world that contain hardcore punk rock). This deviance may be further explored within context of strain theory, first presented by sociologist Robert K. Merton. The subculture of hardcore punk functions in society in mainly two forms of the strain theory, retreatism (where individuals disassociate themselves from society, and attempt to change norms of said society through acting as the antithesis of social values) and rebellion (where a “counter-culture” forms and attempts to change societal norms via non-conventional methods) (Merton 16). American hardcore punk subculture emulates the concept of retreatism through the withdrawal of its followers of conventional society. While the members of the hardcore subculture may have jobs or other conventional social functions, ultimately individuals in punk subculture choose to withdraw from normal society. How this occurs is through the various music clubs, dive bars, and neighborhoods of residence in which punks choose to spend most of their time (Blush 282). Most of American society either looks down upon or does not feel comfortable in these areas, in turn, the individuals of punk subculture exist uninhibited by the majority of society. The rebellion aspect of strain theory is a natural partner of retreatism, as it is simply the conglomeration of retreatist individuals. In rebellion, a mass group of individuals create means that are intended to counteract societal norms, and change the entire infrastructure of said norms (Merton 16). In the case of American hardcore subculture, the social and political movements that are begun by punks are often the highest attainable form of rebellion. Forgoing the normal channels of democracy (i.e. writing mass letters to members of congress), the hardcore punk subculture engages in protests (which can often times result in riots) against concepts such as income inequality, gender discrimination, racism and governmental authority overreach (Blush 51). Furthermore, hardcore subculture attempts to distinguish themselves through clothing, hair, and tattoos that are usually distinctive from other styles of dress in America, adding to the deviant nature (Blush 49). The hardcore subculture wishes not only to change social norms, but to be identified as they are attempting to do so. Because the deviance of dress only further serves to push the hardcore punk subculture into the fringes of society, both the retreatist and rebellious concepts of strain theory, namely by isolating and forcing members of the hardcore punk movement to create their own pathway of living.
As is stated in theories of post-modernism, as well as the “the vistas this adventure opens transect boundaries dividing music theory, historical musicology, ethnomusicology, and cultural studies (Savage 239)” as described by Roger Savage, there must be a holistic approach to researching music. This approach, as has been alluded to in the research of Lawrence Kramer, must include textual criticism as an integral component to musicological study (Kramer 7). Such is the case with American hardcore punk, as the core message of the genre is in many ways manifested through the lyrics of the bands. To understand the importance of textual criticism of hardcore music, the lyrics of the bands in this genre must be analyzed. Consider the song “Liberty and Justice” by Agnostic Front which states, “Anger as sharp as the broken glass/Burning cars and tear gas/Every race riot–is the last one/A dying culture’s final gasp/Every decade–yet no one learns/And it’s always their own homes they burn/Crushed by a quorum-driven-state machine/A nation’s will, cannot be turned/Memories lost in a nation’s sleep/In the dreams of contented sheep/Can we ever hope to find solutions/When our country has sold the Constitution/All too wrong to be right/The answer’s there, we just lack the sight/Race wars fed by prejudice and fright/The love of a nation for its people burned through the night (“Liberty and Justice”).” The social message of this song is rather obvious. The band is singing of racial inequality, and accuses the United States government of allowing such to happen for the sake of profit. The song actually opens with a recording of school children reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, which expounds national commitment to liberty, standing in direct contrast to what Agnostic Front sees happening in America. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the sentiment found in “Liberty and Justice,” the fact remains that this song is a perfect example of how integral the text is to analyzing the music of American hardcore. Consider another example, in this case “Bleed for Me” by the Dead Kennedys. Part of the song states “In the name of world peace/In the name of world profits/America pumps up our secret police/America wants fuel/To get it, it needs puppets/So what’s ten million dead?