Punk Rock is Bullshit
How a toxic social movement poisoned our culture.By John Roderick
For those of us who grew up in the shadow of the baby boom, force-fed the misremembered vainglory of Woodstock long after most hippies had become coked-out, craven yuppies on their way to becoming paranoid neo-cons, punk rock provided a corrective dose of hard truth. Punk was ugly and ugly was true, no matter how many new choruses the boomers added to their song of self-praise. It was this perceived honesty that we, the nascent Generation X, feared and worshipped. But over time punk swelled into a Stalinistic doctrine of self-denial that stunted us. The yuppies kept sucking, but by clinging to punk we started to suck too.
I have friends in their mid-40s who don’t even have a savings account because “saving money” never seemed punk rock. I can’t count the number of small businesses I’ve seen fail because worrying about inventory or actually charging customers didn’t seem very punk rock. I was once chastised for playing at a private Microsoft function by a guy who worked there, so disappointed was he that I would sell out by playing a corporate gig.
Punk taught us to rebel against authority until “authority” included everything: piano lessons, fire insurance, leather shoes, and, ultimately, growing up. Punk taught us to have contempt for every institution, except Fugazi, until contempt and suspicion were the first and only reactions we had to everything. Good news was embarrassing, success was shameful, and a happy childhood an unthinkable transgression. These personality disorders were just punk in practice.
It’s time we stopped disavowing happiness and measured pride, we punk survivors, wrapping ourselves in itchy thrift-store horse blankets thinking that only discomfort is honest. It’s time we stopped hating ourselves, our ambition, and our sincerity, guarding our integrity credentials in fear of interrogation by the secret punk police. It’s time to unmask punk rock, admit that it has done us no favors, and banish it from our minds. There is no one waiting for us at the gates of heaven with a big book of punk, ready to judge our souls and validate our credibility. Punk rock is bullshit, and was always bullshit. Say it with me.
I’m not talking about punk-rock music, because I don’t believe there is such a thing. Punk music is just rock music, and the best punk is halfway decent rock. Punk rock was nothing new in 1976, and it’s nothing new today. The Beatles’ cover of “Roll Over Beethoven” is more punk than 90 percent of all punk rock; the Ramones were way more conservative—musically and socially—than Sha Na Na; the Sex Pistols were just dumb David Bowie; The Clash was a world-music band and the direct antecedent of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. If anything, the mantle of “punk rock” was an umbrella to describe a reactionary retro-ness, a feeling that music was best played with old-fashioned dumb energy, simple to the point of being simplistic—which not coincidentally corresponded to the period of the widest proliferation of recreational drug use in world history. It was music to validate being too wasted to think.
What I’m talking about is “punk rock” as a political stance, punk rock as a social movement, punk rock as a fashion trend, punk rock as a personal lifestyle brand, and punk rock as a lens of critical appraisal. The shadow of punk rock has eclipsed countless new dawns under its fundamental negativity and its lazy equation of rejection with action.
What started out as teenage piss-taking at baby-boomer onanism quickly morphed into a humorless doctrine characterized by acute self-consciousness and boring conformism. We internalized its laundry list of pseudo-values—anti-establishmentarianism, anti-capitalism, libertarianism, anti-intellectualism, and self-abnegation disguised as humility—until we became merciless captors of our own lightheartedness, prisoners in a Panopticon who no longer needed a fence. After almost four decades of gorging on punk fashion, music, art, and attitude, we still grant it permanent “outsider” status. Its tired tropes and worn-out clichés are still celebrated as edgy and anti-authoritarian, above reproach and beyond criticism. Punk-rock culture is the ultimate slow-acting venom, dulling our expectations by narrowing the aperture of “cool” and neutering our taste by sneering at new flavors until every expression of actual individualism is corralled and expunged in favor of group-think conformity.
Punk-founded doubt and fear has directly spawned the cowardly culture of modern irony. Fear of being called out or targeted for enjoying art that doesn’t meet the stringent criteria of punkness—a criteria too ineffable to codify, but pernicious and deadly to underestimate—has given us no outlet for the vagaries of our taste but to claim that we enjoy the things we love only out of mocking disdain for the awfulness we pre-emptively ascribe to them. The very act of loving something ironically is an admission that punk-rock groupthink has denied us our own will. Scorn has become the ouroboros, the snake eating its own tail, distancing us from joy to the point that our souls rebel. Punk has encouraged us to hate innocence until the only entertainments we can appreciate are the fake epiphanies of celebrity weight-loss porn and cynical folk-revival banjo music that borders on thoughtcrime.
