We’re Not Here to Entertain: Punk Rock, Ronald Reagan, and the Real Culture War of 1980s America, By Kevin Mattson, 291 pgs.

Mar 17, 2021

When I was a teen punk in the alt-friendly 1990s, ’80s punk seemed like ancient history—a relic of a bygone era when every band was screaming about nuclear war and putting pictures of a forked-tongued Ronald Reagan on their records. I couldn’t help but wonder, were things really that bad then? After reading Kevin Mattson’s invigorating new book, I know that the answer is a firm, “Yes.” The Dead Kennedys were not being dramatic. 

We’re Not Here to Entertain is a vivid, well-researched, and easy-to-digest history of the birth of DIY punk, showing its rise in the early ’80s as a natural reaction to the era of corporate homogeneity and conservatism ushered in by President Reagan during his first term. Entertain is not a standard-issue music history; there are no, “They were the only two guys at their school who hated jocks and loved the Ramones” band origin stories to be found in these pages. Instead, Mattson positions this generation of punks as middle class, suburban, white teen boys who were radicalized by the President’s constant threats of war and the draft. These young punks probably hated jocks, too, but the book shows these kids as fighting for their lives against a larger and more pervasive evil.

Entertain is broken up into short sections that tell a certain tale—say about police beating the fuck out of people at punk gigs, or the alternative comic artists like Matt Groening and Gary Panter who started making transgressive art as a reaction to the decade’s corporate-friendly sheen. These sections are contextualized by check-ins with Reagan, showing how his policies and “entertainer in chief” persona fueled this underground movement.

Mattson, a history professor who co-founded the DC activist group Positive Force, has talked about sifting through different punk archives at university libraries to write this book. True to the egalitarian, “anyone can do it” nature of punk, the quotes that he unearthed from forgotten zines and bands are given equal footing with the era’s better-known names. It’s not just about Minor Threat, it’s also about The F@rtz and every other band, zine, and scene that sprung up as the DIY network was growing.

As a punk, it’s exciting to read Entertain and see how the groundwork was laid for the music and politics that saved my ass over a decade later. And, while Entertain is focused on punk, it should be an interesting read for anyone who is interested in culture and art that is made as a means of resistance and survival. –Chris Terry (Oxford University Press)

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