Some corporate list-driven website recently fanned the flames of digital contention by making a list of 25-plus reasons why, ahem, “punk is dead.” Said reasons included tees of the Black Flag bars logo adorned with the name “Justin Bieber,” vacuous celebrities in punk couture at the Metropolitan Museum Of Art gala and One Direction appropriating the late Arturo Vega’s Ramones logo for their own nefarious merchandising ends. While all those things are annoying as hell, there are some greater truths of which our tired, our jaded, our snarky-assed and our youth need to be reminded. For instance…
1. THE CONTEXT OF PUNK IS ALWAYS CHANGING.
Old-school types like to piss and moan about young listeners’ choice of programming and how carelessly the p-word is used to describe it. In addition, we have music writers who take the most inane things and dub them “punk.” I missed the memo: Was Miley Cyrus embracing “ratchet culture” at the VMAs just as relevant as Henry Rollins constantly being at the ready to protect himself from the planet’s goons while touring with Black Flag? (No link: I’m not participating in the hate-click-is-the-great-click rewards program.) That’s not to say that the punk ethos is entirely cut-and-dry: In the early days of Dashboard Confessional, Chris Carrabba built a career opening for hardcore bands and captivating members of those crowds with just his voice and an acoustic guitar. Was he punk? He sure as fuck wasn’t the next-gen James Taylor. The stuff coming out of the speakers and the weapons used to foment that movement have always changed. What remains is attitude.
2. THE GROUNDWORK OF PUNK REMAINS.
I believe it was Rancid’s Lars Frederiksen who, when asked to justify his band’s existence in a post-Clash universe, lucidly stated, “It’s not important when you get into punk, it’s important that you do in the first place.” My hatred of much music writing stems from the continued insistence of many scribes to measure success in terms of grand “movements” that will change the world, and all the purported crimes against music shall be vindicated. When there aren’t enough figurehead bands to lead us to the promised land, said writers get into snark mode and pontificate on how current culture is useless (or worse yet, exalt really vapid stuff—like Carly Rae Jepsen think-pieces). Well, I was one of those abject suckers who thought the success of Nirvana in the early ’90s was going to foster a new awareness of the underground, along with a possibility of a greater aesthetic consciousness. What it did do was allow Gavin Rossdale to sell several million records and have nomenclature like “alternative” and “underground” used to sell tennis shoes and automobiles. Punk reminds us there will always be an underground that’s fertile and uncompromising, and its worth simply refuses to be measured in chart positions or units shifted—especially in an age of download culture.
3. THE ATTITUDE CAN’T BE BEATEN.
I smiled when Dave Grohl publicly turned down Glee creator Ryan Murphy’s substantial money to have Foo Fighters songs in his show. I yelled, “Testify, brother!” at my computer when producer Steve Albini reminded the world of how label suits acted like they knew what was better for the success of In Utero than the members of Nirvana themselves. American Recordings’ founder Rick Rubin took an ad in Billboard of the iconic middle-finger-flipping photo of Johnny Cash with the ad copy sarcastically “thanking” the country music community for their (non-)support of the singer’s Unchained album. When somebody at their then-label thought the Bronx should start doing acoustic gigs for radio-station vermin, the band barked, “Hell no” and started a mariachi band. Bands as musically diverse as Bright Eyes and the Locust have steadfastly refused to book shows at venues under corporate ownership. Knowing that doing the right thing might come back to bite you in the carotid artery—and doing it anyway—is a trait that’s been historically aligned to one music culture only.
4. THE CONTAGION INVASION
Punk has never been exclusively about the stuff coming out of the speakers. With the noise came a significant awareness of other mediums and personal/political philosophies (cf. Rock Against Racism, Red Wedge, PunkVoter). What was especially crucial was a visual identity. The early punk/new wave scenes had some bona fide visionaries in the work of Barney Bubbles, Jamie Reid and Linder Sterling among many other exciting art/design fulcrums. The late-’80s/’90s alt-rock tsunami created a platform for iconic provocateurs such as Art Chantry, Derek Hess and Frank Kozik. The very same free spirit is alive, well and jamming a fireman’s axe through your fucking door with the visual contributions of people like Steak Mtn. (Chris Norris, work featured left), Heather Gabel, Mark McCoy, Jake Bannon and upstarts like Elijah Funk among many others, who are creating vibrant works as a response to the icebergs of ennui floating in current culture. Nobody who worshiped Journey—or Three Doors Down—has ever been inspired to do anything similarly coruscating.
5. WE’RE STILL HAVING THE CONVERSATION, DECADES AFTER THE FACT.
In the mid-’80s, Maximum RockNRoll famously asked on its cover, DOES PUNK SUCK? The planet has been continuing the discourse ever since. Why? Because as fans of a marginalized scene, we care. (Let’s not kid ourselves, it’s still marginalized: Green Day may have made bank, but I promise you that somewhere right now, a kid with blue hair is getting the shit beat out of him for being “a punk-rock faggot.”) We want to be engaged with that world, and we want to see it moved forward. An 11-year-old discovering vinyl copies of Damaged or Walk Among Us in his cool parents’ collection or seeing his favorite Warped Tour guitarist rocking a Crimson Ghost tee are not bad things. Tagging said youth as being inferior because he didn’t get to see Misfits at CBGB back in the day most certainly is. Whether today’s younger listeners find resonance via the Madden Brothers’ adulation of Rancid and NOFX, Laura Jane Grace’s unvarnished public reconciliations of self or the Chariot melting amps and eardrums on their impending farewell tour, punk’s essence is to push back at the status quo the way tired middle-of-the-road rock music wouldn’t. See, Thriller may have sold more, but Minor Threat’s Out Of Step remains the soundtrack of unrelenting determination.