“Are you with the pussies or the punks?” This has been a recurring comment on threads regarding Dickies frontman Leonard Graves Phillips' recent tirade from the stage against a young woman in the crowd at Warped Tour, and it seems to be tearing apart the hardcore music community right now. But this controversy is far more complex than that crude, reductive question, and it highlights a cultural debate that reflects not only today's sexual politics but generational divisions as well.
The incident happened last week in Denver; a video of it surfaced on June 26. On June 28, Phillips issued a statement on The Dickies' Facebook page, saying it “wasn't my proudest moment” but stopping short of offering a full apology.
In between and since, a lot of people have weighed in on social media: friends of those involved, fans, feminists and, most notably, The Dickies' punk peers, some of whom have gone so far as to post “I Stand With The Dickies” memes as their profile pictures on Facebook, and others (including the formidable frontman of The Adolescents) who have taken a stand against what the band did, only to suffer backlash. Even in the wake of the July Fourth holiday, the chatter about the incident continues; yesterday, two more rockers, Eagles of Death Metal's Jesse Hughes and The Offspring's Noodles, weighed in on Instagram, both posting support for the band.
Some background here for those who don’t know the whole sordid story by now. The woman in the crowd on the receiving end of Phillips' rant was a friend of War on Women, a feminist punk group on Warped’s roster (who have also since commented on the controversy). She was not a Warped attendee, as originally reported, but touring with War on Women as part of the group Safer Scenes, a project the band created to prevent harassment and violence at shows, particularly against women, minors and minority groups. In protest of The Dickies’ often obscene schtick, she held a sign in the audience that read, “Teen girls deserve respect, not gross jokes from disgusting old men! Punk shouldn't be predatory!”
Phillips' response: “Kiss it, ya bitch! I have fucked farm animals that were prettier than you, you fucking hog.” He then led a chant of “Blow me! Blow me!” with the crowd and added, “How does it feel? To get shouted away, you cunt? C.U.N.T. Can you spell? You're a fat cunt. Fuck you!”
The “Punk shouldn't be predatory” sign was practically begging for a contentious response. Phillips took the bait.
It was reported that The Dickies got kicked off the tour for the incident, but Warped's Kevin Lyman released a statement on Friday saying that this was not the case; it was, in fact, their last scheduled date.
“I ask anyone who has an issue with anyone else on tour to come sit under my tent with me and express their views diplomatically,” Lyman wrote in his statement. “On this year's tour we have many people who may not agree with each other, but as humans we should be able to express our points of view in a civil manner. If we have any hope to progress as a society, communication will be key in moving forward.”
Lyman invited War on Women and Safer Scenes to the 2017 tour after he received criticism for allowing Jake McElfresh (aka Front Porch Step) to perform at Warped back in 2015 after sexual misconduct allegations against the singer-songwriter surfaced. In the case of The Dickies, Lyman seems to see both sides of the issue — but if he does, he's one of the few. There are two strongly opposed camps on this.
On one side, you have the old-school punk crowd: men (and some women) who argue that the purpose of punk rock is to upset the status quo, to cross the line, to fuck shit up and take no prisoners doing so. They say punk is about anything but being safe, and to police it so it’s digestible to all is to strip it of its very essence. One should go to a punk rock show prepared for anything, even — and maybe especially — to hear offensive content.
On the other side, you have feminists and younger music fans who feel that punk music and shows have long been breeding grounds for misogyny and hate against people of color, the LGBTQ community and other marginalized groups. They argue that many people, particularly young girls, who want to attend events such as Warped do not feel safe doing so when bands like The Dickies continue to say and do things onstage that objectify or verbally abuse women.
So who’s right? Does this all come down, once again, to the tired old question that’s plagued music rebels and journalists alike since that very first disenfranchised kid grabbed a mic and started screaming over some noisy power chords: What is punk? Who gets to define it, anyway?
Not Kevin Lyman. Not The Dickies. But not War on Women, either. In this instance, both sides have a point.
I consider myself a feminist and I think, in theory, that the idea of Safer Scenes is good and needed. But you can’t expect the people you oppose to take the higher ground if you don’t take it yourself. (We should all keep this in mind every time we insult Trump; we should focus on his shitty policies, not his bad hair, weight or orange-ness.) Safer Scenes is on the Warped Tour, with an information booth, to provide dialogue identifying, preventing and addressing sexual harassment and violence, racism and able-ism at the festival. This should be done with positivity and some semblance of the respect they are fighting for.
The Dickies protest, and specifically the sign, failed to do this. It amounted to heckling. It was accusatory and ageist. Amid the amped-up, adrenalin-charged atmosphere of a punk show, it was practically begging for a contentious response. Phillips took the bait.
