While it's OK to spend hours discussing Pete Wentz's naughty Sidekick photos or to listen intently while Panic! at the Disco explain the proper way to coordinate spats and ascots, remember that there was a time when the term "punk rock" actually meant something.
Rise Against frontman Tim McIlrath remembers that time and the bands that epitomized the era — sociopolitical acts like Fugazi, Earth Crisis and Los Crudos. They're the reason he started playing music in the first place, and their legacy is why he's not ashamed to say he plays punk rock.
"I come from the real, viable punk-rock world, where the bands ask a lot from their audiences," McIlrath said. "I used to go see Los Crudos in abandoned buildings, or in a basement in Evanston, Illinois, and it was eye-opening. I'd listen to them talk about the conflict in East Timor, and it was incredible. Or I'd go to an Earth Crisis show, and learn about animal rights. And I wasn't being taught any of that stuff in high school. So I'd go to these shows not just to be entertained but to learn something."
It's a mission that McIlrath has been committed to since forming Rise Against in 1999 (see "Rise Against Not Really The Tender Balladeers You Think They Are"). Which is why he describes their new album, The Sufferer & the Witness, as "a call to action," a wake-up call to a nation that's grown more apathetic.
"People are overwhelmed by the world, and I definitely sympathize with that. They look at everything that's wrong and bad, and it makes them shut down. And they don't know how to make changes," he said. "I think that the record is telling people to wake up. We want people to become aware of what's going on in the world. Because most people are more concerned with getting the newest cell phone or a video iPod than actually focusing on real problems that affect their lives."
But despite what he may think, plenty of people are listening. The Sufferer sold nearly 50,000 copies in its first week, landing at #10 on the Billboard albums chart (see "Johnny Cash's A Hundred Highways Takes Top Billboard Spot"). And now the guys are looking to spread their socially conscious message even further. A video for the album's first single, "Ready to Fall," features brutal images of animals in test laboratories, oil-slicked beaches and clear-cut forests.
"The imagery is more powerful than anything we can say right now," McIlrath said. "When people hear some singer in a punk band telling them something, they form opinions without really listening. So we just wanted to present the images. We wanted to get these images of animals suffering or forests being destroyed out into the mainstream media. And to be honest, I don't care if someone watches it with the volume turned down and with our name blacked out, so long as they see it. Because if slaughterhouses had glass walls or clear-cut forests were in people's backyards, they'd pay attention."
And with a prime slot on this summer's Warped Tour, Rise Against will reach even more people. Of course, it'd be nice if they had help from more mainstream "punk" acts. But for the time being, McIlrath is content to go it alone.
"I wish more bands like Fall Out Boy or Panic! at the Disco would try to show kids what's going on, since they have their ears. But I guess there's a place for their music. I'm not gonna sit here and say I didn't listen to Screeching Weasel or the Queers when I was a kid," he laughed.
"But I think what's frustrating is when there's more of those bands then there are bands like us or Anti-Flag or Bad Religion. And the funny thing is, when I was at those Los Crudos shows, Pete [Wentz] was right there with me. We were in a band called Arma Angelus together. I know he has it in him. But again, this is a battle, and it's not going to be won over night. Even if we have to do it ourselves, we're gonna win."