After Beto O’Rourke praised Ian MacKaye in a Vanity Fair interview, punk and hardcore fans scrambled to decode his allegiance. Was it even possible to be a politician and a punk simultaneously?
When the Democratic Presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke was a younger man, he played in a band called Foss. It was a relatively obscure group, both inside and outside of El Paso, O’Rourke’s home town, where the band was based. (One of O’Rourke’s bandmates, Cedric Bixler-Zavala, later went on to sing in both the post-hardcore band At the Drive-In and the prog-rock group the Mars Volta, two heavy and widely beloved West Texas ensembles.) Foss enjoyed its only moment of national attention in 2018, when O’Rourke was running for the Senate against Ted Cruz. The Texas G.O.P. tweeted a photo of the band, taken from the cover of its first seven-inch single, with the caption “Maybe Beto can’t debate Ted Cruz because he already had plans.”
In the picture, O’Rourke is wearing a button-down dress in a floral print. This was a thing that happened not infrequently during the mid-nineties: straight, cisgender male musicians wearing women’s clothes somehow worked as both an extension and a repudiation of the glam-rock and hair-metal bands (Poison, Mötley Crüe, Ratt) that had preceded grunge and alternative rock on the radio. And it felt gently subversive besides—an easy way to buck expectations, or defy the norm.
Yet one gets the sense that the Texas G.O.P. was not attempting to highlight O’Rourke’s faithfulness to the cultural moment. Though O’Rourke, who’s now forty-six, ultimately wasn’t able to unseat Cruz, the tweet backfired as a macho humiliation tactic. (Most Texans either didn’t care that O’Rourke had once worn a dress and played in a band or found it charming.) The photo did, however, instantly signal to the rest of the nation that a major American politician might also have discerning and idiosyncratic taste in non-mainstream music—that he had lingered, at least briefly, in some outlier scenes.
For those of us who continue to cling to arcane or unpopular musical artifacts as signifiers of our own erudition and value, O’Rourke suddenly seemed as if he might be our guy on the inside—a genuine weirdo reformed. If you, like me, were a hostile teen-ager during a certain stretch of the nineteen-nineties, Foss’s particular brand of rock music—melodic enough to be palatable, but still dissonant and humorless enough to resonate with your own ever-growing ponderousness and alienation—will be instantly familiar, landing somewhere between Jawbox and Fugazi on the Dischord Records scale. These bands are often called post-hardcore or, sometimes, post-punk, though precisely what qualifies a band for either genre distinction remains contentious. My recollection of attending these sorts of shows—I was fifteen or sixteen, and living in the upper stretches of the New York City suburbs—is that the crowds were largely male, slightly bookish, and thoroughly frenzied. Most of us were too young to drink (or had preëmptively declared ourselves “straight edge,” righteously Sharpie-ing thick black “X”s onto the backs of our hands), which lent the proceedings an incidental purity. The only absolution or oblivion on offer was the music, and the way you let your body submit to it. Later, in my own bedroom, with my CD player turned up so loud it shivered, I would try to recapture the feral energy of those shows, to feel as free as I’d felt then.
In January, Mother Jones discovered a video of O’Rourke, from 2003, wearing a fitted white onesie and a sheep mask and playing rhythm guitar in a punk-rock cover band called the Sheeps. The band invented an elaborate fake mythology—in their home country of New Zealand, the Sheeps were so wildly famous that they had to perform in disguise!—and played three shows in total. For the final performance, the band members wore paper bags on their heads. (Reportedly, some of them had, by then, misplaced their sheep masks.) In the summer of 1995, O’Rourke also played with the Swedes, which recorded seven songs to tape and played two shows—a block party and an in-store gig at a local record shop—before disbanding. It was a scrappy setup. “The drum kit was taped together, and the microphone was hanging from the ceiling in lieu of a stand; it would zap you if you accidentally touched your mouth to it,” the bassist Julie Beth Napolin later wrote on the Swedes’ Bandcamp page.
In a cover-story profile for the April, 2019, issue of Vanity Fair, which focussed on the prospect of O’Rourke’s Presidential candidacy, he gushed over Ian MacKaye, a co-founder of Dischord, a member of the hardcore/post-hardcore bands Minor Threat and Fugazi and a kind of D.I.Y. titan, vehement about his anti-corporate ideals. “I have so much reverence for him and he means so much to me in my life,” O’Rourke said. Reading his thoughts on MacKaye, I felt a funny kind of recognition. Punk and hardcore fans scrambled to decode O’Rourke’s allegiance. Was it even possible to be a politician and a punk simultaneously? Was it advisable? As the present scrum of Democratic candidates charge toward the primary, and the American public tries not to succumb to more exhaustion and disillusionment, we can at least hope that new videos of O’Rourke playing noisy, blusterous post-hardcore might emerge from the depths of the Web. Regardless of how I feel about O’Rourke’s politics or who the best Democratic candidate might turn out to be, I have nonetheless been receiving them with glee, satisfaction, and nostalgia for a youth in which I still believed I could dance my way toward peace and understanding.