note: this was originally intended to be submitted to online outlets like Thought Catalog last year during punk rock's 40-year anniversary. For reasons I can't remember, I decided not to do so. Nonetheless, I feel this is still relevant as yet more social movements (e.g. 'conservatism') claim to be "the new punk rock." Apologies to Alphaville for the half-clever song title appropriation.
If you agree with that critical consensus that the punk rock style was inaugurated in 1976 - the Sex Pistols’ year of “Filth and Fury” - then punk now stands at a ripe 40 years of age. Along with that comes a realization that should be sobering for fans of a genre that roared out of the gates with albums featuring multiple odes to “youth, youth, youth”: a kid in 2015 listening to first-wave punk rock would be something like a wild youth of the late 1970s-early 1980s padding his record collection with the swing hits of Jimmy Dorsey. Nicholas Pell uses this fact in a recent L.A. Weekly editorial as a weapon with which to bludgeon this culture’s “just won’t go away” resilience, damning it as “old people music masquerading as young people music.” In contrast with Pell, though, I don’t feel that the age of the movement should be the bulls’ eye towards which all anti-punk criticism is aimed: if the cultural products of a bygone era help someone to validate his or her existence better than what’s presently on tap, then there should be no shame in enjoying it. Instead, I feel that criticism should be directed away from the age of punk to the supposed agelessness of punk: the idea that it was, is, and always will be the most valid means of expressing anti-conformity and independence.
So the real problem I have with punk culture, as it now stands, is its messianic perception of itself: that is to say, punk is not seen as just a manifestation of self-determined culture, but as the apex of these culture practices. Wherever there exists some other art-historical movement that shares some of the genetic material of punk, punk die-hards will acknowledge that movement as valuable insofar as it is a precursor of punk, rather than appreciating it on its own merits: anything from absurdist Dada performances to the rough-and-tumble Futurist poetry of Vladimir Mayakovsky can, and has, been turned into a kind of “anticipation” of the punk movement in the same way that Church doctrine sees important historical events as signs heralding the coming of Christ. As the anarchist Bob Black writes in relation to the Situationist movement (yet equally applicable to punk), “the temptation to elitism, as to optimism, is irresistible: it is condescending to annex all the orneriness of others to one’s own pet fancies. Just possibly some people knew what they were doing and it was not Situationist, thank you.”[i]
This impulse has ignited ongoing attempts to track down a mythical, original ur-punk whose story has not yet been told, as well as anthropological efforts to unearth quasi-punk movements in parts of the world where the power of official suppression has finally atrophied and allowed this kind of material to circulate freely. These fact-finding missions can unearth fascinating artifacts and compelling stories, to be sure, but too often the narrative shifts away from becoming a celebration of general dissent to a celebration of cosmetic similarities with the Class of ’77 punk icons. Worse still, they often conspicuously omit unflattering histories. In the East Germany of the 1980s, a “Mohican hairstyle was often sufficient for a punk to be hauled into custody by the police,”[ii] and yet there were still characters like Sascha Anderson - the East German Stasi informant whose secret police bosses were the “backer and producer” of his band – or Iman Abdul-Majid, member of the Leipzig punk bands L’attentat and Wutenfall prior to his also signing on as a police informant. This official endorsement seems bizarre only until you realize that it was done to “de-politicize the [punk] scene by leading it into art-for-art’s sake aesthetics” (one of Anderson’s notable assists to the repressive GDR regime was to prevent his punk peers from engaging Allen Ginsberg in conversations about human rights violations when the poet visited that country in 1983).[iii]
Viewing historical cultures of loud dissent as “pre-punk” is enough of a blinkered view of the world, but things are made worse when movements that occurred in any year A.P. (anno punkini?) are heralded as “the new punk.” “Punk” becomes a kind of avatar that eternally reincarnates itself as Super 8 film making, as grunge, as rave culture, as hacking, as ‘Anonymous’…ad nauseam. Indeed, the Sex Pistols had barely been laid to rest before the term “post-punk” started circulating in the British music weeklies, none too subtly implying that any subsequent fusions of stylistic innovation, amateurism and anti-authoritarian attitude were made possible mainly because of battles that the punks had won. Though these qualities are certainly capable of being attained by people who are completely naïve of punk’s progress, punk-sympathetic journalists tend to downplay the existence of autonomous creative acts existing independently of any knowledge of official history. As a result, these movements are seen not as reactions unique to the challenging circumstances of their distinctive times and places, but as attempts to resuscitate a mythical moment where all the stars properly aligned and a savior was born with safety pins in his nose.
