Deconstructing Punk

A cultural generation gets an education in this ultra-scholarly analysis.

Punk Rock: So What? The Cultural Legacy of Punk. Edited by Roger Sabin. Routledge; $22.99.
In Roger Sabin's Punk Rock: So What? The Cultural Legacy of Punk -- a scholarly reassessment of the punk movement, which includes extensive end-of-chapter notes sometimes as revealing as the text itself -- a varied group of writers and lecturers explore the wider phenomenon of punk. They go beyond its manifestation as a musical force to discuss its influence on the fields of, among other things, comics, fashion, and literature. While So What? has its share of revealing viewpoints, the book's starchy academic approach feels oddly out of step with the torrent of raging energy that embodied punk in general.

Still, the book does make some salient points. As Sabin summarizes in the book's forward, to make the journalistic error of seeing punk "in purely cultural terms" is to ignore its political impact "on anarchism, green radicalism, and neofascism to name a few." So What? also handily disputes the commonly held view that punk was a "liberatory" force. Instead, as Sabin states, it "was riven through with sexism, homophobia, and racism," a reality often overlooked by a revisionist history that prefers to view punk through the "ideologically sound prism of the '80s and '90s."

The book's major flaw, however, is the inclusion of too much impenetrable verbiage that, in the end, accomplishes little in the way of illuminating its subject. This includes Miriam Rivett's piece on punk fiction works -- a tedious look at just what constitutes punk novels -- namely, those that, in her words "are subject to a form of cultural consensus, in which they are simply known as punk and frequently referenced as such in reviews, songs, interviews, fanzines, and so on." To quote the book's title -- so what? Ditto Frank Cartledge's insufferably bloated essay on punk fashion, which attempts to determine what qualifies as an authentic punk and in so doing makes the entire scene seem more boring than could possibly be imagined.

Much more readable is David Kerekes's look at punk rock movies, which, in his view, do not include such mainstream fare as Alex Cox's Sid and Nancy or Penelope Spheeris's Suburbia. As he tells it, genuine punk movies were short, low-budget affairs, the product of the New York underground, "which sought to challenge notions of taste, decency, and the social order while promoting aggressive musical soundtracks."

Cultural critic Guy Lawley explores another avenue of punk expression -- the brash, rude, and crude world of punk-influenced comics, which, as he writes, brought "oppositional politics, alternative sexuality, and the everyday life of ordinary people" to the genre. If punks loved the "low culture" world of the comics, Lawley argues, they also had more in common with the hated hippie culture than they would care to admit. As he puts it, "Both [cultures] encouraged the expression of individual identity in a conformist culture, questioning of authority, and mistrust of the established political process. The '60s rhetoric of "The Revolution' and punk's rallying call of "anarchy' are not so far apart."

Elsewhere, Bill Osgerby sheds light on the often overlooked influence of bubblegum pop on the punk genre. ("Greater recognition needs to be given to the way artists such as the Dictators, the Ramones, Blondie, and Johnny Thunders drew influence not only from the post-progressive fall-out of the Stooges and MC5, but also from a pop heritage that encompassed the bobby-soxed girl groups of the '50s and the rough-and-ready surf, "frat rock," and garage bands of the early to mid '60s.") Osgerby points to the Dictators (who formed in 1973) as "pioneers of punk's playful satire on the teen mythology," that carefree landscape of drive-in movies, proms, and beach parties, with the Ramones taking "the Dictators' gleeful, cartoon-like parody of American adolescent culture to new extremes."

The book's final essays, which go easy on the jargon-filled analysis, are among the most revealing. Lucy O'Brien, formerly of the Catholic Girls, recalls what it was like to be punk and female when fellow girl bands such as the Slits, the Mo-Dettes, and the Raincoats formed "knots of resistance surrounded by incomprehension and hostility." If music provided these women a sense of female solidarity and an outlet by which to express their own anger, they also had to face down their share of hostility from both the general public and male punks who reacted with scorn at this new assertive form of female expression. "For many punk women," O'Brien writes, "the streets became a battleground, as if by dressing in a certain way you gave up your rights as a woman to be respected and protected."

In the most controversial issue relating to the punk movement, Roger Sabin disputes the commonly held view that punk was aligned with the anti-racist cause. The truth, as he reveals, was quite another matter -- many punks were, in fact, attracted to the far right, sympathizing with the anti-immigration stance of fascist parties like the National Front. As Sabin so succinctly puts it, "Sure punks were angry about the lengthening dole queues, the privileges of royalty, the anguish of boredom, and police brutality, but they were also angry about "Pakis' moving into their neighborhoods, Arabs buying everything in Harrods, Puerto Ricans nicking their girlfriends, and there being too many Jews for their liking."

He also roundly condemns punk's revisionist history, whether it was Siouxsie Sioux's attempts to explain the swastika she wore as "high camp" or Adam and the Ants' virulently racist "Puerto Rican" being excised from a later musical compilation on the band. "Those who reinvented themselves after the fact," Sabin charges, "were simply being dishonest and were complicit in further clouding our understanding of the punk moment." Such illuminating pieces, free of labored analysis, are the exception rather than the rule.

Perhaps it's fitting, then, that Andy Medhurst, currently teacher of media studies at the University of Sussex, is one of the last voices to sound off here. Eighteen years old in 1977, he fondly recalls his days as an "enthralled consumer" of artists such as the Clash, the Buzzcocks, and Patti Smith, and he clearly delights in punk's continuing status as a "pariah genre" in the '90s. In the process, he offers a critique of the stodgy academic style of writing that defines this book: "One of the major reasons I find academic accounts of punk so troubling -- their studium is radically at odds with my rapturously nostalgic punctum. They threaten to throw cold analytical water on my most feverish reveries." To which one can only add a hearty Amen.

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