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Notes on Punk: Ideology, Aesthetics, Economics, Failure
Punk Rock is a variegated thing, and contains within it many regional and historical sub-genres with different sounds, priorities and ideologies. Stacy Thompson points out that:
… the best attempts to describe punk aesthetics have focused not on punk as a whole but on one of its six major scenes: the New York City scene of 1974-76, the English scene of 1976-78, the California hardcore scene of the early 80s, the Washington, D.C. straight edge scene of the mid-80s, the New York City second-wave straight edge scene of the late 80s, and the California pop-punk scene of the early 90s. (49-50).
As Jude Davies puts it, “because of its diversity and its problematization of constituency and consensus, it is difficult to construct a unitary politics of punk” (9). Some bands also cross these borders in complex ways. The Mekons, for example, are variously called first wave punk, post-punk, and alt-country, depending on who is writing about which period of their discography. This is all to say that trying to pin down a coherent ideological map of a single punk band, to say nothing of punk as a genre or a movement, is a tricky proposition. Indeed, punk’s oppositional resistance to being explained can be seen as one of its defining characteristics.
That being said, it is possible to trace key features that link punk bands across time and geography. Thompson rightfully states that “punks have always mounted aesthetic and economic forms of resistance against commercial music as well as other forms of commercially produced cultural texts” (49). I accept this as a basic starting point for defining punk, and would suggest that it can be generalized more broadly as resistance to the economic and political organization of post-industrial capitalism, alongside (at least in principle) what Davies refers to as punk’s “attempts to avoid being recuperated as a commodity” (21). Ideologically, punk as I would define it resists -- in rhetoric or in practice, as I’ll get into below -- the hegemonic values of late capitalist society, as well as the social conventions these values produce.
Most critics follow Thompson in splitting punk’s expression of this ideology into aesthetic and economic categories. The punk aesthetic varies from scene to scene, but can still be expressed as a few broad generalizations. For Jesse Prinz, the three themes of the punk aesthetic are “irreverence, nihilism and amateurism” (587). Taken together, these aesthetic qualities produce songs that are “loud, fast, and short” (587), feature “low production values” (587), and are technically simple and “often out of tune, off key, incompetently played, and poorly recorded” (587). These features are inherently democratic, another important feature of punk, as is the provocative vulgarity (linked to all three of Prinz's themes) of punk lyrics. Punk can be considered an art of aesthetic failure: by writing vulgar lyrics and playing (deliberately or accidentally) poorly, punks fail to meet the aesthetic standards of pop music, and so resist them and their assumptions.
Economically, things become more fractured (and more interesting). All punks, as I note above, are rhetorically committed to economic resistance. However, in mentioning the “initial ‘sell out’ of punk’s late 70s English scene” (Thompson 49), Thompson draws attention to the fact that not all punk match their rhetoric in economic practice. Indeed, to turn to the Mekons, many of their contemporaries in late 70s England (The Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Jam) signed to major labels early in their careers and become massive commercial successes. Later punks responded to this perceived betrayal by declaring that “punk for itself is never commercially successful, by definition” (Thompson 52), and that “punk’s success lies precisely in its commercial failure” (52). Commercial successes, in other words, fail as punks. In the 80s, American bands like Fugazi turned to deliberately refusing commercial success as an ideological position, and scorned bands who didn’t make similar moves to maintain “control of the means of production” (53-4). Like these bands, The Mekons operate as far outside of commercial music as a band can while still being an entity that sells records (which will always be an ideological compromise to a certain degree). Unlike them, however, The Mekons seem to have arrived there legitimately by accident.I’ll turn now to a closer look at the history, ethos and music of The Mekons (about whom I've also made a small Flickr album) in order to explore what makes them such an interesting speed bump at the intersection of discourses on punk, economic resistance, and authentic (that is, unintentional) failure.
Let's listen to two songs:
"White Riot" (1977), the first single by The Clash
"Never Been In a Riot "(1978), the first single by The Mekons