As he shoves a stage-crasher back into the circle pit, Andrew Salfi’s eyes bulge from his skull.
The Black Sparks frontman releases an eardrum-bursting yelp, like one of Jello Biafra’s punk-preacher come-ons. His bandmates unleash an elastic, art-tortured instrumental worthy of Fear or X-Ray Spex. Three feet below, disembodied limbs jut out frantically like a scene out of Kill Bill. One sweat-soaked fan steps out of maelstrom—only to pour an entire bottle of water on the ground, throw himself into the puddle, and send droplets flying as he rolls around like an overheated dog.
This is the friendliest, most sugar-crazed circle pit I have ever seen.
“I want to see the older people moving around,” Salfi shouts into the mic over a pummeling crunch of chords.
He’s talking about the portion of the crowd that consists of people in their 20s, the ones clustered motionless along the walls of St. Stephen and the Incarnation, the 16th Street NW church where 25 years ago Fugazi played its second gig. Salfi, by the way, is 11. The rest of his bandmates are 13 and 14.
Tonight’s concert is a benefit organized by Positive Force. The longstanding D.C. punk-activist collective has for 27 years hosted performances protesting against racism, hunger, street harassment, and innumerable other worthy causes.
The evening’s slogan: “Fuck Ageism.”
As far as rallying cries go, it’s not exactly “end apartheid”—especially in the rock scene context where ageism refers not to, say, denying jobs to older workers but, rather, to things like not allowing teens into rock clubs. The cause, in fact, makes the benefit seem even more incongruous: As it happens, it has never been easier to be a punk-rock kid.
Sure, the 2000s may have been the era when pop music hit its infantilized nadir (thank you, Kidz Bop). But the last decade also saw the explosion of a massive infrastructure that treats rock ‘n’ roll as a serious extracurricular activity.
Like any after-school club that lures children of the affluent, rock has become a locus of up-to-date pedagogy. School of Rock, Richard Linklater’s film about a washed-up guitarist who finds raison d’être by teaching middle schoolers to impersonate Angus Young, may have played it for laughs, but rock schools have in fact proliferated. The Washington area features three School of Rock locations and six regional outposts of Bach to Rock. There are also empowerment-driven summer programs like the nationwide Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls. A nonprofit, the All Ages Movement Project, has helped build a network of kid-friendly show spaces around the country. There’s even a whole subgenre of how-to-rock books—like the Chicago journalist Jessica Hopper’s The Girls’ Guide to Rocking—that are marketed to kids.
D.C., especially, is a place where ageism has rarely been an issue. No city’s punk tradition has shown more dedication to the empowerment of youth. The riot grrrl movement of the early 1990s—for which historians give Olympia, Wash., and Washington, D.C., credit—began as a means for amplifying the voices of young women who felt marginalized by punk culture and the outside world alike. Anyone who forgets that D.C. hardcore began as a youth movement needs only to recall the names of some of its key players: Youth Brigade, The Teen Idles, Minor Threat. To this day, rock venues like 9:30 Club and Black Cat—both owned by veterans of the ’80s scene—let kids see live music because of a simple idea The Teen Idles brought back with them from a show in San Francisco: marking two Xs on underage hands. But watch the old punk rockers sitting on picnic blankets and playing with their own children at Fort Reno in the summer, and it’s easy to forget that Ian MacKaye and Jeff Nelson’s first teenage band, The Slinkees, had a song that went, “We don’t eat health food/Cuz Cokes and Twinkies are great.”
The town that birthed The Black Sparks isn’t exactly the same place. In 2012, punk-rock parents send their punk-rock kids to old punk-rock peers to learn punk rock’s ABCs. This parent-approved infrastructure may be good for Salfi’s technical prowess, but it raises entirely new questions.
Watching Salfi and the band play, it’s easy to dismiss them the same way oldsters maligned the youthful Mozart in Amadeus: A “trained monkey,” precocious composer Antonio Salieri’s father calls him. Elemental, inherently rebellious music like punk isn’t supposed to be taught. So do we write off kid bands as circus freaks? Or is kids’ rock, when its trotted out for audiences who are old enough to vote, worth taking seriously? It might be just an academic question, except that, in punk culture, authenticity is the ultimate standard.
