Arts Desk

A Few Thoughts on That “Punk Rock Is Bullshit” Essay

Over at Seattle Weekly, writer and The Long Winters frontman John Roderick has dedicated more than 3,000 words to a takedown of the punk-rock ethos. Or, what he thinks is the punk-rock ethos.

In it, Roderick indicts punk-rock groupthink for its inability to embrace adulthood, success, and the ambitions of entrepreneurs. He blames its draconian antiestablishment values for ruining small businesses. He argues that punk rock's suspicion of "selling out" has torpedoed too many rock bands' careers. He characterizes DIY as a deluded joke. Then he says, confusingly, that punk rock wasn't revolutionary enough—it didn't squash Thatcherism! It didn't usurp Reagan! So what good was it anyway?

"What started out as teenage piss-taking at baby-boomer onanism quickly morphed into a humorless doctrine characterized by acute self-consciousness and boring conformism," he writes. "We internalized its laundry list of pseudo-values—anti-establishmentarianism, anti-capitalism, libertarianism, anti-intellectualism, and self-abnegation disguised as humility—until we became merciless captors of our own lightheartedness, prisoners in a Panopticon who no longer needed a fence."

Has punk rock turned some people into walking Yak Baks of meaningless pseudorevolutionary slogans? Yes. (So has hip-hop. So has Thievery Corporation.) I agree, too, that punks can get trapped in the culture's echo chamber of dogma. But is punk rock's ideology a mindless steamroller, crushing the dreams of freethinking adults? Don't give it so much credit.

Roderick writes:

"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. I was once chastised for playing at a private Microsoft function by a guy who worked there, so disappointed was he that I would sell out by playing a corporate gig. Punk taught us to rebel against authority until 'authority' included everything: piano lessons, fire insurance, leather shoes, and, ultimately, growing up."

Punk doesn't really have a problem with piano lessons or nice shoes. But it does quibble with the reasons those things are considered so meaningful. In countries like ours, "growing up" usually means buying stuff—or getting to a so-called "comfortable" place where you could buy stuff. The attainment and hoarding of wealth is problematically conflated with adulthood and "success." That is what lots of punks—reasonably—have a problem with.

To use a personal example: I don't drive. A few times in my life, people have asked me when I was going to "grow up" and buy a car. It doesn't bother me much, but the idea is troubling: It implicitly endorses the idea that using some other means of transportation—bicycle, train, bus, feet—renders you less than adult. You're considered either childish or poor, or some combination of both. Poverty, too, is often mischaracterized as a natural consequence of laziness, or a failure to become fully adult—even human. Why shouldn't we question that?

If self-proclaimed punks are using a bastardized derivation of punk-rock ideology to smear your small business, it may be because they've lost sight of the real enemy: a consumption-driven "adulthood." Your leather shoes and your small business aren't the problem. The idea that you need to buy nice shoes and make gobs of money to be an adult is the problem.

After accusing punk of unfairly poo-pooing capital gain, Roderick turns around and lambastes the scene for failing to eliminate tyranny.

"What has punk rock done for us? Did it defeat Reaganism and Thatcherism and end the Cold War? Has it brought us social justice? Did it smash the state, prevent in any way the 12 years of the Imperial Bush dynasty, galvanize youth, subvert the dominant paradigm, or for one minute prevent the total commercialization of culture and the chemical digitalization of music that happened under its watch?

...

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. Needless to say, nor did it bring about 'Anarchy,' thank God."

So punk failed liberty and our retirement plans?

If I had such high expectations of punk, I'd be disappointed, too. Of course punk didn't dismantle tyranny; no subculture has, at least not directly. But punk derived a big chunk of its ideology from Civil Rights—which did dismantle some forms of tyranny—and helped inform younger generations about the methods and importance of resistance. If we maintained the cynical expectation that movements are irrelevant until they produce some momentous political or social upheaval, resistance could become more devalued than it is even today. No one wants to live in a world like that.

He goes on to talk about the big sham that is DIY:

"People love to cite DIY as an example of punk philosophy in practice, but DIY is just a standard business model. It's the primitive form of capitalism that every new business adopts. Punk didn't invent DIY, it's just too stupid and spoiled to realize that doing it yourself isn't an innovation. The early punk pioneers now congratulate themselves endlessly in documentary after documentary (all with Flea and Dave Grohl providing color commentary) for having done it themselves. They did it themselves—just like every vacuum-cleaner salesman, Mary Kay cosmetics franchisee, landscaper, Mormon missionary, and Tupperware salesperson. DIY is punk rock's signature achievement, its 'man on the moon,' and it's a mundane capitalist practice shared by every single new business since forever. It's how Nike started. It's how Amazon started."

This almost seems true, but it's not, exactly. Buying into a franchise is entrepreneurship, not the punk-rock interpretation of DIY, which is way more limited in scope. In punk, DIY tells people they don't need anyone else to validate or pay for their ideas. It encourages art and commerce, but done uncompromisingly and with zero outside money. Kickstarter isn't DIY; selling Tupperware isn't DIY; franchising isn't DIY. Let's just get that straight. You can do those things with integrity, of course, but you couldn't call it "DIY."

