I rarely listen to the Minutemen these days, though I pull out What Makes a Man Start Fires? once or twice a year. But while there are many bands that I like more, there are none I admire more. Because the Minutemen were, to me, the epitome of having artistic and political integrity and incorporating it into your art.
A hard band to place genre-wise, the Minutemen came up in the LA punk and hardcore scene in the early 1980s. They were known for incorporating funk and jazz rhythms into their music, which was pioneering in that scene, and for their very short songs. They were also three dirt-poor boys from San Pedro, self-taught musicians and self-taught leftists, who worked that background into everything they were as a band. Like a lot of punk-related musicians from the time, they growled about Ronald Reagan in their songs and obsessed over the crimes the United States was committing in Latin America. But they also embodied these values in how they played and wrote music, the band a radical democracy in which even the tuning of their instruments was a statement about the right to self-determination and artistic freedom. And their absolute commitment to music for regular people was not just reflected in their music and its production but in how they presented it to the world, starting shows at 7 PM so that those who had work in the morning could attend, charging $1 covers, enforcing a policy that moshing was about brotherhood and not violence years before that became a common attitude among punk-influenced musicians. And throughout the band’s life and for years afterwards, the insistence that nothing mattered more than the fact that anyone could make music, that music was for the masses and not the elites. “Our band could be your life” was an ethos but it was also literally true - there was nothing that would have prevented anyone in the audience from being the Minutemen, save perhaps for the mysteries of talent, and they never forgot.
This was all profoundly oppositional. Mike Watt and D Boon and George Hurley had grown up as children of the 1970s, which meant that the famous rock musicians of their era were largely of the cock-rock variety. They performed in immense arenas, separated from the crowd physically and socially. They played endless songs filled with guitar-solo wankery, putting the individual musician above the band and inviting the world to see their greatness. They were notoriously debauched, and particularly known for their sexual aggression and entitlement. And they charged more for a ticket to a show than the average person made in a day of work. Think of Ted Nugent adopting a 17-year-old so he could marry her. Think of members of Led Zeppelin, penetrating a groupie with bits of cut-up shark, simply because they could, because the whole world was bending over to suit their every personal desire. Think of rock bands putting absurd demands on their tour riders simply to force people to have to fulfill them. The entire career of the Minutemen was a rejection of this entitlement, masculine aggression, and artistic pomposity. The name of their most iconic album, Double Nickels on the Dime, was a direct refutation of Sammy Hagar’s aggro-anthem “I Can’t Drive 55.” I like some of that cock-rock era music, but I’m also very glad the Minutemen showed another way. They saw an artistic world whose implicit politics they rejected, and so they lived the opposite in their art and lives.
So it’s with some regret that I tell you that none of that matters. Their ideals, their activism, the way they walked it like they talked it - all for nothing.
Because, you see, we now live in an era where your identity category overwhelms all of your individual choices, your ethics and values. Relevant here, in the past ten years the world of music commentary has decided that it’s devastatingly clever to complain about “white men with guitars.” It’s a whole thing. The only thing more embarrassing than listening to white men with guitars is being one. At some point “white guys with guitars” became a symbol of everything wrong with music. One of the stations of the poptimist cross is to denounce the indie rock that you used to listen to and write an essay on Pitchfork about how you now realize that Megan Thee Stallion’s music has been a greater force for racial justice than the NAACP. This attitude completely blurs the lines between aesthetic critique of the music, which is subjective, and political critique of the inequalities in who gets to create and excel in the music industry, which is not. That seems straightforwardly unhelpful for making that industry more equitable, but it’s very 21st century. No one can simply argue their taste; they have to jury rig a tendentious identity-based rationale for why their taste is morally superior. Either way, you end up in a world where the Minutemen and the cock rock bands are no different in the eyes of the music press. They’re all just white men with guitars, right? Which prompts the question: if you are a white man with a guitar, and your musical star is rising, why would you make the political and professional choices the Minutemen made? It’s so much more fun to be Mötley Crüe. If your ethics make no difference, why not fuck groupies and charge $120 a ticket?
