If You Think Safe Spaces Don’t Belong At Rock Shows, You Don’t Know Rock At All

"Fighting safe spaces means fighting punk rock itself. It means fighting against the very foundations of what makes the movement important."

Gang of Youths photo safe spaces

Want more Junkee in your life? Sign up to our newsletter, and follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook so you always know where to find us.

Sometime in the late ’70s, rock outfit D.N.A. descended upon New York City.

The band’s music was horrible, vengeful. On record, it sounded scratchy and mostly incomprehensible, and in person it wasn’t much better.

The four-piece was a regular fixture at CBGB, the dingy, now infamous New York Club, where the band would blow out speakers and turn the audience into a thrashing, sweaty throng. Live recordings sound like music produced by a quarry-worth of rocks shoved into a washing machine.

That kind of extremity wasn’t unusual — if there was any golden rule of the nascent avant-garde movement, it was about pissing off your fans as much as your critics. By the ’80s, that rule was being taken literally.

Challenging, Dangerous, Punk

Across bigger stages, Iggy Pop was vandalising his body with a pencil, snapping the lead off in his pecs. GG Allin, veteran punk performer, was defecating on the stage, a move that curled the toes of even the most hardened punk rock fan. And Henry Rollins, a strapping young ex-Haagen Daazs employee, spent most gigs sizing up his audience like he was ready to attack them.

The platonic ideal of the rock show as an inherently dangerous act had existed before the ’80s, of course, but during that decade it was crystallised. And thus it went on into the ’90s: Donita Sparks hurled a tampon into an audience at Reading festival; Nirvana shows were sweaty, debauched seas of wet flesh; The Melvins played so loud some punters still had the ringing in their ears weeks later.

The years went on. And as it goes with any truly rebellious movement, the central ethos of punk got further and further away from its initial truths. Nirvana’s drummer ended up writing stadium rock, and these days he plays alongside one of the founding members of ’80s nasties The Germs to crowds of thousands.

Baby boomers dress up their babies in The Ramones t-shirts. Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth plays noodly, complicated math rock for seas of nodding college professors.

But while punk and new wave’s progenitors retired or died or ended up scoring car commercials, their message was co-opted and repackaged. Now, punk’s central tenet — make good enemies — has morphed into an outdated, archaic and completely misinformed bastardisation of the platonic gig ideal, one that sees young men treat the front two rows of any concert hall as a place to bloody noses.

Only A ‘Safe Space’ For Some

This bastardisation, spread these days by the least interesting brand of rock performer and lapped up by the least interesting type of gig attendee, has confused the positive potential of extremity with an excuse for violence and aggression.

According to this ideal, appreciative crowd behaviour is conducive to thrashing and crowd-killing. According to this ideal, the space in front of the stage is to be made hospitable for only those possessing a certain body type and a high pain threshold. And according to this ideal, respect of other’s personal space is as antithetical to the modern rock show as it is possible to imagine.

According to this ideal, the space in front of the stage is to be made hospitable for only those possessing a certain body type and a high pain threshold.

This bastardisation has clear knock-on effects. Any space that tolerates physical violence — even if it’s dressed up as dancing — is a space that tolerates further misconduct, from the mistreatment of female performers, to sexual assault, to racism, TERFism, and exclusion.

And although attempts to set up safe spaces in gigs have been widely accepted by performers, there is still that persistent breed of gig-hound who considers respect and civility as far flung from the rock show as it is possible to get.

Over the past couple of years this need for safety and responsibility has been frequently called out — local acts such as High Tension, Urthboy, Camp Cope, Luca Brasi, and The Preatures have urged fans to be respectful and watch out for each other in the crowd, and have condemned gross and demeaning behaviour by their fans. Laneway Festival even implemented a hotline for punters to report instances of abuse and harassment.

Just today, Brisbane outfit DZ Deathrays slammed fans at their shows who were behaving in a “disrespectful” manner towards their support act, Moaning Lisa. These acts understand that safe spaces are not antithetical to rock ‘n’ roll — in fact, they are crucial to how it functions.

If You Resist, You Don’t Get It At All

Yet those who resist the safe space resist the true tenets of punk, rock and the avant-garde. After all, the most important figures in the counter-cultural music movement founded their entire ideology on unity, acceptance and a form of love, no matter how messily it might have been expressed.

It’s not just icons like Kathleen Hanna, who called for girls to come to the front, or Patti Smith, who memorably transformed ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ into a paean to the outcast and the outsider — even some of the form’s most deranged, brawly practitioners have founded their worldview on the need for understanding and inclusivity.

Rollins is a studious practitioner of radical kindness. Michael Gira of Swans, famous for his brawny, aggressive playing style and his penchant for licking the floors of nightclubs, has dismissed those trying to pretend his band’s sonic brutality is a “silly macho statement”, and has argued it is instead a form of Buddhist ego death.

And Kurt Cobain so hated those who tried to use punk rock as a channel for toxic male aggression that he wrote a whole song about them. “He’s the one who like all our pretty songs,” he sang on ‘In Bloom.’ “And he likes to sing along / And he likes to shoot his gun / But he don’t know what it means.”

It is in itself not very punk rock to delineate what is and isn’t punk. But it’s even less punk to co-opt a message of universality — of resistance to the oppressors — and use it as an excuse to weaponise angst and violence. Fighting safe spaces means fighting punk rock itself — means fighting against the very foundations of what makes the movement important.

Only those who need excuses for their violence and sad old peddlers of boomer rock think otherwise.

Joseph Earp is a former editor of The Brag. He is on Twitter

Photo Credit: Jess Gleeson