Front Page Reviews & AIR
Does Punk Music Still Matter?
There was a little something for everyone in the international ascent of the Russian “punk collective” Pussy Riot. Not only did it rekindle some juicy Cold War-era saber rattling and inspire some ridiculous “copycat” performances, it also managed to revive the long-dormant idea of punk music as a medium capable of having a real socio-political impact. As British rock ideologue Billy Bragg wrote in an open letter to the band, “To Pussy Riot: Can music change the world? Only in very special circumstances. Once in a generation, a band can create a moment on which society turns. Through your brave actions, you have provided Russia with such a moment. Your fellow musicians stand with you.” But such overwrought sentiments—which were echoed by other rock elder-statesmen like Paul McCartney and Sting—tended to overlook the fact that only the tiniest fraction of those familiar with Pussy Riot’s travails had ever heard a single note of their music (not to mention that the non-musical protest which landed them in jail was far more reminiscent of an amateur interpretive dance performance than a punk rock show). Which begs the question: has music become superfluous to our collective understanding of what “punk” means?
Of course, the complicating factor here is that, even though the word punk has very specific connotations for most of us, there has never been a singular collective understanding of what punk means. Even the bands most associated with punk’s mid-70s breakthrough had wildly divergent ideas about what punk was supposed to mean. For The Ramones it meant back-to-basics rock music simplicity. For The Sex Pistols it meant inciting anti-monarchical anarchy. For Richard Hell and the Voidoids it meant exploring Hell’s suicidal nihilistic impulses. For The Clash it had more to do with embodying a life-affirming, anti-establishment authenticity. These competing definitions of punk’s essential ethos have led its ideological descendants to use the same word to describe very different things. But for a while there, it was safe to say that, at the very least, punk meant “anti-establishment” or, as Michael Azerrad defined punk’s motto in his book Our Band Could Be Your Life, “Think for yourself.” And through the 80s, it was generally assumed that punk music embodied this basic ethos.
But by the 90s, even this most basic distillation of the punk ethos couldn’t be applied to “pop-punk” bands like Green Day, The Offspring, and Blink 182, for whom an easy partnership with the mega-corporations running the mainstream music industry became commonplace. Billie Joe Armstrong’s eyeliner and Travis Barker’s tattoos and mohawk became little more than symbolic stand-ins for rebellion as they were effortlessly co-opted by the corporate powers that be and turned into marketing tools used to convince teenage consumers that “thinking for yourself” was synonymous with buying a certain brand of cell phone or using a particular subscription music service. And in the process, the “punk” music style (loud, fast-paced, three-chord rock) was severed from the “punk” ethos (defined here, for simplicity’s sake, as anti-establishment individualism). While mainstream corporate bands like Green Day and Blink 182 did their best to confuse the issue with their continued anti-establishment posturing and superficial signifiers of “rebellion,” it was still pretty clear to anyone paying attention that, by the new millennium anyway, the punk music style did not equal the punk ethos.
Based on the examples being employed, it’s pretty clear that none of this is exactly new. But it can still be surprising the extent to which our cultural curators are happy to embrace whatever watered-down approximation of the punk ethos the music industry establishment happens to be dishing out at any given time. Given all the misdirecting signifiers, it was at least somewhat understandable when critics mistook Green Day’s punk posturing for the punk ethos—though after the release of “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” it became decidedly less understandable. But Taylor Swift? Really? Ann Powers’ recent NPR article “Taylor Swift, Princess of Punk?” may only be the most ridiculous in a long line of increasingly ridiculous applications of the term “punk,” but it feels like we’ve reached the end of some sort of line when the term “punk” can be used to describe a song that, in virtually every way, embodies the opposite of the punk ethos.
The first thing that should be pointed out about Swift’s song “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”—which Powers unapologetically describes as a “powerful” descendant of “feminist punk”—is that, as undeniably catchy as it is, it’s about as revolutionary as a hangnail. Not only does Swift’s calculated high school snottiness bear little substantive relation to anything from punk’s first generation, her bad-good-girl posturing is a blatant rip-off of a formula adopted by countless mainstream female pop artists in the last decade-and-a-half, from Britney Spears to Pink to Avril Lavigne to Kelly Clarkson to Katy Perry. Even so, one might still be able to make the case that Swift’s unique artistic interpretation of the motif is worth particular attention had the song not been co-written with Max Martin, the 41-year-old Swedish songwriter who has made a career of penning chart-topping, hyper-sexualized break-up anthems for teenage girls—including startlingly similar hits for the aforementioned Spears, Pink, Lavigne, Clarkson, and Perry—in between writing songs for the likes of Justin Bieber and The Backstreet Boys. All that to say, the sentiment in “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” isn’t just a product of the establishment, it isn’t even the result of Swift’s own creative vision. So much for punk individualism.
The point here isn’t to single out Swift, who is no more culpable for all this than the other female pop singers in whose well-travelled footsteps she’s following. But the unchallenged association of Swift’s latest single with punk music on an outlet as ubiquitous as NPR calls into question the continuing relevance of the term “punk music” itself. If a commercially calculated bubble-gum single distributed by a major label and co-written with a middle-aged industry insider for consumption by teenage girls can be classified as punk, what can’t be? Maybe it was wise for Pussy Riot to perform their “punk prayer” without musical accompaniment. If “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” qualifies as a punk, it’s possible our collective understanding of the term “punk music” has become so compromised that the only way to effectively embody the punk ethos these days is to avoid music altogether.