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Who Does Punk Belong To in 2013?

Last week Noisey published an article by their resident jaded punk columnist, who goes by the title of, er, Jaded Punk. It was entitled “Who Gives A Shit About [Insert Band Name] Reuniting?,” and as the name suggests, it took a rather dim review of reunion tours by The Replacements and various other punk rock luminaries. It followed his debut column, which went by the title “‘Punk’ Is the Grossest Word in Music,” and no doubt we can look forward to a bunch of similarly cheery meditations on the genre in weeks to come. It’s the latest in an increasingly long line of criticism shitchanning punk of late, but does the fact that punk rock is largely moribund mean that punk is dead? And who does punk belong to in 2013?

There’s certainly been a lot of talk about punk’s legacy this year. One of these “OMG punk is dead” pieces seems to come along every few months or so; there was quite a stir in March about this piece in local Seattle alt weekly The Stranger, for instance. And obviously the recent punk fashion exhibition at the Met — along with all its attendant celebrities playing punk dress-up to varying degrees of silliness — also led to a whole lot of punk-related hand-wringing.

Elsewhere, the NYC punk nostalgia industry continues to consistently revisit punk’s glory days. This is not a bad thing in and of itself, because the New York movement was certainly historically significant and continues to be influential, but it’s also a sign of terminal decline when any sort of artistic movement starts to look to the past instead of to the future.

But it’s important to note that there’s a difference between punk as a musical genre, culture, and aesthetic and punk as a philosophy. The former is certainly played out — it’s nigh on impossible for any sort of subculture to remain cutting-edge and relevant for 30 years, and in any case, the subsumption of punk into the mainstream started to happened pretty damn quickly. It coincided with punk’s shift into a sort of stylistic orthodoxy. There’s an argument to be made that this was essential to the commodification of punk, the process of converting it from a vast, confusing, and often contradictory mass of styles and aesthetics into something easily digestible and classifiable.

Punk as a philosophy, though, is just as relevant as it ever was, and the thing to realize is that in the 21st century, punk philosophy has very little to do with either punk rock or punk fashion. Both the music and the fashion are defined by very set constraints these days, and indeed, have been so for decades. Punk fashion is safety pins and mohawks and lots of black; punk rock is loud and fast and shouty. This means that most of today’s punk rock bands are indeed pretty dire. There are exceptions, of course, but the vast majority of punk acts are stylistically reactionary and fundamentally dull, unless the idea of dismal priapic pop punk or “anthemic” Jersey bros or bratty Warped Tour types are your idea of a good time.

But the fact that all these bands take their ideas, such as they are, from the same playbook only goes to show that punk and punk rock are poles apart these days — because embracing such rigid stylistic constraints makes them by definition the exact opposite of the original punk philosophy: a DIY ethos, and the idea of unconstrained self-expression.

Punk rock’s original “here are three chords, now form a band” idea was a reaction against the idea that you needed some sort of crazy technical virtuosity to be taken seriously as a musician. It wasn’t a stylistic straightjacket, or not at first, anyway — plenty of the original punk bands were good musicians, and their music extended well beyond 4/4 down-strumming accompanied by ample shouting. There’s a difference between refusing to be constrained by ineptitude and embracing that ineptitude as a diktat, a fact that was quickly lost at the time and has rarely surfaced since.

Similarly, Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s original punk couture was what it was for the precise reason that it was a reaction against the mainstream. Once these things become the mainstream, they cease by definition to be punk. What you’re left with is a sort of style that exists for the sake of itself, which is why punk these days is at best an evocation of past glories and at worst plain old self-parody: style can’t really stand on its own without some sort of substance to back it up.

This rather explains a lot of the idiocy that’s been perpetrated in the name of punk. The above article in The Stranger, for instance, argues, “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,” but then again, if you’re the sort of ignoramus who would actually approach life in such a manner, you’d probably have done so with or without punk rock. As Morrissey once sang, “It’s easy to laugh/ It’s easy to hate/ It takes guts to be gentle and kind.”

Most people crave orthodoxy and the rules that support it, which is why the first wave of punk was so challenging in its call to discard social mores and do whatever it was you wanted to do. It’s a rather bitter irony that these ideas were subverted into just another set of rules, but then, it’s also a salutary lesson in the fact that every subculture eventually gets swallowed up and sold back to you. Ultimately, you have to live your own life, which is all punk ever sought to tell you in the first place.

The good news is that the substance of that philosophy hasn’t disappeared — it’s just moved on. It imbues any number of artistic endeavors, and it’s as important as it’s ever been, because as a doctrine, it has two fundamental tenets: a) that culture isn’t the preserve of the privileged, or the rich, or the hyper-talented; and b) that you should express yourself as you see fit, not try to tailor yourself to societal expectations.

If you’re making music in your room with a guitar or a laptop or a kazoo or whatever else, you’re doing something punk. If you’re making micro-budget films, or self-publishing a book or a zine, or a million other things, you’re doing something punk. You can appreciate and endorse punk’s fundamental philosophy without ever listening to Never Mind the Bollocks. Kanye West’s “New Slaves” is a gazillion times more punk than anything that Rancid have released in the last 25 years or so. So are Kirin J Callinan’s “Embracism,” or Death Grips’ entire debut mixtape, or that terrifying Pharmakon record, or any number of other examples you might wish to cite.

But the point is this: while the corpse of punk rock can be fought over by the nostalgia industry and the fashion industry and bands that look like Rancid, its soul is alive and well. What these days we identify as “punk” was only the first stylistic flourishing of an ideal that remains entirely relevant in 2013. Punk rock is dead. But punk as an ethos is more relevant and alive than ever.

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