Thus on the rare occasions that 21st century kids’ bands do get press, they strike a sensitive nerve. When a Washington City Paper blog post praised The Black Sparks’ 2010 performance at Fort Reno, the comments section flooded with haterade. “Can you say Bach to Rock?” one commenter wrote. “No punk would ever be caught dead in a puppy mill like that.”
Back at St. Stephen’s, a tremor moves through the crowd as the band launches into its crowd-pleasing pogo jam, “Mr. Panther.” Nanoseconds later, eight fans have climbed onstage, joining Salfi in a routine of not particularly punk-rock—and in fact, decidedly Rockettes-style—high kicks.
An acquaintance who’s around my age leans over, offering a comparison to The Dismemberment Plan’s classic get-on-the-stage anthem: “I guess this is their ‘Ice of Boston.’”
After The Black Sparks’ set, I find Pat Walsh, a Positive Force member who organizes many of its benefit shows, to ask him if the “Fuck Ageism” slogan was his idea. “No, I didn’t book this show,” he says. “Francy did.” He points out a young girl with inky black hair who’s chatting with one of the bands. I definitely wasn’t expecting a 16-year-old promoter.
Three and a half years ago, kid-rock culture had its Malcolm McLaren moment: Camp Rock. The 2008 Disney Channel movie starred the Jonas Brothers and Demi Lovato, and centered on a high-rent summer program for aspiring pop stars. A sequel—The Final Jam—followed in 2010. Jack Black was no longer the center of the kid-rock universe.
Over the summer, I volunteered as a counselor at a very different kind of rock camp: Girls Rock! DC. The 5-year-old program is an independent outgrowth of the Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls and other similar programs around the country, which hope to build their charges’ self-confidence through a collaborative creative process. The campers were ages 8 to 17, and some were there on scholarship.
On Day 1, Girls Rock! felt like punk rock prep school. The kids had all the signifiers of consumer punk culture: ripped fishnets, cool parents, Ghost World attitude.
The week concluded with a performance at 9:30 Club, where over a dozen bands and DJ crews performed original material. Imagine a middle-school band concert, but with a slightly different possibility of two-way embarrassment. In the end, none of the songs had much to do with the Jonas Brothers, and you’d have been hard-pressed to find anyone onstage who gave a shit. One particular refrain, from a group of middle schoolers calling itself The Uncontrollables, sounded more punk than anything I’d heard from that stage in years: “If you see me on the inside/You might be surprised/I’d burn your eyes.”
At St. Stephen’s, when I ask Francy Graham if she’s in a band too, I get a classic third-generation punk kid response: “No, but I just started playing guitar a few months ago. My teacher Mary’s in a band, though. They’re called Wild Flag.” Her look screams, “Have you heard of them?”
Graham says she asked her teacher—who, by the way, is Mary Timony, one of the more revered indie-rock guitarists of the 1990s—to teach her a Bratmobile song.
This, of course, leads to an important question: Why would you need to be taught a Bratmobile song? Bratmobile songs have chant vocals, three-chord surf riffs, and lyrics about high school. Teenage punks aren’t supposed to study this stuff. They’re supposed to write their own versions.
Or, at least, that’s how we’re used to conceiving the creative life of an adolescent rock ‘n’ roller: Disaffected with the past, they chuck out the rulebook and make something totally new. Rip it up and start again.
Angst about age in punk rock—and the wider universe of what’s nominally grouped as “indie”—extends in two directions. There’s a kneejerk tendency to see the post-career reunion culture as a cheap way to cash in. But we’re also quick to dismiss young punks as either adorable, or as nonrebellious marionettes with strings pulled by adults.
In a lot of ways, anxiety over manufactured kids’ punk is a proxy for our worries about handled and packaged adult punk. What would you think if Kurt Cobain had taken guitar lessons at Bach to Rock? We want our musicians to emerge from a pure, primitivist void.
In our hand-wringing over musical handholding, we tend to conceive outside interference of any kind—fussy A&R reps, rock-school instructors—as creative inhibitors. Which, of course, is silly: Any song that isn’t made by a Jandek-like recluse will have many cooks. For kids, we might draw a line at guitar lessons, or at rock camp. For adults, we saw that line crossed last year by Lana Del Rey, whose focus group-tested pinup pop, conventional beauty, and simulacrum of vaguely defined hipness set off every conceivable authenticity trap the indie blogosphere holds dear.
