An Academic Analysis about Washington, DC’s Fugazi
by Robert Knaggs
Queensland University of Technology.
The music and accompanying culture of the 80s left alternative scenes at a confusing crosspoint. The self-depreciative ideals of ’77 punk started to intensify both musically and in their recreations while heavy metal turned to androgyny, misogyny and glamour; with their best efforts of remaining the epitome of masculinity; consequently becoming the preferred soundtrack to shopping malls and radio stations. The former displayed their own affiliations with unconscious homoeroticism and the latter became so accessible that the parents of the generation’s youth identified with the cock-rock show bands (denizcola7, 2011). This exertion of testosterone-fuelled aggression emasculated and alienated a generation into a standpoint; what’s the alternative?
Fugazi; formed in 1987 in the wake of DC hardcore iconoclasts, Minor Threat; consciously rejected these acts and attitudes of their contemporaries and wrote their own set of rules. In sound, Fugazi were a punk band as aggressive as their contemporaries but did not condone the physical displays of immaturity that would occur at such performances (Khanna, 2007). The four individuals that formed the group chose art over commerce, debate over violence and sobriety over intoxication. They formed their own standards, ethics, and business practices with a DIY attitude. To me, these are the most punk and professional actions ever.
This body of work will be researching the practices and ideals embodied and established by the DC punk band with a focus on Feminism, Agelessness and Non-Machismo. There will also be an investigation of how their influence has affected ideals and their contemporary creative artists.
The Fugazi anti-rape track “Suggestion” is written from the perspective of a female, speaking out against sexual harassment and assault. At Fugazi show in 1991 at Washington, DC community hall, they asked Fire Party’s Amy Pickering to perform the visceral track to make the socially conscious track intensely more personal.
“Why can’t I walk down the street/Free of suggestion?/Is my body my only trait/In the eyes of man?”
– Fugazi. Suggestion from the self titled EP, released 1988, Dischord © (peyoteshaman, 2007).
Pickering recites MacKaye’s original writings and delivers the track ranging from a whispered inquiry to a raging accusation. “Suggestion’s” power and versatility was also demonstrated in 1988 at a show in Washington, mere days after a violent skinhead, white power demonstration had abused and assaulted members of the gay community in the same town. Mackaye performed and dedicated this song, usually about the victimization of women at the hands and eyes of men, and turned the tune into a song about homosexuals being attacked in the park at night (Tyler-Ameen, 2011).
MacKaye’s personification in Suggestion did not go without criticism, claiming that the Fugazi frontman had no right to sing about a woman’s experience. “That’s nonsense! It’s a human issue that we should and will continue to deal with”. The skeptics were in the minority as many felt a resounding connection with a human issue that is still problematic today where we are taught how not to be assaulted instead of not to rape (Azerrad, 2001).
Bikini Kill leader and contributing initiator of the Riot Grrrl movement, Kathleen Hanna, saw the musical and ethical importance in DC’s Fugazi and label the group as a creative and social inspiration (Hanna, 2011). Hanna recounts the first time she witnessed Fugazi, after Bikini Kill band mate, Tobi Vail, dragged her into the sold out show. “Oh my God, Boys talking about sexism?! This is amazing!” (Prato, 2009). Hanna went on to form many creative groups and incited her own influential ideals, one of which being a Riot Grrrl Manifesto; an empowering statement that delivered the intrinsic morals of the feminist movement with a punk attitude (Hanna, 1991). The ideas published by Kathleen Hanna in Bikini Kill Zine 2 would suggest that the vocal incessancy on the topic of gender and feminism, would brand Ian MacKaye as a supporter of Riot Grrrl and the feminist movement (Schippers, 2002). I, too, uphold and support these fundamental ideas of gender equality. The impact of MacKaye’s protest against sexual prejudice and the adoption of feminist ideals set a new standard for Fugazi’s audience.
The track Suggestion goes beyond its intended topic to become applicable for multiple human rights issues in a period where prejudice and sexual implication were impossible to avoid in the creative arts. Skeptics aside, the performance of this track inspired many to form their own groups that would address a similar issue. This provocative message was able to reach many due to the band’s attitude to their live performances and business practices.
