Saturday, July 14, 2007

Punk is dead

I know it's been said before, but punk is dead.

Okay, not quite. It's still alive, but it's hobbled. Defeated. Its fangs have been pulled and its claws blunted. There are still real punks, and you can pick them out because they're the ones that don't have liberty spikes, shredded black leather jackets, and an entire catalog of obscure band patches and tattoos. They're the ones that dress comfortably, put on killer shows, and never, ever, ever quit. The rest? It's just fashion.

Punk, you see, is emphatically not a subculture; or, at least, the real spirit of punk isn't. Certainly there is a subculture - an entire fashion trend - that is called punk, but artfully torn clothing and dyed mohawks have as much to do with what punk is really about as Avril Lavigne does.

Punk is about one thing, and one thing only. It has a mission statement, and this is it:

"Things ain't right; they're unfair. We don't like it, and we're not going to fucking take it. We may not have power or influence, but we're going to smash shit up until you listen to us and starting making things right."

That's punk. It's about purpose, unity, and, yes, violence. Violence, though, doesn't just mean random physical destruction; indeed, many punks lose sight of the real meaning of violence when they become too engrossed in brawling and vandalism. Violence can be done with a fist or a brick or a spray can, but it can also be done with words, appearances, and decisions. Violence can be done to ideas. It can be done to social norms. The very idea of tattered leathers and mohawks was not, at first, to be identifiable as a punk, but to stand out and be identifiable not at all, to do violence to people's everyday routine by shocking their standards of dress and decency.

Punk music, too, is about violence. Some of it is obvious, direct. Some of it is nothing but calls for smashing the state, or simply vaguely-directed fury at a broken system. Some of it is not so obvious: songs about despair, or about strange, seemingly inconsequential topics that don't seem to jibe. The driving, double-time rock backbeat is energizing and angry, and the often distorted or discordant guitar is meant to jar the listener out of the comfortable fugue of music appreciation, especially the happy-go-lucky shallowness of most rock and roll.

There is real punk left; indeed, it's not even particularly uncommon, although it's in the minority. The problem is that real punk, sincere and powerful as it may be, is no longer a viable tool for social change, because it is inextricably stylistically bound with genre of music and visual style that's been re-branded as modern "punk."

There have always been what the epochal SLC Punk would term "posers," but the presence of young punklings who just don't get it is no longer the real issue. The system - and by that I mean society, supply and demand and not some paranoid complex - has taken punk style and sold it back to us. The drones who sport faux-spray-painted band t-shirts and green hair these days aren't even posers; they're just teenagers fitting in.

And there's the heart of the matter: today, punk is about fitting in to a subculture. When you do certain things, dress a certain way, listen to certain songs, you label yourself "punk." In so doing, rather than deliberately excluding yourself, rather than doing violence to a broken system, you join the system. The system has swallowed punk whole and digested it. And it's not easy to fix, either; you can't simply refuse to call yourself "punk," because the entire category of behaviors punks are supposed to perform are identified with what is now just another tame social clique, and if you don't call yourself punk, someone else will.

Don't get me wrong; I'm not trying to pin the blame for this on Good Charlotte, or saying that this is a new thing. I know I'm not the first to discuss this issue. Punk has never been an effective tool for change in the US; it hasn't accomplished anything since its beginnings in the UK, and even then, on both sides of the Atlantic, it had its share of fakers; the Ramones and the Sex Pistols were in it for money and fame, right from the beginning, and they never denied it.

But there are still real punks out there. Serious ones. Angry. Young, old, educated, blue-collar, across all segments of the population, there are people who are filled with angry energy, and having no political voice, they're prepared to smash shit up until someone listens.

But no one's listening any more. Dressing ragged and smashing shit up has become as everyday American and as hollow as did long hair on men and short hair on women before it. Punk has become a fashion statement instead of just a statement.

Where do we go from here, then? We few, who have had even this final outlet plugged firmly by public indifference? Well, I can see only one way out: new ways of smashing.

How is up to you. Maybe it's time for nudist punks. Maybe it's time to take to the streets and do some real property damage. All I know is that is must be united, it must be purposeful, and it must be new violence. And in a world as fast-changing and blasé as today's, it must be smart.

Get to it, all ye punks. Put down the Elmer's glue and the Pabst, and get out there and smash some shit up. Use your fists or use your brains, but find something we haven't lost to normalcy yet, and use it for all it's worth.

1 comment:

skyen said...

John the riot leader. I'm laughing just thinking about it. Okay, what you're saying isn't exactly new, but you said it well(got the sudden urge to break something now).

Just like to say that I'm with you. I may not be angry, but I can smash shit up. And I'm definitely planning some violence in the future.