This Is Punk?

One of the 100 self-identified punks (some of whom may not see the others as bona fide fellow travelers) in New York who participated in our poll. Photo: Lucas Michael

Punk rock has always had an easy time living up to E. M. Forster’s view of music as a kingdom that “will accept those whom breeding and intellect and culture have alike rejected.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute benefit—the “Oscars of fashion,” currently co-hosted by Vogue editor Anna Wintour, and perhaps the city’s most glamorous large social event—feels like the opposite: a celebration of rare finery and a discerning elite. The gala’s theme is generally the same as that of the Costume Institute’s spring exhibit; say, Jacqueline Kennedy or Chanel. But this year’s exhibit is “Punk: Chaos to ­Couture,” a look at punk clothing and high fashion’s varied responses to it. A lavish ball pivots on the same word you’d use to describe crusty squatters in ­Tompkins Square Park.

One knee-jerk response to this situation is to see it as a laughable irony, like a steakhouse celebrating how brave and inspiring vegetarians are. I know: It’s tempting. Even a glancing understanding of what “punk” is tends to assume vigorous antipathy toward fashion-industry galas. And it is somehow amusing to imagine socialites commissioning extravagant couture inspired by gangs of raggedy late-seventies miscreants, or Girls actress Allison Williams studying photos of the Sex Pistols and, as she said, getting “really excited to commit to that theme.” In 1976, the year the Ramones released their first LP and cemented the “teenage dirtbag” look that’s persevered through decades of rock culture—before the reek of the CBGB bathroom became one of music’s most famous odors—Diana Vreeland was presiding over a Costume Institute fantasia titled “The Glory of Russian Costume,” for which the air was pumped through with ten gallons of ­Chanel Cuir de Russie perfume. And yes, the whole endeavor comes surrounded with some of the iffy double-talk that arises when cultural institutions celebrate old bits of radical thinking. Exhibit curator Andrew Bolton talks about subverting the mainstream, and of today’s fashion world lacking the energy and freedom of punk—but doesn’t punk’s example suggest that this doesn’t matter? That the fashion world is easily topped, freedom-and-energy-wise, by random glue-­sniffers? If one of punk’s lessons is that people can create their own culture, instead of waiting for it to be dictated from on high, what can elite culture-industry folk learn from that, besides modesty?

One answer is “technique.” Bolton’s exhibit isolates specific themes of punk style (confrontational images, tattering and deconstruction, metal hardware) and traces them out into high fashion. It’s not the first time punk has intruded into the Met-gala world. It cropped up in 2006 as well, in Bolton’s “AngloMania: Tradition and Transgression in British Fashion” exhibit. Sex Pistols front man John Lydon neglected to show up for the band’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction honors that year, with characteristic scorn, but weeks later he was recording a podcast on the Met’s behalf; he contributes a ­preface to this year’s catalogue. His band was famously instigated by Malcolm McLaren, whose longtime collaborator, Vivienne Westwood, turned out iconic early-punk looks from their London shop—all of which is re-created in “Chaos to Couture.” Richard Hell, whose carefully conceived style became the template for museum-worthy punk looks—he figured out the T-shirts and the hair—contributes another preface, and also just published a punk-years memoir, I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp. CBGB’s bathroom will be replicated as well, both in this exhibit and in a forthcoming big-budget film about the bands and odors and semen-spiked chili that still make rock nostalgists swoon. This exhibit is far from alone: We’re neck-deep in opportunities to memorialize punk.

It’s right on schedule. We’ve all spent enough time with the old boomer iconography of rock and roll—Elvis and Chuck Berry, the Beatles, the student movement, Woodstock—that it’s become quite cozy and grandparentish; it’s as chronologically distant from a young person today as the big-band era was from young people of the nineties. Rock’s become more of a niche interest, and our image of its grand transfiguring moment has gradually become something more obscure: Ramones T-shirts, pictures of Johnny Thunders, spiky hair. The New York scene offers a particularly romantic origin story, full of fabulous records (graceful poetics from Television and Patti Smith, Mad magazine giddiness from the Ramones, Dead Boys, and Dictators), eye-opening tales (with cameos by Beat poets and Bowie and Sontag), and the sense of this fecund window when a few rotten patches of Manhattan made art with such energy and possibility, such unexpected elegance and dignity, that parts of the music world have spent decades obsessing over—or, in the case of those shaggy throngs on the Lower East Side ten years ago, trying to revive it all, the look and feel even more than the sound itself.

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.

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.

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.

This Is Punk?