The Reagan Revolution Part I: Popular Music, Ronald Reagan, and Protest: Punk, Hardcore, and Post Punk, a Primer, 1980-2010


Editor’s note: This week we kick off a series of posts on punk in the 1980s and 1990s with special focus on the SoCal communities of El Monte and South El Monte (EM/SEM). First, however, we begin with the briefest of primers focusing on the “rockist” response – punk, hardcore, postpunk,  southern/heartland rock – over the last 30 years to the Reagan Revolution. Be sure to check back on Tuesday and Thursday for SEMAP’s continuing series East of East and its reflections on punk and hardcore during the same period in EM/SEM.

Few presidents in recent memory receive as much deference as one Ronald Reagan. Political figures from Newt Gingrich to Barack Obama have lauded the nation’s former chief executive for his ability to reach across the aisle in the spirit of bipartisanship and make hard decisions regarding government. Reagan trimmed the tax code, fired striking air traffic controllers, and stared down the Soviet Union, ultimately, claim more exuberant observers, righting America’s course and causing the USSR’s downfall. In many ways, Reagan as a political figure serves as a bizarro late 20th century FDR, slashing government (sort of, not really) and peeling away layers of unneeded bureaucracy. Whatever one’s opinion of the man, he remains a towering political figure often credited with and/or blamed for the dominance of the New Right. Undoubtedly, Reagan’s persona helped stitch together an alliance of evangelical moral majority Christians, neoliberal supply siders, and to a lesser extent libertarians.

Thirty years ago this November Reagan won reelection with a crushing defeat of Walter Mondale. As a result, the Democrats retreated to the wilderness to salve their wounds, not emerging until a charismatic but troubled Bill and Hillary Clinton moved the party to the middle, making nice with the business sector via the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) and reforming welfare in the middle of the 1990s. Even with a Democratic president for much of the decade, policies hewed much closer to Reagan’s America than FDR’s or even LBJ’s. Much has been written about this transformation but less so on how artists—punks of the 1980s, southern rockers like the Drive By Truckers, and recent hip hop artists like Killer Mike, Kendrick Lamar, and Jay-Z have viewed “The Reagan Revolution,” or how the perspectives of newer artists, whether they be hip hop, postpunk, or straightforward southern rock have evolved from their predecessors. In part one ToM looks at Reagan from a “rockist” vantage point, highlighting the shift from ’80s punk, hardcore, and heartland rock to neo-southern acts like Drive By Truckers. In part II, we trace rap’s trajectory from Public Enemy and N.W.A. in the 1980s to Kendrick Lamar, Jay-Z, and Killer Mike today.


1980s Punk, Hardcore, and Post Punk

Bob (Michael A. Goorjian): “This shirt happens to be illegal in several states”

Mark (Til Schweiger): “I see. It should be a torn shirt, huh? With a picture of Ronald Reagan on it, maybe with a bullet hole in his head? That would be more punk?”

Bob: “Yeah you’re a good man Mark. We need more men like you in America”

–    SLC Punk, 1998

In the 1990s indie classic SLC PUNK, Matthew Lilliard’s Stevo traverses 1980s Salt Lake City, fighting rednecks, neo-Nazis, and encroaching adulthood. Granted, a film released in the late 1990s commenting on punk/hardcore of the 1980s might not be the cleanest passage into a discussion of Reagan hatred among the more radical youth of America, but it does provide a clear take away: punks hated Reagan. Indeed, if one takes in American Hardcore: A Tribal History by Steven Blush, few themes resonate more clearly in the book than the movement’s implicit hatred of the former California governor and movie star. Flyers for shows featured Reagan in all sorts of murderous or compromising positions and the movement seemed to draw strength from its disavowal of him.[1] “Mainstream” punk acts drew New Right blood as well. Following Reagan’s 1985 visit to a German cemetery where SS soldiers had been buried, the Ramones feverishly recorded “Bonzo Goes to Bitburg.”


Other acts, like Washington D.C.’s Minor Threat, took a slightly different stance. Ian Mackaye, notes Michael Azerrad, avoided taking shots at the “doddering old Hawk in the White House” (apparently, Azerrad adopted no such position) but rather focused on behaviors and actions unfolding in their own community. “It took far more nerve to call your own people to task than to deplore things like the situation in El Salvador,” Mackaye told Azerrad. Don’t tell that to hardcore act Sacred Reich, who recorded its Surf Nicaragua EP in 1988, an explicit critique of U.S. foreign policy replete with thrash metal stylings. Whatever Sacred Reich’s activism, other members of Minor Threat agreed with MacKaye. Drummer Jeff Nelson acknowledged that the band’s own privileged roots as another motivation. “We were pretty much middle class, upper class … Maybe that had something to do with it,” Nelson reflected years later. “I think it would have been false bravado and swaggering if we had been much more vicious and more bitching about ‘the system’ oppressing us.” Make no mistake, though; the band reviled the Gipper, “I fuckin’ hated Reagan,” admitted Mackaye.[2]

