By Paul Adler
“Unity! Ha, you’re such a saint today / You may be anti-racist, but then you’re anti-gay.”
Stza Crack, frontman of Leftöver Crack, New York’s finest crust-ska-hardcore-punk-metal outfit, practically guffaws the first line of “Gay Rude Boys Unite,” a cut off the band’s Mediocre Generica. He’s taunting the subjects of his call out: those charlatans within his own scene, the homophobic or racist or otherwise bigoted punk and hardcore kids, those who’d poison a genre based around freedom, tolerance, and expression with their contrarianism.
Listening to the song—on, what could I have been using, those days? A portable CD player? A minidisk player?—I was getting one of my first doses of sociopolitical reality, though I might not’ve realized it at the time. In the early years of the new millennium, particularly in the months and years immediately following 9/11, bands like Leftöver Crack, Anti-Flag, Morning Glory, Big Wig, the Unseen, Rise Against, NOFX, Rancid, and (if you believe it, pre-glam) AFI, expanded my worldview in ways the news or my middle school classes never could.
Much as I’m loathe to admit, I wasn’t always as socially cognizant as I am now. That is to say, I wasn’t always aware of the many disparities extant in our society, both at home and abroad—I didn’t always get my news from Comedy Central and my comedy from Fox News, or embody any of those other typical clichés of the social liberal.
Trying to remember my life before I got into alternative music is like imagining the universe before the big bang. I think my first albums were Dizzy Up the Girl and Americana, so while I might’ve had a close brush with social awareness as a prepubescent kid, I never quite got there. My first concert was some underground, French, avant garde jazz-rock band my dad had always loved (until he realized, a couple years ago, their music was rife with Nazi thematic notions); my first real concert (you know, unaccompanied, sans parentis), as I recall, was CKY.
But as I started getting more into learning and performing music, diving into my classical training in percussion, I was exposed to a wide breadth of music. My first summer at band camp (yeah, that’s right), I was introduced to Anti-Flag and Leftöver Crack between music theory classes and orchestral ensembles.
Back at school, though, things were different. At the time, the current problems facing gay, bi, and trans people weren’t things that received a ton of media coverage, and it wasn’t like my middle school teachers covered the Stonewall Riots in US History. My early adolescence predated the advent of many feminist media outlets, and with the internet still in a relatively rudimentary stage, there was no online discourse about rape culture or other types of institutional prejudice. Only through music was I able to somewhat grasp hold of these issues.
I listened to Anti-Flag’s Justin Sane scream about police brutality on “Police Story,” and discovered their explicit support of feminism when, looking up their lyrics, I saw “women” spelled with a “y.” I began learning about class struggle and governmental transparency. By the eighth grade, I was getting suspended for staging walkouts and bringing the ACLU Student Rights Handbook to class after catching flak for wearing a shirt that read, in black Sharpie, “No Blood for Oil.”
My worldview became an Us-versus-Them perception, with the lines between mainstream culture and the counterculture clearly drawn.
But when I listened to “Gay Rude Boys Unite,” I realized things weren't quite so simple. “Intolerant society rears its ugly face. / You’re turning the hardcore music into a homophobic disgrace,” sings Stza Crack in the chorus. What does he mean? I pondered in my naivety. Could there have been people within the scene I was beginning to love who didn’t embrace the principles I took as commonsense? I was dismayed to find that my newfound musical community was plagued by problematic dynamics and rifts along the lines of race and sexuality.
Of course, these problems persist within the alternative scene today, and we’ll continue working against them as long as they do.
While bands like Leftöver Crack and Anti-Flag were my first touchstone to the sociopolitical element of the punk scene, they also played fundamental roles in my overarching musical and cultural education. These were the bands that got me into older political punk like the Dead Kennedys and the Clash, Black Flag and Minor Threat. (Incidentally, Against Me! was one of these bands, and my initial consumption of their music and ideology would invariably inform my understanding of Laura Jane Grace’s very public transition in 2012.)
Some of the messages espoused by these bands were crass (like the chorus of that one Unseen song: “Goodbye, America / Fuck you, America”). And Leftöver Crack routinely sang about killing cops and shooting kids at school. And of course, lots of bands outside the realms of punk and alternative music sing about politics (“Sunday, Bloody Sunday,” anyone?).
But these bands, the punk stalwarts I loved so dearly throughout my teen years, were direct, aggressive, confrontational, instigative, even bordering on militant. These bands devoted the majority of their catalogues to social, cultural, and political subject matter. They didn’t just talk the talk, either—once, in seventh grade, I went to see a Leftöver Crack show in Tompkins Square Park that ended in a riot.
Frankly, if it weren’t for my exposure to bands like Leftöver Crack and Anti-Flag, I don’t know if I’d have gotten the real-world education necessary to be a socially aware member of society. To be sure, I enjoy a host of privileges: I’m a half-white, straight, cis male. I’ve never been marginalized based on my gender or orientation (though my Jewish and Indian heritage has guaranteed me at least some discrimination). And this is just my personal version of a modern myth—one of conversion, of revelation—so common to our generation, and of Gen X and the Baby Boomers before us.
I found awareness at the cross section of music and sociopolitical issues—this confluence has pervaded my life and this is where my music writing continues to focus. As a general rule, cultural exposure drives social awareness, but everyone reading this has his, her, or their own story of enlightenment through culture, be it music, film, theater, or art. This story is so typical of kids who get deeply into music during the most trying years of adolescence, kids who find a place in the scene when they can’t find one anywhere else.
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