Ska-Core, the Discourse, and More

Why defending genres is goofy, but necessary.

Ska-Core, the Discourse, and More

If you follow online music discourse, you'll probably have noticed that ska is back, baby! Let me go on the record and say that I celebrate its return. While it's surprising to see a bunch of publications giving accolades to a genre that's been mostly used a punching bag for the past two decades, at least people have lightened up and decided to have some fun for a change. But in all the great writing about ska that's been published over the past couple weeks, the one thing that I've not seen mentioned is how the very roots of the genre stand seemingly in opposition to so much canonized "cool music" that has been propped up by critics for as long as I can remember. And I really think that's how we got here in the first place.

Now, let me make it abundantly clear: Having a good message and progressive politics doesn't inherently make art good. But in the case of ska, and specifically the original two-tone bands, the entire sound and scene was built on a core of anti-racist messaging. What I've always found a little curious is that people talk about two-tone as being a reactionary movement, and it's often characterized as a response to the rising right-wing sentiments in England. And while you'll see folks like Eric Clapton mentioned for their racist outbursts inspiring events like Rock Against Racism, I've always suspected the rise of post-punk played a role in this, too.

I'm no fan of modern post-punk, and even the original stuff, outside of a couple bands, I can take or leave. Though this genre has been given the royal treatment by music writers and history books, the very name of it draws a line between first-wave English punk bands which, aside from the morons in the Sex Pistols, were pretty overt about their calls for equality. At that point in punk history, with the original U.K. punk scene having splintered, new sub-genres were forming in its wake. It's what made 1979 the year that two-tone, crust punk, and post-punk all felt like new movements being formed by groups of punk kids that had different ideas of what it actually mean to be a punk.

But as post-punk sprung up as a response to punk's baseline simplicity, along with it came a lot of signifiers that feel a little gauche in the present day. While two-tone and crust were explicitly and emphatically left-wing movements, the post-punk scene was quicker to embrace fascist aesthetics and, in the case of Joy Division, put it right in their name. Others, like Siouxsie Sioux and The Cure, indulged in petty racism (sorry, Robert Smith, I love you, and you apologized for it almost immediately and did a ton of work to correct it, but it happened). Or, if you're in The Fall, you just screamed the n-word and had everyone chalk it up to necessary artistic provocation. That's entirely plausible, but for a band led by a dude who didn't seem to be that great of a guy, we really have bent over backwards to read his work in the most flattering light. It's also not entirely shocking that this is the scene John Lydon would find himself in after the Sex Pistols dissolution.

But while post-punk had a shock factor built into parts of its early years, it's musical basis was shared with two-tone. Both were built on the same base of dub music, but each genre took the sound in a different direction. In one corner, there was two-tone, which put the emphasis on fun, danceable rhythms, and in the other corner was post-punk, which made the rhythmic skronky and mechanical. It's part why I've always viewed post-punk as a response to the rise of two-tone. Because why have fun and dance when you can painfully over-intellectualize something? And while I'm sure many would argue to the contrary, whatever, find me a room of people joyously dancing to Entertainment! (lightly bouncing up and down doesn't count) and I'll eat my words.

Now here's where I really get into trouble: What is the basis of indie rock? Pretty sure you can draw a line straight back to post-punk. It only makes sense that, since people couldn't take shots at ska on ideological grounds, they had to focus on the goofiness that ran through its '90s incarnation. Because even though ska bands were singing about racism and sexism, they were wearing bowling shirts so it wasn't worth taking their message all that seriously. Or maybe, to the tastemakers of the day, that wasn't something they were all that concerned about to begin with.

While there's an important conversation to be had about the fact that ska-punk was a bastardization of the original Jamaican ska music, I'd be curious to see post-punk's whitewashing of dub evaluated similarly. Not out of some vindictive self-interest here but because, if that's what the genre's roots are, it's fascinating how one of the most lambasted musical genres and one of the most critically lauded spawn from the exact same wellspring. Though it's even more interesting that only one scene has been forced to answer the question of whether its modern practitioners are paying their rightful respects to that source material.

Music history is often deeply flawed. Whether things like racism in certain genres are overt or more deeply hidden, it's almost always there, because every subculture carries the stains of the dominant culture it springs from. It's the job of people in the present to grapple with those issues and work to fix them instead of just hurling jokes from the sidelines or writing off entire movements because it's easier to do than actually engaging with the thing. The current crop of ska bands are doing that work, just like the recent wave of emo bands have built more inclusive communities as a way of acknowledging and atoning for the damage done by their predecessors. And hey, it's cool to see post-punk being as multicultural as it's ever been (though everyone still let Iceage explain away their garbage backstory without much genuine analysis or contrition, so I guess some things never change) because even the stuff I hate is capable of maturing past the ugliness built into its very framework. Maybe we can forgo the simple jabs and work to build a history that's a little more fun and, ultimately, a lot more honest. To quote one of my favorite disses ever delivered against Jawbreaker, "You can't dance to pain." But if the beat hits you just right, maybe you can dance it away.