Thanks to the The Rebel Sell, I’m still asked to give my opinion every now and then about music and culture. I usually decline, but Jeremy Allen had a story idea recently that caught my interest, so I did an interview for this article: Punk was Rubbish and it Didn’t Change Anything: An Investigation.
Unfortunately, we did an email interview, and he wound up not using most of it, which is a shame, since email responses take a long time to write. So here is the full interview, for those who are interested in such things:
You suggest in your book The Rebel Sell that the counterculture is not a threat to the system. Does art change anything?
What Andrew Potter and I were arguing against, in The Rebel Sell, was a certain political idea, which originated in the 1960s, but remained enormously influential during the punk era as well. The thought was that, in order to have a truly revolutionary politics, it was not sufficient to oppose just the capitalist economic system (as previous generations of communist revolutionaries had done). Capitalism was thought to be just one manifestation of a larger problem, which affected all aspects of society – the education system, the military-industrial complex, the church, the family, in fact the entire culture. In order to be truly revolutionary, one needed to oppose “the system” in its entirety. The central characteristic of the system was taken to be its fixation on order and discipline. If the entire culture was repressive, then liberation was possible only by forming a “counterculture,” which would celebrate the disorderly and the anarchic. This had a huge impact on left-wing politics. It explains how, as we put it in the book, “the hipster, cooling his heels in a jazz club, came to be seen as a more profound critic of modern society than a civil rights activist working to enlist voters, or the feminist politician campaigning for a constitutional amendment.”
The countercultural analysis, unfortunately, turned out to be mistaken. There’s no other way to put it. The idea was that if certain forms of discipline broke down – for instance, if people overcame their sexual repression and discovered free love, or if people began to reject the soul-destroying conformity of the suburbs, that a new era of freedom and individuality would break out, as a result of which, people would no longer tolerate the exploitative conditions of assembly-line labour, or military conscription to fight wars of imperialism. In other words, it was genuinely believed that countercultural rebellion would undermine and destroy “the system.” In the end though, it turned out that “the system” doesn’t actually require mass conformity, or sexual repression. So all that “rebellion” just became a new source of competitive consumption. The sexual revolution, for instance, immediately gave rise to the pornography industry. And clothing companies are just as happy selling leather jackets as they are grey flannel suits. So countercultural rebellion immediately became a part of the system that it believed itself to be opposing.
This is not to say that art cannot change things. But it cannot change the fundamental nature of commercial society. Artists have been condemning bourgeois society and its values for well over 100 years, and all they have succeeded in doing is showing how deep and liquid the market is for anti-bourgeois products.
Do you think punk is overrated?
I don’t have any big views about the aesthetics of punk. I do think, however, that those of us who were involved in the punk movement vastly overestimated the political importance of what we were doing. The problem was, we hadn’t really learned the lesson that should have been learned from the failure of the ’60s counterculture. We all hated hippies – we basically thought they had failed to change anything, then sold out. We figured that was because their idea of rebellion was too soft, too lovey-dovey – it didn’t have any edge to it. So our solution was to be more hardcore, and more uncompromising, in every respect, in both our politics and our music. The problem was that we were still buying into the same idea of counterculture, the idea that you could break the system merely through acts of non-conformity. In other words, punks basically had the same theory of revolution that hippies had, we just thought that they hadn’t done a very good job of it, and we were going to show them the proper way. Unfortunately, the whole thing was misguided. In a sense, we were insufficiently critical of the hippies, and of the ’60s. Not only did their rebellion fail, but the whole analysis that informed their approach to rebellion was totally wrong.
Are you a fan of punk per se? Which bands – if any – do you like? What floats your boat musically?
I was pretty serious about punk when I was young. I was born in 1967, so I was a bit young for the ’70s stuff. But I pretty much lived and breathed punk rock in the ‘80s. I grew up in Western Canada, so the California scene was the one we had the most contact with – Dead Kennedys, The Cramps, Circle Jerks, X, and The Gun Club. I moved to Quebec in 1985, where Bérurier Noir were huge.
My tastes have evolved somewhat, although perhaps less than one might have hoped. I have certainly learned to appreciate better production values. But the other day I was playing White Zombie or Metallica or something like that in the car, and my daughter asked me if I could please turn off my “old man music.” So I guess that’s what I listen to now, old man music.