/If it’s keeping out the Russians/We’re well trained by the CIA/With Yankee tax money in Ft. Bragg/The Peace Corps builds US labor camps/When they think they’re building schools (“Bleed for Me”).” This again is a song regarding strong disagreement with the United States government (a central theme in many American hardcore punk songs), this time focusing on human rights. As far as the Dead Kennedy’s are concerned, the United States is sacrificing civil liberties and proper diplomacy in the name of protecting its interest. Yet again, this conclusion would be impossible to make without a hermeneutical investigation. If hardcore punk was simply viewed in an absolute context, the meaning of the songs would be missed. All that could be gathered is that the band is violently angry, but nothing more. One final song will show the benefit of a holistic approach with regards to music scholarship. This song is from another pioneering band of the American hardcore movement by the name of Bad Brains (although the band is versatile and has experience playing other genres such as reggae) (Blush 144). Their song “Free” consists of the lyrics “Never to breakdown never to fall/we won’t keep living with our backs against the wall/you say we’re so ignorant/but you can’t see what might be right for you is not always good for me./All I wanna know will we ever be free./ Me loving you you loving me./ You bring us to the ground in a system built of fools then mastered the politricks./That kept us in your schools./You taught us anger by never showing love./Now I hope you never find out what we’ve been dreamin of./Never to breakdown never to fall./ We don’t keep loving with our backs against the wall./You say we’re so ignorant but I can’t agree cause/I know what’s right for you could never be right for me (“Free”).” This song presents a topic not heard of often in an explicit context, the topic of love. The song “Free” attests to the true spirit of many punk bands, that their anger at injustice and society is actually motivated by love. This statement may seem paradoxical, but it is actually truer than some believe. The anger brought out in the name of defending certain groups is a manifestation of the love that punks have for the down-trodden. The fight for gender equality, income equality, human rights in foreign lands etc., all of these are truly extensions of the passionate love American hardcore followers possess. Truly, a textual analysis is an integral part to understanding the value of American hardcore punk music, for it would be impossible to find these hidden truths.
The instrumentation and music theory of hardcore may seem simplistic to the trained musician or scholar. In truth, the construction of this music is in fact a concerted effort to bring together all members of the American hardcore scene. The orchestration in hardcore punk is nearly always as follows; solo vocalist, acoustic drums, electric guitar, and electric bass. The reason for this is that the solo vocalist not only serves as a musician, but as the ambassador for the band. They interact with society as well as the punk subculture, explaining through word and song what it is their group stands for. Theoretically, American hardcore punk vocal parts (truthfully all hardcore punk vocal parts) are typically constructed around the minor scales (typically natural minor, harmonic minor is never found, and occasionally one can find examples in melodic minor and even major or its modal derivatives). The only electric bassist allows, along with the drummer, to be the driving force in rhythm, an integral part to the hardcore genre considering how the speed and intensity of the performance relies solely on the rhythm section. The bass parts are typically a combination of whole notes, half notes, quarter notes, eighth notes, and sixteenth notes. The bassist usually plays either with their fingers or a pick (a pick allows for certain accents and speed that are not as easily attained with the index and middle fingers, especially at the high tempo of hardcore punk). The drum parts are built firstly off of the drum kit used by the drummer. Typically the drum kit (always acoustic) consists of a hi-hat, one to two crash symbols, one ride cymbal, one kick drum (played usually with one pedal. A signature element of punk drumming is making double-bass pedal patterns with a single pedal), and one to three tom-toms. The drummer usually keeps an eighth note beat in the cymbals (due to the speed of most hardcore punk songs it is impossible to play a rhythmic subdivision smaller than this in the cymbal part). Typically the non-cymbal portions of the drum performance are a mixture of quarter to eighth note patterns on the snare drum, toms, and kick drum. The drum part also consists of elaborate fills of sixteenth note or eighth note patterns that usually occur when there is a transition in the song (this could be a structural transition or even a new phrase. Admittedly most hardcore punk musicians are not well-versed in music theory, and simply create these patterns for their aesthetic value). The sole electric guitarist allows for no layering of guitar parts, in turn it is for the guitarist to drive the melodic counterpoint to the vocalists’ screams and aggression. The guitar parts are complex in hardcore punk, much against the stereotype that punk music generally is not difficult to play. Chord construction is determined by tuning of guitar, which can either be in standard tuning (E-A-D-G-B-E) or drop-D tuning (D-A-D-G-B-E). Chords can be power chords (built Tonic-Dominant-Octave), diminished chords (first position or its inversions), major chords (first position or its inversions), and minor chords (first position or its inversions). The melodic solo parts of the guitar utilize the same scale that vocalist is using for their melodic parts. Occasionally, one will find the pentatonic blues scale in the guitar solos, most likely due to the fact that this scale is one of the most popular for guitarists of any rock or heavy metal genre.
