I’ve been a punk rock fan pretty much since the first time I encountered it. What it’s always meant to me was pure rebellion. Really that’s what rock music is about, but when the genre as a whole starts to get away from that, straying towards the conventional, the pretentious, the overinflated, punk rock is there to ground it in what it’s always really been about. Punk, to me, means doing whatever you want without regard for convention or expectation, and as much as art imitates life, punk rock is the musical expression of ideas like individuality, anti-authoritarianism, and free thought.
At least in theory. In practice, punk is a lot more complex. It seems that, pretty much since its inception, the punk community has had very narrow definitions of what makes someone or something “Punk.” Inside as well as outside the community, if it has more than 3 chords, doesn’t have loud, fast, distorted guitars, angry, yelled vocals, or overtly socio-political themes, it isn’t punk. In the 80s, bands like Black Flag and Hüsker Dü challenged these definitions by releasing records that deviated from genre conventions substantially, especially the with the latter band’s follow up to their decidedly hardcore album Metal Circus, the critically acclaimed Zen Arcade, which featured psychedelia, acoustic numbers, progressive experimentation, and deeply personal, apolitical lyrics. They still operated as a punk band, releasing on independent label SST Records and retaining many DIY principles. They also still challenged many conventions in mainstream culture, operating well within the underground of American music. While many would say that this is a landmark record in the transition from punk to alternative rock, I feel it strongly embodies the punk spirit. By shaking any conventions they felt to be undesirable, including those found within the very community they were a part of, Hüsker Dü created a truly amazing album, the influence of which is still being felt today.
Eventually, alternative rock went mainstream when Nirvana broke into the collective cultural consciousness. I was listening to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” again recently, trying to understand what makes it punk rock – because it most definitely is punk, if anything is. It doesn’t sound like anything the Sex Pistols, Black Flag, or Joy Division would ever have released. It doesn’t even really sound like the Pixies, whom Kurt Cobain claimed to have ripped off when he penned the song, because it has a menace and bitterness to it that the Pixies never had. The song possesses none of the straightforward aggression of a typical Minor Threat song, as I don’t think Cobain could ever have pulled off a convincing Ian MacKaye imitation. But he obviously displays much anger. Dynamically it resembles few punk songs of the time. Perhaps it is a crossing over of the anger of hardcore and the dynamics of the Pixies that make it what it is, but it is more than the sum of its parts, forming something totally different from what came before it. And no, it isn’t “grunge,” that made up term only created as a joke and only ever seriously adopted by music journalists who never got that joke. It’s the sound of a band that made something new, something that they wanted to make and only they could have made – and that is what punk rock really is.
Since alternative rock has come to be related to stale stadium rock-wannabes like Red Hot Chili Peppers and the White Stripes, rather than a subset of punk rock, where does punk have left to go? Since Nirvana’s demise, pop-punk and emo have been the only punk trends to gain any traction in the mainstream. Green Day brought an accessible, yet still distinctly punk sounding, approach, along with personal, cathartic lyrics about idling in young adulthood. They presented themselves as punk, were accepted as punk by many, but departed significantly from what typically is said to make punk. The Offspring and Blink-182 followed, and the genre was a great influence on the development of emo in the next decade. But where do we go now? Pop-punk isn’t really a cohesive movement which asserts itself in the mainstream anymore (although it can still make critically interesting music, see The Wonder Years and Mixtapes), and emo either died of overwhelming backlash or merged together with what pop-punk has become in 2013. Hardcore stopped being relevant quite some time ago, and no new trends have come about in circles distinctly identified as punk. What is known as “indie” has long since distanced itself from the punk community and alternative rock radio. Bands like Arcade Fire and Vampire Weekend seem to have no semblance to Black Flag or Nirvana. At this point, punk fans fall into one of two camps: either they tend to be cynical old timers who insist that no good punk bands have come out since Jawbreaker signed to a major label, or they’re regular Warped Tour attendees. And if indie rock can’t be relied on to carry the punk torch, we must ask: is punk dead? I hold out hope that, as long as there are those who will pick up a guitar and refuse to bend to convention, the punk spirit lives on.
Let me know what you think in the comments!