There is no punk without its music.
There are forms and styles of rebellion other than punk, and though their success or failure may be measured along the same lines as those of punk, if they have a music at all, it is usually complementary to their fundamental missions. In punk’s case, the music is the primary expression of the mission.
There is also fashion but what an outwardly punk look brings first to mind is aggressive music, or at least a taste for aggressive music whose simultaneous shock and recognizability ensure that the audience knows it’s being attacked. To be punk is to possess an ability to repeatedly embrace and sustain the shock until it becomes the recognizable element itself.
Each region’s musical contribution was drawn from what made its place of origin unbearable.
Initially, then, punk was a revved-up and less polished version of things that were handy: blues-rock (Detroit), pop/art (NYC), class conflict and morality (London), boredom and neglect (LA), etc. If one was inclined to take part in punk for any reason, it wasn’t too great a leap from 60s guitar-rock or pop to punk. The means of passage was even less mysterious. One simply showed up. My own experience was precisely that: I started playing music and spending more time with my punk friends and became, in relatively short order, punk.
It wasn’t simply an urgent need to take part in something active and lively; it was also an opportunity to start over and to do so more or less anonymously. Reinvention from square one, the practical assumption that one’s activity is the first of its kind, is among punk’s chief and guiding qualities. Another of its fundamental characteristics is the assumption that, by virtue of one’s sense of outrage, abandonment, disenfranchisement, or ostracization, one will fit in immediately, or even better, won’t need to fit in at all.
This piece was inspired by three consecutive events, which occurred over the course of three consecutive months.
First, I was interviewed on the subject of punk’s death, a topic I found especially quizzical since a) it hadn’t occurred to me that punk was ailing; and b) punk’s general state didn’t seem to differ much from what it had always been, an ongoing struggle against the mainstream, the terms of which were clear to anyone who was taking part in it and indecipherable to anyone who was not. The interview went well enough, I guess, though I’m not sure when or if the article it contributed to will appear.
Punk is something that occurs conspicuously outside the mainstream.
Punk was couched as rebellion, and even was rebellious in some cases, and quickly became a division in entertainment offices and therefore subject to the needs of those offices. Subjecting one’s needs to the status quo is antithetical to rebellion. In which light, the first wave of punk wasn’t substantially different from any other popularized genre.
It’s worth noting, though, that unlike its approximate contemporaries — reggae, disco, hip hop, L.A. pop, glam — punk seemed to come from all sides at once, with no allegiances, laying no particular claim to anything but its own cage-rattling noise. It was essentially reactive, an unfocused cultural conniption.
That punk’s founding purveyors, with whomever and wherever one wishes to start, were outside the accepted notions of then-current conventional taste did not preclude their assimilation by the culture at large. Punk emerged, that is, from the minds of people who sought conventional success or alliance with such success.
Eventually, however, the agencies which sought to capitalize on punk’s novelty found that although punk didn’t always pay off as expected, its artists weren’t always that far out after all. Widespread success for many of these acts was only a few musical and performative changes away. With the initial shock absorbed and new work moving closer to popular music in both sound and execution, several of the original participants found lasting mainstream success. But an idea began to take root that once everyone knows about something, it isn’t punk anymore.
Since then, in part because of the work of the agencies described above, the term punk itself has, for many, come to signify a conscious evacuation from much of what the success they offer might entail, and further, what it might cost. This text grew directly from my own experience with that evacuation, my own assessment of those costs.
Second, a friend and sometime collaborator began work on a children’s book, a history of punk. It will no doubt be a delight to punk or punkish parents to share with their children. In the meantime, I couldn’t help but think about who I would include in such a book and why.
All social and/or cultural rebellion can be bought if it is understood to be for sale.