To best understand the reasoning behind the orchestration and music theory of hardcore, it is necessary to look at the orchestration and theory through the light of Lawrence Kramer’s research. Kramer concluded that it is impossible to understand music in an autonomous manner, resorting instead to postmodern theories allows for complete research (Kramer 8). The postmodern strain of thought looks at music as influenced through numerous outside factors. In the case of the instrumentation and theoretical nature of American hardcore punk, one must look at the music of the past as well as social factors to understand said components. Hardcore punk’s origins (which have been touched on earlier in this paper) include Oi! and punk rock in the vein of bands like the Ramones and the Sex Pistols (Blush 94). The bands in this genres typically use the same orchestration (solo vocal, bass, drums, guitar), and also utilize most of the same theoretical elements (both in melody and harmony). While hardcore does in fact draw influence, there are progressions that move the genre away from seeming like mere imitators of their influences. The reason for this is the cultural factors that influenced the more aggressive tone of the genre. The neighborhoods that many American hardcore punk musicians grew up in were riddled with crime, as was the case for many punk bands, but bands in the hardcore genre let it affect the instrumentation and music theory differently. The instrumentation was not changed in its core form from punk bands prior, however, the approach to playing the aforementioned instruments was. The more aggressive growls and screams American hardcore, as well as faster tempo and more technically versatile guitar playing (through quick rhythmic passages) were all a unique response to the social factors felt daily by the musicians. The guitar parts in hardcore punk, due to the speed of the song and the rhythmic complexity (sixteenth note passages in tempos that exceed 160 beats per minute), adds to the aggressive tone of the genre. The music theory was also altered in a unique fashion due to the aforementioned factors, namely in the addition of drop-D tuning in the guitar parts. A technique found mostly in heavy metal, drop-D tuning instantly allows for the guitarist to play with a thicker, more discordant tone. These factors, both in instrumentation and music theory, are an integral portion to the overall ideals which hardcore punk expounds, namely in the dissonant and deviant nature of the followers and creators of American hardcore.
As has been explored through the various contexts of sociological theories, American hardcore punk has in some way infiltrated every branch of society. Such layers of the United States structure include the media, the government, the music industry, and the social groups of gender, sexuality, and nationality. American hardcore punk has numerous detractors and many followers. No matter which group one identifies with, it impossible to deny that hardcore musicians have a unique passion for their music. It is a passion that allows punks to push through societal rejection, persecution from authority, and ultimately an existence that is truly not understood by the general population. I maintain that, in spite of its cultural exile, American hardcore punk has much to offer society, for it is a genre that has faced every challenge, and only continued to grow. Even with municipal police forces shutting down shows of American hardcore bands, the genre carried on. Despite bureaucrats of government calling members of the movement pejorative terms and deeming them to be a poor influence on society, the music did not cease. When the music industry could not justify keeping hardcore bands on their record labels, the bands produced their music independently. The world has much to learn from the ideas that flow out of the mouths of the hardcore punk movement, and hopefully with time such learning will come to pass. Hardcore punk truly is one of the strongest representations of the desire and individuality of the human spirit, and if adopted all society would reinvent itself. May this come to pass one day, the future of humanity could be greatly altered if so.
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