Don’t Kill the Messenger

Do the solutions promised by radical subgenres outweigh the problems they often come with?



The top-selling album in the history of Seattle’s fabled underground label Sub-Pop Records is Bleach, the low-key punk-rock-on-a-budget debut LP Nirvana would scrape together in 1989 before going on to things that were, perhaps, too much bigger, and too much better. “Six-hundred dollars and seventeen cents”—a majority, if not all, of it covered by a guitar-playing friend who fronted the cash in exchange for an album credit and the chance to join them on tour—read the official price tag attached to the record’s hurried recording process, and it sounds like it. Bleach registers as an amateurish hodgepodge, shards of childhood machinations mixed in with the looming debris of teenage nihilism: it’s an angsty manifesto punctuated by odd grunts and primal hollers, obscurely quasi-religious word-dumps (“Sickening pessimist hypocrite master / Conservative Communist apocalyptic bastard / Thank you dear God for putting me on this Earth / I feel very privileged in debt for my thirst!) fused into one another by the sorts of weird riffs you only ever find either drunk, or by accident. Writing about the Stooges’ self-titled debut album 20 years before Bleach for Rolling Stone, Edmund O. Ward put forth that while Iggy Pop’s lyricism was “sub-literate,” the group’s instrumental efforts sounded like “-they (had) been playing their axes for two months and playing together for one month at most, and they just love wah-wah and fuzz just like most rank amateur groups.” But punk rock hinges more on having something to say than having a means to beautifully say it, and it was the former element that carried both the nihilist mental crevices of Iggy Stooge, and Kurt Cobain, up from the microphones of six-hundred-dollar studio sessions, and into the willing ears (and wallets) of an increasingly-radicalized young America.

“I definitely feel closer to the feminine side of the human being than I do the male – or the American idea of what a male is supposed to be. Just watch a beer commercial and you’ll see what I mean.”

Though it took them two records for the world to agree that they could say it beautifully, by 1989, Nirvana had something worth saying. They were reared, as quickly became rock legend, in the rain-soaked streets of Aberdeen, a barren suburb of Washington that would, in its barrenness, soon become a hotbed of guitar-slinging teenagers who didn’t know exactly what they wanted beyond its confines, but knew that they wanted whatever it was right now. Aberdeen’s radical emptiness was left to be embellished by tense familial and political dynamics, all of which seemed to intersect at the complicated upbringing of Cobain, who bore the brunt of—among other things—divorce, rampant homophobia, homelessness, and cops who, like good officers, fought as hard as possible to ensure that not even the streets could serve as shelter. Cobain’s jaded punk sensibility was doubly fostered, beyond his infertile surroundings, by the equally-jaded avant-garde-adjacent acts he both admired, and sought to emulate with a smattering of early, half-serious bands. (His innocuous bedroom demos, chronicled extensively in the posthumous solo release Montage of Heck: The Home Recordings, showcase a stripped-down iteration of his career-long balancing act between anthemic stadium rock, and rawer, more unapologetically obscure no wave.) 

Michael Azerrad, with Kurt Cobain and his daughter, Frances, at the Cow Palace, California, 1993. Photo by Courtney Love.

The first time Michael Azerrad, the music journalist who reported Nirvana’s 1993 biography, met Cobain, the band had just become the first triple-platinum punk rock group in American history, and its disgruntled frontman—who donned a white T-shirt bearing the words “CORPORATE MAGAZINES STILL SUCK” on the Rolling Stone cover for which Azerrad was interviewing him—hadn’t lost any of his edge. It was there for good reason: “I definitely have a problem with the average macho man – the strong-oxen working-class type,” he said of his ruthless hometown’s demographic makeup, “because they have always been a threat to me. I’ve had to deal with them most of my life – being taunted and beaten up by them in school, just having to be around them and be expected to be that kind of person when you grow up. I definitely feel closer to the feminine side of the human being than I do the male – or the American idea of what a male is supposed to be. Just watch a beer commercial and you’ll see what I mean.” For the now-iconic cover story, Azerrad also interviewed two young men Cobain had gone to high school with. “He’s a faggot?,” one, named Joe, asked, visibly offended. “We deal with faggots here. We run ‘em out of town.”

