“Punk is dead. Punk is dead. Yes that’s right, punk is dead. It’s just another cheap product for the consumer’s head.” – Crass
I find myself listening to Pandora more rather than my own music collection stored in iTunes. There are a few reasons for this. For one thing, it provides an element of surprise and the opportunity for discovery by increasing the chances that I'll hear something I’ve never heard before.
However, what I have become truly fascinated and entertained by is Pandora’s musical analysis. Sometimes it fails utterly: how the Hell did Journey end up in my Replacements channel? That channel is reserved exclusively for alternative rock. Arena rock anthems have no place there. Other times, surprises have been revelatory: Johnny Cash snuck into my Clash channel? Of course, it makes perfect sense -- the Man in Black and the Only Band that Matters are both serving up three chords and the truth.
Clicking on the tab that explains why Pandora is playing a track has made me realize a few things about myself. I apparently love extensive vamping, as nearly every artist in my many playlists is said to do that. I’m not really sure what vamping is, but I enjoy it extensively. But more importantly, it has made me realize how incredibly fickle I am in terms of musical taste. For every three times I give a thumbs up to one of Pandora’s selections I probably give about two thumbs down. While I can tell you why I love certain songs, I have far more difficult time explaining why I find others “meh” despite their supposed similarities to my favorites.
Whether or not a band or song is “good” is a subjective question, and I’m not nearly close-minded enough to suggest that the bands I like are better than the ones I don’t (except for Coldplay who are God awful and deserve execution). However, the question I am interested in investigating is how our musical tastes are formed and evolve.
In a short essay included in the incredible collection of cultural analysis, Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, Chuck Klosterman -- an avowed metal-head -- discusses his hatred of punk rock, explaining that it stems largely from punk rock fans' tendency to make absurd declarations about how “punk totally saved my life.” As a college-educated twenty-something with a nine to five job and health insurance, I completely understand Klosterman’s annoyance with such hyperbolic statements. Discovering Operation Ivy didn’t give me a reason to live. I never dialed up a suicide hotline to find Jello Biafra on the other end. It wasn’t the music of The Ramones that prevented me from slitting my wrists or jumping into the Delaware River, and to say otherwise would not only silly but insensitive.
However, if I allow myself to mentally time travel back ten years, I realize that’s totally bullshit and Klosterman has it wrong. (It’s okay, I like lots of things that Klosterman hates, such as soccer for example. And hate lots of things he loves, such as hair metal and sugary cereal. He’s still one of my favorite contemporary writers.) When I was a teenager punk totally gave me a reason to live. Totally.
That’s because when you’re young, every punk anthem feels like a matter of life and death. This may be nonsense both analytically and intellectually, but that’s irrelevant. Music is meant to be experienced on a visceral level. Filmmakers use music to heighten emotions for the simple reason that music affects us emotionally rather than logically. The suggestion that punk or any other music scene could cause a revolution is ludicrous; unless of course you have your stereo on, in which case it makes perfect sense and get ready to storm the Bastille.
Elvis Costello once quipped that writing about music was like “dancing about architecture,” and as I move further in this essay I have to admit that he’s probably right. But here it goes anyway…
Punk seems to be one of those genres that a person needs to discover in his or her youth. If you’re older than eighteen when you first hear it, you probably won’t ever get it. It’s a soundtrack to teenage rebellion and is best appreciated in this context. That said, it's also a genre that produces a lifelong devotion in fans in a way that's rarely equaled. Case in point, my dentist, Dr. Mick, is two years older than my dad (who grew up in the same neighborhood) but he discovered The Ramones and The Dead Boys in the '70s (while he was in dental school, I believe) and is the front man for an old school punk band in addition to his dental practice. He sometimes dyes his hair purple and is a staple at Social Distortion concerts. Classic rock fans of the same age might shell out for tickets when the Eagles go on a reunion tour, but for the most part they talk about rock ‘n’ roll in the past tense. Punk, on the other hand, produces an addiction that can’t ever really be kicked.
Why? As tempting as it is to point to punk's anti-authoritarian ideology as the reason for this passion, I know the answer is much simpler than that. The music is primal. Its beauty is in its simplicity. The music is fast and raw. The guitars are loud as Hell. The drums go bang, bang, bang. And this formula taps into that animal part of human beings that never really wanted to evolve or develop civilization. If you enjoy this sound and have ever been to a punk concert, then you know there is no other reaction possible to this noise then to go absolutely nuts.
Search Youtube and you’ll probably be able to find a clip from "Beavis and Butthead" in which the two idiots watch the video for Radiohead’s “Creep.” They are bored by the song’s softer verses, but enthralled by its raucous chorus. Beavis wonders why they don’t just play “that cool part” through the entire song, and Butthead explains that if they didn’t have a part “that sucked” the “cool part” wouldn’t seem as “cool.” This is a surprisingly insightful piece of musical analysis by show creator Mike Judge. The beauty of punk is they do in fact play that “cool part” for the entire song.
But let’s not kid ourselves. There are plenty of punk bands that suck. I’ll be the first to admit it.