Whenever I say publicly that punk rock is bullshit, I get two types of response. The first is the predictable sneer: “That’s the point!” “Punk rock knows it’s stupid, it’s trying to be stupid, it’s always been stupid.” “Punk is flaming dogshit in a bag!” This mentality accounts for the way punk rock infected us like an Andromeda strain, how it can simultaneously be an industry of cheap, mass-produced mall fashion for suburban “rebel” teen-moms and the governing aesthetic of the smartest middle-aged critics and most discerning skinny-pants fans of music and culture. We are in thrall to a fallacy of irrefutably circular logic: Punk rock only seems like a garbled, negative, ignorant, half-witted worldview because it’s actually an intentional indictment of a garbled, negative, ignorant, half-witted world.
This incredibly persuasive rationalization has proved difficult to unlearn, but it is demonstrably false. What has punk rock done for us? Did it defeat Reaganism and Thatcherism and end the Cold War? Has it brought us social justice? Did it smash the state, prevent in any way the 12 years of the Imperial Bush dynasty, galvanize youth, subvert the dominant paradigm, or for one minute prevent the total commercialization of culture and the chemical digitalization of music that happened under its watch? Did it even produce good art beyond a few unintentionally hilarious ’zines and the first-rate performance art of Courtney Love’s 25-year disintegration into a caricature of the exact kind of drug-addled, silicon- and Botox-enhanced, vacuous and babbling rich housewife that riot grrrls hated most? No. Unequivocally no.
In retrospect, it’s hilarious to try to tie the stoned, self-absorbed incomprehension of the world that characterized the dawn of punk to some larger narrative of a self-aware political art movement with an objective and a plan. Picture an 18-year-old Siouxsie Sioux in a topless Gestapo uniform festooned with swastikas, spitting at bands as a form of applause and compulsively posing for cameras. That’s as much sense as punk ever made, as intelligible as the message ever was, and all the academic bullshit that followed asserting that punk was a brilliant critique of itself was retroactive gibberish.
To the degree that punk has a governing philosophy, it’s a fundamentally negative one. Punk only tells us what it hates. It has never stood for anything; it stands against things. It is not an intentional indictment; it is a reactionary spasm.
The positive things that transpired in the culture of the past 40 years happened in spite of punk, not because of it. Punk didn’t end racism, sexism, or homophobia; it didn’t stop factory farming, the New World Order, or the massive success of Creed. It did not inconvenience a single one of its stated adversaries despite being on the front lines of everywhere. Needless to say, nor did it bring about “Anarchy,” thank God.
People love to cite DIY as an example of punk philosophy in practice, but DIY is just a standard business model. It’s the primitive form of capitalism that every new business adopts. Punk didn’t invent DIY, it’s just too stupid and spoiled to realize that doing it yourself isn’t an innovation. The early punk pioneers now congratulate themselves endlessly in documentary after documentary (all with Flea and Dave Grohl providing color commentary) for having done it themselves. They did it themselves—just like every vacuum-cleaner salesman, Mary Kay cosmetics franchisee, landscaper, Mormon missionary, and Tupperware salesperson. DIY is punk rock’s signature achievement, its “man on the moon,” and it’s a mundane capitalist practice shared by every single new business since forever. It’s how Nike started. It’s how Amazon started.
The second response I get when I say punk rock is bullshit is the heartfelt “Punk rock saved my life.” This response is touching and emotional—and the hardest to refute, because former punk kids tie every positive aspect of their present lives to their punk identities. My generation is full of lost children, most of them now in their 40s and 50s, who were presumably living hellish suburban lives hearing their drunk parents fight through the wall, huffing Revell modeling glue and listening to Genesis 8-tracks until punk rock arrived to rescue them from their mullet-wearing, Camaro-driving futures. They are all Huck Finns. Punk rock is their raft and their friend Jim.