And so, where there was a twisted, hyper-hegemonic social mythology to be rewritten—and definitely not solely in the outskirts of Seattle—Nirvana, picking up on punk rock’s longtime raison d’être at-large, sought to make music that rewrote it. Part of why Nevermind launched the group into the limelight so quickly was that, much like the pilgrimage of guitar-slinging adolescents that filled Aberdeen, America’s youngest generation was, too, anxious for something they couldn’t put a finger on, but needed immediately. Cobain’s problems, and America’s problems, were convincingly lodged into the cultish megahit “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which took the angsty elements of nihilist desperation and melded them into a furious petition to no one in particular: “Here we are now,” Cobain, then MTV, then America, then the world, rasped, “entertain us.” The band was freed from the confines of Aberdeen, Aberdeen’s masculine bullies were now writing fan-mail to their once-targets, and at the very least, America’s jaded teenagers had an anthem to identify themselves by, if not a temporary sedative for their bleak outlooks.

“It was too late, then, and even with the time we have before the next tragedy inevitably happens, we will likely be just as surprised when it does.”

But for as many problems as the music seemed to solve, it also created others that couldn’t be evaded as easily. Cobain famously killed himself in the spring of 1994, having grappled with grueling undiagnosed stomach pains, the familial and professional burdens brought on by tabloids that dismissed those stomach pains as side-effects of a heroin habit, and the weight of, upon setting out to resolve his own innate conflicts, inadvertently being anointed the voice of a generation. 27 years after the cult figure joined the 27 club, Azerrad reflected, in the New Yorker, the time he spent with him, and what he was able to witness of his premature undoing. In the closing portion of the longform essay—which traversed heartbreaking tales of boiled-over frustrations, near-death overdoses, and billowing, insurmountable demands—he bemoaned the many people who, to this day, continue to corner him with far-out theories about Cobain’s death. “They have their opinions,” he wrote, “despite never having met him, and dismiss my firsthand observations of Kurt as incompatible with what they already believe. Very few of them acknowledge this simple, unsensational fact: Kurt had several clinically established risk factors for suicide, including inhuman levels of professional pressure, chronic and severe physical pain, and a heroin addiction that he just couldn’t seem to shake (or didn’t want to).” In the end, the exploits of the sole healthy escape route from his early troubles—music—wound up proving not only futile, but fatal.

It wouldn’t be the first time, and certainly not the last, that radical subgenres fostered to propose solutions wound up either reiterating their problems, or creating bigger ones. The sonic binaries represented by punk rock and hip-hop, for as much as they sought to rewrite oppressive traditions, have each also had their fair share of consistent downfalls. While rap’s first iteration sought to give Black voices autonomy in rewriting a white-dominated, emasculating history, some of the very issues it was originally wielded against—like the objectification and commodification of Black women at the hands of whites in power—reintroduced themselves ad nauseum, this time only with Black faces (and sometimes white ones) exploiting their Black female counterparts as the dummies upon which sexual, ultra-masculine fantasies could be briefly ventriloquized. Punk rock, too, was most canonically channeled as a weapon, if not just a space for open discourse, against oppressive sociopolitical systems: whether Tory tyranny in Britain, patriarchal politics in the United States, or even, in Cobain’s case, rampant homophobia in Aberdeen. At the same time that it seemed to be winning the war against its demons as it rose in popularity, it also inadvertently welcomed several more—including Neo-Nazism, more misogyny, and more homophobia—which remain nested, to some extent, in the cracks where the genre’s subversiveness leaves off. 

Courtney Love and Kurt Cobain, with their baby Frances Bean Cobain, at the 1993 MTV Music Video Awards. Photograph by Vinnie Zuffante/Getty

