What does punk rock mean? Bad Religion’s Greg Graffin said that “Punk is: the personal expression of uniqueness that comes from the experiences of growing up in touch with our human ability to reason and ask questions.” In short, it’s thinking for one’s self; rebellion against a certain status quo; or even as Sid Vicious has put it, “Undermin[ing] pompous authority, reject[ing] their moral standards, [making] anarchy and disorder your trademarks.” If you want to simplify, look to Patti Smith, who once said that “punk rock is freedom.” Punk rock is what Green Day did at last night’s American Music Awards by chanting “No Trump, no KKK, no fascist USA” during a performance of their Revolution Radio single “Bang Bang.”
The line itself is taken from the ‘80s Austin hardcore stalwarts MDC’s anti-Nazi anthem Born to Die. (The original chant, of course, went “No war, no KKK, no fascist USA.”) It’s an act unlikely to have succeeded had Green Day told ABC or the AMAs beforehand—which TMZ alleges they didn’t. And so the trio appears to have done something totally reasonable within, say, the confines of a private venue—but definitely risky in a setting that’s broadcast to every television set in the country.
Of course Green Day was not alone in their politics: AMA co-hosts Gigi Hadid and Jay Pharoah attempted Melania and Trump impressions, and Idina Menzel voiced her support for the cast of Hamilton, who, last Friday night, addressed the in-attendance Vice President-elect Mike Pence directly, saying, “We, sir, we are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights, sir.”
But Green Day’s own expression was so up-front, so in-your-face, so forceful that it could not be brushed off as wink-wink-nudge-nudge host humor or a hasty fist pump. The leftist ideals that inspired—and still inspire—their music is what breathed life and substance into an otherwise limp parade of Top 40 talent and promotion.
I’ll level with you—I did not actually watch this year’s AMAs because I was busy binge-watching Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle, which arguably feels a LOT more relevant right now. But I’ve seen enough American/People’s Choice/Billboard Music Awards to know that those programs are not where to turn to see much in the way of individualism and political derring-do.
We’re living in a time where the very things that used to define America—individualism, diversity, multiculturalism, decency—are being seriously called into question. Just last week, the Brooklyn Heights playground named for Beastie Boy Adam Yauch was vandalized with swastikas and the words “Go Trump!” Anti-Semitism and fascist imagery are so prevalent right now that they’re even creeping into a childrens’ playgrounds. If such blatant hate can show up in what should be such an innocent arena, then it stands to reason that the opposite—words of love, defiance and tolerance—must appear in a broadly televised one like the AMAs.
In doing what they did, Green Day pay homage to political punk pioneers (Sex Pistols, The Clash, Reagan Youth, Dead Milkmen, The Dead Kennedys) and remind longtime fans that the rage that fueled 2004’s American Idiot remains sincere. Not to mention that they still understand what it means to be punk, which boils down to an ethos, not necessarily a uniform of pins and piercings: pushing parameters and challenging institutions with a blast of anarchy.
For more from Green Day, check out their Woodstock 94 performance in the player below.