This year’s Costume Institute exhibit runs from May 7 through August 14—in deference to the claim, from the Clash’s Mick Jones, that the explosion of true punk lasted only 100 days. The restriction seems appropriately fashion-ish. It freezes punk down into a short spasm, with a single visual surface, then looks at what fashion designers, not future punks, made of it. But if punk means something significant—on the level of, perhaps, an idea—one would have to consider that it’s persisted far longer than that.
In music, punk remains what the critic Frank Kogan calls a “Superword”—a term whose main purpose is for people to fight over what it should mean, using it as a “flag in a bloody game of Capture the Flag.” It’s a concept like “freedom” or “the one true Church” or “real Americans”: to invoke it is to advance a vision of what it entails, and duke it out with competing visions. (Saying that real punk only lasted 100 days is a terrific example of how Superwords work.) In the 37 years since a good mass of people decided “punk” was a flag worth waving, we’ve seen countless versions of it, most at odds with one another. There’s punk that’s dissolute and nihilist, and punk that’s earnest and abstemious; punk as attitude, as economic model, as ideology, and as an ordinary subgenre of music; punk that’s funny and punk that’s humorless; Fascist punk and anti-Fascist punk; punk that sounds like 1977 and punk that can’t imagine repeating the past; you name it. If there’s any reason the stuff’s stayed in the bloodstream of rock, it’s that the idea is flexible enough to put anything into it, take anything out, and feel like you’re fighting the good fight—the word itself is mostly just permission to get into the ring.
“Dissolute and nihilist” might describe the original New York scene. If you could round up all the young people who find that era alluring and send them there—or even, in a pinch, engage us all in a book-club discussion of Please Kill Me, the long-beloved oral history of American punk—a high percentage might wind up feeling uncomfortably like someone’s horrified, scolding parents. Amid all the commitment and brilliance, there was plenty of idiocy, bullying goons, junkie opportunists, rip-off artists, people who believed being cruel to one another was a hip sport, semi-ironic Nazi fetishists (some of them Jewish and great at sarcasm, some too dumb to understand much about Nazi fetishism beyond the fact that it annoyed people, some sounding like fashion’s own John Galliano), sniveling children, and glib predators. What makes the incredible grace of, say, Television’s albums so heroic and fragile if not the feeling, somehow audible in the recordings, that this was a beautiful thing welling up from an ugly void? It’s an easy guess that the people airily complaining about the punk-chic Varvatos store where CBGB stood are not much more likely than the people shopping inside to want to have much to do with the conditions of punk’s origins. There’s a peculiar American love of any transgression that inconveniences someone besides ourselves, and firsthand accounts of punk are often inflected by it, pointing at something crazed and unlikely—“and then he grabbed her by the face and puked on her!”—and marveling, as if it’s a singularly clever contribution not just to rock-and-roll attitude but to human history as a whole. That’s even easier when the transgression has been confined inside an orderly museum. Or a gala, at which there’s little fear anyone will spit or Sieg heil or jerk off in the food.
That’s American punk, anyway, seen from a distance: squalid, visionary, individualist. (Except for the Ramones, of course, gathering a misfit army and shouting, “Gabba gabba, we accept you, we accept you, one of us!”) Some of the New York musicians were unsettled by what they saw in London, where audiences struck them as creepily violent and negative (when those audiences weren’t striking them with bottles and spit)—a pointy-toothed mob. Some small part of that difference might be attributed to McLaren, who’d spent time in New York, found the scene a bit seedy and directionless, and imagined he could import it back to England with more intellectual scaffolding. Punk could speak to a “politics of boredom,” instead of to a void. Some of the New Yorkers obsessed over French poets; some of the English would obsess over French theorists. By the time critics like Greil Marcus started to do intellectual heavy lifting around the question of what punk meant, the idea became that bands like the Sex Pistols weren’t nihilists but rather “negationists”—in other words, they weren’t saying nothing mattered, just that nothing anyone was suggesting mattered.