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You Don’t Have a Life, You Have a Lifestyle – OR – I Love Punk and I Hate Punk

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Punk sucks This has been an issue for me for a long time: Is punk good or bad? The answer for me used to be “good,” hands down. Instinctively, I just knew I loved punk. But then when I started thinking about all the different meanings and possible associations with punk (the lifestyle, the trend, the concept, the music, the merchandise), I started to think the answer was a hands down, “bad.” Before this gets really messy and I talk a little about what I think each part of punk is worth, I should say that the vast, vast majority (talking at least 80-85%) of my music is either punk or it has very close roots to punk (as I write this, I am listening to the band Faraquet, a punk band). Even My Bloody Valentine’s highly influenced by punk; Kevin Shields has said that The Ramones were one of his favorite acts as a kid. Their loud-as-hell performances that he mentioned have clearly shown up in My Bloody Valentine shows — especially during things like “The Holocaust” in You Made Me Realise. So the fact of the matter is, I listen to punk. I like — no, love — punk. But what is punk?

When you ask the average person about punk, they probably get images of John Lydon, better known as Johnny Rotten. If not Lydon, it’s the even more infamous Sid Vicious. You can almost see from here how punk was made corporate and all the confusion got tossed in.

Quickly, we see punk rock the mentality (ie, those outside the mainstream, the avant garde musician, and those who would later be called “indie” acts) and the punk rock “sound” as a split in the overall definition of punk. It’s like if you have a tree and at the root of the tree is the word punk. From there, there’s a fork that instantly goes into what is termed, regardless of the accuracy or inaccuracy, the “sound” of punk by most people (Anti-Flag, Sex Pistols, Ramones, Rise Against, Rancid, etc) and the psyche of punk. The psyche is, for instance, what motivates musicians to do something rebellious, something outside the mainstream, something that is just so freaky and out there that no one may even realize at the time how brilliant it is.

But another split occurs: the psyche halves itself. Part of it becomes the image of the punk psyche. The mohawk, the combat boots, the piercings. The image and the sound, in present times, are both very corporate and, honestly, in the sense of punk’s true psyche, un-punk. When Hot Topic is selling the needless vanities of punk’s soul, something is wrong. That is not about rebellion. That is not about being different. The other half of this split is the psyche’s will to be different. Having a mohawk is no longer all that different. You can turn on the TV and see ads for menopause supplements with a girl in heavy eye shadow and, as the ay-daults might say, an outrageous getup. In 1980, I can’t imagine the image of punk being that common place. But these days, you can turn your TV on and see the old image of punk everywhere.

Pausing here — hopefully this explains my twisted thoughts on punk a little. I want to say I like punk, but at the same time, because punk is so many different things, how can anyone really like it? How can anyone really hate it? I must first narrow down what I think punk really is before I can offer an opinion. Saying I like punk is like saying I like… books. Yeah, I like books, but what kind? I don’t read adult novels, graphic novels, self-help guides, joke books, money books, and so on, but then, there are books I really love. There’s the kitschy side of literature, if you can even really call it literature, like Twilight, and then there’s the side of literature that’s actually, you know, interesting, such as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

So there’s my dilemma: if I say I love books, that really tells you nothing. It tells me nothing. What do I like about books? Why do I like books? What books do I like? It’s the exact same thing with punk.

I’ve never liked the combat boots side of punk. I used to like the Anti-Flag, Rancid, Rise Against side of punk before I realized what was going on there. I despise, and always have, the trend of punk, which has arisen from both the image and sound stereotypes. It’s a greedy, frivolous disgrace. But with all the loathing I feel towards “punk,” do I also like punk a little, too? I do claim to listen to it, after all, so I’d hope I like it.

And I do. I really do. But it’s a very specific thing for me. I like artists who aren’t afraid to try new things. In the ’80s and ’90s, they were called punk rockers. They were called punk rockers until MTV and Hot Topic violated their PUNK RAWKER™ trademark and made it their own. These days, we call them “indie.” But punk is like that. Punk is Boris, but punk is also the Meat Puppets; the same way that both of those bands are also called indie bands these days. Neither punk or indie are genres in the sense that they have a defined sound or a defined image. MTV certainly gave punk a defined image. Now, due to Vampire Weekend, indie is getting a taste of that Kool-Aid itself. That said, punk runs everywhere from Teen Idles to Sonic Youth to My Bloody Valentine to the Brian Jonestown Massacre to the Pixies to… any band that is creative, independent, and rebellious.

So I have gone from liking punk, to hating punk, to appreciating it now more than I have before. But at the same time now, I would feel uncomfortable saying I like punk rock outside of close relationships, because someone in a Paramore t-shirt might accost me with their tales of punk rock extravaganzas. I might be asked who my favorite Fueled by Ramen band is. It could go so wrong so fast, and it leaves me feeling awkward and confused.

That’s why I try not to think about it too much. My lack of thought may be evident here.

What do you readers think punk rock is?


Written by M

June 28, 2008 at 5:52 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with ,

3 Responses

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  1. This debate is as personal as the Mac versus PC and Republican versus Democrat debates. There are people out there who would argue that none of the bands you cited as favorites are punk, that in order to be truly punk it has to be the combat boot format and truly independent (i.e., no major label support or distribution). Of course, these people are the same ones who proudly wear Sex Pistols t-shirts (which is, of course, a major label band).

    For me, punk is really about the band’s or person’s attitude. I’ve listened to, played, reviewed and been a rabid fan of punk rock for 21 years now and I don’t even look like a punk and have not since I was about 20. I think like one though and to me, that’s much more subversive than adorning myself with leather and spikes and a mohawk. Most of the bands I call punk and hold dear to my heart are also probably not considered true “punk” in terms of sounds. But the attitudes, perspectives and messages of these bands are.

    More than anything, I think it’s the DIY ethic that defines punk. There used to be bands like Toxic Reasons who lived on the road, sometimes off $1 a day, constantly touring. And of course, there is Fugazi. Modern day “punk” bands look like a caricature of punk rock, and they sound like a caricature of punk too. They might even be a Christian punk rock band, trying to sneak their message into the minds of the youth (don’t get me started). Modern punk rock bands are a stepford wife version of punk, for the most part, and that’s what bugs me most of all.


    June 28, 2008 at 12:48 pm

  2. Yahh, I agree 100%. I wince calling those bands punk rock bands as well, because it’s like they… try way too hard. But that’s the sound people associate with it now and that’s sort of irritating. Hopefully it didn’t look like I was saying that was punk. >_< It’s just that when I ask someone what they think punk sounds like, they’re going to tell me that Anti-Flag is one of their favorite punk bands.

    “Subversive” is, I think, a good word for punk rock.

    Christian punk is sort of like… an oxymoron. Civil war or jumbo shrimp.

    Marshall B

    June 28, 2008 at 1:24 pm

  3. […] rock’s politics Posted in Commentary by Marshall B on July 8th, 2008 Aside from an earlier post on punk, I haven’t really talked about it much. Something that’s always bothered me […]

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