Would you not accept that maybe the attitude that came with punk has lingered? Children who saw the Sex Pistols swear on the Bill Grundy Today show copied them, and they’ve been doing it ever since, with their children and their children’s children following suit…
Punk definitely established a formula for “how to get attention” which has been slavishly imitated by artists to the present day: do something vulgar, wait for expressions of outrage, then claim to be a political martyr, persecuted by reactionary forces. The fact that it still works is a bit surprising. Compare Eminem’s lyrics in “My Dad’s Gone Crazy” with “Sing for the Moment,” then ask yourself, was the controversy over his lyrics really “all political”? He basically ran the same scam as the Sex Pistols, with pretty much identical effects. The fact that he could do it with a straight face kind of amazes me. That having been said, he’s hardly the only one, it’s become a pretty standard formula, it’s just getting harder and harder to shock people.
You’re from Canada. Did punk “happen” there like it did in the UK? And being close to America and being aware of American culture, when did punk impact in the States? It was big in the 90s, but that seemed to spring out of grunge almost like a sub-genre normally would…
Sure. There was DOA on the West coast, SNFU in Alberta. k.d.lang came out of that scene as well, although she turned out to have bigger plans. SCUM and Asexuals in Montreal. Then there was punk-influenced stuff like Skinny Puppy and Voivod. Probably the best-known commercial impact was from Nettwerk Records, which came out of the DIY scene in Vancouver, and went on to give the world Sarah McLachlan, amongst others.
Revisionist histories have suggested punk exploded in ‘77 in Great Britain, when really the whole country was listening to Boney M and David Soul. Why do we all buy into these neat narratives without questioning them?
You have to understand that the whole concept of “alternative” or “underground” music really did correspond to our experience in the ’80s. In retrospect it was largely a demographic phenomenon, a consequence of being in the generation that followed immediately upon the baby boom, and of how the economics of the music industry worked. People probably hit their peak music-buying years in their early twenties, so the normal state of affairs is that a lot of popular music will be made by people around that age, and popular taste will be defined by young people (think Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift, etc.) Those of us in Generation X, however, grew up in a strange time. Because the baby boom generation was so large, by the time we were teens or in our early twenties, there was still more money to be made selling to the boomers than there was in selling to young people. As a result, radio, the record labels and record stores were completely dominated by music that we associated with our parents – mainly stadium rock. In order for young people to make music for young people, you literally had to start your own record label and set up your own distribution network, because the music industry simply was not interested in that demographic. Even getting your hands on an album in those days took serious connections – if you didn’t live in a major city, the stuff was like contraband.
There has been some distortion of memory in that regard. I first noticed it when I was watching the movie Grosse Point Blank, where the John Cusak character – who is my age – goes back for his high school reunion. There’s a big ’80s soundtrack, with songs I used to listen to back then, like the Violent Femmes. The thing that struck me however, is how totally revisionist this is. Back in the ’80s, high school dances were dominated by Led Zeppelin, the Eagles, that sort of stuff. Violent Femmes was deep underground – there were maybe two or three of us at my high school who listened to them. Even The Clash was exotic. But of course it was the Violent Femmes and The Clash who went on to define the sound of the era, because that was the only music being made by people of that generation. Still, you have this weird situation where the music of my generation is music that most people my age didn’t actually listen to when they were young.
So in response to your question, yes, people were listening to Boney M – or in my neck of the woods, Black Sabbath. But that’s because back then the underground music scene was actually underground, it had no presence at all on radio or in record stores.
This of course contributed to our feeling that we were involved in something really subversive, genuinely revolutionary. The fact that the music industry wasn’t willing to sell the records, and radio stations wouldn’t play the music, made us feel like we must be some kind of a threat to the system. It all turned out to be an illusion though, really just a consequence of the economics of the music business. Once the demographics changed, then you started to see the music industry selling music to young people again. So that was when you got the “grunge” phenomenon. That music was not new – the sound was one that kids had been listening to for over a decade (we called it “hardcore”). It’s just that all of a sudden the market for it became large enough that the major labels started to take an interest in it.
Johnny Rotten’s philosophy of punk was fairly existentialist. He said punk was about questioning everything (which is maybe why he went on to form PiL rather than another carbon copy of the Sex Pistols). Surely for most, punk is about conforming, wearing the same clothes, gobbing on people and playing three chords very quickly?
