ActivismAfternoon Inquisition

AI: Skepticism and Punk Rock Music

People often ask me what got me interested in organized skepticism. And while I often attribute it to stumbling across Skepticality and Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, the fact is, the seeds were planted long before.

I was and am a big fan of punk music and I was influenced by the don’t listen to authority, stand up and fight and DIY message from bands like, Dead Kennedys and The Clash.

It is this take no bullshit and bust down-the-walls-if-you-have-to-for what-is-right attitude that encourages me to this day to stand up for what is correct instead of what is popular even in the face of strong opposition.

Has any music influenced you to be more skeptical or to generally be a better person? If so share it here and tell us why it is important to you.

The Afternoon Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Skepchick community. Look for it to appear Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays at 3pm ET.

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Amy Roth

Amy Davis Roth (aka Surly Amy) is a multimedia artist who resides in Los Angeles, California. She makes Surly-Ramics. She is the fearless leader of Mad Art Lab. Support her on Patreon. Follow her on twitter: @SurlyAmy or on Google+. Tip Jar is here.

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40 Comments

  1. I’ve got to give major credit to Douglas Adams and some of his essays that can be found in The Salmon of Doubt.

    Also, my younger brother, who often got hooked on pseudo-scientific principles for forcing me to ask the right questions to justify my non-belief in his wacky schemes.

  2. My musical skepticism started with early rap music. I’m not talking about Vanilla Ice and DJ Jazzy Jeff, but bands like Public Enemy who had a message. Growing up in the suburbs (yes, I admit it, I was a white suburban kid listening to rap music, but I was there FIRST!) I hadn’t really been required to think about the other side of any story. My love for rap did not last, but it definitely inspired that side of me. When I found punk rock, I too wound up questioning things and doing it myself.

    Interestingly, Chuck D. of Public Enemy was inspired to do what he did after watching The Clash.

  3. My favourite band are My Dying Bride, and their lead singer, Aaron Stainthorpe is a fairly vocal athiest. I’ve never been religious, but his lyrics would certainly give me pause for thought if I was.

    As for thinking skeptically, I’m not sure I could boil it down to one thing. I think heavy metal music in general leads to thoughts of not following the herd as it were.

  4. Bad Religion sung about big issues from a viewpoint that I could get (being white and very privileged).
    Pennywise sung about some pretty specific places, but I the issues were the same everywhere, especially the anti-authority, anti-corporation themes. And of course, they taught me to be angry, to try and resist the bullshit. And thank FSM, I never got any misogynistic vibes from their music the way I did from some other punk bands, so I didn’t feel excluded.

  5. I would credit The Minutemen with getting me to think more in terms of collectivity and community and the DIY spirit. Their song History Lesson Part II is my favorite punk rock song, especially because it’s actually a slow, pretty ballad. With it, they echo the idea of punk perfectly: ‘Punk rock is whatever we made it to be and you can make it happen if you want it’. They were also fierce, loud, anti-authoritarian and they were excellent musicians.

  6. I just realized that my musical influences, skepticwise, go much deeper.
    Via Dr. Demento (I don’t believe that man has a doctorite) I love Tom Lehrer, Stan Freeberg, and Weird Al, plus the soundtracks of Warner Brothers cartoons (most notably Carl Stalling channeling Raymond Scott and others).

  7. There are actually some songs I kind of feel bad about liking, because they’re so unskeptical: “Cortez the Killer” by Neil Young is chock-full of Aztec noble savage bullshit like “they [the Aztecs] built up with their bare hands/what we still can’t do today.” But then I remember that it’s one of the most beautiful songs ever written by one of best songwriters to ever live, and I get over it.

    I was big into XTC’s “Dear God” when I was getting into atheism in my early ‘teens and the Flaming Lips’ “Do You Realize??” is a gorgeous exploration of finding meaning within yourself when the universe at large doesn’t actually give a fuck.

  8. Jethro Tull’s “Thick as a Brick”. Non conformist, questioning, not produced for mainstream radio play. I recall getting the album in 1974 and thinking my 15 year old mind would never be the same.

  9. Early 60s folk and protest music, especially Dylan, certainly gave me something of what you call the “bust down-the-walls-if-you-have-to-for what-is-right attitude”. And that still gets me into trouble now.

    Being a political acitivist in one’s 50s in this day and age of political correctness gone mad and such bizarre phenomena as The Tea Party people, the US Rethuglican party, and our (Canada’s) born again Christian Conservative Party people is not good for one’s health.

