Many punk bands align themselves with progressive politics, but if it’s not reflected in the music, then what's the point?
I feel the need to preface this piece with a few facts. I am not a music reviewer. I am a professional concert promoter and operate a non-profit, DIY venue in Toms River, New Jersey, United States. Though I am a writer and I do think a lot about music. I am also a cis white man and that is something particularly relevant to this op-ed.
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When Spanish Love Songs’ previous record, 'Schmaltz,' (2018) came along, I personally felt as if that record was exactly what I needed. There was a level of honesty and despair in its lyricism that I felt was missing from other bands I was listening to previously. Of note, my favorite record prior to hearing 'Schmaltz' was Sorority Noise’s 'Joy, Departed,' which I felt I could no longer engage with due to the allegations brought against their lead singer. (I was actively looking for something to replace that.) The element that I found so freeing about 'Schmaltz' was it presented what I felt I needed most at the time – a (truly) honest look at depression. It wasn’t a record about how things would get better, but about how they never would. For me, it took the pressure off in a way, by replacing hope with acceptance.
"You might wake up, but you'll never be better. You might come through, but you'll always second guess. You might breathe free, but you'll never stop pacing. You might find love, but you'll always be depressed. You might change your hair, but you'll always look awkward. Your back might heal, but you'll never get your rest. You might move on, but you'll never feel important. You might be fine, but you'll never be your best. So when you wake up and know you'll never be better – Hide under your sheets, your room will always be a mess."
-'Aloha to No One' (from 'Schmaltz')
As the release of 'Brave Faces Everyone' approached, my peers and I were excited for our new favorite band’s sophomore effort. That said, we all collectively admitted that: “it will probably never top ‘Schmaltz’ but I am really excited to see what they put out.” We pretty collectively shared that same consensus, but in fairness, 'Schmaltz' felt like a revelation, so of course it couldn’t come close. Right?
Then, Spanish Love Songs did something that I didn’t expect. They surprised me, and in doing so, blew me away with 'Brave Faces Everyone.' Consciously or not, it felt as if 'Brave Faces Everyone' examined the tone of 'Schmaltz' and instead of examining further inward, their gaze turned outward. Using the same fatalistic writing styles of this current wave of emo-influenced punk, Spanish Love Songs shifted their content to discuss class and late-stage capitalism, gentrification, school shootings, drug abuse, generational trauma, over-policing and more. All of this without sacrificing the trademark heartbreaking straightforwardness of their mode of storytelling. Making for what is a deeply personal and strikingly political punk rock album.
“So, I'm leaving the city. Maybe the country. Maybe the earth. Gonna find a place of my own, where the fuckups aren't cops patrolling neighborhoods they're afraid of. And the rest of us won't burn out displacing locals from neighborhoods we're afraid of. Now, if we weren't bailed out every time by our parents we'd be dead. What's gonna happen when they're dead?”
On this record, the band manages to capture the anxieties and stressors of our current moment while still examining their own privileges. Furthermore, they manage to do this without undeserved borrowing of rage or anger from oppressed communities that they do not belong to. This is what allyship can actually sound like.
Overall, I’ve been unimpressed by much of (though not all of) the emo/punk response to the moment we live in. Without naming names, it is shocking to me that there has been a sort of resurgence of burnout punk rock – I’ve even heard the kids calling it “weed emo.” While I do actually enjoy a lot of these bands, their apathy, coupled with that me-and-my-friends-in-the-van-
More interestingly, many of these types of bands actually align themselves with feminism, or Black Lives Matter, or generally progressive ideology. Which is great. Yet I also struggle to hear any of those concerns and cares reflected in the music. It begs me to wonder: is this a failure of the culture and genre that I fell in love with? Does this format not allow for more nuanced examination? Can it be nothing but break ups, depression, and “the boys?”
Beyond this, we are in need of coming to terms with the intense whiteness of our scene. There are incredible bands that challenge these norms, but it is still imperative that we work to examine what makes the genres we love so unattractive to people that don’t share our own privileges.
“The pain is back in my chest again, holding me down like a high school friend says ‘the world's about to end you best start swimming.’ You said ‘anxiety's the theme of all our lives these days.’ Can't even have my coffee without exploiting someone, or making another millionaire a billionaire.
What would it take to be happy? I'd probably start with their money.
It's the clear backpacks. It's the two new fire exits. I'm buying a beer - don't want to think of where I'm running if another asshole takes a shot.”
-'Optimism (As A Radical Life Choice)'
I would love to see more of this style from other rock, punk and emo bands that carry privileges that some others do not. Nuanced looks at how injustice affects us all are something we need to see more of in not just punk but in many other forms of music, too. I’m glad so many bands are aligning themselves with such progressive politics, but if it’s not actually reflected in the musical material, then what are we really achieving?