In Defense of Ska illo by Ricky Vigil

In Defense of Ska, By Aaron Carnes, 323 pgs.

Sep 16, 2021

Bouncy, danceable ska punk has a paradox at its center: its “join the fun” ethos draws in young misfits, but its refusal to take itself seriously makes it easy to outgrow. A lot of people used to like ska before they got into something “cooler.”

Throughout In Defense of Ska, California music journalist Aaron Carnes traces ska’s life adjacent to punk, starting in the 1970s when British new wavers picked it up from an older generation of Jamaican immigrants, through the ’90s MTV trend, and into its current incarnation as a festival draw in Mexico.

It feels like the beginning of two books: Carnes’ ska punk memoir, and a compendium of journalism. Chapters range from anecdotes about drumming in Flat Planet and roadying for Skankin’ Pickle, to pocket histories of unsung ’80s bands, an attempt to unpack the ska/skinhead connection, the schism between sillier ska punks and cosplaying “trad ska” purists, and a discussion of whether ska has actually had waves or has just been quietly kicking ass for decades. From the start, Carnes argues that ska deserves the attention and respect given to punk and metal.

With attention comes scrutiny. The metal scene is reckoning with fascist politics. Riot grrrl and AfroPunk sprung up in response to punk’s white boys’ club status. In Carnes’s effort to cheerlead for ska, he doesn’t examine its shortcomings. The book’s photos make ska look like a sausage party. A quick listen reveals that many of these primarily white bands were co-opting Jamaican patois. None of this is addressed. Hell, a lot of questions are left unanswered. Why did these musicians gravitate toward this genre? What is the first ska album a newbie should listen to? What are common criticisms of ska and how can they be considered and countered?

A piece about the meaning and influence of ska punk pioneers Skankin’ Pickle sums up the book’s lack of perspective. In it, guitarist Lynette Knackstedt is uplifted as one of very few queer women in the scene, but the only thing about her is a creepy story about one of the author’s bros presenting her with his prom photo with her face pasted over his date’s. It’s an example of the microaggressions someone like Knackstedt (who passed away in 2007) probably dealt with all the time, but the book laughs off her girlfriend’s rightfully skeeved-out reaction and doesn’t look back critically at these events. It feels like one of those old jokes that you realize is fucked-up halfway through a re-telling, but Carnes never reaches that understanding.

In Defense of Ska is chock full of info that shows ska as a complex and varied subculture. While there isn’t much in this book for skeptics, it should please starry-eyed fans. Stuff we loved as kids rarely ages well, and toxic behavior is not limited to ska, but in presenting his beloved scene without comment, Carnes does not mount a strong defense. –Chris Terry (Clash Books,