Over the years you’ve lied to me
Stolen more than you could ever need
And baffled me with your selfish greed
Your country don’t mean much to me.
In fact instead of reverence
And pride in your democracy
You’ve generated something like
Hate for your dishonesty.
These crude, furious lyrics were choked out by Tomas Squip of the Washington, DC-based punk rock band Beefeater during Ronald Reagan’s White House tenure. For many kids at that time, punk music was one of the few vehicles for expressing anger toward what they perceived as the political and cultural bankruptcy around them. But Beefeater’s songs and the antiapartheid activism they helped to inspire were destined for obscurity. The music was far too loud and abrasive for most people over the age of 30 and, more significant, inaccessible to the majority of young Americans, whose tastes in music have long been dictated by trends set in the offices of music conglomerates.
“Alternative rock” did enjoy a brief period of mainstream popularity in the early nineties, when it was discovered and disseminated by the major labels, but by mid-1998, it had been declared commercially dead. Today there’s only a minimal chance that any music fan–young or old–will encounter through any major media outlet the songs of protest that continue to spring forth from the punk underground; the major record companies have succeeded in erecting a pay-to-play industry that effectively shuts out any band whose label cannot pony up hundreds of thousands of dollars for radio, video, retail and print promotion. When Universal Music and Polygram merged last December to form the largest record company in the world–Universal Music Group–the final nail was driven into the coffin of corporate-sponsored punk rock; some 250 bands were dropped to clear the roster for the latest trend, “teen pop,” embodied by bands like the Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears.
At the same time, however, the underground remains a wellspring for a wide variety of countercultural currents, with bands ranging from the explicitly political to the nihilistic but aesthetically adventurous. While independent labels can rarely provide the resources musicians need to survive financially, the most influential–Dischord (DC), Touch & Go (Chicago) and Jade Tree (Delaware), to name just a few–offer their bands full creative freedom and access to a vibrant musical community: a true alternative to the bottom-line assault on music. Sometimes musicians and their independent labels forge direct links with organizing efforts–with or without encouragement from the progressive establishment. But perhaps the greatest contribution of today’s punks lies in changing minds: spreading an anticorporate message in a culture whose dominant voices are MTV veejays and athletes adorned with the Nike swoosh.
The politically minded underground movement is propelled by bands like Fugazi, which became the crown jewel of the devoutly independent Washington, DC, music scene soon after its first live performance in 1987. Its albums are released by Dischord Records, which has been a cornerstone of the DC music scene since its inception in 1980, and is co-owned by Ian MacKaye, one of Fugazi’s two lead singers. The band is revered not only for its distinctive sound but for being one of the few groups to resist the lure of corporate funding when the majors plundered the ranks of independent artists after the Seattle-based underground group Nirvana was signed by Geffen Records in 1991, to huge commercial success. Instead, Fugazi has stayed on course as a pioneer of abrasively poetic, politically charged music. In the process, it has sold nearly 2 million records, primarily through independent distribution channels. This is a tremendous accomplishment–Fugazi has outsold all but a few of its corporate-aligned colleagues, simultaneously eschewing the mainstream media, refusing interviews with MTV and music publications like Spin and Rolling Stone. “Spin is to music what Cosmopolitan is to women’s issues–it’s really just a catalogue with an occasional feature,” says MacKaye. “The bands themselves then become products, too. We are not interested in participating in that particular part of rock and roll.”