Rebel Music in the Triumphant Empire: Punk Rock in the 1990s United States, By David Pearson, 288 pgs.

Mar 17, 2021

Having lived through the 1990s American punk scene, I immediately had reservations about this book. This didn’t change as I began reading; the introduction featured a band that I have considered to be a bunch fuckheads for at least two decades (disclaimer: I’m almost definitely wrong here). Furthermore, the dry content made for a slow and boring read. However, before long, bands that I cherished (namely Los Crudos) popped up, and what had previously seemed dry and boring became dense and challenging. Rebel Music in the Triumphant Empire: Punk Rock in the 1990s United States is definitely not a punk gossip rag. Instead, we have an in-depth, scholarly study of how 1980s punk/hardcore gave way to a much more radical and diverse movement in the ’90s—politically, musically, and culturally.Author David Pearson has a PhD in musicology from City University of New York. While reading Rebel Music in the Triumphant Empire, I sensed I was reading an extensive, well-done research paper. My hunch may have been correct, as a quick web search brought me to a CUNY page outlining Pearson’s PhD dissertation entitled: “Constructing Music of Rebellion in the Triumphant Empire: Punk Rock in the 1990s United States.” The abstract read a lot like the blurb on the back of the book. Unfortunately, the dissertation itself is “embargoed” until September 2021, so I couldn’t pull it up for comparison. Dissertation or not, Rebel Music in the Triumphant Empire reads as if written by and for outsiders of the ’90s scene. Still, considering some of the bands mentioned (Born Against, The Pist), I’d be surprised if Pearson wasn’t entrenched in the rock on some level.

Admittedly, some of this is pretty funny at first; Aus-Rotten riffs tabbed out, and sub-chapters entitled “The Blast Beat,” and “Crusties as the New Hippies,” are good for a laugh, but it’d be idiotic to deny their importance in documenting the social and musical progression of ’90s underground music. On the other hand, Pearson’s documentation of Los Crudos and their place within their Pilsen, Chicago community, as well as the national/global ripple effect of that relationship, absolutely rips from the get-go. The mighty Lance Hahn (RIP) of Cringer/J-Church fame lamenting that people don’t like melodic political music (“It just doesn’t work that way.”) is kind of heartbreaking.

Using very specific examples, Pearson’s book documents in fine detail how the elements of music, politics, ethics, and propaganda of 1990s punk/hardcore all evolved together to form something that did indeed change the world, whether the world realized it or not. I would have liked to see some visual examples of the propaganda artwork that is discussed. Other than that, Rebel Music in the Triumphant Empire is truly a monster of historical, sociological, and musicological significance. I could do without the NOFX, but that’s just me being a fuckhead. –Buddha (Oxford University Press,