What complicates the dynamic is that, as much as we may want to believe that it’s the other way around, most punk rock and hip-hop acts only ever took on those respective platforms for the music, and not to continue any sort of political lineage. This fact rears its head every time there’s a blatant reversal of the justice many seek in those genres, and then, when we look at the artists to blame for answers, they don’t have any. Last November, the rapper Travis Scott came under fire when his third annual Astroworld Festival, due in part to the combined efforts of poor crowd-control and volatile mosh-pits, resulted in ten deaths and multiple reported injuries. In its aftermath, as the event’s death toll steadily rose, many looked to Scott for some sort of apology. It came in the form of a seemingly-rushed, black-and-white filtered Instagram story, through which the rapper, between forehead pinches and dramatic sighs, seemed to parrot the criticisms he saw hurled against himself online, rather than speak to a responsibility he personally felt. “My fans really mean the world to me,” he said, “and I always just really want to leave them with a positive experience. Any time I can make out anything that’s going on, you know, I’d stop the show and help them get the help they need.” (The most popular critique wielded against him on Twitter was that, from his on-stage vantage point, he should have been able to locate the frenzy, and stop his performance in time to request aid for injured victims.) What’s scary about a situation like this one is not that the tragedy occured, but that—much like in the case of Cobain—we only really seemed to care when there were corpses to show for it. It was too late, then, and even with the time we have before the next tragedy inevitably happens, we will likely be just as surprised when it does.

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“It’s better to have a solution that only becomes a problem when something goes wrong, than to have only problems, and nothing to make them hurt any less.”

For radical subgenres like punk rock and certain iterations of rap music, the line between problem and solution is often deftly thin. Take the proverbial moshing: best executed, it’s a cathartic ritual in which frustrations are taken out by the most physical, literal means possible, and whenever someone falls, a community of fellow revelers instantly appears to pick them up. The margin of error separating this vision from Astroworld, or Altamont, or any of the countless mosh-borne tragedies that have gone unreported, is small enough for the practice to, in being the solution, look a lot like the problem. In New York, mayor Eric Adams—latest in a long lineage of upstart, newly-elected government officials who have looked to subjugate Black musical cities as a means of “proving” their civic capability early on—recently declared a “war” on drill music, citing the genre as violent, and a dangerous influence upon city youth. “I had no idea what drill rapping was,” he said in a February speech, “but I called my son, and he sent me some videos… and it is alarming.” When local news channels covered the speech, the videos queued up over Adams’ voice as examples were, for the most part, TikToks of teenagers toting imaginary firearms through regional dances. One news channel, after featuring a clip of this nature, cut to a concerned parent. “The violence… is infused… in the music.”

The question becomes one of killing the messenger, rather than killing the substance. A primary source of the never-ending rift between popular music and politicians is that, as it happens, in documenting the cancerous issues that urgently ought to be addressed, artists often become low-hanging fruit for government officials who would rather “crack down” on trends than make concrete improvements on their origins. In his essay “The Harlem Ghetto,” James Baldwin, criticizing the pretended humanism of 1950s New York lawmakers who pursued similar ends, wrote: “It is unlikely that anyone acquainted with Harlem seriously assumes that the presence of one playground more or less has any profound effect upon the psychology of the citizens there.” “And yet it is better to have the playground; it is better than nothing,” he continued, “and it will, at least, make life somewhat easier for parents who will then know that their children are not in as much danger of being run down in the streets.” A similar dynamic is at play for the vibrant cultures fostered by punk rock and drill rap: it’s better to have a solution that only becomes a problem when something goes wrong, than to have only problems, and nothing to make them hurt any less.

The confusion affects not only government officials, but also the partakers in such cultures themselves. In fostering such a thin line between problem and solution—whether in lyrics that can either document acts of violence or incite them; or in mosh-pits that can either sweep one away from problems or usher one into more—the image of the “problem” often becomes aestheticized over time, and for young heirs inheriting a version of a genre removed from its solution-oriented origins, this caricature begins to take on more meaning than the actual substance operating behind it. Punk-wise, this looks like images of bloodied faces, fistfights and switchblades going from side-effects of the genre’s ethos, to its primary selling points. Most modern hip-hop listeners, too, have in large part accepted the image of “thug” exploits as the conceptual center of their consumption. The most vibrant rap subcultures often thrive not on documenting violent realities, but crafting violent fantasies removed from real life—both on the ends of consumers, and artists, alike. Interestingly enough, when that violence translates into the real world, the same fans who loved hearing it in the music resort to condemnation; recently, when news broke that A$AP Rocky had shot another A$AP member in the hand over a dispute, many staunch supporters of his early, gang-infused come-up were taken aback. (Or, take the 6ix9ine saga: start snitching in a RICO case like he did, and 15 year-olds for whom your music is the closest they’ll ever get to the streets start calling you “soft,” “corny,” and a “sellout.”) The rappers recognize the shift, and are steadily buying into it. In the viral Genius video interview that accompanied his breakout 2019 single “Ransom,” the then 17 year-old rapper Lil Tecca recited a series of volatile gangster rap bars, among them “I got two twin glocks,” “She know I got the Fendi, Prada when I hit Milan,” and “I got two thick thots.” In exegeting each lyric, he sheepishly admitted, respectively, “I got no straps for nobody,” “I’ve never been to Europe for nothing,” and “I don’t do multiple girls, you feel me? I’d rather just have one.”

