Spoiler alert: Hardcore has been partially conservative since its very inception.
Hardcore, which is an extreme form of anti-establishment music that naturally attracts anti-establishment political extremists, has had roots in both fascism in radical leftism from the very start. Take the early hardcore scene in Los Angeles: on the one hand, there were bands like the Germs, who wrote explicit communist anthems, and bands like FEAR, who wrote songs like “The Mouth Don’t Stop.”
“Let’s have a war– give guns to the queers.”
Granted, even rightist hardcore has given voice to marginalized people, such as the all-black and explicitly homophobic Bad Brains, and the wide swathe of Latinx individuals who have been involved in hardcore from the very beginning, like Roger Miret.
It’s not so easy to distill hardcore into left and right sections, though. In one sense, the scene is just a microcosm of American culture at large, just with more extreme personalities. In another and probably more accurate sense, though, hardcore is mostly composed of kids trying to figure themselves out. The racial anxiety of hardcore is well-documented, from the defensive righteousness of Minor Threat’s “Guilty of Being White” to the ironic detachment of Black Flag’s “White Minority” (immortalized by the Puerto Rican Ron Reyes on Jealous Again).
So why is hardcore this way? And what are some of the key components that have made it such a consistent element of the scene? That’s what I’m hoping to figure out in this article.
A few rules: No RAC or white power bands, as that is too obvious and is really more of its own, separate thing, disconnected from the broader hardcore scene. I want to talk about the hardcore scene at large, because I find its conservative elements to be far more insidious. I actually really enjoy the vast majority of the bands I’m writing about here, which makes it more important to dissect the issues at hand. Also, I’ve restricted the focus to America, because that’s what I know best. Yes, that means we are not talking about Ian Stuart or Skrewdriver.
So without further ado, let’s begin.
Part One: The 80s
Hardcore was pretty much invented by disaffected suburban teenagers in Los Angeles. A majority of these kids were either wiry nerds or thick-necked surfer dudes. While most of the early hardcore scene could be described as apolitical (aside from the Dead Kennedys, who formed in 1978), there were still a lot of shitty attitudes about women, the LGBTQ community, and occasionally other races.
The Descendents were well-documented sufferers of Nice Guy Syndrome, but they weren’t above a little immature homophobia either. Neither, for that matter, were the Adolescents, although I’m sure they would be uncomfortable with being put in a political box. As far as statements go, the muscular bad-boys in T.S.O.L. never got past the broad rallying cry of “Abolish Government,” but they didn’t avoid creepy implications of rape in songs like “Code Blue,” nor was lead vocalist Jack Grisham ashamed to half-jokingly refer to himself as a rapist in American Hardcore. Keith Morris may have smartened up some later in life, but he was still a hormonal teenager at one point.
If your subculture is primarily composed of young, able-bodied, cis, straight, white boys, you’re going to get a lot of problematic politics. Although the West Coast (and to a lesser extent the Midwest) bands were instrumental in establishing the scene in the early days, the scene that we have today is closest in nature to the D.C., Boston, and New York scenes of the early-mid 80s. All the hardcore clichés (straight-edge, crews, brotherhood, thuggishness, jock attitudes, needless violence, intense political activism) come from these three scenes.
Washington, D.C., although not exempt from kinda-racist thugs like Iron Cross, was probably the one of the first bastions of true progressiveness in the hardcore scene, accompanied by (surprisingly) Texas and (unsurprisingly) San Francisco. There’s a reason that D.C. was the home of Revolution Summer as well as the longest-running chapter of Positive Force. Perhaps because so many kids in the D.C. scene were related to politicians, the scene tended skew towards the left as a reaction to the extremely conservative government of the 80s.
Boston bands like Negative FX, SSD, and DYS (the latter featuring Dave Smalley, a prominent “conservative punk”) were the earliest proponents of “militant” straight-edge, a faction which beat people up for holding beer and eventually morphed into hardline in the late 80s when Sean Muttaqi got ahold of it. Straight-edge always lent itself to a sort of strident Puritanism, regardless of the intent of the original batch of DC kids– Boston hardcore proved that it could be taken in a scary, violent direction. Choke, the vocalist of Negative FX and later Slapshot, is one of the most notorious jock assholes in hardcore. And even the bands that weren’t straight-edge were pretty right-leaning.
The mild racism and “I miss the old days” nature of this song makes me feel sad and uncomfortable.
Meanwhile, in New York, the left-leaning elements of the early 80s scene (Reagan Youth, for example) was giving way to apolitical and right-wing attitudes as metal began to bleed into the scene.
Not all metal is right-wing. Thrash metal, for example, tend to be at the least left-of-center in regards to subjects like war, to say nothing of Red & Anarchist Black Metal or the proclivities of certain varietes of grindcore, but those are all aggressively punk-influenced. However, I don’t think it’s a mischaracterization to suggest that metal has a strong anti-left bent. And I think metal’s occasional thick-headedness had an incredibly large impact on the 80s NYHC scene. And while it’s given us some undeniably sick bands, many of whom shaped hardcore as we know it, as well as some strongly left-wing bands, it’s also given us a wealth of lyrics and attitudes that are pretty harmful.
If you don’t think this song, from Agnostic Front’s breakthrough crossover album, is kind of racist, you’re straight up wrong.
This is the song that inspired me to write this article. Age of Quarrel is probably the most influential hardcore album of all time.
“Pay ya’s fuckin’ rents.” The opening rant is this close to class-consciousness and working-class anger, but sails right into conservative dumbassery. The song is sick, though.