Admittedly, punk rock was a club that accepted all the misfits. It channeled adolescent anger and frustration into positive and inclusive feelings of belonging. This is not an insignificant achievement. Punk rock was an island of lost toys, a fantasy world where the kids made the rules and the hateful, hurtful world of drunk dads, preps, jocks, feathered-hair girls in Aerosmith baseball Ts, meathead campus police, racist cowboys, and flat-topped Korean War vets was overturned. It was a wonderful kind of sleep-away camp where the counselors and campers were all the same, huddled around a fire in the basement of an abandoned Catholic school telling ghost stories about the time Rod Stewart had his stomach pumped and imagining a future without “The Man” that looked like Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.
But the fact that the teachers and the students were all the same quickly produced a world where dumbasses were teaching dumbasses. Punk explained that we’d always hated the Eagles and Electric Light Orchestra and Genesis, we just hadn’t realized it. Punk made us feel that not caring was noble, that not understanding something was proof of intelligence. Punk was in favor of whatever you wanted and against everything that bugged you or got you down. Like a Libertarian Party for children, punk offered a nonsensical worldview that clarified the invisible underlying order. All the vicissitudes of teenage life were soothed by this feeling of acceptance, and all the credit of growing up and learning how to cope was awarded not to the normal progression of life, but to the enveloping family of punk. It worked, as long as you believed in it.
I remember those years well, back when punks and gays and artists and modern primitives and hippies and kooks and Rush fans were all part of one big unwashed underground. The game was rigged so that only rich blonde preps could ever be truly happy, while the rest of us worked three jobs, still couldn’t pay the heating bill, got glared at by cops, and traded a smoke for a food-stamp dollar. We banded together—huddled, more like—convinced that the world of normals was a club we’d never join.
Punk rock seemed really intellectual then: a pinch of pseudo-Marxism, some nuclear-disarmament talk, sarcastic German army iconography that maybe wasn’t entirely sarcastic, and equal parts sophomoric Ayn Rand worship masquerading as anarchism and a hodgepodge of leftist-radical catchphrases under the banner of global revolution. It was a clearinghouse of ideas, with no connective tissue or overarching worldview beyond fighting the existing order, and it was powered primarily by Cold War paranoia that the gray men in their gray suits were on a suicide mission to get rich by immolating the Third World in a mushroom cloud of mutually assured destruction. The cartoon image of Reagan with dollar signs for eyes and ICBMs for teeth, his finger on the red button, silenced all counterargument.
The Cold War made strange bedfellows of a lot of outsider cultures. Oblivious to contradiction, punkers rooted for the Sandinistas, the Red Brigade, and the Mujahideen; they shelved RE/Search volumes between Mein Kampf and books about Gein and Gacy; they protested militarism in fatigues, PLO scarves, and Che Guevara T-shirts. When the Cold War ended and the Gay/Art/Punk/Hippie/Rush Fan coalition disbanded, the idea of punk rock as a political resistance movement gradually dissolved in the smoke of a million bongs. The Reaganites were patting themselves on the back for having defeated the Evil Empire and the Clinton/Blair axis was humping bags of money; there wasn’t really a case to be made that Jello Biafra or Henry Rollins played much of a role in the transition. Punk rock as a rebellious political and social movement seemed to be withering on the vine.
Then Seattle got into the act.
You have to remember that Seattle was a dismal little shithole back then. The whole city suffered from the pimple-faced inferiority complex of an untalented kid making a lopsided pencil holder in woodshop. There was no Microsoft money, no Starbucksian gentrification, no post-grunge feelings of cultural inevitability—only the low-tide stench of marine oil and clams and the calcified class system of a small Western city built on lumber, Alaskan gold, and B-17s.
Punk rock made sense here: an ideology that celebrated stupidity met by a landscape of soggy borderland numbskulls. The end of the Cold War had just eliminated all the political rhetoric that no one had understood anyway, making way for the fundamental Northwest innovation of uniting metalheads, private-school jocks, and feminist-theory majors in a shared love of Schmidt beer and weed. The evil forces of government, the geo-political machinations of diplomats, and the avaricious capitalistic omnipresence that is America’s true religion all seemed so removed, so outside the apprehension or effective range of these latchkey kids still naming their bands “Fart Butt” and “Barf Scarf.” On the verge of dying out, punk found a new host.