When we talk about rock and who’s responsible for it, we’re really not talking about creativity. Authenticity is the currency, and kids’ bands complicate that conception by their very existence.
Once or twice a week, The Black Sparks get in rehearsal time at the furthest thing imaginable from a dingy basement: Bach to Rock, an extracurricular rock school on a Bethesda commercial strip.
The boldfaced all-caps slogan on Bach to Rock’s website sounds like something a helicopter parent might scream on a speedy drive between viola lessons and soccer practice: “LEARNING TO PLAY MUSIC SHOULD BE FUN. IT’S CALLED ‘PLAY’ FOR A REASON!” In the section describing a camp for 3 to 5-year-olds, it asks that its rockers “be potty-trained.”
As I roam the halls of Bach to Rock looking for The Black Sparks’ practice room—it costs $35 an hour—I pass gigantic, professionally mounted photos of Bob Dylan and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. It’s an Ikea catalog’s idea of a rehearsal space. Each room has a window, so peering in is a bit like observing a punk-rock science experiment in progress.
Right now, The Sparks are rehearsing with Nayan Bhula, the site director of Bach to Rock’s Bethesda location and a full-fledged punk rocker himself. (At night, Bhula plays in the local hardcore band GIST.) “Would you like to hear ‘Victorious Robots?’” Salfi asks me.
“Yes,” I say. “I like robots.”
“Victorious Robots,” to my surprise, doesn’t rely on power chords or a simple structure. Lead guitarist Jonah Antonelli rips through the song’s speedy, machine-gun riff with ease, while the chaotic crash of Nathaniel Salfi’s cymbals lead the band into an audience-priming breakdown. “Victory!/Victory!/Victory!”
Andrew Salfi, who goes to the McLean School in Potomac, Md., has a toothy, confident smile; his face, fittingly, is on a bus-stop ad for a local dentist’s office. He mashes up a piece of pizza but doesn’t eat it.
The Black Sparks began playing together in 2009, when Andrew was 8. They all live in Bethesda and took individual lessons at Bach to Rock, where the band convened.
They’re at the age where their heights vary wildly, and so do their musical interests. The question on the table is what song to cover at their next show.
“Maybe a Neutral Milk Hotel or a Mountain Goats song,” suggests Antonelli, a student at the Field School, who’s clearly recently discovered an entire world of eccentric, nasal-voiced singer-songwriters.
“‘Everywhere With Helicopter’ by Guided By Voices,” says Nathaniel, Andrew’s older brother, who’s pounding his sticks on the table. (Nathaniel is the klutz in the group. The band wrote “Falling Up the Stairs” after he broke his arm just before The Black Sparks’ Fort Reno gig.)
“What about Earl Sweatshirt? Or Spongebob Squarepants?” says Ray Brown, who is at least a foot taller than Andrew and sports the early signs of a moustache. He’s the prankster, although at the moment he’s only half-joking.
Andrew remains the moral center of the band—the Ian MacKaye to Ray’s Jeff Nelson. “No, we decided from day one, we don’t do covers,” Andrew reminds the group. “We want to be more creative than that. Once you start playing one cover in your set, you just keep adding them in.”
The young MacKaye parallels don’t end there: “All mainstream music these days isn’t original, and it’s all about partying,” Andrew says. “I think that’s overused. I try to write my lyrics about totally different things.”
Like robots, for example.
A Svengali-assembled camp creation? Maybe. But it’d be hard to say the boys don’t value creativity and individual expression. The same goes for the other groups that played with them at St. Stephen’s.
All the same, it may be that the band is an outlier in a kids’-rock culture that has its share of cringe-worthy moments. It’s harder, for instance, to see creative self-actualization in Kidzapalooza, the annual underage sister festival of Lollapalooza, in Chicago. The stage pairs kids bands—like The Blisters, whose drummer, Spencer, is the son of Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy—with adults who play music for kids. In other words, the event places adolescent rockers on a massive stage, but keeps them ghettoized, away from the music for grownups.
I think back to St. Stephen’s: It’s The Black Sparks’ preteen fans who were losing it. What about the folks in the back, doing the standing still?
Although The Black Sparks have managed to build a small adult following in D.C., they’d really rather play to their own peers than to a crowd that probably sees them as a novelty.
