By: Catherine Trevino
Punk music has historically captured the political climate of its time by confronting themes such as anti-capitalism, fierce individualism and a hatred of authority or, “the man.” As hardcore punk began to manifest in the early ‘80s, a persona non grata for its angry gaze was elected into the Oval Office: Ronald Reagan.
Reagan was the antithesis of punk ideals when he won the presidential election against Jimmy Carter in 1981 – he was a champion of the average white, homophobic, God-fearing American man. Many of the policies enacted during his term benefitted a specific sector of America (you guessed it – rich white people.)
His economic policy, known as “Reaganomics,” reduced tax cuts for the wealthy and was detrimental to small businesses and welfare programs such as Medicaid, federal education and food stamps. Although he delivered on his platform’s promise of appointing a woman to a government position (he appointed Sandra Day O'Connor as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court), he was dismissive of the Equal Rights Amendment, a bill designed to guarantee constitutional rights to both sexes, and he was a staunch opponent of women’s reproductive rights. He is also known to have opposed many civil rights bills that would have advanced the equality of African-Americans, including the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The combination of his conservative stance on social issues as well as dwindling economic opportunity didn’t sit well with many punks, and the Reagan Administration consequently inspired some of the wittiest, angriest, and greatest songs in the then-rising genre of hardcore punk. As far as punk artists were concerned, they had been provided with more than enough material for sweet poetic rebellion. Cue some heavy guitar riffs, and the next chapter of punk music began to unfold.
The most outright Reagan reference was Reagan Youth, an anarcho-punk band formed in Queens in 1981. Much of their music was a satirical and biting take on the nation’s current affairs aimed at the conservative right – in the song “Reagan Youth,” they sing “we are the sons of Reagan….heil! / We are the godforsaken….heil!” which compares Reagan supporters to Nazis. Their album art invoked images from hate groups – including members of the KKK playing instruments – which they used as a tool to make fun of these organizations.
Quintessential punk rock pioneers, The Ramones, wrote the song “My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down (Bonzo goes to Bitburg)” after Reagan’s 1985 visit to Germany, during which he controversially visited Bitburg Cemetery. Reagan attended a ceremony at Bitburg where military Nazi officers were buried. In “Bonzo”, frontman Joey Ramone sings, “Bonzo goes to Bitburg then goes out for a cup of tea / As I watched it on T.V / somehow it really bothered me.”
Even punk’s satirical outfit, The Dead Milkmen, made a comment with “Right Wing Pigeons,” which called the president a “right wing pigeon from outer space / sent here to destroy the human race.” And Canada’s D.O.A, oft-credited as the founding hardcore punk band, released a song called “Fucked Up Ronnie,” in which they blatantly repeat, “You’re fucked up Ronnie / you’re fucked up Ronnie / you’re fucked up Ronnie.”
Punk’s anti-Reagan sentiment culminated in “Rock Against Reagan,” a series of shows that toured the U.S. in which several punk bands attempted to stop the president from getting elected to a second term. The lineup for these shows included popular punk bands such as The Dead Kennedys, The Minutemen, Austin’s Millions of Dead Cops and Reagan Youth, to name a few. These were free concerts with voter registration booths set up to encourage young people to vote against Reagan.
Anti-Reagan music didn’t end after his presidential terms were served– modern artists such as Kendrick Lamar, Jay-Z and Kanye West have continued to cite the president in their work. Now, punk’s rallying cry has turned its eye to 2016 Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump – D.O.A. has already reworked their classic “Fucked Up Ronnie” to become “Fucked Up Donald.”
I suppose it’s only a matter of time before we see a Rock Against Donald tour. He might just make punk rock great again.