As in any uprising, the existing economic powers found ready and willing participants among punk’s rebels. This was, at one time, a source of cultural betrayal, an impetus for local scenes to sprout up autonomously and get in touch with each other. Zines appeared, shows were booked, bands toured. An entire circuit driven by the need to assert freedom from conventional entertainment and culture was established almost globally and in the course of less than a decade. The politics of these scenes was explicitly and uniformly anti-corporate. If their other interests diverged even to the point of conflict, punk scenes were in agreement that corporation-generated economies and cultures were at the root of ongoing political and social deterioration and repression.
Though such scenes may continue to exist and appear in some areas, the larger cultural shift has come to exclude them in favor of whatever the mainstream, after decades of exposure to its own definition of punk, decides protest should be and how it will be sold.
That is, we rarely notice anymore that the quality of rebellion is frequently measured by the culture it seeks to dismantle. The victory of mass media supports the persistent disenfranchisement of those who cannot or will not take part in the culture at large by reinforcing that they are not worth knowing or knowing about. Punk, it turns out, can be quite profitable if its audience is not limited to punks and if its practitioners are visibly “punk” from a distance.
The third event was the death of Lou Reed. My clearest memory of him is shilling for American Express, and though I was not unaware of his music prior to that campaign, the only prominence it ever held for me was tacked up on the wall in the living room of my first punk group house: a poster of a lone figure under a streetlamp, as I recall, with the lyrics from either “Heroin” or “Waiting for the Man” confirming the photo’s urban defeat and desolation. Mr Reed has never been more than an image, or an image of an image to me, however fulfilling. I had my own now-I-really-live-in-New-York moment the first time I passed him and Laurie Anderson on the street, for example, but it wasn’t appreciably different from the first time I tried to ignore the Empire State Building’s Fuji-like ubiquity. Both experiences were necessary but only the latter endures as an emblem of why I love this city and call it home.
Not so, however, for several of my friends, collaborators, and favorite artists, some of my chief punk mentors and allies, who were saddened by Mr Reed’s passing. It was difficult to reconcile his influence on these people, his presence in their lives. After all, it was, and is, these same people from whom I learned and learn to articulate and enact my distaste for the mainstream, my commitment to cultural activism, who deeply felt the immediacy and permanence of his absence as a figure to whom they attributed not only artistic, but in some cases spiritual, inspiration. That they could hold a representative of self-interest and blatant 80s consumerism in such high and personal regard was baffling.
Which is to say, this piece did not unfold as I expected. Rather than organize my thoughts into some kind of coherent causal history of punk, I found the text falling into a pattern of statements that proposed truths one might hold about punk regardless of where and when punk first entered one’s life. Not surprisingly, boiling this text down to such statements and a minimum of commentary proved much better suited to describing how I think punk has developed so far. The caveat? My position in regard to this subject is not, it turns out, unlike that of the fish and the water. There is very little, if anything, here that does not continue to inform and define my life, and from the inside of it, I’m increasingly suspicious that there isn’t much to say.
Punk is no more the province of celebrity without talent than it is the province of talent without celebrity.
Punk is instead, like its more popular counterparts, a combination of both celebrity and talent but according to its own rules and scale. Its chief accomplishment in this way is a willingness to eschew inflated or hyped presence in favor of a system in which audiences and performers have a choice and are free to determine their own engagement without being subjected to mass-marketing or airwave- or bandwidth-saturation. Not everything, punk teaches, is for sale or for everyone. It is, by this default, less greedy. It is also, by this default, limited in its reach, perhaps now more than ever.
Still, questions persist: what is punk? How did it happen? What has it done? The answers are subjective but since no one is punk alone, it’s a fair assumption that whatever follows applies to more than a single individual, that a given parsing of punk and its meaning will be true for several people at a time.
Why any of this matters is another question. Mostly, in a certain light, it doesn’t. Whether or not anyone ever again puts together a historiographic view of punk seems of little great consequence, in and of itself.
And yet, punk has provided three generations of music listeners with an entry point into politics, economics, aesthetics, spirituality, and every other aspect of their societies and cultures, emerging, finally, as its own society and culture. So in the end, I trust that it does matter.