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WE'RE NOT HERE TO ENTERTAIN by Kevin Mattson Kirkus Star


Punk Rock, Ronald Reagan, and the Real Culture War of 1980s America

by Kevin Mattson

Pub Date: Aug. 3rd, 2020
ISBN: 978-0-19-090823-2
Publisher: Oxford Univ.

In which Ronnie Raygun and corporate entertainment come in for a slagging, courtesy of three (distorted) chords and the truth.

If you wanted to get beat up in high school in the early 1980s, your best strategy would be to show up with your “hair cut into a spikey mess” and listening to punk rock—not the sellout punk of the decade before but truly antinomian acts like Black Flag, Millions of Dead Cops, and Jodie Foster’s Army. That cohort of musicians and their fans, writes Mattson—now a professor of history at Ohio University, then a denizen of the mosh pit—stood strongly against the prevailing politics of the time, with a president who “lived in a bubble of entertainment, who referenced Hollywood films to justify his policies.” The DIY ethos of second-generation punk extended beyond music to include filmmaking (Alex Cox’s Repo Man comes in for close analysis), publishing (with mimeographed zines the coin of the realm), art, and other endeavors. This was all in protest against not just Reaganism, but also a corporate culture that served up product instead of music—and whose vision of what youth was supposed to be, courtesy of the Republican-lite John Hughes, was an offense to actual young people. “It was like People’s Park,” Mattson writes, “create something yourself, lay the sod, and then defend it against those with power.” True, some of the leaders of second-wave punk found themselves being served up as product: Once Nirvana broke, for instance, MTV couldn’t find enough grunge bands to fill the hours. Still, writes the author in this consistently fascinating music history, we should remember the punk rock of the ’80s both for its creativity and “as a moment when kids saw themselves as creating their own culture, prompting them to think about the world differently”—not bad as aspirations go.

Fans of T.S.O.L., Fargo Rock City, Scratch Acid, and their like should rush to this invigorating history.