As soon as punk exploded, confronting young people with the surprising notion that they could create their own pop culture on the fly, plenty of them began building their propositions about what mattered: There was the growing activism of the Clash, anarchist bands like Crass (who declared, “Our love of life is total”), or U.K. punk’s significant wing of art-school highbrows. Around that time, in the U.S., there was the notion of “Positive Mental Attitude,” an idea culled from a self-help book and introduced to the largely white punk world by a black band, Bad Brains. This was an essential notion, because American punk in the eighties had to sustain itself with no record-company money or nationwide media thrill to help it along; it became obsessed with will, work ethic, self-control, and unity. It also obsessed over punk’s ideology; the literature of eighties and nineties punks can sound a lot like the literature of mid-century Marxist-Leninist groups, full of people splitting into factions over fine political distinctions, hashing out the intricacies of “true” punk ideals. This is what happens to Superwords eventually. They become like what conservatism is to true believers: something that cannot fail, only be failed.
But the effort to sustain punk bewitches few anymore. It’s that memorable flush of English smash-the-system thinking that sticks in most people’s minds—the hundred-day rush that makes us imagine punks preferring to watch the Met burn than fill it with their old clothes. That’s also where fashion’s interest usually ends. Everything fashion needs from punk is right there. Fashion gets, for one thing, a demonstration of its own vigor: Here’s an actual trend whose handmade style had a profound power to inspire and appall, on a national level. (Its discovery of beauty in ugliness was as true for garments as it was for LPs, and possibly more broadly accessible to the eye than the ear—and if the music’s ratty amateurism suggested anyone could start a band, didn’t the clothes say the same about design?) More important, the new visual vocabulary punk created gave fashion an opportunity to turn in on itself. One ordinary complaint about fashion, after all, is that it’s a frivolous luxury industry, obsessed with opulence and sexual glamour, full of narrow proscriptions about beauty. But the look of punk can be grim, cerebral, and self-consciously anti-beauty. Splash that acidity into the world of fashion—the same way fashion periodically dives, Alexander McQueen–style, into every other form of grotesquerie and danger—and it scans much more readily as art. Punk offered a gift: the exact vocabulary it imagined fashion lacked.
That includes, interestingly, a kind of sexual austerity. This tends to get ignored amid all the focus on power and politics, money and class, but ever since that first decadent New York wave, punk has had a combative relationship with sensuality. It’s rarely tried to be sexy, not in any sustained, earnest, on-purpose way. The New York scene was surrounded (and sometimes funded) by sex work and street hustling, which you can see in its clothes, but all the bondage gear in London punk fashion reads more like a sardonic parody of sex. The only thing I can remember from my teenage viewing of Alex Cox’s film Sid and Nancy is the part where John Lydon turns down sex on the grounds that it’s “free hippie love shit”; the real, nonfictional singer called it “two minutes and 52 seconds of squelching noises.” The music itself quickly stripped away any of New York’s sensuality. By the time punk swept the U.K., the sound had cut itself back to the sinew and muscle of early rock and roll, yes, but it had also excised one of the key things that made early rock and roll captivating to young people, which was some sense of sexual urgency—swing, groove, sly vocal implication. All were traded for happy hectoring and desiccated angularity. The guitars may have a kinship with Chuck Berry, but the barking does not.
Which isn’t to say that punks of any era weren’t at it constantly; it’s just that, aesthetically, the human body isn’t seen as a site of sensual pleasure. The dancing’s confrontational; it resembles a fight as much as most people’s resembles sex. For American straight-edge acts, drugs and alcohol were abandoned, and maybe sex too. (Minor Threat’s “Out of Step”: “Don’t smoke, I don’t drink, I don’t fuck / At least I can fucking think.”) The body’s a site of will and power—see, for instance, Black Flag front man Henry Rollins lifting weights as an expression of self-domination. (“Pain … is not my enemy; it is my call to greatness.”) It’s a surprisingly short trip from the dissolute style of the original New York punks to the puritan rigor of American hardcore. Maybe that, more than class or ideology, has helped sustain punk’s outsider status for so long: The world’s full of anti-capitalists, and anyone can play the rebel, but turning your back on sex—the guiding light of postadolescent culture—is tougher.