Love Nitsuh and Judy both, but this isn’t Nitsuh’s strongest work.
The “punk mentality” used to be a “default ethos” among “rock kids”?* I guess this depends on where you grew up, but that’s gonna be news for punk kids who got sneered at for liking The Slits over Zeppelin, treated like space aliens for liking Slant 6 more than the Beatles, for liking Half Japanese or Unrest more than Aerosmith or AC/DC, you know? Nirvana did something to unite punk and rock fans, but the depth of that union may have been pretty surface level for many.
Not sure what “punk-think” is either. But “joyful and liberating” and “guarded” aren’t opposites. Frankly, it makes sense to be protective of the stuff that is the most awesome and precious to you, especially for communities of marginalized folks. You know? You want to keep Taco Bell out of your all-ages DIY festival not because you hate fun, but because you want to create a context where reckless innocence can thrive unimpeded. That’s always been part of the dynamic.
And then this idea that the internet enables “escape” from monoculture; okay but what if the point isn’t to “escape” but to engage and ultimately transform stuff? Is Nitsuh saying that critical readings of and attitudes toward shitty mass culture are obsolete because you can find alternatives easier? Seriously? True, it is the prevalent trend right now, to imagine that mass culture doesn’t actually have any power over people because one can make jokes about it on twitter, or find a alternative consumer identity that fits one’s taste preferences without much friction.
Yes, “delight in artifice” is great, but artifice is one critical tool in a artist’s toolbox. So the question is: to what end? Delight in artifice for the sake of artifice is still frequently a capitalist bummer.
And okay, we’re being a tad strident here (BECAUSE PUNX ARE ALWAYS ANGRY LOL!), but I dunno why it seems suddenly trendy to conceptualize “punk” in 2013 as if it resembled the Maximum Rock N Roll letters page in ‘94; today’s punks are heterogenous and frequently musically omnivorous and doing rad joyful stuff all over. When you see writing like this you wonder how deeply engaged these writers are with the diverse universe of punk kids today. And maybe that’s not Nitsuh’s job as a pop music writer for a major publication, or maybe it’s just descriptive of phenomena endemic to NYC (which we don’t know much about, having never lived there) but it’s kind of disappointing.
Because if the prescription is to nudge punk in the direction of poptimism, that doesn’t seem “bolder”, it just seems trendier and more congruent with late capitalism.
*We apologize for the overuse of scarequotes in this post, but those sentences are full of questionable constructs and abstractions we can’t really get behind.
Respect to you, too, and I understand why you’d have a problem with the piece. But I think you’re seeing punk as a philosophy or lifestyle — and especially the punks of today — through rose-colored glasses. As someone who has loved punk music for basically my whole life (despite never identifying as “a punk,” which I think is key to having some distance on it), I understand that it’s upsetting to see the movement painted as reactionary.
You reference poptimism, and that is important to this argument. To identify as “a punk” in 2013 is, in large part, to be a rockist. And that comes with some ideological baggage that historically privileges the musical forms approved by straight white men over genres dominated by women, queer people, and people of color. This is what your Slits fans and your Led Zeppelin fans have in common — they both think that a guitar-wielding person singing songs that he or she wrote is the highest form of musical expression. That doesn’t mean that everyone who identifies as “a punk” is so retrograde that they can’t appreciate a great pop song, but it does mean I can’t speak to Nitsuh’s familiarity with punks in 2013, but I’ve definitely seen enough of that world to notice a problem with people who profess to be so radical closing their minds to so much of what our culture has to offer.
There are aspects of this that don’t even have to with rockism. Some of it has to do with how self-evident punk’s anti-artifice argument has become over the past 35 years. No one’s shocked anymore when you point out that most pop stars’ songs are written by committee or that their images are constructed in a boardroom or that they shill for major corporations. (Never mind that plenty of mainstream bands who “write their own songs” and are marketed as “punk” were constructed in a very similar way.) This stuff is just so obvious it’s become naive to say it out loud. This is, in part, a credit to how effective its early critiques of pop culture were. (Never mind that, as Nitsuh notes, the very first punks had much more open and complex relationships to pop culture than subsequent waves.) But since that critique has stayed static as our collective understanding of pop culture has evolved — especially since the turn of the millennium — it’s punk that’s become outmoded.