  10. Grace Slick had me on Surrealistic Pillow. But when she sang,

    Up Against the Wall

    Motherfuckers

    Tear Down the Wall

    in We Can Be Together on Volunteers, I was IN the revolution. By the time Blows Against The Empire came out I was well on my way to becoming a rocket scientist. Sadly, there was no starship built for us to hijack.

    I still play Volunteers every Sunday morning, loudly, very loudly. Yea, okay I did come to critical thinking and physics via chaos anarchy. Not that there is anything wrong with that, at least not for a teen in 1970.

    We can be together

    Ah you and me

    We should be together

    We are all outlaws in the eyes of america

    In order to survive we steal cheat lie forge fuck hide and deal

    We are obscene lawless hideous dangerous dirty violent and young

    But we should be together

    Come on all you people standing around

    Our life’s too fine to let it die and

    We can be together

    All your private property is

    Target for your enemy

    And your enemy is

    We

    We are forces of chaos and anarchy

    Everything they say we are we are

    And we are very

    Proud of ourselves

    Up against the wall

    Up against the wall motherfucker

    Tear down the walls

    Tear down the walls

    Come on now together

    Get it on together

    Everybody together

    We should be together

    We should be together my friends

    We can be together

    We will be

    We must begin here and now

    A new continent of earth and fire

    Come on now gettin higher and higher

    Tear down the walls

    Tear down the walls

    Tear down the walls

    Won’t you try

    1. Some of my absolute fave religious songs are by the Airplane and Hot Tuna. Good Shepherd, True Religion, Keep Your Lamps Trimmed And Burning
      (The later is actually a Rev. Gary Davis tune.)

  11. I'm a BIG Rush fan – my favorite song from them is "Freewill". The song challenges the listener to rely on him or herself and not to submit to a "Celestial Voice" or a "host of Holy Horrors". These lyrics and the accompanying kick-ass music opened me to an alternate universe of music and ideas. Not long after, I discovered punk and other artistic approaches that opened my mind and made me the skeptic I am today…

  12. The only overtly skeptical artists that came immediately to mind were The Rudy Schwartz Project, Negativland, and Zappa. I might also include the math/science inspired and derived works of Iannis Xenakis and Udo Kasemets. As far as making me a better person, the list would be far too large. Sun Ra, The Residents, and Funkadelic pop out, though. I tend to think of most music as an opportunity to cultivate my better nature in some ineffable way.

    @mrmisconception: YES!! for the Carl Stalling and Raymond Scott. I still keep hoping some record company will release a proper and thorough collection of Carl Stalling. I still can’t hear “The Ride of the Valkyrie” without thinking “Kill the wabbit!”

  13. Slayer. Really. The song "Circle of Beliefs" should be every atheists anthem. Particularly after you watch Rat Pobertson or one of his clones say something infuriatingly stupid. If I may be aloud a moment of understatement; I've found that quite a lot of metal tends toward anti-authoritarianism. Not surprising considering modern metal has very deep roots in classic punk.

  14. I'm quite a metal/punk fan and while I'd love to say that Plasmatics, Anthrax and Suicidal Tendencies inspired me and made me think about these things, they didn't.

    However, one thing that has been an inspiration is comics. One comic, in particular: Spiderman. And particularly the "with great power comes great responsibility" thing he repeats almost as a mantra.

    Because I may* not have superpowers but as a consumer in a developed country, I have a great deal of power: I can vote, and I can choose what to consume. And I have access to a great deal of information that I can share with others. And while this doesn't sound like much, when not fighting actual mad supervillains like Doctor Octopus and Doctor Doom**, it's arguably more useful.

    And hey, some of my favorite bands have made songs about these superheroes! Ramones did Spiderman and Anthrax's "I Am The Law" is about Judge Dredd. So there's totally a connection.
    (And Transvision Vamp did a song about Halo Jones which is an awesome comic written by Alan Moore)

    *OK, I definitely don't have superpowers, in fact.
    ** What the hell is it with all these evil doctors anyway? At least Doctor Strange is one of the good guys. Yay for Doctor Strange!

  15. For me, the following question often helps to provide guidance in day-to-day affairs:

    WWHRD?

    HR being the inimitable Henry Rollins.

    Punk and thrash metal were my bread and butter whilst growing up. Did my music choice lead me to skepticism, critical thinking and a love of knowledge, or was the process the reverse?

