The Philosophy in Punk Rock
A guy who knows nothing about music and little about philosophy attempts to write about the intersection of the two
Ever since my sister Abby introduced me to the band The Offspring back in 1999, I’ve been a big fan of punk music. The words to “Pretty Fly (For a White Guy)” are permanently imprinted in my brain, even though I can’t stand listening to that damn song anymore. No, I’m not linking to it because I don’t want it in my browsing history!
(The purists among you might file The Offspring under pop punk by that time. That’s fair, but I still think the band’s earlier music easily qualifies. Listen to “L.A.P.D.” from 1992’s Ignition or “Kill the President” from the band’s 1989 self-titled debut album — both are fast-paced, angry, confrontational, and political. If that isn’t punk rock, I don’t know what is.)
Anyway, back to the matter at hand. What originally drew me to punk rock was the sound. In my younger years, I didn’t pay much attention to the lyrics or the meaning behind them; I simply liked the energy and anger of the instruments and singer’s voice.
Somewhere along the way, my sister Emily introduced me to Bad Religion — a band whose very name screams punk rock! Up until a little over a year ago, I had a few Bad Religion songs in my library, although I rarely listened to them. When I eventually got bored with my existing library, I decided to give Bad Religion another shot.
While listening to several of Bad Religion’s songs, I noticed some themes in the lyrics. It would come as a surprise to nobody to hear a punk band singing about politics, but what about philosophy? If you knew this piece of trivia about the band, it might not surprise you so much: The lead singer, Greg Graffin, has a PhD in zoology and previously taught at UCLA.
In this essay, I will introduce you to three Bad Religion songs and explain how I think they relate to philosophical themes. I’m going to start off with the song whose theme I’m most certain about, and we’ll gradually move towards ones where I’m less sure. Make sure to grab your headphones, as I’ve included links to the songs so you can listen while you read!
First up is “God’s Love” from 2004’s The Empire Strikes First. The title alone gives a hint about the subject matter. Indeed, I believe this song relates to theology, but we’ll get to that in a moment. First, let’s read through the chorus:
Tell me, where is the love?
In a careless creation
When there’s no above
There’s no justice
Just a cause and no cure
And a bounty of suffering
It seems we all endure
And what I’m frightened of
Is that they call it “God’s love”
The first time I heard this song, the lyrics in the chorus immediately reminded me of a concept in philosophy called the problem of evil.
As some background, in many religions — including the big three Abrahamic ones — three fundamental properties are attributed to God: Omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence (love towards mankind, his crowning creation). Yet if God indeed possesses those attributes, how do we explain the suffering in our world?
If you don’t follow the argument, in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, one Nick Trakakis describes it more eloquently than I ever could. Scroll to the bold text “The logical version of the problem of evil” and read the following several paragraphs.
When Graffin sings of a “careless creation,” “no justice,” and “a bounty of suffering,” this seems to be a statement about the existence of evil. And in the final two lines of the chorus, he describes his shock that anyone would claim these as signs of an omnibenevolent deity.
I’m not here to debate the merits of this argument — I’ll leave that to qualified philosophers — but you have to admit: It’s unusual hearing it alluded to in a punk rock song. After all, philosophy is typically seen as the realm of stuffy academics, whereas punk rock is the domain of disaffected youth. With “God’s Love” you get the best of both worlds!
Next up on my list is “Only Rain” from The Dissent of Man, released in 2010. Once again, let’s look at the chorus:
Rain fell like judgment
Across my windowpane
Said it fell like judgment
But it was only rain
I also want to draw your attention to this part, a few lines later:
When a man gets down on his knees to pray you know he’ll find what he is able
But chances are he’ll find it either way
With the chorus, I think Graffin is acknowledging that rainfall can feel like some sort of divine judgment; God’s punishment for our wrongdoings. Yet at the same time, there is a perfectly logical explanation for the existence of rain. One should not construe natural phenomena — such as rain — as evidence for the divine. As the title says, it is “only rain.”
Similarly, the line about praying acknowledges that plenty of people claim to have found some miracle resolution to their problems following prayer. Graffin counters that this is mere coincidence when he says, “chances are he’ll find it either way.” Again, one need not appeal to the supernatural to explain the result.
In short, I believe this song is arguing in favor of materialism. Materialism is a doctrine that everything in existence is physical, or ultimately reduces to the physical. Whenever something appears to violate that principle, it is because we simply don’t understand what’s really going on.
Consider all sorts of natural phenomena previously ascribed to the supernatural: Earthquakes, storms, wildfires, floods, plague… Every single one of these now has a completely rational explanation. So why do we maintain that things like miracles can have any sort of supernatural cause? According to this song, it’s all physical.
My Head Is Full Of Ghosts
The last song I want to examine is “My Head Is Full Of Ghosts” from 2013’s True North. This one is going to be tough to explain, but I hope you’ll bear with me. I’m going to start with the philosophical background this time.
You’ve probably heard of empiricism before, but in case you haven’t, in its most extreme form, empiricism says all our knowledge is acquired via experience. It is often contrasted with nativism, which holds that some of our knowledge is innate. Making sense so far? Here’s a link to a longer explanation if you want to read more.
I suspect this song is arguing in favor of innate knowledge. Keeping that in mind, let’s look at some lyrics, and I’ll explain where I see this belief peeking through.
My head is full of ghosts
A partition from the host
A temple of cognition
And forbidden to approach
There’s a stranger in the house
I don’t need no exorcism
I need a key
And the lock is inside out
The first line evokes images of specters flying around in one’s brain, but the next clarifies that it’s not meant to be taken literally — “No apparition.” I think what Graffin means here is that thoughts we call our own are in fact heavily influenced by deeply-ingrained biological conditioning, and it’s almost completely invisible to us.
To explain, certain beliefs are so fundamental to survival (such as enjoying food and warmth or fearing the unknown) that we almost never stop to question them. They’re part of a system that is subconscious and reflexive.
This kind of thinking evolved with our ancestors who died long ago — the titular ghosts — yet their thought processes stick with us to this day — the “stranger in the house” of our mind.
Furthermore, our conscious self doesn’t intuitively have any insight as to why we think this way. These processes are “A partition from the host/A temple of cognition/And forbidden to approach.” The line about the inside-out lock refers to the difficulty of trying to figure out why we think the way we do.
To bring it all back to philosophy, I think this is what Graffin is getting at: Pure empiricism is wrong because we all have these survival instincts, and we don’t seem to learn them from experience. They’re programmed into us via genetics inherited from our ancestors.
With that third song out of the way, we have exhausted my set of examples! Even if you don’t like punk music, I hope you enjoyed reading and thinking about the philosophical themes behind these songs as much as I do. If you know of any other music that explores philosophy, I’m eager to hear about it!