Because I’m a modern man, and the modern man only reads articles on the internet which reinforce his narrow ways of thinking, I’ve been able to avoid John Roderick’s Seattle Weekly piece, Punk Rock is Bullshit, for the better part of a week. Yesterday, I succumbed and clicked to see what the scuttlebutt was all about. And, oh, boy, do we have ourselves one bitter man and a great white whale of click bait cloaked in half-baked arguments and too clever lines.
Where do we start? This line?
Punk taught us to rebel against authority until “authority” included everything: piano lessons, fire insurance, leather shoes, and, ultimately, growing up. Punk taught us to have contempt for every institution, except Fugazi, until contempt and suspicion were the first and only reactions we had to everything. Good news was embarrassing, success was shameful, and a happy childhood an unthinkable transgression. These personality disorders were just punk in practice.
If anything, the mantle of “punk rock” was an umbrella to describe a reactionary retro-ness, a feeling that music was best played with old-fashioned dumb energy, simple to the point of being simplistic—which not coincidentally corresponded to the period of the widest proliferation of recreational drug use in world history. It was music to validate being too wasted to think.
Or, maybe these two paragraphs:
The positive things that transpired in the culture of the past 40 years happened in spite of punk, not because of it. Punk didn’t end racism, sexism, or homophobia; it didn’t stop factory farming, the New World Order, or the massive success of Creed. It did not inconvenience a single one of its stated adversaries despite being on the front lines of everywhere.
Oh, go on, John:
The Cold War made strange bedfellows of a lot of outsider cultures. Oblivious to contradiction, punkers rooted for the Sandinistas, the Red Brigade, and the Mujahideen; they shelved RE/Search volumes between Mein Kampf and books about Gein and Gacy; they protested militarism in fatigues, PLO scarves, and Che Guevara T-shirts.
The truth is, if there really was an Illuminati bent on controlling the world through a secret government, they couldn’t have done a better job of defanging the youth movement than by introducing the self-negating, life-consuming, ignorance-propagating, lethargy-celebrating, divisive and controlling, fashion-based ideology of punk rock into the mainstream. It was basically the crack epidemic of rock culture.
But, I’m sure those old punks are doing fine today, right?
I have friends in their mid-40s who don’t even have a savings account because “saving money” never seemed punk rock. I can’t count the number of small businesses I’ve seen fail because worrying about inventory or actually charging customers didn’t seem very punk rock.
Granted, punk has its problems. And granted, some of our anti-heroes like Kurt Cobain and Jay Reatard were assholes for ending their lives too soon, but is it really deserving of such overreaching generalizations?
Roderick’s first mistake, of many, is to assume all art, music, and work exists for the sake capital. On the contrary, not every worthwhile endeavor needs an end goal of getting paid. The origins of this very website can be traced back to punk, DIY, and zine culture. It doesn’t make money. The punk in me doesn’t want to mix opinion and flashing ads. Does that make my opinion less valid than one from a fancier website who is financed with ads for artists they try to objectively cover? Does it make me a fool not to monetize?
Similarly, not every dreamer dreams in market shares. Some want to be the next Starbucks and some are content with one, shabby street-corner cafe. Some dream of being a rock star, some don’t want a shitty day job. And, those who sabotage their own business because inventory isn’t punk, like Roderick contends, are not failed punks, but fools, pure and simple.
The problem with generalizations like Roderick’s, is they’re so fucking general. Any opinion piece whose thesis attempts to draw conclusions from all hip-hop, all rock, all pop, all country, or all punk, will ultimately sink under its authors burdensome sense of purpose. Roderick compounds his mistake with generalizations on multiple generations of punks.
The Ramones knew only three chords. Johnny Thunders, Tom Verlaine, Richard Hell, Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo would go on to influence countless guitarists, not all of them punks.
The Clash knew only a couple chords when they started out, too. By the time their run was done, they had helped bring disco, dub, reggae, and electro under the punk umbrella.
I know some guys who were punk and they don’t have a savings account. Good, John. I know a guy who used to live in a DIY venue in Cleveland who’s now cashing nice checks as a software developer.
Cobain failed. Point, taken. Pearl Jam became afraid of their own success, and still managed to pack amphitheaters and arenas. Punk kid, Dave Grohl, is enjoying a very successful second act after his first act burned out. We both can pick and choose.
My own personal philosophy was built on the punk rock records I heard as a kid. From there I became interested in things like socialism, pacifism, environmentalism, feminism, anti-racism, and atheism. I learned acceptance, self-reliance, and responsibility, too.
Today, I work in an office. I distrust the management and dream of organizing because I’m a long-haried punk in business casual. Recently, when someone asked if I’d like to support the Junior Achievement Bowl-A-Thon, I replied, “The world has too many businessmen and financiers. I support the junior socialists.” I also received the highest grade possible on my yearly review.
Punk rock does not dictate success or failure in future life.
Nor, does punk rock hold a responsibility to solve all of our world’s ills.
Punk did change minds, however. Even if its stance at the time was a naive one, painted in black vs. white, it carried a valuable lesson to be skeptical of the official narrative. So, supporting the Sandinistas was naive and inconsistent with other causes. And that would make the alternative position, funneling arms to Iran to fund the contras in Nicaragua who in turn used their new found wealth to speed the spread of cocaine into our inner cities the more noble position? No. There are no winners in war. Billy Bragg, a folk-singer, one beloved by punk rockers, taught me that one.
Recently, a band of young, feminist punks from Russia found themselves serving jail time because their punk prayer in a Russian Orthodox Cathedral offended the sensibilities of some powerful friends of Putin’s. Should we consider Pussy Riot a failure because Putin was reelected and they got three not so hot meals and a cot? Absolutely not. Pussy Riot got their message out, amplified it to the world, and changed minds in the process.
And that, if nothing else, is punk’s lasting legacy — Each one of us has the means within us to be heard.
As much as an outcast you may think you are today, there is someone else out there, who will write a song about it. Something so simple, played unprofessionally on a shitty guitar and recorded on the cheap outside of the capitalist machine; handed to a store owner on consignment, or uploaded to the internet on your own, can alter the trajectory of a life for the better and, yes, some times for the worse. Roderick, himself, said as much when, in between all that bitterness, he wrote three true sentences: “Admittedly, punk rock was a club that accepted all the misfits. It channeled adolescent anger and frustration into positive and inclusive feelings of belonging. This is not an insignificant achievement.” That’s some powerful shit and something worth celebrating.