This is the trouble with collective guilt and categorical thinking: once you have pushed big diverse groups of people into the box labeled “BAD,” you no longer have any ability to meaningfully differentiate between everyone you’ve so labeled. It kind of reminds me of when people defend movies like Space Jam 2 by pointing out that they’re for children. Yes, but there are movies for children that are good, and excusing all children’s movies from the responsibility to be good inevitably devalues goodness. Likewise, insisting that there’s something inherently deficient with music made by white men with guitars absolves those white men of serving any principle but self-interest. You could ask Grayson Haver Currin, who has the politics of an NPR tote bag and the name of a Newport aristocrat, whether he thinks the Minutemen’s fierce dedication to music for the people and by the people makes any difference. Setting aside the fact that the NYT article there calls individuals “diverse” - an individual cannot be diverse, that’s literally not possible - if we’re going to insist that the demographics of the people who make music is paramount, then you inevitably and inherently marginalize the parts of music that are intentional, chosen, philosophical. But in 2021, it’s not what you do, it’s what you are.
Of course people will say “well actually the white men with guitars critique is quite complicated and nuanced, the point is not that all white men with guitars are the same, or that their music is bad,” etc etc. The trouble with this defense is that we live in a discursive environment, with opinions orbiting all around us. And the “white men with guitars” discourse, which peaked maybe five years ago or so, was never primarily that nuanced and careful critique. It was usually a bunch of (mostly white) people on Tumblr and Twitter farming likes and shares by ostentatiously invoking the phrase in the most capacious and dismissive way possible. So which claim actually ruled? The careful argument about the need for greater accessibility in music making, which for the record the Minutemen lived rather than just wrote about? Or the preachy, self-impressed and reductive version that got the engagement on social media?
The point, obviously, is that you can generalize all of this. Categorical moral claims blunt the demand for individual moral responsibility. If you’re a young white man who is politically undifferentiated, and you looked out at the world of social justice politics, why would you ever be compelled to get on board? You’re told every day that you hurt marginalized people through your very existence. Your white privilege is inherent to your body and you can’t get rid of it, and it damages POC no matter what your intentions or how you live. So what do you do? The woke assumption seems to be that you should therefore go through life feeling vaguely guilty all the time and that this alone would constitute a more just world. But most of these malleable white dudes aren’t going to do that, because carrying around pointless guilt both does nothing to help anyone and is unpleasant. Meanwhile, there’s some “intellectual dark web” dickhead on YouTube telling you that you’re actually the oppressed one and you should fight back. Which program are you going to sign up for? Yes, the IDW attitude is wrong. But it’s also designed to attract converts. The social justice attitude is designed to assign people a spot in a moral aristocracy, and you were born ineligible to be one of the elect. It’s no wonder why contemporary social justice politics have achieved literally no structural change even while enjoying total dominance in our ideas industry. What’s the basic theory of change?
I’ve called this tendency political Calvinism in the past - the way that totalizing identity critiques render individual choices and morality irrelevant.
As with white men and their guitars, people will inevitably say “nobody says white people are inherently racist, that’s not the argument.” But, first, there are in fact many people who indeed believe explicitly that all white people are racist, as rhetorically inconvenient as that might be for you. More importantly, even if the “anti-racist” conventional wisdom doesn’t go that far, its proponents speak so recklessly and with such an emphasis on dunking on people to impress their peers that the message they send is inevitably the caricatured version. I promise you, most white people who aren’t already savvy extremely-online types who go on social justice Twitter will come away with the impression that they’re saying that all white people are racist. Which of course triggers the part of the brain that says “so I’ll be a racist, then.” Similarly, mockery of the phrase “not all men” may not usually be meant to imply that all men are guilty of whatever crime, though there is a vast second-wave feminist literature that insists very explicitly that yes, all men. Either way, the average dude is most certainly going to come away from the “not all men” discourse thinking that the point is that he’s bad merely by dint of being a dude. Is that fair? Who cares?
What is the inducement that social justice politics present to people from dominant groups to get them to join the cause? How do they make their cause attractive, appeal to these people’s self-interest? What, exactly, is the political strategy? You say that white people and men have great privilege in our society. Agreed. You also complain that they have vastly disproportionate power relative to their numbers. Agreed. So the obvious question is, how do you make it attractive to them to give up some of that privilege and that power, instead of just reveling in it and fighting to keep it? In my experience most people in the social justice set will respond that it’s bigoted even to ask; they’re not supposed to get anything in return. That’s “centering” their wants and needs, don’t you know, and we can’t have that. Which again invites the essential question - are you doing all this to convince people to stop being bad, or are you doing it so that everyone knows that you’re good?