Self-indulgent screaming and narcissistically purposeful out-of-tuneness seemed like dangerous political statements to kids still experimenting with clove cigarettes in the parking lot of Skoochies and The Monastery. Seattle and Portland were so far away from places where actual culture was being produced that messages from outside came through only sporadically, like shortwave reception in Antarctica. Northwest punk bands reveled in intentional awfulness, too unsophisticated to realize that their rebellion was the most tedious brand of art-school preciousness and spoiled-kid-who-doesn’t-want-to-practice-his-instrument crybabyism. The idea that poor kids from Kitsap County, like their heroes from Southern California and northern England, were somehow immune from being pretentious by virtue of their underclass nobility was a cultural lie that had run its course elsewhere, but we never saw the second half of the telegram here. It took us another 20 years to learn that being poor and ignorant doesn’t mean you can’t also be spoiled.
Punk rock’s anti-everything stance turned inward and personal in the Northwest. Punk became the distillation of what it was all along: a cliquish approach to a confusing world, where things were either in or out, cool or not, punk or unpunk. To be deemed insufficiently hardcore was a sweeping denunciation. The authority of the underground was paramount in the eyes of this generation of “Ave Rats” with ruined confidence, crushed by absentee parents and psychobabbling guidance counselors. There was really nothing to look forward to here, no topless Siouxsie Sioux, no Dogtown and Z-Boys, just moldy animal beer in a U District basement—maybe a bachelor’s degree in textile arts from Evergreen State.
The presumption of my generation—a presumption that spread around the world to a willing audience of disaffected suburbanites looking for an edgy trend, then passed down to the generation of emasculated indie rockers who followed—was that a punk-rock attitude kept us honest in a world made of lies. The word “integrity” became like a sacrament. Hating dishonest things was our creed, and since everything was a lie, hate was the only emotion we could express. No person or thing was so politically perfect that a flaw couldn’t be probed. The truth is, if there really was an Illuminati bent on controlling the world through a secret government, they couldn’t have done a better job of defanging the youth movement than by introducing the self-negating, life-consuming, ignorance-propagating, lethargy-celebrating, divisive and controlling, fashion-based ideology of punk rock into the mainstream. It was basically the crack epidemic of rock culture.
Seattle bands—even as the world flocked to laud them, shower them with untold wealth and influence, and anoint them as keepers of a hallowed flame—almost universally rejected the opportunity to celebrate and rejoice at their good fortune out of a fear of what Calvin Johnson might think. Every iconic star, with the possible exception of a baby-oiled Chris Cornell, renounced not only his success but the opportunity to say anything remotely intelligible to a world that hung on their every word, all out of a fear of being perceived as “un-punk” by an imaginary tribunal that sat in judgment somewhere in Tumwater. They blew it, massively.
Then the indie rockers came along, as much in thrall to punk-rock culture as the grungers before them. The era of twee undersinging and clean, complicated, plinky guitars was an expression of the belief that even loudness and energy were egotistical excesses. Indie bands applied punk-rock principles to their music and culture to the point that Laotian monks were probably living more luxurious lives. Bands refused to do interviews, have their pictures taken, publish their lyrics, or in any way risk the chance that someone might accuse them of “wanting” fame or success. The path to indie greatness was to appear to loathe any but your oldest and purest fans, to blush and whimper at praise, to stand to the side of the stage or in the dark, back to the audience, renouncing attention. The desire to project egolessness was ultimately a pathology of complete self-absorption. Both Radiohead and Wilco endured the production of feature-length documentaries about themselves in which the sole discernible narrative was “We hate being looked at, leave us alone.” Indie rock spent 15 years eating itself alive with snide fear, clinging to a punk-rock code of ethics that benefited no one in service of nothing. It was a colossal waste of time and creative energy, it was fundamentally boring, and it literally killed people.
Ultimately, punk rock was a disease of the soul, a doctrine of projecting and amplifying feelings of insecurity and fear outward and inward until the whole world seemed like an ice cave. It wasn’t necessary to judge every new piece of art against unwinnable criteria, or ourselves against imaginary standards of altruistic correctness. It wasn’t preordained that fun, lighthearted inspiration was shallow or contemptible; nor was it true that everything sucked, that life sucked, or that the world sucked. Successful art isn’t always garbage, and lazy, shitty art isn’t always teaching us something. Why celebrate whiny millionaires and indie-snob Robespierres?
I watch kids today make music and art that’s smart and clever, with no hard lessons or Marxist undertones attached, and think: Can we finally admit to ourselves that punk rock was always bullshit, that it gave us nothing but heartache? Can we let it go?
Shut it down. Kill the lights. It sucked. It sucked, but now it can be over.