I should also mention the youth crew scene, which was a glowing beacon of positivity, but even that wasn’t immune to some shitty attitudes. In addition to its boys club nature, it also spawned the likes of the Youth Defense League, who were actual Nazis, and often involved in a lot of street violence. Ironically, their sister band was Warzone, who resented the racist skinhead faction that came to form a large portion of their fanbase.
I think that the biggest issue present here is that they were all just kids who didn’t really know any better. Add to that the generally oppressive culture of the ’80s (which, like it or not, permeated every facet of American culture), as well as punk’s capacity to shock and offend (which at times overran its potential for positive social change), and it’s no wonder at all the early hardcore scene ended up the way it did.
The original punk scene was already white-dominated– while I don’t think the vast majority of 80s hardcore bands were incredibly racist, I do think the fact that the Bad Brains were viewed with such a mixture of awe and fear says a lot about the isolation from outside culture that these suburban kids experienced.
I think it’s especially interesting that the Bad Brains were far more accepted in the slums of New York than in Washington, D.C. Although the D.C. scene became more and more progressive as time went on, and the New York scene became proliferated with skinheads and the everyday race wars occurring on the NY streets, for a hot moment in the early 80s, things were switched around, because D.C. clubs couldn’t handle an all-black bands causing riots and the homeless misfits in New York welcomed everyone with open arms.
Outside of the cultural factors inherent to both cities, I think specifically Revolution Summer (and particularly people like Tomas Squip, a radical anti-apartheid activist, having a more pronounced presence in the scene) and Harley Flanagan becoming a skinhead (bringing all his sycophants along with him, effectively turning NYHC into an organized attack unit) were the two events that flipped the stances of these two distinct scenes.
As for the attitudes towards women and the queer community, I put that down to one thing (not including the Bad Brains’s Rasta-fried ideology): the scene was composed of sheltered, sexually frustrated suburban kids. The early punk scene was practically invented by women and effeminate weirdos, but when it started polluting the suburbs, something got lost in translation. Yes, there were gay people in bands, like the explicitly progressive Texas bands MDC, the Dicks, and the Big Boys, but they got such shit for it, constantly (especially Biscuit of the Big Boys, who initially revealed the Bad Brains’s homophobia).
I’ll be honest, I’m hard-pressed to remember many women in bands at all. Many were in charge of zines, record labels, and photography, but they were very underrepresented compared to both the original punk scene and the 90s scene. In American Hardcore, Stephen Blush refers to most of the women in the hardcore scene as “nasty, ugly trolls” in contrast to the “big-haired bitches sucking dick backstage at metal shows.” I think this says all there needs to be said about the general attitude the original hardcore scene held towards women. The scene was just a bunch of dudes slamming into each other with their shirts off. The explicit homoeroticism and the lack of success many hardcore dudes had with the ladies needed to be mitigated by the constant usage of women as sexual symbols, either denigrated constantly or put on a pedestal, when they were sang about at all.
And of course you have straight-edge, which I’ve discussed as absurdly puritanical, but also lends itself nicely to fear of women, queers, and other people different from its target audience, in addition to demonizing people who suffer from addiction.
As far as actual politics goes (outside of social attitudes and behaviors), I think it’s safe to say that almost every hardcore band in the 80s fucking hated Ronald Reagan. Even Canadian bands like D.O.A. got in on it. Literally every flyer had some desecration of Reagan’s face on it. Ian MacKaye specifically avoided mentioning Reagan in his lyrics to avoid dating Minor Threat too hard, but Reagan Youth sure had no issue with it, and neither did the Dead Kennedys. I think this has more to do with broad anti-establishment themes in punk rock than actual disgust with regressive, reactionary Reaganism, which did a lot of damage to the black community, American mental health infrastructure, and people suffering from drug addiction.
The suburban scene, aside from being fascinated with nuclear war and loving the way the president looked with a bullet hole crudely spray-painted on his face, was almost resolutely apolitical, preferring to write songs about skateboarding and fucking corpses over any kind of political discourse. The more urban scenes were too mired in their own struggles to think of the broader political implications, resulting in the diatribe that Paul Bearer delivers at the beginning of “Just Can’t Hate Enough” earlier in this article– proletarian frustration turned towards activists rather than the bourgeoisie causing the problems.
At the end of the day, I think that the 1980s hardcore movement needs to be looked at for what it really was: a bunch of confused kids trying to figure themselves out. It’s equally important to recognize that growing up in the 80s practically required one to be socially reactionary, unless you were particularly well-educated or had progressive parents. Just because these kids were rebelling against their nuclear family structure doesn’t mean they didn’t internalize those values. More than that, every single one of these kids were involved in the scene because they were angry; more often than not, if all that rage was going to be pointed somewhere, it was gonna be at whatever seemed different and scary for that kid. Punk’s transgressive tendencies could only take them so far.
But the hardcore of the 1980s was drastically different from the hardcore of the 1990s, the 2000s, and today. This was just part one of an ongoing series where I will trace the history of conservatism and reactionary attitudes within the American hardcore scene, picking apart the root causes as well as looking at, in some ways, how far we’ve come. I’m excited to embark on this journey, and I hope you’re excited to read about it. Don’t be scared to tell me I don’t know shit in the comments, either– just be mindful of my rules and be prepared to back up your position with facts. With that said, let’s not forget to have fun either and remember what hardcore has always been all about– calling about bullshit.