The Day the Music Voted
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"A lot of people give me shit because I'm a punker and a drunk, and I haven't been known for my political stances over the years, but, you know, fuck, I graduated college, I read, and I read the news, and I'm fairly intelligent and I've travelled a lot. I'm not telling people what to do, I'm giving people my views."
So says Mike Burkett, also known as Fat Mike, the saturnine singer/song writer bassist of NOFX and the CEO of Fat Wreck Chords. Punk rock's progressive patriarch is also founder of the music's first umbrella political coalition, Punk Voter.
It's hard to imagine what will hold the Bush administration accountable or thwart its vision for a more stern and fragmented America. But maybe punk rock, known for an anti-system ethic and a violent rejection of complacency set to a sweetly abrasive soundtrack, can have some role in the revolution.
For progressives, evangelical right wingers weilding the power and potential at America's hegemonic fingertips is dire, a situation that requires action. This urgency motivated Burkett into action: "I couldn't sleep," Burkett explains of the weeks following the hijacked 2000 presidential election. He didn't want to be "I-don't-care-ican," he sings of on 2003's "War on Errorism."
With cash and pull, Burkett and other politically minded icons of the genre built a progressive front of individuals, record labels and over 100 bands representing the full arc of punk rockers today. They ameobaed around key issues like civil rights, foreign policy and judicial reform. Most importantly, they swallowed the idea whole that voting can change the system.
For the Punk Voter crew, changing the presidency is priority one.
"Americans like to have a president they can relate to, that seems like the guy next door, where I think we need a president who seems more like your college professor," Burkett says. Someone who "like Bill Maher just said, 'doesn't get splinters when he shits.'"
The message got across loud and clear on Punk Voter's four Rock Against Bush tours, done all over the United States and Europe. One can see bands like Bad Religion and Anti-Flag, hear Jello Biafra's spoken tirades, walk away with one or both volumes of the Rock Against Bush punk protest compilation and a "Not My President" sweatshirts (the kind that my mother told me to take off).
Scathing as it is, the irreverent party has produced measurable results. PunkVoter.com now averages around 350,000-500,000 unique hits a month and its users, mostly young punk rockers, can access anything from an intermittent "Conspiracy Corner" column penned by NOFX guitarist Eric Melvin to instant messenger buddy icons that feature a VETO stamp over Bush's face. So far, over 20,000 previously disaffected youth are now registered voters from online links or booths hosted by Punk Voter on its US tour. Even parents aren't immune: word is that some of them have gone to the John Kerry camp after seeing the Punk Voter DVD that comes with the compilation CD.
The testosterone-driven world of punk rock has also managed to sneak over into the ladies' camp. Punk Voter has spoken directly to mainstream women, as well as appealing naturally to girls for whom punk rock – played and produced mostly by men – goes beyond gender. With three full-page ads in US Magazine, the guilty pleasure of America's grocery line, Punk Voter explains how fragile freedom of choice is. "It is actually very close to being taken away," Burkett opines.
Helping the print ad campaign with Punk Voter and Planned Parenthood is 70-year-old feminist icon Gloria Steinem. "She came out to one of our shows and saw Anti-Flag play, was really backing it. She dropped the fuck word a lot, too. 'Fuck this Bush guy'; 'We gotta fuckin get out there.' Pretty cool," Burkett recalls.
In addition, Burkett says, "[Punk Voter] just did about $500,000 in billboards in some of the northern swing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania," Burkett says. Some of that came from his own coffers, some from compilation sales. "You've gotta do something with the money."
Overall, punk rock embraces society's marginal causes. In vehement anti-establishment tradition, punkers deal with differences in race, class and sex, all hefty subjects not addressed with any real dialogue or tolerance by the right. California-bred NOFX itself consists of two Jewish guys, a Xicano (Aztec spelling) and the white son of a plumber. They satirically overcame domination by accepting their differences when they titled their 1993 release "White Trash, Two Heebs and a Bean."
A similiarly self-deprecating and critical humor underscores punk rock's politcal potency in general. Lyrics such as Burkett's "He [Bush] likes naps, he really likes naptime" and "Ladies, your next abortion will be in Mexico," along with song titles like "Idiot Son of an Asshole" make the whole debate listenable to a give-it-to-me-straight punk rock audience.
Not forgetting the sound on its own, of course. Punk rock – a quick fire of electric guitars, gutteral vocals and relentless drums – is itself a volatile assault on apathy. A faster, harder evolution of classic rock bisqued with anything form ska to celtic influences, the punk rock meter and tone is the mating call of aggressive dissent.
"The music is loud and confrontational ... A person who likes music like that is probably the kind of person who has iconoclastic thoughts," Melvin explains.
While punk rock's frankness and liberal stances might appeal to progressives in general, Fat Mike and other punk rockers themselves span the political spectrum. ConservativePunk.com has sprouted, touting Bush's virtues and critiquing a preachy punk liberalism (because being for something is rhetorically stronger than being against something, so the thinking might go). Some fans have even started making "Not my Political Advisor" gear aimed at Fat Mike (he thinks it's funny).
But being a progressive punk doesn't mean disagreeing with conservatives on everything. On wasting the Arctic National Wildlife Preserve for a six-month supply of black gold, Burkett is for American oil autonomy. "Nobody will see it and the Native Americans are for it," he explains.
The conservatives have just been better at getting over differences and making webs. Like George Lakoff asserts in his book, "Don't Think of An Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate": "Every Wednesday Grover Norquist has a group meeting – around 80 people – of leaders from the full range of the right. They are invited and they disagree. Nothing like this happens in the progressive world."
An insular effort, Punk Voter speaks directly to its core audience rather than diffusing its vision by aligning with pop and hip hop. Does a behemoth tour marrying Punk Voter, Bruce Springsteen's "Vote for Change" and P. Diddy's "Vote or Die" campaign have a future?
"I think it's a waste of time," says Burkett. "It's P. Diddy's job to get black people involved and it's my job to get punkers involved. You don't have to make these connections with everyone, these bridges, just do your job."
Erica Pedersen is a Berkeley graduate monkeying documents for a temp's wage and writing in San Francisco.