When the offer came down several weeks ago to return to one of my most beloved venues on Earth, Saint Vitus Bar, to play live music for the first time since December 2020, I said yes without a second thought. I was vaccinated, which at the time meant walking into bars, coffee shops, and grocery stores without a mask. I was enjoying, along with many, the sense that some version of the life I’d missed during lockdown was back.
At the time there was no scientific reason to believe this was irresponsible. The Delta variant had not become dominant. Local transmission indexes were low. I still begged the folks at Vitus to consider a full vaccination policy for our show, and to their great credit they put one in place even before the city mandates were announced.
Then, a few weeks after accepting the gig, things started to take a turn for the worse. Rates of local transmission were going up and up. And we were starting to learn about breakthroughs — which at the time were reasonably understood as an absolutely normal and expected aspect of vaccination. Now we suspect that the Delta variant has an uncomfortable rate of breakthrough, while retaining a low instance of severe disease, hospitalization and death. But long COVID? Nobody really knows. And if that’s not sketchy enough, just go by what we do know. Asymptomatic infection can be passed to more vulnerable people.
Of course we can’t go on living like this forever, and we won’t. COVID-19 is probably going to become endemic, like the flu, and we will live with it forever. This does not mean that it’s time to start today acting as if getting vaccinated is the best or most you can do, and from there on it’s sink or swim for everyone else.
And the notion that increased mitigation procedures and reduced social enjoyments during a wave such as the one we are experiencing is draconian overreaction? Is wrong. It simply ignores what most medical professionals have said: we need a combination of vaccines and sustained additional protective behaviors until the case numbers and local transmission rates drop. Which they will, the more we get vaccinated, get our friends and family vaccinated, mask up in public, reduce our contacts, reduce our unmasked contacts even more, etc.
This has always been the strange dynamic with the most COVID-fatigued folks since the beginning of the pandemic: if you want it gone so badly, why not do that which will make it go away the most quickly? Those who claim to suffer the most should be willing to do the most, and yet their suffering is almost always given as the reason they should instead do those things which keep the virus alive and well, mutating and spreading, thus prolonging the nightmare.
I have spoken with many friends and musicians recently who are relating a similar story: people we assumed were vaccinated, simply because we perceived them as subcultural or political allies, are not actually vaccinated! So apparently, more of us need to be putting ourselves out there, finding out if people we know have gotten shots, rejecting with a feverish zeal the Marjorie Taylor Greene/Tucker Carlson notion that this is a deeply personal or inappropriate question. As long as we are attempting to have a society, with shared public space and shared air, this question is most deeply public. It is a basic question about collective well-being.
But most folks are vaccinated — what should they do? We have to stop viewing our choice to play, attend and put on shows as if it somehow transcends the science of disease transmission. We can’t scoff at the Sturgis Rallies and the college football games saying “Look at these irresponsible people gathering in huge numbers without adequate mitigation measures, don’t they know that the disease they spread at this event will impact people who were not there?!!” and then pack indoor venues in the hundreds with no masks. It makes no sense (also, it fuels right wing demagogues’ claims that the left is hypocritical about these things).
Sadly, like most of the country, not even the underground music scene with its pretense to solidarity and (very often) progressivism, has managed to come together around any shared vision of how our community should best respond to the threats posed by the coronavirus.
Part of this has to do with the way that the virus has been politicized, which ends up playing directly into the problem that the new far right has managed to sell itself as a counterculture. No small number of people who learned to doubt the media, Big Pharma, neoliberalism, official versions and institutional knowledge have been successfully roped — if not into Trumpist neofascism generally — into an adjacent suspicion of the CDC, Fauci, Pfizer, and disease mitigation procedures.
You can see these factions if you read the recent comments on NIN’s recent show cancelation post on Instagram. Most are expressing gratitude for the band’s choice to put safety above all else, and to recognize that the science of epidemiology shows us that what happens at a live music event does not affect only those present at the event. But there’s a sizable enough group chastising the band for its failure to adequately rebel against the establishment, to live up to its image as a wrench in the gears of proper society. Some even reference NIN’s dystopian album Year Zero.
Meanwhile, what could be more trendy, more popular, less anti-establishment than taking the same position on vaccines as right wing media talking heads whose posts rank in Facebook’s Top 10 performing posts of every day? What could be more dystopian than the way the virus is being expertly used by a totalitarian movement to motivate and reinforce loyalty to the cause?
This is, to reference the best Anthrax album, packaged rebellion. It sells people an idea about who they are, it tells them they are a courageous questioner and a noble independent thinker in a world of sheeple. But once this idea is curated and packaged, placed in an information economy based on trending topics, the people who buy into it are literal-ass trend chasers. Half of them wouldn’t know an original thought if it chewed off one of their fingers. Anyone who thinks they’re making daring, individualistic choices because of a video they saw on a website that’s optimized to manipulate them for profit, is woefully underinformed about the dynamics of authentic self-expression in a social media-driven world.
Then there’s the additional layer, that since many Very Punk People are aware of this exact “hurr durr Republicans are the new punks” dynamic and associate antivaxxers with Trumpism, they proceed to the erroneous conclusion that “Now that We, the Good Punx have gotten our jabs, we should stop having to protect others from the disease, since the majority that suffer will be Trumpist antivaxxers.”
This is a temptation that I will admit I find at least initially appealing. Those who were unlucky enough to have followed me on Facebook as far back as the late aughts — before I deleted my account — know that I harbor an above average level of contempt for antivax nonsense. I have believed such forms of popular disbelief in facts to be precursors to or at least friends of fascist politics since two presidential terms before Trump. But a moment’s intellectual reflection — or, for me, a quick glance at my 8 year old daughter — reveals that not every American under the age of 12 is a Trump voter.
I can probably count fewer than five gigs that I’ve voluntarily canceled over the course of over twenty years as a musician. But last night, I reluctantly reached out to the promoter, Jordan Sinclair, and explained that Vain Warr would not be able to play the show this coming weekend. She responded to the news with understanding and for that I’m super thankful.
I am not claiming that every band and venue should cancel their planned shows. But I think NIN showed an admirable level of moral leadership in taking the step to erase the 2021 calendar. All of us want to play shows, and we have only ticket and merch sales and a lot of fun to gain from doing so. But we can’t fail to look at what that might cost. More specifically, we can’t ignore what it might cost other people.
I think it was the right move and I hope it starts us thinking and talking and making real and better moves to respond to this as a community. And I hope that any bands that do make similar choices encounter the same level of support and understanding I did.