06/09/2010

Punk as Ideology



"Punk is a music that is inherently hilarious. To try to make serious punk music is like trying to make serious happy hardcore. That's never been its purpose for me."

James


VS


"It has always been my way to de-value the fashionable, light-hearted, impulsive traits that people associate with punk, because punk is more than that, so much more. Those elements become trivial in the light of the experience that punkers share."

– Greg Graffin



I only mean "ideology" in the new neutral sense of 'a set of political beliefs'. (Whereas marxists and politicians use it as an insult.)

Political science splits ideologies into: their core beliefs (the essence of the thing), adjacent beliefs (other commonly found themes), and peripheral (fringe but distinctive) beliefs. This clunky approach lets us account for the mind-jarring variety of people that all call themselves "liberals", or "socialists", or whatever.

While I'm being academic about it: the following recognises only one rough temporal distinction (1970s fashion vs C21st counterculture) and focusses on the Chomskyist, ineffectual, teenage Punk of Britain, America, Australia, rather than the capital-R resistance in Indonesia, Burma, Chile, etc.




Punk crawled out of an aesthetic in 1970s New York art and London fashion. As such, and despite the namedropping Malcolm McLaren might have made to the contrary, it was basically apolitical. But whether it originally was or not, it has been taken to be a political movement, and when you have this much social energy surrounding something, being is less important than becoming. (I use "punx" below for the personal-political, dressing-up/ spitting/ crusty/ amoral side of things, which overlaps only somewhat with the political formulation.) Throughout, I resist abstracting the Punk Ideal from Punk Rock music, mostly because it's very barren to me without that engine, that cresting noise.

Even if you grant its evolution into a New Social Movement, you might still deny that punk is genuinely political, call it antipolitical, as seen in the tendency to spoil votes, and in the way that the idea of a punk politician feels paradoxical.

Some people define "politics" as "collective, negotiated use of power" - and in this sense, while anarchism (and fascism) is a form of government, it is not a form of politics. Punk is too large to tie to just "spiky-hair anarchism", though. There's a great vague family of identities, but any given form of it usually circles an anarchism-meets-an existentialism-meets-hormones.


CORE


  • + Absolute egalitarianism:
    But often in a specific inverted way: "We are all sub-human scum. You're no better than me, I no more than you." To the point of ignoring legitimate difference. Or, as DRI put it: "Look at you, Look at me, there's no difference I can see." (Entails the DIY ethic, and bands playing in, not above the crowd. Also implies Internationalism)

  • +The rhetoric of free thought
    Self-described rebels, self-elected freethinkers. (Entails social activism, protesting, irreligiousness, and civil disobedience)

  • + The rhetoric of authenticity:
    In which it prefigured thug-hop's "realness". (Entails abhorrence of popularity.)

  • + Demonization of authority
    John Pilger and Noam Chomsky being common credible sources for the stance.


ADJACENTS

  • + Individualism, individualism, individualism
    (Entails obsession with nonconformity; customized, deviant appearance [sometimes itself a new uniform]; drugs; refusal of ordinary roles.)

  • + Anticapitalism
    Marxist terms get thrown about a lot in lyrics and interviews, though few bands really took it on with real seriousness. (TROTSKY DOES SKA!) (Entails guilt about consumerism, disdain for materialism, and opportunistic squatting, freeganism.)

  • + Antiglobalization
    Anger, often vague, about the linked phenomena that are assumed to be limited to corporate conglomeration, labour outsourcing, tax evasion, economic unaccountability and all that. I say anti rather than the continental label, 'alter-mondialisation' because most Brits miss the point: that there are many globalisations and the one where foreign music and history and places are more accessible than they have ever ever been is also globalisation. There are very, very few arguments that can counterweight this more or less conclusive, more or less inspiring piece of research.

  • + Being angry and a bit muddled
    See treatments of any of: Left individualism and/or Socialism and/or anarchism.

  • + New Anarchism. Anarchism was fairly dormant from the end of the Spanish Civil War to the 70s. Punk revitalized it, rebranded it - while it was always a thing for angry young men, it is now the quintessential youth politics, away from the mannered, literary resistance of Kropotkin or Proudhon, towards the tragically hip Hakim Bey and Howard Zinn.

