The Problem With ‘Punk’


In Sydney at the moment, there’s a residential warehouse where a group of music fans get together and hold shows. They have a mailing list they use to announce the shows but they don’t advertise or promote. The whole operation is extremely streamlined, down to the point where three people can book this event on an ongoing basis without serious interruption to their everyday lives. And it’s very popular within a small circle of gig-goers, a success. It sells out.

Not long ago, they booked an Australian Idol contestant to play. 

So these are not harsh noise house parties.

This is something else entirely.

This type of activity is not punk but it is a result of resistance and a desire for autonomy. These people very deliberately looked at the loud, calamitous Sydney live music scene around them and said, ‘No, we want something different.’

Then they went ahead and made it happen.

This is happening everywhere.

All over the world. Every city I’ve visited as a researcher has some sort of grass-roots performance space. Increasingly, these spaces are not solely about fast guitar-based music. There are collectives and groups documenting these sites, archiving things. Histories and futures are being laid down by people who are bored, creative and motivated.

I’m always reading the history books at work. The more I look, the more this theme keeps popping up, time and again. It’s kind of how the wider circulation of contemporary music got started:

What [Sun Studio’s owner Sam] Phillips was looking for [in Harmonica Frank’s music] was something that didn’t fit, that didn’t make sense out of or reflect American life as everyone seemed to understand it, but which made it beside the point, confused things, and affirmed something else. What? The fact that there was something else (from Greil Marcus Mystery Train, p.18)

Regular people, with regular jobs, regular desires and regular lives, have often – it seems – felt the desire to map out a little space and create something in it.

So the problem I have with the word punk is pretty simple: the core ideals of punk (resistance and autonomy) do not belong to punk and never have done. Resistance and autonomy belong to every one who isn’t a complete drone.

These concepts pre-date punk by decades. (Centuries probably.) In a nutshell, people have routinely told authority and dominance to go fuck itself when they thought it was out of line. They’ve always found ways to get it done. Sometimes it’s huge and noticeable. Sometimes it’s subtle and slight. This is kinda how we get our lives done. It’s ongoing.

Yet punk is notoriously guarded. It’s the first to cry fowl if it feels it’s being co-opted. Maybe it needs to remain mindful of its own co-opting.

The DIY venues existed before there was a term for them.

People acted without intermediaries before punk.

People played passionately and raucously before punk.

People rebelled with music well before punk.

The hands-on craftwork of self-made art is eternal.

And even punk’s ground zero is suspect: ’77 belongs as much to The Eagles as it does The Sex Pistols, if you read a bit wider (thank-you Tara Brabazon for pointing this out recently).

Punk was great: it opened up space. It allowed people in. We should be ever thankful that something so beautiful even happened.

But it needs us more than we need it. Be a punk if you want to be. At least you’ll have done something with your life. But don’t ever mistake it for a distinctly open-minded point of worldview. Punk has only ever been an articulation of broader ideals and values. It has many, many benefits: kinship, a dramatic yet accessible code of dress and aesthetics, some political clout, a lot of great music but…

At the core of punk are a set ideas and values that anyone can live their life by, if they choose to.

And many people do, everyday, they just don’t bother giving it a name.

ON AN UNRELATED NOTE: The Vine recently published quite an extensive interview I did with fellow academic Nic Carah. We mainly talk about the role of branding at Australian music festivals. I think it turned out great and serves as a pretty good primer on how the music industry and the advertising industry interact:


2 thoughts on “The Problem With ‘Punk’

  1. spot on! I guess there are 2 perspectives to the term: ‘Punk’ the brand, the product and ‘punk’ the approach to art and lifestyle. I personally subscribe to the latter.

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