Others espoused leftist beliefs without mentioning Reagan or adopted a model in opposition to the societal norms promoted by the New Right. For example, The Minutemen’s “jam econo” ethos, a basic DIY manual for bands, stood as a political act unto itself, argues Azerrad. “But back then, in the greedy, materialistic Reagan era, making the most of meager resources proved positively rebellious.” Moreover, the band avoided obvious punk political tropes. “While politically oriented hardcore bands relied on shallow, sloganeering lyrics about Reagan—the neutron bomb was a particular favorite topic,” Azerrad pointed out, “the Minutemen mustered an informed, passionate, and poetic reply to the conservatism that had swept the country.”[3] Sonic Youth did something similar. Releasing Bad Moon Rising in 1985, the album’s cover, an ominous scarecrow with head lit a fire, signified the band’s intentions to highlight the underbelly of Reagan’s “Americana.” The song “Death Valley ‘69,” an “elliptical but harrowing” tale of Manson’s killing sprees, served not only as a reminder of the nation’s darker past but also “an entire era of our society,” noted bassist and co-founder Kim Gordon. California, America’s paradise and last frontier, had given us Charles Manson and Ronald Reagan, the group more or less asserted.[4]

More fringe bands got into the act also. “Reaganomics killing me,” shouted hardcore stalwarts Dirty Rotten Imbeciles (DRI) 1983 in their mercifully short recording of the song “Reaganomics.” Needless to say, many hardcore and punk outfits, as noted by Azerrad and others, demonstrated a similar sensibility to DRI’s sledgehammer subtlety. [Editor’s Note: D.R.I. was awesome]


For postpunks like Husker Du and the Replacements, however, political activism seemed driven by equal parts laziness and spite. While attending Macalester College in St. Paul, Mould resented the striving young Republicans, dressed in shirt and tie with briefcase at their side, who kept “talking about his guy from California named Ronald Reagan and how he was going to be the next president.” They made debates in speech and poli sci classes a challenge. “I’d be sitting there arguing with those fucks … just hating that, thinking, ‘This is not acceptable behavior. This is not what we’re supposed to doing in our late teens.’”[5] Fellow Minneapolians, the Replacements just got drunk, which Azerrad, no doubt a bit too generous in doling out political agency, says counts for something. “Against the backdrop of straight edge and the new puritanism then being advocated by the Reagan regime, getting wasted was once again a rebellious act.” Does getting blotto really count as protest? Not even Twin Tones Records co-founder Paul Stark goes that far. “The alcohol and drug use back in the early Eighties … is almost a statement.” Almost being the key word here.[6]


But if punks and postpunks seem like an obvious departure point, more traditional avenues of rock music took Reagan to task, but articulated more nuanced stands on his legacy. Traditionally, with noted exceptions above, punk music eschews this sort of complexity; with a bit of historical perspective, newer artists in rap and rock have given us more deeply textured observations. While bands like Pearl Jam and Nirvana clearly articulated opposition to New Right social conservatism, the issues these bands addressed had as much to do with self loathing and internal psychological tensions as overt political commentary. Nirvana’s anti-corporatism and pro-reproductive rights positions undoubtedly stood in opposition to the kind of America Reagan and the GOP endorsed, but lyrically they remained more inward looking, a trait of mainstream 1990s music in general regardless of genre—perhaps a nod to the collective self absorption of the decade. After all, the USSR had fallen and history, as one historian notoriously argued, had “ended.” Or more accurately, Francis Fukuyama suggested, “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government,” had finally arrived. [7] Needless to say, the prediction carried with it numerous caveats.


Springsteen to the Neo-South

 “Mary Alice had a baby and he looked just like I did/ We got married on Monday and I been working ever since/ Every week down at the Ford Plant but now they say they’re shutting down/ Goddamned Reagan in the White House and no on there gives a damn.”

– “Puttin’ People on the Moon” Drive by Truckers, The Dirty South, 2004

The Drive By Truckers’ neo-Southern rock has been ricocheting across the U.S. for nearly twenty years. Last month they released their 10th studio album, English Oceans. Through several incarnations, the band has reimagined the South emphasizing the complexity of the region or, more eloquently, the “duality of the Southern thing.” On their 2004 album The Dirty South, the song “Putting People on the Moon” traces the damaging impact of deindustrialization on small town Alabama. The narrator begins the song cursing Reagan and the economy he inherited. The opening lines recall Bruce Springsteen’s “The River,” where, for his 19th birthday, the narrator gets “a union card and a wedding coat” after getting his girlfriend pregnant. While  Springsteen implies that the main character faces a hardscrabble, perhaps not so life-affirming existence, the union and local factory provided some sort of crutch. Springsteen trafficked in this sort of mixed blessing viewpoint in his previous album, 1978’s Darkness on the Edge of Town, particularly on tracks like “Factory”: “[the] factory takes his hearing, the factory gives him life.” These are not stories of “emancipation or redemption as much as they are digging in to survive the long haul of working class adulthood,” argues Jefferson Cowie in Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class. “I was searching for a tone somewhere between Born to Run’s spiritual hopefulness and 70s cynicism,” Springsteen told journalists. “I wanted my new characters to feel weathered, older, but not beaten . . . The possibility of transcendence or any sort of personal redemption felt a lot harder to come by.” In this context, Cowie asserts, the union card now meant entrapment. “What had been a source of material liberation in the 1930s, membership in a trade union, had become a symbol of those not chosen, those left behind.”[8] Deindustrialization would take care of the rest.