Punk was clearly about rebellion, not about conformity. What we tried to show in The Rebel Sell, however, is how conformity arises as an indirect consequence of the status competition that rebellion generates. The thing about rebellion is that it’s very cool, and that in turn gives the rebel a lot of social status. As a result, rebels naturally attract imitators – especially given the countercultural analysis of mainstream society, which says that the masses are basically a bunch of brainwashed sheep. Who wants to be one of them? So how do you signal that you’re not one of those brainwashed masses? You have to rebel in a way that signals your difference. Unfortunately, when everyone does that, it becomes collectively self-defeating. As a result, the true rebel has to be constantly changing, constantly finding new way to distinguish him or herself from others – because what was “edgy” last year quickly becomes “co-opted” and “mainstream.” This is one of the reasons that these rebellious subcultures have been so creative, and have generated so much stylistic innovation, it’s because they have at their heart a system of competitive status-seeking, where in order to remain cool, you have to stay ahead of everyone else.
Back then, of course, we thought this was all evidence of “the system” having a nefarious capacity to co-opt all forms of dissent. We didn’t realize that it had nothing to do with the system at all, it was something we were doing to ourselves.
The egalitarian principle of DIY music is great in principle, but do you not think a bit of virtuosity elevates great art above the humdrum?
DIY turns out to be just another word for “entrepreneurial.” There’s not much to be said for a DIY approach to learning how to play an instrument. There is, however, a lot to be said for a DIY approach to producing and distributing music.
DIY music is being made on the internet now that is light years ahead of the genre in my opinion. Can the internet eventually change the system and sock it to the man?
No, the internet has made it obvious that it makes no sense to want to “sock it to the man” through nonconformity or cultural rebellion. Thanks to the internet, it’s basically impossible to have a genuinely “alternative” or “underground” music scene, because all someone has to do is post a video on Youtube, a song on Soundcloud, or whatever, and it’s basically available to the whole world. As a result, it’s impossible to maintain the illusion that there is any real tension between the “alternative” and the “mainstream,” or that the former represents any sort of threat to the latter. When I was young, with only 3 television stations, and maybe 5 or 6 radio stations, there really was a hegemonic mass culture, and it wasn’t crazy to think that “the system” somehow relied upon this to establish social order – so that by opting out of it, you were doing something subversive. For young people today, however, it’s just obvious that “the system” does not require a hegemonic mass culture or conformity. The experience people have of markets today is not one of imposed conformity. The age of Henry Ford, and his “you can have any colour you want, as long as it’s black,” has been rendered obsolete by technology. Young people are used to markets treating them as special and precious individuals. The idea that nonconformity might undermine capitalism just strikes them as nonsensical – which it is, except that 30 years ago things didn’t seem that way.
Is punk now a heritage industry, recycling former glories as a snotty simulacrum?
If you’re talking about the Sum 41s and Green Days, then yeah, that sort of punk is just genre music. They don’t seem particularly snotty even.
Is hip hop the new punk rock?
Sort of. The whole “keepin’ in real” concept in hip hop, or the “gansta” thing, is reminiscent of the competitive rebellion that one found in punk. On the other hand, hip hop has always embraced both capitalism and consumerism quite enthusiastically. To the extent that it has political pretensions, these are really narrowly focused on the grievances of African-Americans (and then, internationally, groups who identify with the African-American experience). So it’s not just the same thing all over again, the way that punk really was just another version of the same thing that we saw in the ‘60s.
Is punk rock now a relic of Generation X. The actual generation, not the band…
The whole concept of “alternative” music is a legacy of Generation X. When I moved to Toronto in the 1990s, there was an “alternative” music radio station – which was, of course a contradiction in terms. The whole concept of “alternative” was that it was stuff that couldn’t get played on the radio. But that’s a concept that really doesn’t make sense to people born in the ’80s and later, who have always had access to music made by people their own age. It’s important to understand, though, that members of my generation really did grow up in a strange time. The demographics of the baby boom generation, and the bust that followed, were quite extreme. So yes, punk rock is clearly a relic of Generation X. But that having been said, it is also the music that speaks to, and expresses, some of the unique features of that generation’s experience.