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Punk is dead. Long live Punk!

September 15, 2008

Punk Rock is one of the most mixed-up, splintered, intangible, idealistic, over-sold and over-argued genres to come out of Rock ‘N Roll since… well… Rock ‘N Roll.  It’s also one of my favorites; I grew up on the post-Green Day revival of the 90s.

PUNK’S NOT DEAD!  RIGHT?

“Punk’s Not Dead” is a maxim that kids have been using since the early 90s.  Well, at least that’s first time I ever heard it (generally associated with Kurt Cobain’s usage of the term).  I’m not going to get into the argument of where, when, why, or how Punk Rock was born… that could encompass numerous future blog posts.  What I want to discuss here is its survivability.

Generally, while avoiding a specific date, we can agree that Punk Rock (as we commonly describe it) came about in the mid 70s.  There are a few clear immediate influences in sound: MC5, The Stooges, and TelevisionThe Velvet Underground is the most clear influence on the ideology, and The New York Dolls (while still showing a clear attachment to Glam Rock) helped to establish a reactionary precedent for the “appearance” of Punk Rock.

As I mentioned earlier, however, Punk Rock has splintered into more sub-genres and has had more incarnations than I care to recount.  As a result we cannot say that the sound of classic Punk Rock has much survivability.

The style of Punk Rock changed along with the sub-genres as well as with mainstream fashion trends.  Bondage was a mainstay in the 70s, then Oi! took over and skinhead stylings became more common.  Post-Punk brought hair back into style, and Hardcore modified that to bring in the mohawk.  90s Punk Revival borrowed a lot from the surfer look as well as the body modification that was so popular with the classic bondage look.  Style cannot be a reason for Punk’s consistent reappearance either.

However, the ideology of Punk Rock is a common element between the sound and the fashion that we associate with Punk.

DO IT YOURSELF

One of the most confusing and contradictory sentiments to come out of Punk Rock is that of DIY.  The idea behind the music is that it’s for the common man.  It’s for everybody.  There are three chords.  Anybody can pick up a guitar and write a punk song.  The drummer can be blackout drunk and as long as somebody can yell out “1, 2, 3, 4!” at the beginning of each song, he can keep beat.

However, DIY represents the ultimate in individual capability and separation from one’s peers.  Want to put out a record?  Do it yourself.  Paste fliers.  Play gigs in your mom’s garage.  Want some new clothes?  Do it yourself.  Patch up the holes with other clothes.  Whatever you do, don’t pay somebody else to do it for you.  Express your individuality in whatever way you see fit.  Reject the system.  Rebel.  React.  Anarchy as a punk philosophy was becoming a way of life.

Because of the inherent collective vs. individual contradiction, people were claiming that punk was dead a few years after it was born.  People were finding it very hard to continue to think for themselves.  They needed a model to follow.  Thus began The Sex Pistols rise to fame.

The DIY style eroded into a movement of Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious clones.  The embodiment of The Sex Pistols was reactionary style of every kind.  Leather and Bondage gear came into style (as mentioned above).  Music was short, violent, and espoused controversial themes and ideas.  This became so popular that the punk movement had to collapse in upon itself.  Punk could no longer be a rejection of the system or of true DIY aesthetic if “Never Mind the Bollocks” is topping the charts.

Punk is dead.

But then it was born again.  Hardcore was born out of the ashes of classic punk and remained a powerful force from the end of the 70s to the mid 80s.  Many people claim that this is the “true” punk because it was the most successful at maintaining the DIY philosophy that the 70s punks had corrupted.  It also maintained that anybody could start a band, and that the music should be no frills and no “wankery.”  The music was a collective force once again, with little distinction between the bands and the fans.

However, by the end of the 80s, this style had run its course.  The bands were unsatisfied with the musical limitations of Hardcore.  The violence of the shows was becoming an end rather than a means.  The music had to evolve or it would be come stagnant.  Now the first wave of Emo was to appear in order to discuss something other than politics and social reaction: feelings.

Punk is dead.

After a short break with Grunge, the 90s alternative scene saw the next revival of Punk Rock with pop-punk.  Green Day led the way.  The main difference here was that the sound was polished, clear (although distorted, obviously), and displayed individual talent.  The individual need for self expression had overtaken the collective need for accessibility.  However, pop-punk was more accessible than ever for the fans.

Alternative rock, not caring as much about rejecting any system, had paved the way for pop-punk’s mainstream success.  DIY wasn’t necessary because there wasn’t anything stopping you from getting a contract.  You could get radio airtime, high paid stadium gigs, new clothes whenever you wanted… The industry knew Punk Rock was coming back, and they were ready.  The underground had moved towards Indie Rock, some forms of Metal, and Noise Rock.  This is where DIY had made a new home.

In a sense, anybody could still form a pop-punk band, and, by the end of the 90s and the early 00s, they were.  Feeding off of the mainstream success of bands like Green Day, Blink 182, The Offspring, NOFX, and Pennywise you had bands that barely resembled punk at all: Sum 41& Something Corporate come to mind pretty easily.

Punk is dead.

Reacting against the early success of pop-punk and growing from the roots of its 80s predecessors, Emo had been forging a strong underground fan-base in the mid 90s.  At first, keeping with a certain DIY ethic (although now it had evolved into more of an “Independent” or “Indie” ethic), these bands were creating their own labels and signing like-minded bands.  Bands like Braid, The Get Up Kids, and Jimmy Eat World were some of the most popular and were often used as models for a new DIY fashion style: geek-chic.

However, this style was arguably more pioneered by Weezer than anybody else.

Regardless, the once individualistic, yet collectively accessible, style became popular in mainstream culture in the early 00s and all the bands were starting to sound the same.

Punk is dead.

The question is, then, why do we keep seeing this style being reborn again and again?  Why won’t it stay dead?  Who is going to reel in the new era of Punk Rock?

It’s being reborn because it’s a necessary struggle: individual vs. society, independence vs. collectivity.  Its a style that has no resolution because its battling itself.  It’s completely reactionary.  Music, like anything else in the world, is something we want to own; to have for ourselves and nobody else.  At the same time, we want to share it with everybody and relinquish our ownership.  Make it yours, but make it accessible.  This contradiction is inherent in Punk Rock.  Share it with everybody, but don’t lose yourself.  It’s the struggle of identity.

So long as you have a need for exclusivity and a reaction against the mainstream, you will always have Punk Rock.  Inevitably, it will always crash in upon itself and be reborn in another form.

Punk is dead.  Long live Punk!

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