    It's been so long now, I can't remember. What I can say for sure is that that music always inspired me to try harder to be a better person. The lesson that I learned is that no one is born good or smart or kind or fit: those that are, are so because they work at it.

    ._._| |_._|./

  16. It’s interesting you mention the Dead Kennedys, because I definitely had a similar experience with them and other punk/hardcore bands (Bad Religion, Propagandhi, Minor Threat) were definitely a big motivator of me becoming a skeptic – although I will credit my parents with being the primary motivators of that. (They listened to plenty of protest music in the 50s and 60s).

    There IS definitely a component of conspiracy theory and unskeptical attitudes in Alternative and Counter Cultural music, however, and the Dead Kennedys definitely had some of these tendencies. Look at songs like “Trust Your Mechanic” – A song that pretty much accuses doctors of everything the CAM movement does. I’m surprised it was never co-opted by the Anti-Vaccine movement. Or “Well-Paid Scientist”, which is the usual argument that “there are other ways of knowing”

    Heck, to this day Jello Biafra repeats faux-scientific arguments about GMOs to support his ideological position on them.

    My personal experience (which I realize in no way represents these movements statistically) is that there are quite a few people in Countercultural movements that have a tendency to accept “alternatives” uncritically – CAM being the biggest one at the forefront of my mind, but certain conspiracy theories are often espoused too – especially 9/11 ones, and any government/corporations Illuminati style stuff as well. I can’t tell you how many big music festivals I went to last year that had a “Boost Your Immune System Naturally” workshop.

    I very much credit these bands with encouraging me to think critically, so I like to think that part of returning the favor is to think critically about what they themselves say.

    1. While I agree with you about Jello’s tendency to put ideology before facts, I couldn’t disagree more about the interpretation of “Well-Paid Scientist”. I’d say the song is about college educated white-collar workers who see their interests and position as distinctly different from blue-collar workers.

    2. You made my day name dropping Propagandhi! It gives me a smile to know that I’m not the only person on here who loves them (most likely the only anarcho-syndicalist on here but what a surprise that I would love Propagandhi huh?) and has been changed for life by their music.

    3. You made my day name dropping Propagandhi! It gives me a smile to know that I’m not the only person on here who loves them (most likely the only anarcho-syndicalist on here but what a surprise that I would love Propagandhi huh?) and has been changed for life by their music.

      No Gods, No Masters
      Cameron

  17. Thanks, Amy, for a great topic.
    While punk didn’t actually introduce me to skepticism, when I was 17-18-19-&up, I did meet my first good skeptical friends, and my outside the then political mainstream soulmates (Reagan being the then mainstream) through punk and other music I was into. I was very lucky to work in a club where Agnostic Front, Bad Brains, the Teen Idols, Bad Religion and a bunch of other bands that swerved into agitpop & message punk played (and I met my long term partner the first time at the Camper Van Beethoven set at Rock Against Reagan– we hung out in DC that one day and did not see each other again for 13 years, when we reconnected in a different city). However. It was more about the camaradarie of the punk/alt people, though, for me, then the messages from the bands themselves. A lot of my friends from then I would consider in the conspiracy theory camp today, but when I was young & coming out of a conservative, religious background it was a charge to hear anyone question the dogma I had grown up with. And I was introduced to a lot through the punks I hung out with– everything from the Rev Fenster to Charles Bukowski to Meredith Monk– none of whom were punks of course, but all had an appeal that way. Being a punk, being with punks, gave me the ok to look at everything I had been taught, had taken as unquestioned truth, and dispute it. As a punk, I learned I not only had the right to doubt, but the responsibility to demand proof.
    And, Rei: love Suicidal Tendencies!
    And I think the Cramps “Elvis F**king Christ” might be one of the best songs ever recorded.

  18. Amy, thank you so much for the punk rock love! I love the Dead Kennedys, and other bands like them, like Propagandhi, Minor Threat, Crass, Subhumans, Choking Victim/Leftover Crack (even though they start veering into the 9/11 truth stuff sadly) Conflict, Aus Rotten, Zounds, The Mob, Nausea, Dirt and many more. They reminded me for years that I wasn’t alone in my thoughts about the world and that I couldn’t just take what someone said without getting the evidence to back it up. If your looking for some skeptical metal, look to the band Atheist. They were a progressive jazz metal band in the 80’s and they were fucking epic! I also have to include some hip hop on the list, like Public Enemy, who did the same thing in my brain as those other bands, just to a slightly different beat.
    If only more bands these days didn’t drink the corporate tool kool-aid…

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