Some teenage identities are born of a disillusionment with the suburban landscape found outside of many cities across this country. When a person recognizes how an endless stretch of housing developments punctuated by strip malls, gas stations, and industrial parks fails to offer much, then she or he (or zie) might embark upon a different path. Restlessness needs an outlet – even in the absence of purpose or direction. Eventually, ideas coalesce as interests fuel an emerging social awareness that transforms a person’s values. Punk rock is one of those interests.
Growing up in a predominantly white, middle-class suburb northwest of Chicago meant that we were culturally starved on multiple levels. So, when a kid boarded my school bus wearing a 7 Seconds’ t-shirt one morning, nothing would be same ever again. Little did I know it, but punk rock had already permeated our city limits. Who would have thought that a small band from Reno, Nevada would find its way to my high school?
For decades, punk rock has been a refuge for those who scoff at different elements of normalcy, i.e., the socially prescribed path of celebrated benchmarks that inform conventional life choices. While subjective in many ways, it contains an underlying ethos that motivates many of those who participate in scenes that exist all over the world. The ‘do-it-yourself’ mantra has driven many record labels, music venues, fanzines, and activist collectives. Punk represents an avenue of resistance to a dominant culture riddled with flaws that we have the capacity to avoid.
In retrospect, 7 Seconds offered punks a distinctive alternative when compared to many of their contemporaries (e.g., Black Flag, Minor Threat, D.R.I., Agnostic Front, Discharge, G.B.H., and The Exploited), in that, they combined anger with melody – both of which are evidenced by Kevin Seconds’ vocals. Moreover, when you listen to their records, you hear socially conscious anthems from young people who understood they deserved so much more than the world they inherited.
Some of the tracks conveyed not only a political message, but also a sense of vulnerability that much of hardcore punk lacked. There were not many bands tackling gender equality in the mid-1980s. Tracks like “How Do You Think You’d Feel?” from Walk Together, Rock Together conveyed a direct challenge: “You were raised to think a woman’s job is slave to man. I’m here to tell you different – you probably won’t understand. Conditioning has got you f**ked up, so you crave the upper hand. Just try to look within yourself and change it if you can” (Positive Force Records and BYO Records, 1985). While it might sound naïve to think a misogynist would reexamine their misguided attitude, those who command respect must broach the subject because this is part of what makes progress possible. Furthermore, it demonstrated an internal locus of control, meaning that people have the agency necessary to change the circumstances around them by reflecting on their behavior.
Other punk bands have a much different message for listeners. Bad Religion’s title track from their much appreciated album, No Control, contains darker lyrical content that characterizes the human condition as nearly forlorn. Here lead vocalist Greg Graffin sounds rather despondent: “If you came to conquer, you’ll be king for a day. But you, too, will deteriorate and quickly fade away. And believe these words you hear when you think your path is clear. We have no control – we do not understand. You have no control – you are not in command” (Epitaph Records, 1989). This a rather fatalistic outlook. That said, it is easy to feel overwhelmed when you think about the myriad of issues that human civilization is confronted with – from climate change and hunger to political instability and human trafficking.
Fortunately, if you examine the historical record, you find multiple social movements whose efforts have resulted in significant gains. An example that immediately comes to mind is the National Woman’s Party’s work toward securing a federal amendment guaranteeing women the right to elected franchise. While this idea had been discussed about seventy years earlier at the Seneca Falls Convention in New York, confrontational protests outside of the White House (along with an activist hunger strike) generated enough pressure on the Wilson Administration to spur the president’s support for their position. Another example is the internationally recognized Earth Day celebration, which has been observed for 51 years this coming April 22. Without question, some data indicate that views about the environment have improved over time. Still, other data show us that most people do not engage in political activities (e.g. contacting officials, attending meetings) to advance issues, however regular everyday habits such as recycling materials and limiting water usage have been positively affected.
Punk rock not only influenced the trajectory of my teenage life, but it also continues to inform the decisions that I make as a middle-aged adult. Honestly, my mindset has always been more aligned with 7 Seconds than Bad Religion, meaning I think we get to make important choices within any given latitude. This manifests in how I teach, eat, shop, write, vote, recreate, and advocate. The agency we each have matters. Undoubtedly, 7 Seconds taught me it is imperative to care about your community – that life is about more than advancing self-interest at the expense of others.
John A. Duerk, Ph.D. is a history and political science professor at Lake Tahoe Community College. Follow him on Twitter @JohnADuerk or find him online at www.johnaduerk.net.
The opinions expressed above are not necessarily those of the Sierra Nevada Ally. Our newsroom remains entirely independent of our opinion page. Published opinions further public conversation to fulfill our civic responsibility to challenge authority, act independently of corporate or political influence, and invite dissent.