When an unassuming tourist hears “Washington, D.C.,” he generally thinks of hardcore politics, beautiful cherry blossoms and historic museums and sites. Our nation’s capital currently has — and perhaps has always had — the reputation of being the city in which all of our country’s major decisions are made. Flocking to this area from all over the United States, students hope to take part in D.C.’s active political life — working as interns on Capitol Hill, running to the White House on election night and protesting for various causes on the National Mall. And while D.C.’s culture has come to be defined by current legal news and socioeconomic issues, we often forget that our city has a rich and significant subculture.
Especially relevant now because of the Corcoran Gallery’s “Pump Me Up” exhibit, D.C.’s ’80s subculture has its roots in revolutionary art and music. The 1980s saw the city caught in the turbulent current of cultural, political and economic upheaval accompanied by growth and the dissolution of traditions. As politicians began to grapple with rampant poverty as well as the growing plague of drug proliferation and a host of other issues endemic to urban growth and decay, Washington’s artists began to articulate and develop the unique relationship of repression and expression, culture and counterculture.
One of the first expressions of this cultural shift in the ’80s was graffiti, information that featured heavily in the Corcoran’s new showcase. Men and women with strange, alliterative names — likeWhassup Woody, Crazy Charlie and Cool “Disco” Dan — began to mark up D.C. with these loud and colorful expressions. Few of these early innovators saw themselves as visual artists and simply sought to leave their marks on a city that was becoming increasingly unfamiliar and unmoored. These artists gave voice to a shift that would eventually lead to the Washington of today, a city of incredible extremes divided by cultural, socioeconomic and political barriers. This divide, which pushed blacks and other marginalized groups within D.C. to the fringe and brought with it a new elite, was echoed by the music of the era.
This music, particularly go-go, came from many of the same figures who were making names for themselves through graffiti across the District. In addition to go-go, hardcore punk emerged during the ’80’s as a vital, dominant regional music movement. Both go-go and hardcore punk arrived in D.C. as evolutions and rejections of what had come before — specifically disco in the 1970s. What made the emergence of these opposing musical traditions most fascinating, however, was their immense effect on and testament to the division of D.C. In many ways, the two genres were a mirror of the increasingly divided soul of a city faltering under its own unmanageable growth.
In all aspects, these two musical traditions of D.C. were diametrically opposed. Go-go incorporated funk and R&B with newly emergent hip-hop and was defined by the thump of powerful syncopation and rhythm, while hardcore emerged as a rejection of the rhythmic and formal, emerging as a celebration of the alternative. Moreover, go-go emerged from the clubs found in the city’s impoverished regions and was predominantly the product of black artists. According to Dance of Days, a cultural profile of the ‘80’s and ‘90’s, hardcore became the mode of expression for the children of D.C.’s mostly white elite in Northwest Washington. In fact, one of the most important broadcasters of early hardcore was Georgetown’s own WGTB radio, which re-emerged in the 1980sas an important cultural hub for the alternative scene.
Ironically, both these movements developed as protests to the rampant injustice that broke out in D.C. during the ’80s — in their increasingly geographical and musical dichotomy, they began to solidify the divisions which helped propagate the injustice to which they objected. The curator of “Pump Me Up,” Roger Gastman, has done an admirable job in attempting to present a unified artistic vision of this era. Originally from Bethesda, Md., Gastman drew from his own teenage experience as a graffiti artist. The collection incorporates static visual pieces, copies and originals of graffiti along with posters of the go-go movement. The exhibit features musical and video compositions from and about the ’80sin Washington as well. The Corcoran’s Atrium and Rotunda are also filled with newspaper clippings, photographs, video loops and stage clothes, introducing visitors to the popular culture present from 1980 to 1982. Inevitably, much is left out of the collection; this has as much to do with the breadth of available material as the collection’s attempt to reconcile both artistic and historical approaches to the era. For this reason, the collection in many ways seems incomplete and confusing.
This is to be expected, however, and the collection serves as an important attempt to reinitiate reconciliation between D.C.’s past and present and between the city’s disparate cultural and historical influences.