Suburbia Movie Poster, Film directed by Penelope Spheeris, 1983

About fifteen minutes into 1983’s Suburbia, Penelope Spheeris punxploitation classic about runaways forming an ad-hoc family in the midst of Los Angeles’s ultra-violent punk scene, Jack, something of a leader to the other runaways, bemoans the laments the family he left behind: his real dad died in Vietnam, and his stepfather is a police officer. “That’s not the worst of it though” He’s quick to add, before delivering the kicker: “he’s black.”

 

As a punk obsessed kid, I hated this line– and I saw it plenty times, as I nearly wore out my bootleg VHS copy of the film. I felt attached to these characters. They were all different kinds of broken from lousy home lives like me and had found an outlet in punk to act out against a world they did fit into. I didn’t want them to be intolerant. Angry? Antisocial? Even Nihilistic? Sure, that made sense to me- but bigoted? That felt like the opposite of everything that drew me to the subculture in the first place, this idea of inclusiveness for people that feel like they have nowhere else to go.

 

I still hate the line, and the others like it, though I’m a lot less starry eyed about the culture around it. As I got older, I became more immersed in punk and other extreme music and the scene around it, I learned that this kind of bigotry was neither novel nor era specific, though large swathes of the culture had pretty effectively self-regulated it out of their immediate vicinity- go to your local DIY punk show, and you are likely to see a lot more kids wearing Nazi Punks F*ck off shirts than you are to see Nazis- but it still found ways to surface.

 

Like any subculture- what seems monolithic to an outsider is filled with nuanced connections and relationships only meaningful to those inside it, and extreme music’s relationship to bigotry is no different. From devoutly anti-racist activist skinheads in full boots and braces to Columbian black metal bands espousing white supremacist ideologies, the ultra-specific coding of political allegiance can feel equal parts labyrinthian and ridiculous. Even for those of us who took this kind of thing seriously, they often felt abstract: breadcrumb trails of information about a particular band or scene that you used to try and figure out where they landed ideologically, often no small task in a culture that prizes provocation. For whatever reason, some broken part of my brain finds this all fascinating, but up until recently, I wouldn’t expect anyone else to.

 

The, I saw a bunch of kids in skinhead-chic Fred Perry polo shirts carrying tiki torches and chanting “Blood and Soil” on the homepage of nearly every major news organization in the country. Suddenly this didn’t feel nearly as niche to me. As technology has enabled marketers to micro-target ultra-specific audiences, political extremists have learned to foster hate in thousands of tiny corners of our culture, some of which, like extreme music scenes, were basically primed and ready. Prominent, violent far right groups like the Proud Boys and Atomwaffen have lineages that lead directly through underground music scenes, and they have learned to embrace the gray areas of irony and empty provocation built into the culture.

 

Put simply, Wolves dressed as Wolves is an attempt to grapple with these elements of this culture that has meant a great deal to me, understand how it could be adapted as a tool for far-right radicalization, and how that can be countered or even subverted.

Suburbia, Penelope Spheeris, 1983