Friday, September 28, 2007
Black Flag guitarist Greg Ginn circa 1984
"Punk," because it indicated such a wide variety of modes of expression, was always an unstable signifier. Certainly, to my mind, it was always easier to explain what punk was not; "that's not punk" being one of the operative clauses of the period.
Moreover, since circa 1990, which marked the period in which punk was appropriated into the official culture as a style stripped of its radical cultural/political implications, "punk" on this level, has ceased to have any intrinsic meaning beyond its historical connotations.
So that, given the above, I'd rather focus on whatever it was that punk meant/means to me as an individual. At this point, it would be customary to demonstrate my credentials on the topic: a long, annotated list of shows attended and records purchased; a demonstrable, detailed insider's knowledge of the key players and major events; an easy familiarity with the appropriate slang and jargon (easy answer: there really isn't any); and a strong, succinct opinion, one way or the other, on Lipstick Traces and the use of "London Calling" in a Jaguar commercial. Here I'm half-mocking the insularity of the punks, as well as the ease with which this sort of "street cred" can be faked (all of which was well-spoofed by The Tubes [of all people] in "I was a punk before you were a punk"). But this phenomena, I'm guessing, is characteristic of any underground, marginalized cultural movement. There was a very real sense in that being a punk was all one had, and so this identification was valued seriously and intensely by those that shared in it.
Which leads to a consideration of punk as an exclusive (but not, of course, in the sense of catering to the wealthy) social grouping. The nature of this exclusivity might certainly be seen, anthropologically, as universally determinant, to varying degrees, in any social grouping. It is interesting to note that Western societies, at least according to their official cant, now privilege inclusiveness and diversity as being among their celebrated "values." But what is proffered in reality is access to a diffuse, transparent, invasive, superficial and banal cultural milieu that at essence can only muster the anonymous consumer as its primary site of subjective identification. This is your reward for blending in with the melting pot: you get to buy stuff at the mall and be infotained. So there is a very real sense in which the socially exclusive nature of punk can be seen as an oppositional strategy in relationship to the bland material enticements and specious ideology of the official culture.
That said, based on my own experiences with the San Diego hardcore punk scene during the 1980's, I can offer the observation that I've never been involved with a more diverse group of people. Not only was the scene itself factionalized; politics, attitudes, aesthetics and behaviors were varied literally beyond belief. Often the only thing anyone seemed to have in common was their shared code of identification.
Paradoxically, the uniqueness and fragility of punk as social identity was reinforced by prevailing market forces. Many among the first wave of punk bands in New York and England in the mid-to late 1970's were signed to major record labels in attempt to cash in on the latest "teenaged" music trend. The majority of these bands had relatively small sales and this, combined with their radical form and content (and the band's own irreverent, indeed venomous attitudes towards the labels themselves), led to them being dropped by the majors. The host of younger bands forming in the wake of the first wave were subsequently ignored by the major American labels. So that, for any punk band forming after this period, there was the very real knowledge that prospects for commercial success (or even a living wage) were slim at best. At that point, any band identifying itself as punk did so out of enthusiasm and commitment (and a strong dose of foolhardiness). What arose in reaction agains these restrictions was the formation of an underground network of independent record labels and promotional tools, often formed and managed by the groups themselves, operating at barely self-sustaining profit levels.
At that point, to be a punk was to be commercially marginalized and culturally untouchable. This led to a very precise and concrete awareness that the identification as a punk was reinforced by real world conditions: it was not simply another prefabricated lifestyle to be donned and then discarded in a leisure class search for self identity. It was instead an existential choice fraught with some personal peril and invested with tremendous meaning generated by the participants themselves. It was, in a word, freedom.
Subjectively, how it all felt, was this: when you became and shared in being a punk, this identity permitted the play of your desires, your politics, your aesthetics and provided a means of locating as a unique individual with in a dynamic, distinct social group. It was a spontaneous, intuitive group exercise in the creation of meaning. And outside of that...was nothing.
So to see the whole thing co-opted in the early 1990's, sold out for a song on the strung out byways of yet another Lollapalooza tour, well, that was pretty fucking hard.
A recent exchange with Trumanwater reminded me of this post I wrote for Michael Filas' punk studies page, which I am recycling here in the general spirit of inquiry into the nature of catagorical distinctions per se.