One thing that’s always confused me is the notion people have that free speech is actually free–as in, it costs nothing to say anything you want. It’s like neglecting almost 250 years of history all because they want to get away with something. To really understand what free speech means, you have to understand America and the idea that nothing is ever truly free here–quite a lesson for some people to be learning in the shadow of Memorial Day Weekend, a time to celebrate those who died for the same freedoms which we as citizens now so easily take for granted.
Yes, you can say what you want, but you have to be ready to deal with the consequences. Someone maybe should’ve explained that to NOFX and any other punks who want to attend and perform at festivals. No doubt some of Las Vegas city officials, corporations and financiers who help make Punk Rock Bowling happen behind the scenes are explaining it to the brothers Shawn and Mark Stern who created the event as a fun, casual little bowling tournament two decades ago. And if they’re lucky, the monster event they’ve worked 20 years to build won’t be totally undone by 20 seconds of ill-timed, unfunny, insensitive banter. But maybe it will.
Let’s back up.
In case you’ve been living under a rock (obviously not a punk rock) for the last 48 hours, Punk Rock Bowling’s defacto mascot band, NOFX, are in a bit of trouble. They’ve earned themselves a tsunami of backlash over some words they said about the Route 91 Harvest Festival mass murder that occurred less than six miles away from PRB last October. Many fans and fellow punks (at least people who claim to be) are telling everyone to lighten up and give the band’s statements a pass. After all, it’s part of their schtick to be offensive, to say things their fans are thinking but are too chicken to say themselves. Most of all, they say, “Stop being offended, it’s just punk rock.” Ah, if only that were true.
For all those who think denouncing snowflakes and mocking safe spaces in light of the NOFX backlash is the right move here, let me just ask this: Do you think in our world today, in an era of smart phones, immortal video and text messages that there is a safe space–at a public festival no less– to say and do whatever you want? How naive does that sound?
Yesterday, in an effort to do damage control, the Sterns released a statement condemning NOFX’s words after video of the band’s antics popped up on TMZ and went viral. It’s the same “we do not condone” speech any corporation or politician would’ve written when caught in the crossfire of a media scandal. Yes it’s what they should’ve done, certainly not saying something would be suicide for their brand. And as owners of a business, it’s easy to understand them wanting to appease a city that is for the most part thoroughly pissed off at their boys in NOFX. The problem is, the same desensitized logic that allows someone like Fat Mike or Eric Melvin, Erik “Smelly” Sandin, Aaron “El Jefe” Abeyta or any keyboard comic on Facebook to make jokes about a mass murder in the city where it happened in front of the people it happened to is the same logic that allows all of us to dismiss any apology they or NOFX are likely to give. People don’t care about apologies, thoughts and prayers like they used to. So I’m sorry, but an easy fix is out the window.
Speaking of windows, was I the only one with my head on a swivel at any point during the fest checking out the glass panes of all the business and hotels that surrounded the Downtown Las Vegas Event Center? I bet I also wasn’t the only one who had a planned escape route tucked in the back of my mind should I need to get out of there in a hurry. Isn’t it crazy how much your mentality at public events can change in less than a year?
Already we’ve seen that whatever press this year’s festival gets will reference what went down on Sunday–yes, even though most people weren’t there, like us. We admittedly decided to skip NOFX’s set to see Fiends, Rats in the Wall, Days N Daze and Steve Ignorant (a REAL punk I might add) at Backstage Bar and Billiards. For people that were there, it’s sucks that all the coverage (including ours now) of a 20 year celebration of a great festival is now tainted by the band’s bullshit comments which they stumbled and mumbled their way through and obviously didn’t really even think about. Little did they know they were attempting to pull off the Evel Knievel Death Jump of tasteless jokes without a helmet. Sorry guys, this time it didn’t go well.
Many have already seen NOFX’s Instagram preamble to an apology they plan to make at some point about what was said, not only deflating the cries of snowflakery from their followers but also earning added scorn for those who will never accept their fake, public remorse. The apology, if there was ever gonna be one, should’ve come from the stage right after they said what they said. But who would ever expect that from NOFX? Not me. If anything, I’ll go a step further and say they ought to have just sacked up and stood by what they said, including the first crack they made on stage about “Singing a song about Muslims and no one got shot” following their performance of the supposedly anti-Muslim extremist song “72 Hookers.” Nobody’s said a word about that.
Among those who probably won’t accept it their apology–people the band obviously wasn’t thinking of when they made the joke–are the security guards, bartenders, promoters, vendors and locals who were directly affected by the shooting. In other words, Fat Mike– Mr. Punk ‘N Brew Festival owner–the kind of people who you depend on to run your business. It’s a business that knows no musical genre, but one that is ultimately about people. In the festival business, if you screw over people, you screw yourself. You can bag on country fans in the abstract all day long–how they dress, their politics, how they act–but when you make it about real things that happened to real people then yes your speech is free and they freely reserve the right to tell you to go fuck yourself and not spend any money with you. That’s just how it goes when it comes to capitalism, a system which we all–including NOFX–participate in whether we want to believe it or not.
So ruining a friends business is punk rock now? How about throwing the jobs of all the people associated with PRB into jeopardy over the things you say? And last but not least, if PRB gets cancelled where will all our flashy punk comrades go to show off their sweet leather jackets, patches and dyed mohawks to freak out the normies? Kidding aside, there’s lots of punks and fans of the music who don’t have Fat Mike Money and have to scrimp and save just to go to this event every year. How is PRB getting cancelled or fucked with in any way over something a band they may not even like fair to them?
Let’s not forget NOFX are also in the entertainment business, which has gutted plenty of careers (*cough* Roseanne *cough*) for a so much as a tweet. It’s no different than FYF getting shit this year over Sean Carlson’s sexual harassment, which was likely one of the many reasons FYF is RIP. And for most people, at least in the US, Punk Rock Bowling is the FYF of punk rock. Think about how many punk festivals of this caliber there are in the U.S. that are geared strictly toward people in the scene having a good time in a place a fun as Vegas. Go on, I’ll wait…Just like the right to free speech, it’s a privilege many of you who attend this fest so easily take for granted. And those who think NOFX should be invited back to play PRB again, should it survive, are the perfect example of that.
The real fucked up part is that NOFX as a band will probably be fine. Even if no one wants to sponsor or attend their craft beer fest ever again or burn every piece of NOFX merch they own, they have millions of fans all over the world, they can probably still tour other parts of the country and get away with it. Hey, there’s always Europe right, guys? But does PRB have that option? Do the locals that love, work and enjoy the festival that is probably in jeopardy now have that option? Probably not.
Nate Jackson is the gatekeeper to your dreams of local dive bar stardom. If he writes about you, expect your band to be offered at least one more drink ticket than the rest of the bands on the bill. Get his attention with some groovy tunes and he might just do it. Then, boy will you feel special.