During college, I participated in my university’s radio station (where I met Inclusive founder Manton), hosting the station’s punk specialty show and serving as a reviewer for the Music Department. The Music Director had a string of underlings that were considered “Directors” of specific genres -- which is pretty absurd when you think about it, since there are BU alumni out there with Metal Director and Hip Hop Director on their resume. Anyway, I got to review all the punk CDs that were sent into the station by various independent record labels hoping that their bands would make into WTBU’s vaunted rotation. Half were incredible. The other half sucked. They were all playing songs at comparable high-speed tempos and using the same set of power chords, but some were clearly superior to others. This being in Boston, I came to a realization that punk bands fall into two distinct categories: there are Damons and there are Afflecks.
Good Will Hunting inadvertently explains the difference between a great punk band and a mediocre also-ran. Consider Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s respective characters. Both come from the same neighborhood and talk with similar accents. Both like fighting and drinking. The only difference is that Damon’s a genius. His rough edge disguises deeper substance. He revolts against social authority, caustically antagonizing a criminal court judge and subverting attempts by a crop of staid, conservative psychologists to make him conform to Stellen Skarsgard’s wishes (Skarsgard clearly represents a combination of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan). He can espouse Howard Zinn’s politics, but also offers his own insights with a mixture of wit and nastiness. He is the Sex Pistols. He is the Clash. He is the Dead Kennedys. Black Flag. Bad Brains. Minor Threat. Reagan Youth. And dozens of other bands that had something meaningful and original to say amidst their sonic blasts.
Affleck comes from the same scene as he does, but at the end of the day can’t ever hope to equal his friend. Affleck is the song you skip when it comes up in Pandora, hoping that the next one will be a Damon. Afflecks aren’t necessarily bad -- they just don’t hold my interest and the punishment for that is a thumbs down.
A lot of indie bands, by the way, remind me of the pretentious Harvard student played by Scott Winters (better known for playing Cyril O’Reily on "Oz"). He’s read the same books as Damon (let’s face it, many indie bands draw heavily from British post-punk bands like Joy Division), but unlike Damon he is tediously boring. He has some knowledge, for sure, but that’s obscured by self-absorption and obnoxious pretense. He might get Pitchfork’s approval, but he ain’t getting Minnie Driver’s number.
Punk bands face the same dilemma that Damon’s character does in the movie. Do they evolve or do they stay with the small circle of friends that incubated them? I’m not just talking about whether bands choose to court mainstream audiences or remain doggedly independent. I’m talking about the sound of the music itself. Many critics say that The Ramones kept making the same song over and over. Luckily, that song happened to be fucking awesome. We love The Ramones because they chose to stick with their iconic sound. The Clash, on the other hand, evolved more than possibly any other band of any genre, embracing influences of reggae, funk, jazz, and rockabilly, transforming anew with each album. We love The Clash for their ability to grow. The Sex Pistols of course chose to forgo that dilemma and broke up after one album.
But those are hardly contemporary artists. Those bands are all in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, the musical equivalent of having your jersey hoisted into the rafters. Three out of four original Ramones are dead. So is Joe Strummer. What about today’s scene? Are there any bands making music that’s vital? Or has the entire genre become nothing but a historical curiosity?
These are tough questions for me to answer. My instinct is to point to bands like Defiance, Ohio and the World Inferno Friendship Society that -- in the spirit of The Clash -- have taken punk’s rudimentary form and evolved it into some new and fresh. Defiance, Ohio use mainly acoustic instruments to create a folk punk sound that owes as much to Woody Guthrie as it does Joe Strummer or Jello Biafra, churning out anti-capitalist anthems. World Inferno is impossible to adequately describe, mixing a charging punk sound with jazz, folk, cabaret, waltz, and even klezmer while cultivating a Weimar Republic aesthetic that pays tribute to Peter Lorre (who, despite being an actor, is cited as a major influence).
Both of these bands are assuredly Damons and, according to Pandora, partake in extensive vamping. But I discovered both of them in high school and they’re fusion acts. Is any band that’s come out within the last three years producing worthwhile, old school punk rock?
The most I can say is…probably. In terms of the punk scene I’m middle-aged. I can either go to a show for a contemporary band and be surrounded by teens. Or go to a show for a reunited band from the '70s or '80s and be surrounded by old dudes like the aforementioned Dr. Mick.
I’m not complaining. I love that this music has gotten passed down from generation to generation of disaffected youth in the way old American folk songs composed in the nineteenth century eventually made their way to Bob Dylan. It just means I’m not the right person to ask about today’s scene. I’m too old.
During the Bush years, when I came of age, there was certainly a vibrant scene spurred on by our fury towards what we perceived as a despotic President. Likewise, villains such as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan helped inspire so many great anthems thirty years ago. A political conservative in power paradoxically produces the best revolutionary punk rock, so perhaps I should hope for a Santorum Presidency.
Pandora has yet to introduce me to the newest Clash or Ramones, but I’m confident they’re out there. Find a fifteen-year-old with a black t-shirt and spiky hair. He’ll be able to answer these questions better for you.