All that being said — and “dirty old man” dig aside — there is no excuse for Phillips' disgusting words. Anyone who makes excuses for them or says they’re “punk,” or dismisses them as the usual Dickies shtick, has never seen the band or didn’t watch the video. Yes, The Dickies are called The Dickies for a reason. They are raunchy but they are — usually — fun (they use puppets, for God's sake). I’ve seen them many times, most recently at Punk Rock Bowling. This rant was not spewed in fun; it was fueled by anger and it’s kind of frightening to watch, especially when you see the crowd cheer on Phillips' rage.
I’ve been going to punk shows since I was a teenager and I’d be lying if I said that I hadn’t heard or seen things that disturbed me as much as Phillips' rant over the years. I accepted them as part of the provocative nature of the music. As a 40-something female punk fan, I understand the arguments being made that our culture has “gotten too PC” or too soft, and that punk should not be policed. But I also get that younger generations have a different perspective from mine. They are products of a different mindset — one that is necessary if our society is to overcome some of the challenges it faces today.
Actors don’t perform in blackface anymore. Rock stars don’t have sex with 13-year-old groupies anymore. Punks don’t wear Nazi regalia anymore. What’s acceptable culturally changes over time, and our entertainment reflects this. Those of us living through these transitions may find it more challenging to accept, but we need to try.
At the heart of the present moment's transition is a simple truth, one that today's kids seem to grasp intuitively: If you’re not, for example, black, you will never really know what it’s like to be black, or know how certain trigger words feel when they’re uttered in your presence. Never. Same for women: If you don't have a vagina, you don’t know. (OK, dudes?) All that any of us can do is accept that we don’t really get it and respect others when they tell us this is so.
Dismissing this truth when it comes to generational attitudes as “special snowflake” syndrome is extremely close-minded — and, ironically, epitomizes the stodgy, get-off-my-lawn mentality that us punk kids (now us punk old-timers) once fought against. Bottom line, today’s punk is not yesterday’s punk, and to judge it is … not punk!
Of course, this leaves the punk-rock elder statesmen still out there with a conundrum. They can evolve, and risk losing their old fan base, or they can stay exactly the same and retain their “punk cred” in some circles while suffering consequences and criticism in others. But maybe there's some sort of middle ground, wherein punk rockers do their thing while defining new boundaries for themselves. (We seem to have found a mutual understanding when it comes rappers and race: Non-black artists don’t use the N-word.) It ain't that hard and it doesn’t make anyone a sellout to try.
In fact, it takes balls to go against the punk herd and declare what’s right and wrong for yourself, wherever you stand. Tony Cadena of The Adolescents (currently on the Warped Tour) is an example of a punk icon who has come out against Phillips' incendiary rant and its defenders, and he's gotten a lot of grief for it on social media. He posted about being a father and how he felt about the matter, and got so much crap for it that he temporarily shut down his Facebook page, last we checked. But nobody would call this guy a pussy. He’s one of the most dangerous and unpredictable live performers still doing it in the punk world.
Like Cadena, I have a daughter, which gives me another perspective on the issue. I brought my baby girl, dressed in a punk-themed onesie, to Warped in a stroller about nine years ago. I had the noise-reducing headphones and VIP access so I could escape the masses, but I still decided it was a bad idea and never did it again. It was too crowded and chaotic. Would I take her to Warped now that she's older? I think I would — but not because of Safer Scenes.
Ultimately, I view it as my responsibility to educate my kid about the dangers and injustices she’ll encounter in the world, and to prepare her for how this might be reflected in various environments out there. At 10 years old, she’s already pretty enlightened about rock music, from its lyrical references to the reputations of those who make it. We talk about such things in an age-appropriate way. What’s seen and heard at a punk music festival may not be appropriate for her age, but neither is what’s seen and heard on the playground these days, or in boardrooms, or at the White House. All I can do is be there and encourage her to stand up for and protect herself, know her worth and be a good person.
While nobody can define “punk” right now, we can probably all agree that it's a form of expression that came as a reaction to close-minded people imposing their views on others, right? If this is so, then the way it's delivered will have to change with the times, whether purists or old-schoolers like it or not. If that means my daughter feels more comfortable at a punk show when she's a teenager than I did, great. If it doesn't, I think she'll be OK, too.
As the Warped Tour progresses and the discourse about The Dickies either continues or dies down, let's hope music makers and fans alike become less concerned with taking sides and more interested in having a grown-up dialogue about how to address such issues at future music festivals — and, more important, in the real world.
Warped Tour hits the Pomona Fairplex (without The Dickies) on Sunday, Aug. 6.