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.