Saturday, March 14, 2015

On the Margins

One of the things that stuck out to me from reading Dayal Patterson's excellent Black Metal: Evolution of a Cult was how much of the development of black metal in the early 1990s was driven by the relative mainstream success of death metal a little earlier. Many of those interviews by Patterson noted that they were reacting to death metal, and how trendy and homogenized it had become.

The same thing happened with punk in the same time period. Until 1990, punk was almost the sole property of the underground. You could know you had a kinship with someone just from the fact that they were wearing a punk shirt or had a pin on their jacket. Much of my identity at 14 and 15 was built around the fact that I liked this music, and the squares didn't like it. And then Nirvana blew up and the same jocks and preppies I despised started listening to the music I loved. It was very disorienting.

When Green Day got big in 1994, it drove me to listen to less accessible forms of punk. Part of this was that, in the post Green Day pop-punk explosion, most of the music was terrible and the good parts of the scene were being having the life sucked out of them due to overexposure. Green Day were amazing in part because they were snotty kids singing about girls. They were "our" thing. Then they became everyone's thing, and they were no longer special. Their label started ruthlessly pimping poppy, accessible groups that they thought they could cash in on, and money made the whole thing stupid.

The punk scene didn't handle this gracefully. Bands that signed to major labels were labeled sellouts, and criticized if they charged too much for shows or merch. The irony of a kid who was on his parents' dole criticizing a grown up for trying to make something of a living with their art was lost on everyone. Jello Biafra got beat up at Gilman Street for being a sellout by a punk who was a zygote when Jello was in the Dead Kennedys. Suddenly it wasn't punk to be into Green Day or other pop punk bands. You had to be into more obscure stuff. Stuff that the cheerleaders at your high school would hate.

So punk got more extreme. If the squares are listening to punk rock, the punks are going to listen to hardcore. If the squares start digging some hardcore, then the punks are going to listen to power violence grindcore and other types extreme music. Because the worst thing to happen to someone who has spent their whole life as part of a marginalized group is to suddenly be accepted.

When I saw my first Gay Shame poster in the late 1990s, I recognized some of the same motivators of the radicalization of punk in Gay Shame. Gay Shame was (and still is, I think) a reaction to the homogenization and mainstreamization of queer culture. They were pissed that corporations were sponsoring Gay Pride, they were pissed that the defacto queer culture was white and wealthy and "safe," and they wanted to make being gay dangerous again. Or in their words:

We will not be satisfied with a commercialized gay identity that denies the intrinsic links between queer struggle and challenging power. We seek nothing less than a new queer activism that foregrounds race, class, gender and sexuality, to counter the self-serving “values” of gay consumerism and the increasingly hypocritical left. We are dedicated to fighting the rabid assimilationist monster with a devastating mobilization of queer brilliance.

I see this tendency among some members of marginalized groups to radicalize as they become more accepted by the mainstream over and over again. I think there are a few reasons for this:

  1. As some part of a group gets accepted by the mainstream, there is a tendency to push for further acceptance of other aspects or parts of the group.
  2. The process of mainstream acceptance leaves the group feeling misinterpreted, or leaves out members of the group who don’t conform to the version the mainstream has accepted.
  3. People’s identities are so defined by being marginalized that being accepted is a threat to their concept of who they are, and they have to push harder to continue to be on the fringe.

I understand this push towards radicalization and resistance in the face of mainstream acceptance/co-option. I think it is often good and necessary. However, there is an element of self-marginilization and us vs. them that I find troubling, and a tendency to continuously move goal posts that I find exhausting. Whenever I hear from the more radical elements of a marginalized culture criticizing either the more centrist elements or how the mainstream has accepted them, I think of a nineteen year old punk kid saying "Green Day are sellouts."

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