If there were ever a literary genre designed just for punk rockers, it would be dystopian literature. Dystopian literature is notoriously dark; for sure, it wears all black. In the 1990’s when I was playing drums in punk bands, I was naturally attracted to and read books like 1984 and the Handmaid’s Tale for the first time, two books that would provide me with important frames of reference and ideologies about dark realities of government and human nature, things like mind control, pervasive surveillance, systematic oppression of women, and propagandistic uses of war – books that I now teach to college students.
Like punk rock, dystopian literature is urban, and gritty, and gray scale, and like many punk rock bands, dystopian literature makes important critiques of society. Dystopian literature sneers satirically at social ills, inequality, hierarchical divisions, abusive power, and glib politicians – punk rock often does the same. In fact, many punk bands have referenced dystopian novels in their songs. The Dead Kennedy’s reference 1984 in their song “California Uber Alles,” an anti-Governor Jerry Brown song, a song that rails against yuppies taking over the state and making kids meditate in school:
Close your eyes, can’t happen hear
Big Bro on a white horse is near
The hippies won’t come back you say
Mellow out or you will pay
California uber alles 4x
Now it’s 1984
Knock-knock on your front door
It’s the suede-denim secret police
They have come for your uncool niece.
The majority of the Dead Kennedy’s lyrics were satirical, and satire is a device/genre that makes extra close examination of meaning especially important, for unlike what many of my students often think, author Jonathan Swift isn’t being literal when he says we should turn to cannibalism and eat babies to help the poor. Satire aside, a friend of mine once articulated something that I wondered about the “California Uber Alles” even at the age of fifteen when I was blasting this song in my room and pumping a fist in the air, or when I saw the DK’s at the Mabuhay Gardens on Broadway in San Francisco: why pick on a liberal democrat? Why pick on Jerry Brown? Looking again at these lyrics now, I realize why. First off, George Orwell, author of 1984 would say all people in power, all politicians should be questioned and scrutinized, and secondly, if you look closely at what Jello Biafra, singer and lyricist of the Dead Kennedys was railing against, may seem like yuppies, but it’s also gentrification in its references to jogging, organic food, and “zen fascists.” In essence, Biafra’s fears of a “cool, hip,” read expensive, California have come true, especially in the hyper-gentrified San Francisco where the Dead Kennedy’s were based.
Growing up, I felt much like a dystopian protagonist: trapped in world that denied me my individuality. A spikey-haired, black eye-liner, ruffled Mexican rick-rack skirt, wearing teen, I noticed that many punk kids came from broken homes, or had parents who were addicts, or lived in boring go-no-where suburbs. We were kids who lived with a lot of stress, kids who were prone to depression. Our lives as we were living them didn’t fit. While some tried to make us feel like it was us, like we weren’t right, like we were messed up, like we were the problem, we had enough sense to know that there was a much larger looming problem. Angry punk rock songs and angsty literature were good outlets for these feelings. The Subhumans address some of these feelings in the song “Big Brother.”
Here we are in the a new age
Wishing we were dead
There’s a TV in my front room
And it’s screwing with my head
There’s a scanner in the toilet
Two watch you take a bath
And there’s a picture of Hiroshima
To make sure you never laugh
In 1984, the actual 1984, at the age of 14, I saw the band Reagan Youth at the Democratic Convention held that year in San Francisco with my freshly chopped hair, dyed blue black. My friend Nicole Lopez’s mom drove us three hours from our small town to San Francisco just so we could see the bands and take part in the protest. A protest site was designated in the empty lot at Mission and Howard across from the Moscone Center, which back then was simply a large slab of concrete that took up an entire city block. It was there that Reagan Youth, who had named themselves after President Reagan, played with the Dead Kennedys, MDC, and the Dicks. Given the year, 1984, and the draconian policies put in place by the outgoing president whose policies had further marginalized the lives of many, especially youth from low-income families, there was a lot to protest. Sort of unknown on the West Coast, Reagan Youth played early in the day, but they were loved by the crowd right away for their energy and aptness of a band with their name playing on the rock Against Reagan tour. Dave Insurgent with his hippie punk, white-boy dreads stood at the edge of the stage, leaned into the crowd and incited our ire. Frustrated about class hierarchies, Regan Youth wrote the song Brave New World whose lyrics are drawn straight from the book of the same name by Aldous Huxley. Many English punk bands wrote anti-Thatcher songs during the same time period, songs that often also referenced dystopian texts, or the dystopian nature of the Reagan/Thatcher era.
Like dystopian literature much of punk rock is a critique of societal norms or trends, but while dystopian novels are cautionary tales, political punk rock lyrics are a document of concerns and frustrations current for the band, issues that are themes common in dystopian literature, themes such as frustrations about squashed individuality under the pressure of societal norms, corporate control of our lives, and subtle and overt forms of propaganda used by democratic nations who should know better. The straight-edge band, Set It Straight, from Redding, CA, active 2004 -2007, address some of these themes in the song “Self-Deprogramming,” a song written prior to Gary Shtenyngart’s modern dystopia, Super Sad True Love Story, a novel about a nation obsessed with mobile devices, youth, hotness ratings, and group think. The novel and the song have a lot in common.
A sea of suits with empty, mindless eyes
swarming like bees amongst their platinum high rise hives, and every single one?
Yeah, they know their place.
Super latte charged electrons, androids with no face.
But only those who subconsciously want to live their lives spoon fed, subordinated, placid, incarcerated, succumb to the machine.
I’ll tear down their graphs and charts, and take back rational thought.
It’s not too late to start.
I refuse to live my life homogenized.
I refuse to just sit by with half shut eyes.
I will think… think for myself
Like Shytngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, this song rails against modern day forms of brainwashing via slick technology and the allure of power. Its references to lattes and androids are references to familiar dystopian fears regarding loss of individuality and a loss of humanity, a loss of humanity that we sadly participate in by our robotic obsession with digital technology that does our thinking for us.
I have often said that being an English teacher is a natural extension of being in a punk band without quite understanding the connection myself, but it has always felt true. And even though I don’t always only wear black and try to look tough like I did when I was in a punk band, helping students learn to think for themselves, to avoid lazy thinking and to spot fallacious arguments, to question authority is one way the two are connected, but the other way is teaching dystopian literature, a genre, that demands all those things, especially questioning authority, by its very style and content, a genre that warns us about hierarchical thinking, class privilege, and endless wars, a genre that begs us to open our eyes, to be better.