Full disclosure: I set out to write this piece with a Surfbort-sized chip on my shoulder. And by Surfbort, I mean the heavily-hyped and costume-y spectacle of a “punk” band that originated in Brooklyn in 2014—not the term for sex in a bathtub popularized by Beyoncé’s “Drunk In Love” (the originator of their name). Since their humble start in the NYC underground, the band has morphed into a multi-tentacled monster that has played Coachella, toured internationally, appeared in a 2019 Gucci campaign, and recorded albums alongside iconic musicians like Julian Casablancas and Linda Perry. Hell, Blondie loves them. And yet, as Surfbort reaches higher and higher echelons of cultural relevance, the band ultimately feels more like a circus of thrift store regulars trying a little too hard to be weird than anything resembling punk.
When Surfbort first appeared, I didn’t like them. Well, I thought nothing of them: just another scuzzy quartet of Bushwickians that would eventually fade into the ether, a buzz band with limited zizz. But that’s not what happened. They just got bigger. (Or perhaps my irritation was more of an annoyance born of their marketing, my own egotistical tendency to eschew the popular?) In the near-decade since they crawled out of the cool North Brooklyn haunt Baby's All Right and called it a DIY venue, questions loomed: Do people like this band because they think they’re supposed to? Can you still be punk when you’re posting videos of yourself unboxing gifts from Gucci’s creative director Alessandro Michele on Instagram? When they wrote “White Claw Enema Bong Hit,” what exactly were they trying to say, and more importantly, why did I find it so irritating? Would I find that as with most things—beauty, musical quality, perceived “punkness”—Surfbort was in the eye of the beholder?
My opinion on Surfbort isn’t necessarily unpopular, but no one I asked would agree with me except anonymously. One tattooed, mustachioed Brooklyn scenester said, “They write boring riffs [and] unsurprising lyrics, because they’re more in it for the looks than anything. They take money from major fashion, and are featured in a Gucci ad. Absolute posers and I’m not ashamed to use that word.”
Another said, “Their fame seems fake. They come back to New York for hometown shows and have been playing the same venues, never getting bigger while somehow playing it that way.”
One friend put it this way: “They rely on performance and theatrics. Anyone I’ve spoken with that has seen them live or expressed interest did not actually listen to their music…Young people don’t know about the Fabulous Stains or X-Ray Spex, and honestly, if they did, they probably wouldn’t care. It’s just about trends versus style. Some people have style and others need to be told what to wear and what to listen to—really, it comes down to a lack of self-identity.”
That reads more like an easy indictment of Surfbort fans than the band itself, and it’s worth noting that when I asked frontwoman Dani Miller over WhatsApp what artists influenced the live performance, clearly the most crucial element to Surfbort’s clout, she listed “X-Ray Spex… Patti Smith, when I read one of her books. She said [at] her first performance., she screamed her poetry, and it was like, ‘Oh, I can do that.” So is it her fault if the fans don’t get the reference? Does it even matter? And is that why I feel so critical towards the band?