Sunday, July 10, 2011
Punk or No Punk
To start at the beginning: punk began in England. The master narrative will always continue: it was a musical reaction against the excesses and self-indulgences of the 70s. But, at a tangent to the (usually American rock) master narrative, punk was also a political movement, and that’s more difficult to address. How much do American rock critics understand Britain’s class structure? Punk immediately put a chasm in place between American and British rock; some rock artists were conscientious about admitting this, some weren’t. It was also one of the few movements in rock to generate small commercial successes and also to exert enormous influence on almost everyone. Of the two major flagship bands, the Clash were more authentically punk, if also principled; the Sex Pistols were a carefully crafted product. The important thing that bound punk together was the necessity of maintaining a working-class image. There were (ostensibly) no middle-class punks. Rather than working-class obduracy, the Clash embodied working-class idealism, as manifest in an abridged Marxist-leaning interest in raising the British working-class up. The Pistols were both more pure and dirtier— purer, because they weren’t espousing an ideology; dirtier, because they seemed to have every intention of becoming rock stars.
Middle-class punk came later, and in the States; the Pistols and the Clash, though they had drastically different intentions, formed a well-rounded cultural sign. It soon became the case that punk-adjuncts like Elvis Costello, the Pretenders, and the Police could use pop-sense to outsell the punks; and by then, the Pistols had imploded anyway. Punk scenes that developed in American cities (particularly L.A. and Washington, D.C.) tended to lean towards a Clash, rather than a Pistols, orientation— even if class was less of an issue than educated anti-corporate scrupulousness (especially in D.C.). Punk, more than any other sustained movement in rock history, was about politics. The big question is whether the music validated the entire punk endeavor. The Clash were unique; they did develop, over several albums, a varied musical palette. Most punk bands still do not develop varied musical palettes— the chiasmus from punk to pop-punk allows some leeway, as when Green Day put out American Idiot in 2006. It was a successful stab in the direction of progressive punk, and possibly a move forward for the genre. But many punks don’t want any pop in the mix— the original punks actually tended to hate Costello, Chrissie Hynde, and Sting. Pop-punk could even be construed as the same thing as New Wave.
It’s another chiasmus in American punk— purists like Black Flag and Fugazi (“indie punks”) and the pop-punk ideal Green Day embodies. Is punk without some pop in it good music? It’s loud, aggressive, unmelodic, and tends to be static from song to song. It can be used for cathartic purposes, but when this is the case, punk bands have no distinct identity— this kind of punk all sounds roughly the same. Yet the homogeneity of corporate America is supposed to be what it and they are rebelling against. Pop and standardized punk both take the genre in more extreme directions than the Pistols or the Clash do. It’s ironic to see balance, rather than extreme aggression, in Pistols and Clash music, but it is there. Even John Lydon’s vocals are delivered with a certain amount of pop-sense. The Clash have a song or two in the classic rock radio corpus (“Train in Vain,” “Rock the Casbah”), though the Pistols’ lyrics were probably too outré for them to be included in said corpus. I would argue that they’ve been able to maintain visibility because they did have pop-sense, and that Amer-Indie punk is comparatively lazy. If a song doesn’t deserve to be heard more than once, perhaps it doesn’t deserve to be heard at all. To the extent that, from the Beatles onward, British and American rock go back and forth in a kind of ping-pong war, the punk round seems to have been won (overall, and in a close-run fashion) by the Brits. It serves to show that the intersections of ideology and music are risky, if ideology is allowed to “win.” Solid ideas are nothing in art without solid forms to back them up. And this tension’s been around for at least two-hundred years.