This is what’s hurting punk, as an identity, a critical stance, and a genre of music. I don’t deny that we need the punk voice, that corrective negation, that insistence that we question the artifice that threatens to make us complacent. But as we become more sophisticated in our understanding of all that, we need punk to become more sophisticated, too — we need it to tell us something about our culture that we don’t already know. And I can’t think of the last time it’s done that.
Judy, we appreciate the response here, but we remain deeply puzzled by this:
"To identify as “a punk” in 2013 is, in large part, to be a rockist."[…]the ideology they’ve adopted — not by liking punk music as one genre among many but by identifying as “a punk” — values an increasingly shallow definition of authenticity that upholds some troubling received wisdom that reinforces classic-rock norms.
We don’t understand this. Why should this be so? Who gets to decide what someone else’s identity means? This is a bummer for us as queer people who are constantly being told what identifying as queer should mean, instead of allowed to define it for ourselves, or as feminists who are told that feminism means hating men. Assuming we’re using Douglas Wolk’s definition of rockism, which means positing rock values as “normative,” it’s easy to forget that first wave punk can be understood as a criticism of rockism using a rock vocabulary. In 2013, the punk labels we love the most are putting out hip-hop, weird electro noise music, house, dubby-folk, alongside guitar rock. (Yes, dull annoying rockist wankers are still present in punk, just like the rest of the world. But, um, anyone with an internet connection can easily escape them!)
"And that comes with some ideological baggage that historically privileges the musical forms approved by straight white men over genres dominated by women, queer people, and people of color. This is what your Slits fans and your Led Zeppelin fans have in common — they both think that a guitar-wielding person singing songs that he or she wrote is the highest form of musical expression. "
We’ll set aside questions about which genres have offered which kinds of opportunities for diverse kinds of humans, because, OMG huge topic. But we know a lot of punks who love the Slits, and we don’t think we know any that think a “guitar-wielding person singing songs that he or she wrote is the highest form of musical expression”. Frankly, we don’t think most Slits fans even give a shit about what the “highest form of musical expression” is. That isn’t the point. The point is community, possibility, inspiration, not technical skill, not even “great art for the ages”, not virtuosity. And we don’t know any Slits fans in 2013 who aren’t also into like, Dolly Parton, and Salt N’ Pepa and Kate Bush.
To the extent that punk still fixates on guitar rock, it’s not because most punks think guitar rock is the “highest form” of anything, so much as a reflection of the obvious fact that when music is made in a context that is focused on community and traditions, people create stuff they choose the tools and tropes that are available to them based on their immediate cultural context, not because they think those tools are inherently superior to all others.
And this business about punk’s critique remaining static? This is hard to address without getting into the messy business of defining what punk’s fundamental critique actually is (there are multitudes—a topic for another post). And there’s also something to be interrogated about why novelty is so paramount these days, or the false equation of novelty with sophistication—why we’re all more inclined to ask for culture to “tell us something new” instead of “tell us something true” (even as we could point to a lot of bands/artists that are doing both.)
But if you accept that part of the point of the endeavor is some kind of social transformation on individual or collective levels, just because something is obvious and “everyone” knows doesn’t mean there’s a reason to stop saying it! There is endless value in articulating and rearticulating big corny irreducible truths like:
Women and queers should be able to control their bodies and destinies.
An increasingly small handful of corporations control the vast majority of media outlets, and we should fix that.
Authority should be accountable.
We should work to create better and more egalitarian systems that value people over money and privilege.
You have agency and you don’t need permission.
It’s okay to feel how you’re feeling.
Punk praxis does this stuff for us; gives us access to a community of shared values and mutual support and critical inquiry and accountability. Obvs not the only place you can access those insights and resources, but it works for us, and that’s why we’re punks, even as most of the music we listen to sounds more like Sade than Minor Threat these days.(via gaysagainstgaga)