So I finally watched American Hardcore the other night, it's been out for a year.
As a kid who was plugged into that scene back in the day, I found it a strange bit of nostalgia. Anyway, I had a few thoughts rolling around in my brain and I figured there was a decent number of folks here who have more than a passing familiarity with hardcore and it's unwanted children.
I'm going to skip right over the anti-establishment stuff and the raw sound and how it seemed like a small, but committed group of kids in every town in America seemed to get infected with the bug for that music - essentially the stuff I liked about it - and go straight to the things that annoyed me about hardcore that I thought got glossed over in the film.
1. Women - There was a small mention in the film of the lack of women in the scene, but it only scratched the surface of the misogyny that ran rampant. Bands went out of their way to put targets on women. It wasn't every band, but a good number of them did it either in songs or in between songs at the show. Most importantly no one ever much told them to quit it. There's a spot in the movie with Jack Grisham from TSOL which, for me, perfectly sums up what kind attitude a lot of the guys in the scene had. My take is it's really hard to claim you were standing up for something better when you've gone out of your way to alienate and denigrate an entire sex.
2. Violence - The film romanticized the violence you had at the shows. There was a lengthy dive into how the cops unfairly invaded shows and while that probably happened a bit in southern California, I suspect a lot of times cops saw what I did at those shows. Hardcore became a meathead fight club, which would have been fine except not everyone came to the shows for good time fisticuffs. The women, who got punched a lot if they got near the pit, surely led the list, but there was a second group that took a bigger shellacking - kids.
Hardcore famously played all ages shows. It was late model Baby Boomers who founded the movement, but almost immediately it began to pick up fans among newly-minted Gen X teenagers. I was one of them and I can tell you from experience that the pits were predatory - the smallest folks in there were abuse magnets (DC was the worst as far as the east coast went). And it wasn't a misguided initiation thing where a kid who took his/her lumps got accepted into the group, it was a thrashing every time out until you could fend them off.
To my thinking, this is what killed hardcore. First, it drove away a lot of kids who liked it and it drove them right into the arms of heavy metal and eventually thrash metal. Say what you will about the metal subculture, but it's fairly welcoming. Hardcore would hand you an unrelenting beatdown. Metal wanted to party with you. Hell, there were even women in the metal scene, easy women at that. So hardcore ate its young. Second, those kids who outlasted the beatings tended to be the extra scary sort. They were dangerous and stuck with sometimes because they were counting down the days until they could hand out the abuse. So when the Boomer punks got a little older, a little softer and a little more laissez-faire there weren't that many kids left to keep it going and those that were there were sociopaths who were handing out some serious payback on their elders.
There's no doubt in my mind about it, violence killed hardcore.
Conformity - The strangest thing about the movement was its enforced conformity. Here was a whole tribe praising individuality, but enforcing uniformity with fanatical discipline. You had to have your hair cut a certain way. You had to wear certain clothes. You were expected to think a certain way, act a certain way and adorn the walls of your room a certain way. You were expected to flame out in school because that was your badge, the way a kid could prove he was real and not fake. I went to high school in western Connecticut (Vatican Commandos country) and it was almost completely fashion punks in the scene. To be fair, it was less violent and less misogynistic than other places because it was mostly rich kids playing dress up, but you were in for a night of nasty comments and looks if you didn't come to a show dressed in uniform.
4. Music - There was some serious talent in the movement. Bad Brains and Black Flag were brilliant bands, as good as any on the planet in the early 1980s. Big Black, Hüsker Dü and the Misfits all had sounds unlike anyone else on the planet. Yet, along with the enforced look of hardcore, there was an enforced sound too. You weren't allowed to sing too well. When bands pushed the boundaries -- like Bad Brains with I against I and Hüsker Dü with New Day Rising -- they risked being called sellouts.
There was a disdain for anything that had come before hardcore. This included bands like the Ramones, who should have been revered by the hardcore scene, but had to scratch out a living outside of it for the most part. In the film someone even notes how great it was that hardcore didn't borrow anything from "black" music. Is that great? Is that something you ought to be bragging about? English punks were deeply affected by world beat sounds, but American hardcore didn't have the good sense to incorporate delta blues or funk or rap. There's only so far you can take a sound that refuses to grow, to build on other sounds.
Racism and militance - A lot of excuses get made for the casual racism of the scene in its heyday. Fine, it was a bunch of white suburban kids horrified by the sell out of the Love Generation and by the seamy underside of the American dream. That's well-placed horror. Yet the militant reaction created its own conformity (as noted above). That militance made women one of "them" in many cases. Kids, even those who wore the uniform, were treated like punching bags. Well you can imagine how well blacks fit into the mix. They looked different, they dressed different, they spoke a little different, they came from different towns or different parts of town, they listened to music outside the hardcore coda. The folks in the hardcore scene never set out to build a racist movement, but they put up so many walls that few blacks ever bothered to climb them.
And the racists took notice.
What did hardcore bottle up? It bottled up fast, aggressive music. It bottled up anti-establishment furor. It's bottled up violent, young, white males who were willing to conform to doctrine. It bottled up disenfranchisement and iconography too. Basically it bottled up a ready-made Storm Division and militant racists took notice. Those überviolent kids who survived the beatings from their punks elders, who fled the scene in the mid-1980s, were left looking for something and in walked the white power nutters offering a way to channel all that pent up aggression into something organized and "pure." If only there had been more Steve Albinis to shout out about it and fewer Keith Morrises content to play for paying skinheads, maybe hardcore wouldn't have turned into new fascisms greatest recruitment tool, but there weren't and it did.
Legacy - The film mentions how Boston's Gang Green came up with the idea for what these days is the Warped Tour - a punk show with extreme sports mixed in. It was a great idea back then too and it surely would have made money if so many kids literally hadn't been chased away. The scene had devoured its young and basically starved to death. Then there was about a five year void until some Gen X bands were able to revive what they liked about hardcore, build on it and plug into a new scene without the militance, misogyny and xenophobia. It rebuilt quickly too, reaching the point in 1995 where Eric Bachmann from Archers of Loaf noted "the underground is overcrowded."
Of course, in true form, those from the early scene are reliably bitter about that. You don't see this in other forms of music. I'll refer to metal again. Older metal bands are hailed as icons and they in turn having nothing but enthusiasm for all the kids who've taken what they did and move it forward. The guys from Black Sabbath and Judas Priest rightfully feel like they've built something lasting. Guys from hardcore bands? In the film they grouse about how punk is dead and anyone who thinks they're a punk should cease and desist. Oddly, there's probably more kids in the punk scene now than there ever were in the hardcore heyday. Gang Green's Chris Doherty, one of the worst humans on the planet, whines about how all these kids are making money off of what he and his peers built. Well, not really Chris. You burned it down and it had to be rebuilt. It's guys like Mike Ness and Ian Mackaye who stuck through the lean years and found a new, more diverse sounds that deserve godfather status.
In the end American Hardcore was less of a fond trip down memory lane for me and more of a reminder that the good, old days left something to be desired. I'm curious what others thought of the film or what they remember from the original hardcore scene.