But more to his point: I agree punks didn't invent DIY. They just championed it better than most—and turned it into an aesthetic.

What about this idea that punk dogma kills off bands?

"Indie bands applied punk-rock principles to their music and culture to the point that Laotian monks were probably living more luxurious lives. Bands refused to do interviews, have their pictures taken, publish their lyrics, or in any way risk the chance that someone might accuse them of 'wanting' fame or success. The path to indie greatness was to appear to loathe any but your oldest and purest fans, to blush and whimper at praise, to stand to the side of the stage or in the dark, back to the audience, renouncing attention."

This is partly true—indie bands bear the heavy burden of having to maintain so-called authenticity. (So do most underground acts across genres.) But I'm troubled by the assumption that bands do this entirely out of fear of the punk police. What about genuinely wanting control over one's public image? What about ideologically opposing the possibility of becoming a flavor of the month and exposing oneself to media scrutiny? Maybe some bands really don't want to get famous; maybe the whole idea terrifies them. Or maybe they're just lousy at PR.

For all of punk's shortcomings, though—its failures and its trivialities—it has one strength that even this guy can't argue around.

"The second response I get when I say punk rock is bullshit is the heartfelt 'Punk rock saved my life.' This response is touching and emotional—and the hardest to refute, because former punk kids tie every positive aspect of their present lives to their punk identities. My generation is full of lost children, most of them now in their 40s and 50s, who were presumably living hellish suburban lives hearing their drunk parents fight through the wall, huffing Revell modeling glue and listening to Genesis 8-tracks until punk rock arrived to rescue them from their mullet-wearing, Camaro-driving futures. They are all Huck Finns. Punk rock is their raft and their friend Jim.
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."

Balloon, popped. I'm with Megan Seling from The Stranger on this one: Roderick, you should have packed it up here. Punk's welcoming of misfit kids is pretty much infallible. Whatever beef you have with its muddled philosophy seems pretty secondary when you consider how punk has given kids an alternative to robbing stores, having babies at 16, or mutating into members of the Tea Party. It doesn't just rescue middle-class, white, male teenagers from a lifetime of uncoolness; its impact has been weightier than that, especially, I would argue, for riot grrrls.

Punk can transform kids into snotty contrarians, yeah—but it does one important thing: It teaches young people how to think critically about the options their parents or friends array before them. That's not a small achievement. Maybe a lot of those kids go on to become disdainful pricks, but just as many of them probably become activists, nonprofit employees, teachers, and attorneys for a cause.

Those older white guys who fault punk rock for hatin' on their boat shoes? They're adults, and they should learn how to sort out the productive criticism from the bad. Kids aren't always equipped to do that. Punk can give them the tools.

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Comments

  1. #1

    To me, punk is summed up only as: "Think freely, do what you want to do, and not because it's what others tell you to do." With that: to each his own.

  2. #2

    What philosophy/spiritual practice/outlook/whatever can EVER pass the test of never being misapplied or taken to extremes?

  3. #3

    Excellent commentary.

  4. #4

    Funny as it may seem, I think that punk rock is the most free-thinking institution in America and abroad. What punk rock fights against is conformity. And, I think we all recognize the fact that the modern left stands in opposition to that mindset. While many punk rockers probably don't realize it, they are fighting for freedom of speech and thought in the same way many conservatives do. Shhh, don't tell them that though! :) I played in, and promoted, many punk rock acts during my college days and have recently began to realize how important punk rock is in fighting against group think. In fact, I often thought that conservatives should embrace punk rockers as allies....albeit strange bedfellows, there are certain aspects of punk rock and conservatism that run congruent. It's more a matter of education, and helping younger punks to understand the political scene and who really stands in the way of their right to speech, etc. This makes me want to go out and start a new band! Kudos!

  5. #5

    Worth writing, even though the other one wasn't worth responding to. Way to show em how to dig into something beyond just a cheap headline.

  6. #6

    "Punk's welcoming of misfit kids is pretty much infallible. Whatever beef you have with its muddled philosophy seems pretty secondary when you consider how punk has given kids an alternative to robbing stores, having babies at 16, or mutating into members of the Tea Party. It doesn't just rescue middle-class, white, male teenagers from a lifetime of uncoolness; its impact has been weightier than that, especially, I would argue, for riot grrrls."

    Couldn't you say the same thing about "Glee" and substitute "gay/bi/trans teens" for riot grrrrls? Punk on the whole, especially the early DC scene was aggressively homophobic and misogynistic--and my recent experience with aged DC punks & scene makers (former friends of mine who support rape culture), things haven't changed all that much.

    I don't agree w/everything in Roderick's article, but like every subculture: I've chosen to be inspired and learn/grow from the best elements and leave the negative ones behind (instead of trying to conform to the negative elements, or even worse, pretend they don't exist.)

  7. #7

    Excellent response to the most insipid thing I've read about punk in an age. Linked to your reply on my blog. Thanks Ally. -

    http://news.theclashblog.com/music-bloggers-and-punk-opinions/

  8. #8

    hipster is bullshit

  9. #9

    posers

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