  • + Animal rights & Ecologism
    Sadly often of a sentimental rather than intellectual nature, but punks can still be seen to have disproportionate awareness of social justice, ethical and environmental issues, at least where this conforms to the above anti-state, anti-tradition rules. (Entails veganism, BIKEPUNK)

  • + Snobbery
    A rejection of pop culture, as "brainwashing commercialized shit" or as simply "shit". Part of the long series of rejections one must conduct in order to be truly DIY. (Entails abhorrence of popularity, the fear and hatred of "selling out". This leads to casualties.)

  • + Inverse snobbery
    A rejection of quality ("bourgeois"), of tradition. Again mostly not because of any Marxist or other social critique, but because it's boring or inaccessible or old.


Now; in between these two snobberies, what do we find? : The grand retreat called The Subculture, and its churches the commune or the Punk House. We'll build a little birdhouse in your world. In this way it's a blatant antecedent of Josiah Warren and other utopian folk's attempts to break away and create a perfect part inside the evil whole.


PERIPHERY

  • + Anarcho-capitalism(!)

  • + Far-left Oi: genre with emphasis on working-class aggro.

  • + Racism: (Far-right Oi)

  • + Racism: (ordinary)

And yes, the last two do suggest that placing "egalitarianism" in the core is misguided.



(c) Penny Rimbaud


IDENTIFIABLE STRAINS
  1. DAFFY - see James quote above; this is punk as prank music, an inept, energetic and democratic fountain of youth. Politics never was a necessary condition. (Out of the hundreds of songs that quintessential punk band The Ramones recorded, only one or two can at all be described as political.)
     
  2. FASHION / NIHILIST - Up the Punx - see Appendix (Can be intellectualized, but it's no politics.
  3. RATIONALIST - Po-faced progressives. (e.g. Ian MacKaye, Greg Graffin, Terry Eagleton, Suzanne Moore)
     
  4. ANARCHO - Radical as it gets. (e.g. Penny Rimbaud) & or FEMINIST - (Riot grrl)

The following applies to the last two. The appendix applies to the nihilistic (2).


If I were more radical in an orthodox way, I suppose I'd resent even political punk for being hollow and distracting; for being childish and unrigorous. As it is, I just have grudging respect for its utopianism and an addiction to the sounds it has thrown up.


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APPENDIX: ON PUNX

Here's where the stereotypes of thuggery and idiocy come from: this is Punk as post-hippie aesthetic. It primarily trades in on Cold War kids' fear, anger, alienation. A self-centred, rebel disaffection - and an adjective: "he's so punk rock".

Anyone who's vague on the aesthetic can just take a look-see at the band names ("Teenage Jesus and the Jerks", "the Vibrators", "the Lunachicks", "the Meat Puppets", "Black Flag/White Flag/Anti-Flag").


I like hate and I hate everything else!
-Peter Bagge

CORE

+ Irony,
+ Pessimism,
+ Amateurism.
+ Depiction of crime, atrocities and the Other.
ADJACENTS

+ Primitivism - Embrace of the the freakish, the low, the cheap and the taboo, for kicks (Lou Reed, Iggy) or semi-political art (Patti Smith).

+ Nihilism - Deviance. Embrace of the amoral and sleazy and violent. Wear the hakenkreuz just to offend. Obsession with kitsch and cool. (Richard Hell)

+ Syncretism: You can find basically any genre that has at least one band or other adding "-punk" to it. And much has been made, historiographically, of the ska-reggae-dub-punk coplex of the early 80s.

+ Collage - People talk about this as a hip-hop specialty (and sampling did take it into music. And yet.

+ Distrust of the old: "Year Zero". Reinvent, hyperbolize the generation gap.
In case you had any doubts: Punk art does work. We study anti-intellectuals, blood-fascists and theoryless thugs in English literature lectures, I suppose because it's not education that fuels art. Nor beauty. Nor reason.



A telling episode in the style is the release of Bad Religion's second album Into the Unknown. They had built a fanbase in the fast basic hardcore scene, but ItU is a big cheap proggy thing, and not bad at all if you're not looking for a punk record.

Whatever intellectual aspirations BR might have had towards punk being somehow about freedom, somehow about real individualism, were sunk when the extent of hostility and mockery became clear. More or less all of the first and only pressing was recalled.


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Who else needs a disclaimer like this?


(Napalm Death, "Nazi Punks Fuck Off")

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"It is unnecessary for music to make people think. It would be enough if it made them listen."

– Debussy



"I don't know why we are here, but I'm quite sure that is not in order to enjoy ourselves."

– Wittgenstein



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