More or less, the radical subgenres of punk rock and gangster rap currently find themselves in the strange, uncertain remains of what they originally set out to do. But as much as generational ties may gradually loosen, many of the cultural strongholds that continue to grant each culture its lifeforce remain. Within the past year, the writer Adlan Jackson reported two stories, one for the New Yorker and the other for New York’s local Brooklyn magazine, on concert cultures in hard rock and hip-hop spaces. The former was a profile on Hate5six, a New Jersey-bred filmographer who built a career on filming hardcore shows, and uploading clips of them to hundreds of thousands of followers across social media platforms. “A person in a Minion costume and a surgical mask exploded among the moshers, arms and legs flailing; just a few feet away, a guy held up his toddler, who was wearing earmuffs and nodding along,” Jackson wrote of a show he attended with the filmographer, whose real name is Sandeep “Sunny” Singh. “To those who don’t usually partake in hardcore, the floor in rooms like this one—fists and sweat flying—might be intimidating, but Singh’s obelisk-like presence amid the action is a reminder that what seems like chaos is actually ordered by a lattice of principles. What’s thrilling about these spaces is not how dangerous they are but the unlikely feeling of safety you find in the middle of it all.” For Brooklyn, he opened his retelling of the New Jersey drill rapper Bandmanrill’s first headlining set with what it looked like: “-full of all sorts: Skaters! Baby-faced teens getting sturdy! There were even a couple ravers in sunglasses! All commingled in a dance circle that was nearly a mosh pit.” In the question of whether lofty solutions promised by radical subcultures are worth the problems they introduce, it’s environments like these that ensure that the one thing—unity—that has remained consistent does not fall through generational gaps. The tough thing is maintaining the balance between that peace, and the violence that furnishes its context, without either letting the two bleed into one another, or, worse, leaving one out.

“The problem is you!”

The first act I ever interviewed for a magazine was a scraggly punk rock band composed of skaters and trade musicians from Brooklyn. Upon meeting one of three guitarists in the group outside a shoddy rehearsal-room building bordering the East River, I was led down a winding hallway of doors—behind most, you could hear the muffled screeches of either rasping guitars, or rasping throats—before peering into the one that held a cramped, sound-proofed closet the band had rented for about three hours that Saturday afternoon. Though their music was volatile, and it made me scared to meet its makers, they had a certain childlike air about them that confused the 17 year-old reporter who had come in expecting, and somewhat hoping for, a collection of rough-edged misfits. Every time I led them with a question about continuing New York’s punk rock lineage, they sort of stared at me, confused. “We’re not trying to fit into any scene or anything,” their lead vocalist told me, flatly, behind skinny swirls of spliff smoke, when I asked the last version of that question I would that day. “If that’s the way it comes out, that’s the way it comes out.”

That leaves us. The mantle of steering radical subgenres between problem-creating and problem-solving has long eschewed the artist—if it was ever the artist’s battle to win in the first place—and when the shit hits the fan, which it has several times, it is the people who make the culture who may also very well be responsible when it breaks. The Sex Pistols’ controversial 1977 classic Never Mind the Bollocks… Here’s the Sex Pistols lives on as a record that stumbled along this tightrope, promising radical rebirth in its best moments, and foreshadowing regressive pitfalls in its darker ones. On it, there’s a song called “Problems,” in which John Lydon snarls his way through a series of insult-laden finger-pointings. “That’s a problem,” he resolves, somewhat prophetically, in its chorus, “problem… problem… the problem is you!

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