Opinion: What is punk?

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What is punk? It’s a question that’s formed the backbone of many redundant documentaries, intoxicated late night conversations, snobby record store employee ideologies, and modern age twitter shit-slinging—it’s a question that feels absurdly unanswerable yet dangerously tangible, and it’s a question that will never, ever find a permanent solution. However, punk’s frustrating ambiguity should not go without analysis. Punk and its ethics are vital sources of innovation within the music community and the world as a whole—it’d be a musical sin to remain ignorant on the subject.

First off, punk is an ideology, not a fashion. Billy Bragg once said, “Were it not for the Clash, punk would have just been a sneer, a safety pin, and pair of bondage trousers.” It’s a statement that hopefully rings true in most punks’ ears. The Clash politicized punk and gave it a purpose. After “White Riot,” the image of Sid Vicious didn’t feel as rebellious or dangerous, it just felt lazy, purposeless, and stagnant. No one strives to be a burnout and just like George Costanza’s quick stint with the bad boy image, its coolness fades. Punk is more than just an excuse to be a nihilist. And sure, it took some balls for The Sex Pistols to do the kind of things they did, but in retrospect the band’s ethics feel immature and slightly narcissistic. A true punk is much more than a collection of safety pins, back patches, and food stamps. A true punk is educated (not necessarily though a university), opinionated, open-minded, and overtly ambitious in whatever they do. Henry Rollins, Ian Mackaye, Jello Biafra—these men are truly punk. Although many probably would not like to admit it, their bands did not make music for Sid Vicious fans. They made music to pour out 40 ounces to rather than chug, they wrote songs to motivate couch-ridden punks, and most importantly they gave a shit. Punk is stereotypically defined as “not giving a shit,” when it is truly the opposite; it’s giving a huge shit and throwing it in everyone’s faces.

In today’s day and age, after the popularization of pop-punk in the 1990’s, the genre has found itself wrapped up in a new internal struggle: punk ethics and wealth. You hear so many punk bands these days saying, “fuck the rich, fuck the corporations,” yet their arguments typically hold no intellectual ground. Yes, it sucks when Wal-Mart moves in and displaces the local clothing store. Yes, it sucks when the Goldman Sachs executive purposely drives through the rainfall cesspool on the side of the road, shooting water all over the ‘poor-boy’ walking home. For the most part, mankind understands the inherent shittiness that can come along with wealth. But not every wealthy person is a bundle of greed dressed in Brooks Brothers. Mackaye is worth $25 million, Steve Jobs was astronomically wealthy yet insanely DIY, and Tony Hawk (a true DIY legend) is worth $120 million. Wealth is not a bad thing. Wealth only becomes an issue when one throws it in the world’s face. I’m sure Tony Hawk drives a nice car but he’s not swerving to shoot cesspool pond rot all over the less-fortunate, he’s just enjoying the products of his hard work. And just because a punk becomes successful doesn’t mean their ethics change. It’s like when Gilman St. attacked Jello Biafra for “selling-out,” even though the Dead Kennedys never belonged to a major label. Biafra was just a bigger punk star, not a major label sell-out.

The punk community is most simply put as a ‘he said, she said’ dichotomy, with one half ignorantly attacking anything remotely successful while cowering behind layers of smug coolness to avoid debate, while the other half is intelligently assessing lifelong issues and promoting opinion. In a recent Twitter debacle between New Jersey punk rockers, Titus Andronicus, Georgia garage rockers, Black Lips, and an angry local Georgian, the southerners teamed up on Titus and ridiculed frontman, Patrick Stickles for being a fraud on the account of his wealthy upbringing. The Southerners’ points just don’t hold any sort of merit, positivity, or intellect (an aspect I wouldn’t be surprised to see them boasting). For one, Stickles has no say in how he was brought up (that’d be equivalent to a rich kid shitting on a poor kid for being poor, just vice-versa). Second, Black Lips and the Georgian really have no grounds for opinion on Stickles’ self-proclamation to the punk creed; the Georgian teammates play the role of God in the shit talking, negating any sort of true grounds for an argument. I don’t necessarily like Kim Kardashian, Paris Hilton, or Kobe Bryant, but I don’t dislike them because of their wealth. They’re just uninteresting people but I still can’t disregard them as nonhuman, I’m not god. Third, Stickles commonly promotes punk and DIY ethics. Titus relentlessly tours, stresses the importance of local business, and now even offers a NYC-NJ area singing telegram; if that’s not punk I don’t know what is. Who gives a shit if his dad is a wealthy lawyer if he still promotes the good vibes of punk? I know I sure don’t. The Black Lips’ snobby responses felt more like douchey, Sid Vicious-like emulations rather than hip originality. This Twitter debate perfectly illustrates the self-destrucitonism of modern day punk. If the genre continues to question itself so viciously and antagonistically, punk will eventually dissolve in the flames of a musical civil war.

To quote the great nerdcore rapper, MC Lars, “Sex Pistols boxer shorts are not punk rock.” Your nose rings are not punk rock. Sitting around, bitching about the status quo is not punk rock. Allowing jealousy to overcome ambition is not punk rock. Bitching about materialism is not punk rock. The Leftover Crack back patch on your denim jacket is not punk rock. Getting your ass off the couch, educating yourself, accepting yourself, listening to others’ opinions rather than disregarding them, giving a shit—that’s punk as fuck.

-Ryan Ricks

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