The best parts of punk music don’t sound negative; they sound like people thrilled to be able to make any noise they like. Still, punk’s spirit of negation is a very seductive thing. It’s what makes Lydon’s voice on those Sex Pistols recordings so gripping. (His lifelong ability to ooze disdain is really nothing short of a superpower—I can’t even imagine him ordering a salad without making it a confrontation.) It’s corrosive, and the great value of corrosive energies has always been for cleaning things, scouring away the buildup of empty values. English punk’s negativity immediately flipped certain cultural polarities. There was music, obviously, which temporarily shifted from the province of sophisticated millionaires back to lumpen teenagers. There’s also style. The Costume Institute exhibit’s dialogue has designers quickly picking up ideas from punk, and the predictable reaction might be to note how quickly the world can co-opt dissent. But look through John Robb’s Punk Rock, an oral history of the English scene, and you’ll find at least one musician gleeful at how easily the gravity reversed: Instead of kids following what fashion deemed glamorous, fashion would ape them.
The danger is that negation can be too fun. Powerful and useful, yes; it’s hard to imagine a smart, curious person escaping adolescence without learning to appreciate the artful sneer, the stylish slouch, the “whatever” of it all. Punk turned that into an electrifying aesthetic release. It could also make a sneer feel more like a heavyweight intellectual statement than it is. Last month, Seattle Weekly ran a polemic by the musician John Roderick arguing that “Punk Rock Is Bullshit”: a “lazy equation of rejection with action,” with politics “like a Libertarian party for children”—a virus that lingered for decades, convincing people that self-abnegation and negativity were brave and clever, as opposed to cowardly and sad. There are valid responses to this, of course: Punk’s inspired and saved many, and Roderick seemed to be asking a lot of the music beyond being fun to listen to. But his suspicions are timely. The punk mentality used to be a default ethos among rock kids, but over the past decade that fell apart; punk-think, which used to feel joyful and liberating, has started to look crabbed and guarded as well. Who, at this point, needs to lob spitballs at a monoculture that anyone with an Internet connection can easily escape? It seems bolder now to embrace things with reckless innocence and delight in artifice—which is exactly what some of the earliest New York punks, and some of the best to follow them, were aiming for.
None of this is a worry for the fashion world, though, which is in little danger of trying to live with punk as a defining ethos. Fashion can treat punk as a single event—a memorable old burst of radical thinking, high-art conceptualism, and incredibly bold visuals. For some, those visuals are the background scenery of their own youth; curator Andrew Bolton was growing up in England when punk hit. If you’d prefer to see punk as a living, breathing force, something still too present to place on a pedestal alongside its alternatives, perhaps you’ll look at the glamorous ball attached to Bolton’s exhibit and experience a surge of negationist feelings, dry jokes, and eye rolls. One has to admit, though: Fashion’s been very well situated to make easy use of punk’s energies and techniques, and to keep its corrosive qualities safely stowed—somewhere in the back of the closet, to be fished out and applied as needed.