Lastly, a case can be made that punk was convinced of its cultural exclusivity even in its heyday. If we look back to the 1970s, there were already a number of parallel movements that could claim to be inspired by the same animating principles of self-determination, uninhibited expression, and rejection of profit motive. The “mail art” or correspondence art networks were hitting their stride at this time, encouraged by such advancements as greater access to photocopying technology, and also by a general disdain for the business and politics of the art gallery circuit. “Industrial” culture was cut from much the same cloth; working with (and occasionally abusing) the same newly accessible technologies to reach heights of sensory assault that often made punk rock seem aesthetically conservative. Finally, the performance art of the 1970s largely avoided the issue of accessibility to creative tools and instead made the body itself into the “last frontier of self-determination in a repressive society;”[iv] using grueling rituals of physical endurance to “overturn the originary violence that is state power and to render visible the internalization of repressive social forces.”[v] Involvement with any of these cultures brought with it a certain degree of personal sacrifice and, when carried out in countries where totalitarianism was a present reality, meant gambling upon loss of career, freedom of movement, or life. It’s therefore insulting to let punk act as the spokesperson for all contemporaneous opposition movements.
Many in the “punk’s not dead” camp will argue that there was a pronounced crossover or alliance between some of those movements and punk rock, and I won’t deny this - there’s more than enough historical record of, say, performance artists or mail artists moonlighting as punk rockers. However, the insistence that punk acted as the enabler or driving engine of all this creativity, rather than just a co-traveler, seems to me a spurious bit of historical revisionism. With hype men like Malcolm McLaren in its corner, the punk movement became perhaps the most photogenic and romanticized counter-culture movement of the late 1970s, but a mastery of optics doesn’t necessarily imply that anything is the “best” or the most enduring (and it is somewhat ironic how Pistols affiliates like McLaren and Jamie Reid, both associated with the “spectacle”-despising Situationists, ended up fashioning a visual design scheme that would still be in use 40 years later).
I think I would have fewer problems with the longevity of the “punk” label, and its continuing desire to speak on the behalf of other counter-cultural movements, if I really felt that the gains it made were decisive and irreversible. Sure, the culture influenced and inspired millions to rethink their life strategies or to go public with ideas that they previously would have lacked the encouragement to express. However, if it was really the apotheosis of cultural rebellion that it styled itself, it should have left its competitor movements in the dust ages ago. Instead, the disco aesthetic of the 1970s that punks loathed has not only survived, but has matured into house music and dozens of other danceable electronic offshoots – many of which are as anarchistic, intense, and indifferent to commercial approval as punk ever was. Elsewhere, the epic, bombastic “dinosaur” rock ‘n roll of old has proven every bit as difficult to kill off as punk rock; still living, breathing, and belching fire at gigantic outdoor festivals like Wacken.
The social and political foes of punk have held their ground as well, since the precise agenda of punk culture has always been more incoherent than that of its avowed enemies. Whether you look to back issues of Maximum Rock ‘n Roll or printouts of old Usenet postings, you can see that the interminable tug-of-war over punk’s true purpose has been in question almost since its inception. Without knowing whether you’re supposed to “not fucking care” or to “smash the system” on any given day, it’s very difficult to make significant gains against any authority that usually knows exactly what it’s doing and exactly what it wants. Those who maintain that punk was and is an “open space of possibilities” aren’t incorrect, but over the years those possibilities have multiplied to the point where it’s no longer possible for everyone to agree upon what the idealized punk is. Is it a politically withdrawn, decadent and smacked-up waste-oid? Or a vocal left-wing firebrand? Or a vocal right-wing firebrand? A spiky and leather-clad pacifist, or a spiky and leather-clad sadist?
In the end, punk culture is a collection of different and not entirely compatible social stances bound together by a common set of stylistic constraints. Real seekers after expressive freedom eventually become bored with these restrictions, as excitingly different as they may seem when they first place themselves in opposition to the dominant stylistic approaches. Paradoxically, the most interesting punks have long ago realized that its lasting influence on mainstream culture has been a set of sensory impressions stripped of any consistent message: the “postcard punk” image of the incoherent desperate hooligan is what has survived this far into the 21st century, and it’s an increasing liability for committed cultural outsiders to be associated with this caricature. As the once fresh “shorter, louder, faster” immediacy of punk ossifies into a multi-generational tradition, many will raise the “punk’s not dead!” banners even higher, yet I won’t be among them. My sympathies lie instead with those who consider the quest for an uninhibited creative life their primary goal, and the identification with a subculture as a secondary one - if that is considered a goal at all.
[i] Bob Black, “The Realization and Suppression of Situationism.” https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/bob-black-the-realization-and-suppression-of-situationism. Retrieved January 9, 2016.
[ii] Mike Dennis & Norman Laporte, The Stasi: Myth and Reality, p. 162. Routledge, London / New York, 2003.
[iii] John Christian Schmeidel, Stasi: Sword and Shield of the Party, p. 91. Routledge, London / New York, 2008.
[iv] Beth Hinderliter, “Citizen Brus Examines His Body: Actionism and Activism in Vienna, 1968.” October, Winter 2014, pp. 78-94.