I passed a Hot Topic store on the way to what would most likely end up being the food court when I saw two kids walk out holding bags. One had bright pink hair, a studded belt, and snake bite lip rings. The other was in the same ballpark, sporting a pre-frayed denim vest with patches and a pair of yellow laced shit-kicker boots. I took a seat on a bench and asked a question that so many old men have asked before me; what is wrong with the kids today?
The answer is simple, the same thing that was wrong with me.
I remember growing up seeing posterized, neon prints of skulls with mohawks, guitarists strumming their knuckles bloody on cheap Stratocasters with no regard for tuning. I can still see low-kit basement shows filled with kids hemorrhaging hormones, covering bargain-priced mic stands with sweat and spit. No one knew what they were saying, no one knew anything; it was loud, obnoxious, and borderline degenerate. And it was perfect.
That’s the thing, I wasn’t around for the real thing. By the time I was born, an age had already passed in punk rock lore. The movement was a knee-jerk reaction to the polished stadium rock of the age. There was value in taking to garages, filling the air with the exact opposite of what people wanted to hear.
Culture swings that way; every action has an equal and opposite reaction, and the punk scene was born from that major swing. In the wake of the hippie counterculture, there was violence, aggression, and more sex. Daddy had long hair, now I cut all mine off. Daddy said to be kind to others, now I know what it feels like to hit someone with a bottle. Only now is it so transparent.
When I was coming up, learning how to think I was right about everything, I had no idea that I was just another kid putting a nail in the punk rock coffin. Even now I hear the sound of The Dead Kennedys echoing in tattoo shops when I’m under the needle (whenever Sword or Fu Manchu isn’t playing).
For as long as humans stick around, there will always be a contingent of disenfranchised youth looking to use the only tools at their disposal to disturb the natural order of things. A big part of me likes that; I’m not saying it’s the good part that smiles watching teens in tight leather set fire to Sedans in protest of fill-in-the-blank, but there is a part none-the-less.
Unfortunately, I can’t separate the reality of how these subcultures become co-opted by advertising. The same part that grins at the sight of mohawked people destroying property is just as happy watching a kid with a lip ring walk out of Hot Topic with an itemized receipt to show daddy how hard they’re willing to fight against “The Man.”
The point I’m making is that when you take something like the punk rock movement, and you don’t let it die, you disrespect it. If you just enjoy playing dress up with all the hallmarks of a punk rocker, then more power to you. There’s nothing wrong with liking the things you like based off no other reason than you like them, but it may be a little dangerous to think you’re leading an idealogical coupe against the machine of capitalism by buying a Sex Pistols vinyl off Amazon.
I’m not here to rain on the punk rock parade; I’m just interested in the way things die. From a purist level, you can’t expect to take a movement as salient and expressive as the punk rock scene of the late ’70s and have it seamlessly morph into the common market. The oxymoron of it all is that something punk rock can’t be universally liked and still be punk; think hipster plus testosterone. No matter how much you love your Black Flag T-shirt, someone’s walking around waiting to hate you for wearing it. Why? Because maybe they were there at the inception, and perhaps they watched their beloved scene go the way of the Dodo.
It all comes down to exclusivity, the way we like to create tribes centered around exceedingly edgy criteria. What separates a group of senators in some cave under Washington offering up the blood of White House interns in exchange for favor from the dark lord is the fact that being a punk rocker is free admission. You want to be feared, you want to be revered, but you’re just some kid willing to get in a fist fight over the plight of the proletariat. There’s a precedent for groups to form around the common belief of disenfranchisement, but what happens when there’s really nothing to bitch about?
Prosperity killed punk rock. It’s hard to live in suburbia and feel like life really gave you the shaft. At the same time as people are starving to death in India, some kid is trying out a homemade molotov cocktail on his or her white picket fence. The moment it became a good business decision to start slapping Ramones prints on tees in fast-fashion chains, punk rock became what it is now, an accessory.
Before you angrily rip off your studded belt, let me tell you a little more about what I think punk rock has become.
The central tenant of the whole attitude is the opposition to selling out; to turn your back on the ideologies, fashion, and other representations of your anti-establishment beliefs is decidedly not punk at all. There should be allegiance to that core principle of rage against mainstream capitalism, so how does the punk aesthetic blend harmoniously with the trends of today? Because there’s no price of admission.
When you have a members only club that touts itself on a cohesive brand of aggressive expression and contrarian conduct, what do you think happens when places like Hot Topic pop up? We have a long and illustrious history in America of taking things that are interesting, thought-provoking, and powerful and cheapening them. Then again, doesn’t anything with a value metric attributed to fashion deserve to be tested by the mainstream bent?
Look at the abstract art movement; the only thing that makes a Pollock worth buying is the era in which it was thrown together. The genius in a Rothko painting is not the ability to put large blocks of color on a canvas, the genius is in creating something new in an environment that’s actively not asking for it. It takes zero courage to walk in the well-worn footsteps of others, there’s also nothing wrong with doing that. I believe that the best way to get what you want is to emulate the people who have gotten it before you. It’s not easy, but it’s simple. The problem arises when you give up your self-awareness and force yourself to believe you’re making waves of your own when there’s nothing to really support that.
It’s smart to walk in the footsteps of others, it’s not smart to think that adopting a well-accepted style of dress and attitude means you’re fighting something. It’s just too easy.
Maybe I’m being a little harsh, idealistic, and over analytical. I’m not saying it’s time to donate everything you own and go down to Walmart for a Faded Glory makeover; I’m saying the lie you have to tell yourself to believe you’re a guerrilla soldier of progress is a whopping one. What happens when you wake up one morning as so many people from the punk movement did and realize the whole reason you’ve been headbanging to The Dead Kennedy’s was that you thought you were a social kamikaze pilot? The idea that you have to be realistic to move forward applies to everything.
The punk movement is just like any other subculture that has been taken and marketed as kitsch for the masses. The main thing to keep in mind is that it’s okay. Everything dies, you have to bury the dog before it starts stinking up the living room.
The attitude and philosophy is something we can learn from; we can even wear t-shirts in its honor. I just don’t know if thinking you’re countercultural by prescribing to something as easy as making a trip to the mall is very intellectually honest.
All that said, dawn your pink mohawk with pride, enjoy your stick and poke tattoos and denim vests. What happened to punk rock? It died, just like everything else. One must leave so that another might appear. People try to bring back the dead, and I’ve got to be ok with that. Maybe the real lesson to learn is that there is a virtue in manning the cockpit of your own fantasy, being able to pretend against all odds that you are in fact a unique and powerful being. There’s something almost punk about it.