As a child, Douglas Martin once got scolded by a stranger for spitting on a Confederate landmark.
In the ghastly shadow of the presidential election last November, a great many rock music fans made the laughable assertion, “Well, at least punk rock will be good again.” They must have forgotten the punk rock through the rose-tinted lens of Obama’s America was at least a dozen times better than the middling straits of Rock Against Bush. Just like anything, good music rooted in dissent is around if you’re looking for it in the right places—Liz Pelly’s Protest Song of the Week column is a very good resource. But the fact remains that if it took a catastrophe of the democratic system to make people consider the options of politically charged punk bands being any good, they at least in part deserve the toxic, almost surreally comic atmosphere of the current presidential regime.
I’d rather say, “at least we don’t have a president actively trying to snuff out affordable healthcare and transgender rights” than “at least punk rock is a little better,” but to each their own, I guess.
Nevertheless, in the age of 45 seemingly trying to reconfigure our country into a white nationalist playground, the most important punk band in America is one that represents everything 45 and his band of evil stooges are against. The band is brown, mostly queer-identifying, and smarter than most of the people holding major office (and the increasing number of their short-tenured predecessors under this regime). That band is called Downtown Boys. With the fangs-out, famously confrontational hardcore band G.L.O.S.S. sadly dissolved, the Providence, Rhode Island band is tops when it comes to putting their frustration to amazing use.
I first heard the name Downtown Boys as early as 2014, but my true introduction to their music came in the form of of their stellar effort the next calendar year, Full Communism, a 23-minute barnburner which could be categorized as mere sloganeering if the band talked the talk without walking the walk. I saw them as an antidote to two of the biggest problems plaguing punk music’s most visible reaches for decades: too many cis-gendered, straight white dudes and not enough saxophones. Our cup runneth over with identity politics in music—says the guy who wrote “The Only Black Guy at the Indie Rock Show”—but in the case of Downtown Boys, identity and politics are part and parcel to the very root of their music.
The word “anthemic” gets thrown around just about as much as the themes in Downtown Boys’ music, but it’s a word that accurately describes Full Communism opener “Wave of History.” Same with stunner “Monstro,” whose intro (a twelve-second track featuring the clarity of lead vocalist Victoria Ruiz’s assertive voice) decries that ever elusive “third thing” white hegemony looks for when someone fits the somehow impossible (to white hegemony) description of being both brown and smart. “Break a Few Eggs” turns a metaphor for collateral damage into a powerful outcry of rebellion, of course the modus operandi for the band’s general ethos.
If Full Communism was the sound of a band turning a punk house upside down with righteous anger, Cost of Living finds them doing the same to concert halls and festival stages. Produced by Guy Picciotto—you may have heard of the bands Rites of Spring and Fugazi—the songs completely fill the space of whatever room it’s played in, rivaling the band’s force of personality with an equally powerful sound. It may not leave the fiery trail and charred bits of grass in its wake like Full Communism did, but in its best moments, it’s so massive it could crush buildings.
Opening track “A Wall” is a classic example of the times retrofitting a song’s meaning. The band themselves have said it wasn’t an explicit reference to the infamously putrid idea of our nation’s president, but are okay with the fact that people think it is. Instead of fury, the song has a triumphant air, the chorus refrain of “a wall is just a wall” carrying a special significance. Fuck your barrier. We’ll climb over it, we’ll burrow under it, we’ll break right through it. You can’t keep us out.
A little has been made, mostly positive things, about a few songs peppered throughout Downtown Boys’ catalog being sung (or shouted) entirely in Spanish. Of course there are fans who feel alienated, slighted, secretly put off by Ruiz working outside of the English language occasionally, for the sheer fact that they can’t understand what she’s saying—as I’ve noted, the idea of message is paramount to what Downtown Boys do.
I’ve heard issues being bandied about, accusations of exclusion from a band who prides themselves on being all inclusive. But as a result of having our cultures pilfered and either turned for profit or erased completely, sometimes people of color just want something for themselves. We want to speak to our people in a way our people understand without having to make concessions. People too often feel alienated by things they don’t understand instead of just accepting it’s not for them.
There’s a concept punk music does very well and as a punk band Downtown Boys have mastered it: On various songs on Cost of Living, Ruiz forcefully intones repeated mantras that fashion themselves a branding iron into your skull. “WHY DON’T I TREAT YOU LIKE YOU TREAT ME?” (from “It Can’t Wait”) or the chorus of “Somos Chulas (No Somos Pendejas).” The repeated message is a useful tool in political art, as it offers a message boiled down to its essence to the point where it is unshakable.
Out of all of the memorable songs and moments throughout Cost of Living (the respective spoken-word interlude and outro of “Heroes” and “Bulletproof” are just as striking as the songs), “Violent Complicity” serves as the visceral highlight of the album. The music packs a punch reminiscent of Full Communism’s blitzkrieg, and Ruiz delivers her lyrics like there is a blazing fire surrounding her and she’s emboldened by the heat. The message of the song is that physical labor is never just physical, there is always some degree of emotional labor involved. And when you feel exploited, that emotional labor feels like carrying a very heavy load.
We’ve been discussing the political climate of our country without a pause for breath for a very long year, and for some of us, far longer than that. The radical left has been an inexhaustible source of dissent because elected officials who represent the ideals we’d like to see govern our land are either too soft or stymied at every turn. The power that lies in fighting back has been taken by the hands of a community who feel democracy failed us on the evening of November 8th, 2016. Downtown Boys are among these many united voices trying to make America the all-inclusive place it claims to be. That’s why they are perhaps the most important punk band making music today.