In regard to the late President, who can forget when Springsteen rebuffed Reagan for appropriating “Born in the USA” into his campaign—an ironic move by the politician considering the song’s clear criticism of the kind of American exceptionalism that the New Right promoted and past presidents had used to justify military intervention into Vietnam. “Had a brother in Khe San, fighting off the Vietcong/ they’re still there, he’s all gone,” lamented Springsteen’s narrator in the title track to the 1984 behemoth Born in the USA.

Obviously, the DBT’s vision of the Reagan era differed for several reasons, not least of which had to do with location and timing. Writing a song about the 1980s two decades later obviously has an effect. “In “Putting People on the Moon,” no union exists; this is the South; after all, and in fact, no plant exists. Government cutbacks, the kind Reagan depended on to fund military defense expenditures, did not help. “Double Digit unemployment, TVA be shutting down soon,” the narrator ruefully observes, “While over there in Huntsville, They putting people on the moon.” Deindustrialization meant that a world ripe with job opportunities, the kind a man or woman could raise a family on, had faded. Instead, the black market, selling drugs and working for bookies, serves as employment: “I took to runnin’ numbers for this man I used to know/ And I sell a few narcotics and I sell a little blow.” His wife might not like it, but she’s stopped asking questions because “what else I’m gonna do?”

One should note, DBT enjoys flipping history on its head, a sort of musical Howard Zinn of the South. On its classic Southern Rock Opera (2001), the band offered a corrective to the Buford Pusser law enforcement myth. “’Watch out for Buford!’ is what they keep on telling me,” the narrator of “The Buford Stick” sings. “But to me he’s just another crooked lawman up in Tennessee. He gets a new hot car to keep us on our toes/And that ridiculous stick where the press corp goes.” Like “Putting People on the Moon’s” character, the narrator only wants to make ends meet: “I’m just a hard workingman with a family to feed/And he made my daughter cry/Said he made my daughter cry.” Of course, in “Putting People on the Moon,” the consequences outweigh threatened livelihood and children’s tears. Mary Alice gets cancer, “just like everybody here,” his freelancing meant 10 years unemployment and no health care. “And nothin’ ever changed, the cemetery gets more full”—his now-late wife, regrettably an addition. Things are bad all over, including “over there in Huntsville, even NASA’s shut down too.”

Yet if one thinks DBT too narrowly focused on Reagan, the narrator makes it clear the system, not an individual, deserves our collective ire. “Another joker in the White House, said a change was comin’/but I’m still working at the Wal Mart and Mary Alice, in the ground.” A pox on all their houses, he taunts: “And all them politicians, they all lyin’ sacks of shit.” Pols might promise better days ahead but all he ever gets left doing is “sucking left hind tit.”

Perhaps, the fact that working class whites, particularly those in the South, have long been credited with helping bring Reagan to national prominence makes the BDT more compelling. Still, the song’s narrator may mention Reagan by name, but the president could be a stand in for Bush Sr., Bush Jr., the Clintons, and yes, if one is telescoping, one Barack Hussein Obama. DBT, with the advantage of 20 years distance, could point to structural change, not just the beliefs and politics of one man. In the twenty first century, hip hop artists have also made this distinction. Sure, rapper Killer Mike admits to finding Reagan odious, but the structure remains the true culprit. “Ronald Reagan was an actor, not at all a factor, just an employee of the country’s real masters.” The oil lobby, he argues, dragged us into Iraq and Afghanistan. “Just like the Bushes, Clinton, and Obama, just another head talking head telling lies on teleprompters,” Mike concludes, but more on Mike, and hip hop in general, in the next post.

For more coverage on punk/hardcore check out our four part series. Part I on the Minutemen here, Part II on SoCal hardcore here, Part III on the legacy of D.C. punk via former National of Ulysses frontman Ian Svenonious here, Part IV on the politics of thrash metal here. Again, be sure to come back Tuesday and Thursday for SEMAP’s contributions to the discussion in their East of East series.

[1] Steven Bluss, American Hardcore: A Tribal History, (New York: Feral House, 2001).

[2] Michael Azerrad, Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes the American Indie Underground, 1981 – 1991, (New York: Little Brown and Company, 2001), pg. 134.

[3] Ibid, pgs. 75-76

[4] Ibid, pg. 250.

[5] Ibid, pg. 160.

[6] Ibid, pg. 204.

[7] Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man, (New York: Free Press, 1992).

[8] Jefferson Cowie, Staying Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class, (New York: New Press, 2010) pgs. 338-342.