Ian MacKaye’s former group, Minor Threat, coined the term and eventual subcultural movement, Straight Edge; a lifestyle philosophy that abstains from the use of alcohol, drugs and promiscuous sex. These ideals are outlined lyrically in the Minor Threat tracks, Straight Edge and Out of Step (Khanna, 2007). This philosophy was carried on in the next MacKaye incarnation, Fugazi. Fugazi not only empowered these ideals but also insisted on only performing at venues that allowed entry to persons of all ages and walks of life. Singer/Guitarist Guy Picciotto stated in Our Band Could Be Your Lifethat “Everyone has to be able to come in. We don’t discriminate against people. If you were fourteen, you weren’t allowed to into a place to enjoy bands. So we just vowed in blood that we would never do the same thing to other kids” (Azerrad, 2001). No alcohol or drugs of any kind were to be consumed or sold at these performances. Fugazi were so adamant about their disassociation with these adult vices that any interviews of the group could not and would not be displayed in magazines that contained advertisements for alcohol and nicotine products (Azerrad, 2001). This gave the group an ageless aesthetic that everyone could relate to which provided a juxtaposed alternative to the sexed up hair metal and junkie crazed grunge bands during Fugazi’s active years. Along with these clean ideals was a punk DIY influence that infected their business practices and touring schedules. The rejection of selling any merchandise (clothing, items, albums etc) on tour meant their only focus was solely their live performances in which Fugazi have become infamous for keeping their entry price to $5. As the band grew in popularity and financial inflation increased, Fugazi stuck to this low concert fee (Khanna, 2007). All records were released through MacKaye’s own label, Dischord to avoid collaborating with any major label that may compromise the band’s brand, sound or ethics (Azerrad, 2001).
Frontman of Chicago’s Rise Against, Tim McIlrath, identified with the band’s personal and business ethics and praises the group for his adoption of a straight edge life style and their thought provocative lyrical prowess (Fortunato, 2011).
By physically and associatively rejecting these vices; insisting upon playing all ages shows and keeping their art free of any externally managed commerce, Fugazi not only set themselves their own standards for their fans to identify with but also set themselves apart from their adulterated contemporaries. Their necessity to play all ages shows meant they were able to connect with young crowds in a way that was verging on educational, giving them role models to form their own groups.
Accompanying these DIY and Feminist focused ideals, was the rejection of Machismo; an over-masculine, testosterone fuelled attitude adopted by males. Fugazi performances were devoid of any security staff and were operated by venue workers and Fugazi techs (Azerrad, 2001). Ian MacKaye and co discouraged the expressive displays of overt masculinity (Sammut, 2010). The physical appreciation of MacKaye’s former band, Minor Threat was deemed inappropriate for the art-focused and thought provoking Fugazi. This meant the acts of slam dancing; stage diving and moshing were prohibited. This also confronted the actions of the apolitical punks who found solace and escape through the actions of inebriation and slamdancing; actions they could practice and identify with other ‘hardcore’ shows (Tsitsos, 1999). Any persons that practiced these displays would be handed an envelope containing the ticket cost and would be escorted from the venue (Sammut, 2010). MacKaye would often stop performances and single out any perpetrators in polite debate. “They have one form of communication; violence. So to disorient them, you say, “Excuse me, Sir, could you cut that crap out?”” (Azerrad, 2001). These band/audiences discussions are highlighted in “Having Fun Onstage With Fugazi”; a collage of recordings from the band’s live performances (Burns, 2011). In the group’s DVD, Instrument, MacKaye once roared at the crowd,
“It is NOT okay to beat someone up for being gay. It is NOT okay to beat someone up for being black. It is NOT okay to beat someone up for being a woman. It is NOT okay to beat someone up, PERIOD”. – Fugazi, Instrument (Fugazi, 2003).
Fugazi’s infamous “no moshing” rule sparked a new trend in many different groups. The Beastie Boys were influenced by this and saw the importance in public safety and released a Mosh Pit Do’s and Don’ts poster in 1995 in support of their Quadrophonic tour (Hey Oscar Wilde!, 2010).
Texan rock n roll band, At the Drive In played a similar card. Frontman, Cedric Rodriguez berates the Sydney, Big Day Out crowd of 2001 in response to their aggressive behaviour towards each other in the crowd.
“I think it’s a very, very sad day when the only way you can express yourself is through slamdancing.”
“You learned that from the TV, not your best friend. You’re a robot. You’re a sheep! Baaaa!”
the singer bleats at the crowd in a taunting manner (Abraham, 2011). Another performance in 2001, (SiN3MATIC, 2009) shows the band performing a more aggressive version of Fugazi’s band/audience banter and displaying their frustrations at the uncooperative crowd.
“WE ARE NOT A HARDCORE BAND”
As a young, white male with an affiliation with the creative arts and social anxiety, I am no one’s idea of a minority; I’m another dude with a guitar. Well, almost. It’s how you use that. Coming from a sports oriented school and substance abusing environment, I wanted to disassociate myself from these backgrounds but needed empowerment; some motivation. My interest in punk music grew and discovered the various forms of hardcore, eventually stumbling across Minor Threat, then Straight Edge. While I don’t partake in the subculture’s outlines anymore, I still understand the importance of the ideals and the idealist behind it. Fugazi were the little band that could. MacKaye formed a band that spoke out against rape and showed the world that you didn’t need breasts to be a feminist; that art over commerce can still be sustainable and that an exercising of freedom of speech can beget acts of violent machismo. Fugazi set their rulebook and standards that provoked audiences to question their own actions and influenced a generation of creative groups ranging from The Beastie Boys to Rise Against to preach a ‘Gazi gospel. If you set a standard, people will rise to the challenge.
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