(This article is a personal opinion of the writer and is in no way associated with the views of Sneak Past Security, material reviewed, or bands interviewed within.)
I know what you’re thinking, but the title of this article doesn’t mean quite what you think it does. I’m not implying that Punk is a bad word, nor am I going to talk about why the term brings about a strong emotion – both positive, and negative, depending on who you talk to – in a lot of people. What I’d actually like to explore is the opposite: why Punk has lost its bite, and seems to be losing its political, social and emotional core.
Back in the day, swearing and the use of curse words was shocking and surprising to the ears of the public. It wasn’t expected of someone to mutter out explicit language in every sentence. It just wasn’t in the norm, and those who did it without caring stood out from everyone around them. Those words contained strong meaning and emphasis, which both empowered and frightened people. Today, however, someone can scream out “Fuck you, you motherfucking piece of shit!” on a busy street, and no one will even turn their head. When did “Punk” – including such distinguishing icons as mohawks, piercings and tattooes – suddenly go from being surprising and even threatening, to becoming perfectly acceptable to everyone, just like swear words? Even more, how did such a powerful counter culture which stood against society and the status quo transform into a watered down version of itself, and actually become the status quo? How did Punk rock go from being the state of mind of a unique portion of society – and their way of expressing themselves – to a fashion trend that can be bought at the mall? When did Punk go from being meaningful to being the next big fad that all the”cool” kids migrated towards?
This topic came up while speaking with both Jason Navarro of the Suicide Machines, and Tim McIlrath of Rise Against – these two conversations more or less prompted the writing of this article. The two of them are both prominant figures in Punk, and both of them showed concern about how the image and sound of Punk rock has gone mainstream, but the ideals and heart behind them haven’t. Furthermore, both of them appreciate the fact that kids are able to go out and purchase their Punk essentials with ease, but the fact that oversaturation of the image and sound, without the mindset, is detrimental. It can’t be coincidence that two successful and influential Punk musicians share such similar views on what’s happening to their genre.
So, where was it that Punk segregated into two groups? How did the counter culture start out as a small, mostly unified movement in the 70s and 80s, and become two separate parts somewhere in the 90s: the bands and folks who’re still doing what they’ve been doing since the beginning, and the bands who are willing to water down and bring genre into the mainstream, and the people jumping into the scene in bandwagon fashion?
I suppose there’s only one real answer: profit. It seems like everyone wants to be different from everyone else, but still be accepted, and people want to rebel against something, but only if there’s a large group doing it too. I guess it’s really no surprise that corporate America would discover this eventually, and would cash in on it by exploiting Punk rock. In the 90s, Grunge bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam were wildly popular, so everyone wanted to be depressed and lethargy was chic. Now Punk is popular, but instead of wanting to stay at home, smoke pot and write poetry, everyone wants to be against the government and stand up against the very same level of status quo they’re perpetuating. They want to bring down the system by pouring more money into it, and continuing to let the bullshit Punk bands you see on MTV and the corporations behind them crank out new albums every year. Come on, people – if you’re going to get yourself involved in something just for the sake of doing it, then at least get it right.
What I’ve been getting at is this: for what seems like a vast majority, it’s not about the music, being yourself, and finding something through which to pour your time, energy and belief into. It’s something you put on when you want to look cool and “hardcore”, and take off when you get home. And it doesn’t fucking matter if you can name all the Ramones albums in chronological order, or how many anarchy patches you’ve sown onto your shirt. If you can’t justify trying to be a part of the Punk culture because you honestly believe in it, then what’s the point? Will the people who’ve latched themselves onto mainstream Punk for the time being still march around in a few years spouting off anti-social cliché catchphrases, or still believe that The Clash is the greatest band in history?
I hope this article doesn’t come off as elitist, or as if I’m declaring myself a “true Punk”, and telling all the Johnny-come-latelys to get the fuck out. I personally don’t consider myself a Punk. I love the music, I respect and admire the thoughts and beliefs that the movement had in the early days (and especially the many people still hold to these beliefs), but I don’t try and label myself by it; nor do I try and put myself above people with similar views on the culture. I’m really just genuinely concerned and saddened that something like Punk – something that was so powerfully opposed to the mainstream, the commercialism, and the status quo -could be so easily boxed up in a pretty packaging and sold at retail prices. And even moreso that the public is so willing to march in single file to buy it.
-D.T. Carel / spsmag.com