Is Punk still a thing?

What is punk in 2024? An attitude? A music? A sense of aesthetic? A haircut?

It’s one of those things that we all have an understanding of and yet can’t quite narrow down to a definition that holds in a sentence. Adding to the difficulty is that whatever punk was in the 1970s, it got carried along by the next generations and morphed into something new.

My personal definition of punk is influenced by my age and my experience as a music listener. It all started when I first heard the Sex Pistols during a school trip and insisted for a copy of the LP on cassette on the spot. The music was unlike anything I had ever heard and contained an element of danger that I couldn’t explain. I went on to listen to that tape on repeat until it wore out.

Since that discovery, the Sex Pistols remained my definition of punk, and the only other band I placed in the same category was Crass. These two English bands were it for me. Punk was an angry music from the 70s, played by amateurs and properly expressed by these few people. As young as I was, I liked what punk had been and somehow always placed it in the past. I never had any illusions that it might be something of the present, even in the early 90s.

It didn’t prevent me from enjoying quantities of other “punk rock bands” from the USA or Europe but they were never quite the same product. They played a similar sound, looked similar to the Pistols and to Crass but never quite matched my definition (with the possible exception of Ramones). I loved these bands regardless and listened with great pleasure to their songs: Minor Threat, Adolescents, Dead Kennedys, Germs…brilliant stuff.

Initially, and central to the idea of punk was rebellion against the environment. The method was to throw out words in a disorderly way and see who would hear them. This was expressed through the music and also the tousled hair and ripped clothes. It was an artistic comment on society made by a few artists from the UK at a certain time. Like other artistic movements, the comment and the time period were inseparable.

These musicians found a way of expressing a message through a very new (and shocking) medium: noisy music with thought-provoking lyrics. It was their unique formula which happened to work very well and got them in trouble with all levels of authority all the way up to the British Parliament.

Understandably, their efforts were noticed by people who related to the lyrics of these musicians and who thought it might be a good idea to hop on board the artistic medium. They felt that if they dressed in a similar way, they too might use this artistic tool to express feelings that they imagined similar to those of the musicians.

We might compare it to a protest in which 4 people decided to sit down in a public place and wear green T-shirts. Some onlookers might be inspired by the message of the protesters and sit down also. They might buy green T-shirts and call this sit-down by a specific name. (“We are the Green T-Shirters”)

When re-reading the interviews of the original punks, none of them claimed to be “punks” – which is a term invented by an English journalist by the name of Caroline Coon. They were just people expressing feelings with art, just as the protesters in our example didn’t have a name. It was rather the followers who gave it a name and called it a movement. Some of these early punks didn’t even consider that punk lasted more than 3 Summer months in 77 and were surprised to see that kids in the countryside were starting to dress like the Londoners.

The long-lasting result of the creation of these early punks was a “how to” guide in the manner of a commodity that all could use. It was also a thing that individuals could latch onto psychologically and which brought a sense of safety. Any band that wished to express anger through a certain aesthetic could follow a set of easily-understandable steps and do as the Pistols did.

Far from hiding this chameleon effect, all later punk bands rather saw it as a badge of honour. They proudly refer to a moment of “awakening” when they heard the songs of “band XYZ” and knew it was the path for them to follow. A few decades more of this behaviour and countless bands later and it is now 50 years since the first punks. The musicians are still using the same shock tactics in their art, which leads me to the question “Is punk still a thing?

Drawing a parallel with literature or painting, there were different currents and periods also. The Dada current appeared after World War 1 and was a reaction to society in those times. We can wonder whether placing an artifact like Marcel Duchamp’s bicycle wheel in an art gallery in 2024 will have the same effect as when he did it.

When Goethe published “The Sorrows of the Young Werther” it led to a wave of suicides from young men who were copying the behaviour of the main character of the book. They dressed like him and saw in Werther an answer to their pains. Does anyone in 2024 think this same book carries a similar power as in the 1700s?

The answer to these two questions is “obviously not”. A surprise is only a surprise if it is done once. If I come home to see “Chris is a big banana” painted on my house by an anonymous hand, it will be less of a surprise when I saw “Chris is a big apple” on the second day if I also knew whose hand wrote it. And it would surprise me even less if on the third day I saw “Chris is a big tomato” if I knew who did it and why they did it.

If like punk, they are still spraying things on my house 50 years later, I will long have moved out and I might occasionally receive news of the house and say “Goodness! Are they still spraying stuff on that house?” Just as I would occasionally look at Youtube and see punks playing their punk music.

As cruel as it sounds, this is how I feel about punk. The shocking part of punk is long gone, as is perhaps its initial purpose for being. As for the music, it comfortably blended into rock n’ roll and became a genre with a label. In many ways, punk rock is rock n’ roll.

If asked the question whether punk should be allowed to exist or be banned, the majority of people off the street will likely answer “Why not? It’s not harming anyone!” which might be the issue. It is doing no harm and hasn’t been truly a threat to old ladies since the mohawks of the 80s and the studded jackets.

I certainly don’t wish any ill on punk in 2024, nor do I wish for it to stay or go anywhere. So long as it brings joy to people, why indeed should we want for it to go away? It would be like saying we want pool players to stop having fun doing their thing. No, my questions rather relate to the motivations of the participants in the 50 year old punk scene. If indeed punk is an artistic movement, why repeat other artists’ form of expression several decades down the line when it has long proven not to achieve its purpose anymore?

From getting arrested and attacked in the street in the 70s, we went to Summer festivals sponsored by major brands. A good old time can be had pogoing to our favourite bands while selfies are made to keep dear memories of this innocent fun. It’s safe, it’s available and it doesn’t do any harm. But perhaps punk is just that: an artistic medium turned inwards and whose initial strength was precisely that it didn’t know who it was speaking to. The community was not yet formed and the voice of punk shouted out seditious messages to whomever was within reach.

To a new person getting into punk, it is with full understanding of the structuring principles of the group. How odd that a rebellious movement should actually lose strength in numbers.

One day soon enough, punk will be 60, then 70 and then 100. My guess is that kids will still be pinning on the badges from the same bands (DK, Misfits, RKL…) and behaving in much the same way. Musicians will be singing similar lyrics to an audience who are already quite convinced of the veracity of the message through the simple act of signing up. They will need not truly listen anymore. It will be a type of artistic “closed circuit” in which each participant throws back the same reassuring energy.

In an ideal world, I am not sure what should have happened. The sombre marching on the intro of Holidays in the Sun and Rotten’s crazed yelling of “I wanna see some historrreee..” caused similar emotions to mine to thousands of people. It stands to reason that kids would want to pick up a guitar to express the same. Who at that age would keep a cool head and rationalize that the method that worked for one artist might not work for all. Just as dominoes, one band inspired the next and on it went for the next 50 years.

Whether the music of punk has gained or lost in the long run because of the spontaneous “jumping on board”, I will leave to observers more knowledgeable than myself. Perhaps if different channels of musical investigation had been explored, the music today would sound less…punk?

Who knows.

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