Over the past two years, the Sparks have played at Fort Reno, Black Cat, DC9, and Comet Ping Pong. These shows should have been exciting, but there was one problem: “We didn’t get many friends coming to those shows,” Ray says, “because most of them aren’t allowed to take the Metro to somewhere like U Street by themselves.”
Although many rock venues in D.C. are nominally all-ages, there are other barriers besides nightclub bouncers. Like parents. Or cops. It’s great that The Black Sparks got to play Comet, but most of the shows there start at 10:30 p.m. Good luck getting home before D.C.’s midnight curfew. Last December, Francy Graham did the DIY thing and took matters into her own hands: She booked her first show at Comet, titled Youth Takeover. The sets started early enough that all her friends could come.
Ray has similar aspirations. Last year, The Black Sparks played a show in Fredericksburg, Va., set up by the town’s branch of the All Ages Movement Project, a network that claims more than 200 member groups across the country. It was a revelatory experience: The show space was packed with both kids and adults, but everything logistical, from equipment to bouncing to concessions, was handled by youth. When they came back home, The Black Sparks vowed to start something similar.
Ray met with the director of the All Ages Movement Project, Kevin Erickson, and read the organization’s how-to book, In Every Town. It was galvanizing. Ray’s mom, Carol Ramirez, says he came downstairs for breakfast the next morning and said, “I found the Bible.”
Erickson helped Ray set up the series Bethesda Youth Shows, but from a distance; the project is almost entirely Ray’s baby. However, the series—set to premiere last week at the Bethesda Chevy Chase Regional Services Center—quickly ran into municipal resistance. Montgomery County officials wanted Ray to do an online presale, and not sell tickets at the door. Maybe that wouldn’t be a big deal to adults, but for Ray’s purposes it sucked: “You have to be 19 to have a PayPal account.”
“If a city is interested in making their community more livable and interesting and creatively vibrant for young people,” says Erickson. “One thing they can do is get out of the way and eliminate some of the regulatory barriers that can hinder young people from participating in culture or running a space.”
To be sure, punks of yore took advantage of a youth-assistance infrastructure, too. Plenty of early D.C. rock-scene figures earned paychecks through the city’s Summer Youth Employment Program, which had arts programs. (Of course, they still had to sneak into the Neighborhood Planning Council No. 3 building down the street for Fort Reno for practice time, rather than having parents pay rent for Bach to Rock space.) But The Black Sparks’ interest in setting up accessible, kid-friendly shows underscores the difference between playing for mostly adults in a D.C. club and performing for their friends in a suburban community center: the in-built assumptions.
The Black Sparks grew up on punk; Salfi’s mom tells me her kids have been “listening to Fugazi since they were babies.” As the years go by, the question becomes more pressing. When you’ve grown up knowing, internalizing, and respecting punk, how do you create your own meaningful definition of rebellion?
The Black Sparks’ song “The Sad Watermelon” does not sound much like Fugazi, but it showcases what’s so captivating about the band: It is a transmission of the world exactly how they experience it. To watch a Black Sparks set is, however briefly, to see the things the way its members do, to let go of the boundaries they don’t yet perceive, to view the existing order of the universe as if it were knocked slightly askew. What’s more punk than that?
And to the kids who come out to the shows, it makes sense.
To adults, well, it’s pretty much a song about a sad watermelon—if also one that’s visceral and technically accomplished and delightfully frantic.
So should we treat this stuff just like any other music? Erickson says so. “It’s important to have younger people in bands playing the same shows as older folks,” he says. “We’re not used to taking young people seriously in any capacity. We’re used to giving them very prescribed roles: bratty teenager, making empty gestures of rebellion. Once we start to recognize young people’s creative contributions, it can be a step toward treating them as humans in the rest of civic life.”
At St. Stephen’s, it’s easy to appreciate the melodic indie pop of Coxey Brown, the angsty noise of Narrow Spirit, and the bitingly self-aware Dead Milkmen-style punk of Foozle—even though most of these musicians are under 18. Enjoy the music, respect its ideas, maybe even mosh. Take or leave the authenticity hang-ups.
But you wouldn’t want to scrutinize it—which is a pretty important part of treating it like any other music.
“The media’s always asking, what’s the next big thing? What’s the next moneymaker?” Graham says. “It’s not going to be any teen punk band, because they’re not making brand new music. They’re just having fun.”
In other words, The Black Sparks may be going places, but they also deserve a critical pass.
At least until 10th grade.