Date of Degree

9-2017

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Ph.D.

Program

Music

Advisor(s)

Jane Sugarman

Committee Members

Scott Burnham

Mark Spicer

Janette Tilley

Subject Categories

Musicology

Keywords

punk rock, 1990s, music of rebellion, popular music

Abstract

In the late 1980s, the punk scene in the United States was plagued by Nazi skinheads, the macho violence of “straight-edge hardcore,” and musical stagnation. Moreover, Ronald Reagan, the symbol of all that punks detested, was no longer president, the Cold War was coming to an end, and the United States was fast becoming the world’s sole superpower. These dilemmas put punk rock’s viability as a music of rebellion against the dominant order in a state of crisis.

Emerging out of this late 1980s malaise was a new wave of (leftist) political bands that took lyrical aim at the New World Order while developing punk musical style in new directions. Nazi skinheads were ejected, sometimes forcefully, from the punk scene, and a decisive split was made with straight-edge hardcore. The so-called “1990s underground punk renaissance” defiantly rejected the logic that democratic capitalism, especially as exemplified by the United States, was the best society possible.

Punk’s musical style was one crucial avenue for expressing this defiant rejection and provoking listeners to change their viewpoints and lifestyles and become involved in political movements. Within the 1990s underground punk renaissance, there was a widespread inclination to intensify the frantic energy of 1980s hardcore by increasing tempos, screaming rather than yelling lyrics, and incorporating dissonant melodic intervals into power-chord riffs, as exemplified in the music of the band Los Crudos. Some bands, such as Aus-Rotten, adopted a propaganda aesthetic, employing the conventions of crust-punk and dis-core—such as sloganeering lyrics, down-tuned guitars, and dissonant pitch structures—to amplify their political messages. Responding to environmental destruction, “corporate globalization,” and the acquiescence of the American populace, extreme hardcore (EHC) bands painted dystopian warnings of humanity’s downfall in their music. EHC bands such as His Hero Is Gone, Dropdead, and Hellnation used 800-beats-per-minute “blast beats,” tritone-laden riffs, and vocals either screamed at a high pitch or growled at a low pitch. Within the punk scene, a band’s stylistic choices became deeply meaningful, signifying their politics to those familiar with punk’s history, and each band’s ability to viscerally impact its audience was critically evaluated in the pages of punk zines (short for fanzines).

Whereas 1980s hardcore punk had become dominated by young white men and teenagers, in the 1990s, women and Latinos increasingly asserted their identities and made their experiences resisting patriarchy and anti-immigrant repression part of the punk rebellion. Los Crudos, an all-Latino band from Chicago whose lyrics were in Spanish, was the harbinger of more widespread participation by Latinos in US punk, though this participation had to contend with punk’s version of “colorblind” racism. Spitboy, an all-women band from the San Francisco Bay Area, proved that women were just as capable as men at playing hardcore punk, and brought feminist politics and personal experiences contending with patriarchy into punk discourse.

While the bands referenced above remained “underground”—releasing recordings on independent record labels, playing mostly at informal concert venues, and eschewing professionalized promotion, managers, and booking agents—during the 1990s, the mainstream music industry became increasingly interested in some strands of punk. The underground punk scene responded by chastising and excommunicating commercially successful punk bands and insisting on adherence to “DIY” (do-it-yourself) principles. So-Cal punk, a style that garnered considerable popularity and commercial success, was at the center of the debate over DIY versus “selling out.” Nevertheless, the style of So-Cal punk—its melodic vocals, octave-chord lead guitar parts, and intricately palm-muted rhythms over a foundation of 1980s hardcore—proved adept at speaking to the existential concerns of youth frustrated with the conditions of postmodern life.

Existing scholarship has tended to assume that punk inherently possesses radical politics, and has ignored or downplayed musical style in punk. Through interviews with musicians and archival research of punk zines, this study demonstrates how the political character of punk depended on the conscious activities and struggles of its participants. Transcription and analysis of several punk styles prominent in the 1990s highlights the expressive power and visceral impact of the music, and reception history based on punk zines reveals the often vituperative debates that took place over musical style. As a cultural history of 1990s punk in the United States, this study delves into the challenges of constructing music of rebellion in the triumphant empire.

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