Some thoughts on cultural appropriation

The concept of cultural appropriation- borrowing another culture’s art without getting permission- is something I couldn’t have put a name on until fairly recently, but something as part of the punk scene I’ve been familiar with for years.

I was a teenager in the late 80s, early 90s, just as punk rock was undergoing a huge resurgence, both in popularity and in creativity.  Most of us loved all the great music that was coming out around that time, but hated the sudden popularity of some of the bands that we’d been fans of for years- Green Day, Bad Religion, NOFX, even to some degree grunge bands like Nirvana.

I remember reading a Maximum Rock’n’Roll* review of Rancid‘s third album  …And Out Come the Wolves.  It would go on to be their best known album, a diverse album with huge cross-over hits like Ruby Soho and Timebomb.  The author described it as “pretty good for prefab punk.”  I snickered a little when I read that- haha big rock stars Rancid.

But Rancid were exactly one half of the former members of the most legitimate and influential band of that era- Operation Ivy.  If Tim Armstrong and Matt Freeman were poser mall punks- what the hell were the rest of us?

The idea of cultural appropriation is based on the idea that culture belongs to someone.  That reviewer who was questioning Rancid’s street cred was trying to own punk rock.  Punks who listen to the music want the same privilege.  And of course bands do too.

I’m an unknown musician, so if you ask me who owns what culture, I’m going to give the answer most convenient for me- no one.  I have no privileged position to protect.  I want maximum freedom to make whatever music I want to.  I want to be able to draw ideas from wherever I want to.  Of course, if I were a famous musician who had defined a certain style it might be in my best interest to criticize anyone for expanding that style beyond what I could do or would want to do.

Fans want to like what they like, but they too have something to protect- cultural capital and performance spaces.  If Green Day blows up punk rock that means casual listeners may start showing up at shows, and that’s lame.  Getting away from average people is the point of going to punk shows.  And 15 years ago some punk rocker might spend hundreds of dollars assembling a record collection and knowing all the history.  If punk becomes played out, that person has to start over in a whole other genre.

Reviewers have their reputation and cultural capital to preserve.  A reviewer who gives a positive review to some band that everyone later decides are a bunch of sell-outs loses credibility.  It’s hard to become credible again when everyone has decided that you’re not.

I left out on player in this- record labels.  They mostly don’t care, they just want to make money.

So I’ve laid out why someone’s idea of ownership is, to me, kind of silly. Most of the people claiming ownership are, at best, supporters.  At worst, step out of line and they’ll drop you without a second thought.  In the early 90s band likes Green Day, Rancid and Nirvana went on to become huge stars.  Other bands like Fifteen, NOFX and Fugazi managed to carve out lengthy careers by staying underground.  The saddest stories were bands like Jawbreaker, who alienated their original fans by signing to a major label but never caught on and disbanded.

Is that what Jawbreaker fans wanted?  Wouldn’t it have been better to ride it out with them?  Maybe they would have made some songs that their fans would have really liked.

*the big fanzine of that era



  1. A really interesting subject. Maybe they could make a case if they were talking about Paul Simon appropriating African music — which he tried to do. But punk isn’t a society. It’s a STYLE and nobody owns fashion, trends, or styles. If you really could lay that kind of claim and make it stick, the resulting fragmentation of the arts would be insane — and very destructive.

    1. I mentioned Graceland briefly a while back. I was planning on getting to that in my next post, but it’s a little trickier and I’m not that familiar with the story of how that got made and what the reaction was. I know he came under some criticism but some of the musicians involved were also happy to get their name out there and make more money.

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