How to Be Punk in 2015

Whatever you may think about punk—music, culture, aesthetic, attitude—can we at least agree, as a starting point, that the “Vans Warped Tour ‘15: Presented by Journeys” (that’s right, they squeezed two corporate sponsors into the name) has almost nothing to do with it?  Rock critic Jessica Hopper pretty much nailed it on the head when she called the Warped tour a “mobile shopping mall”—way back in 2004.

But that aside, what does it mean that punk, four decades on, is still popularly identified by studded leather jackets, dyed-neon mohawks, and three-chord thrashing?  Is that a sign of an idea that’s stuck in a bygone era?  Is it even possible in 2015 for punk’s same core signifiers to still possess the sort of authenticity which originally inspired them years ago?  Can you still be punk and wear Doc Martens or Chuck Taylors, when the former resides in the portfolio of a global investment firm & the latter is produced by Nike?  Or could punk’s immutability be the best indication of all that it doesn’t give a fuck about any institution—least of all the concept of time itself?

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riot-fest-2013-crowd-16A conflation of recent things from my life which are definitely, maybe, or absolutely not punk:

  • Going to a Bad Religion show last Tuesday night (with an iPhone in my pocket)1
  • Creating a list in a Google Doc of consumer goods which I wanted to purchase, including Bad Religion records2
  • Helping publish Jessica Hopper’s The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic last month
  • Devoting an inordinate amount of time last week to creating a Google advertising campaign for promoting Hopper’s new book
  • Listening to Sarah Boothroyd’s  “Rabble Rousers,” which I initially heard last week on the Third Coast Audio Festival, via NPR
  • Culling a fair amount of bullshit from my apartment which I was never going to use/read/wear
  • Carefully selecting which clothes I would wear based on the particular venue I was going to (and changing them multiple times in a day if necessary)

1 The Bad Religion show that I saw was their second night at a small club in Chicago, during the “Battle of the Centuries!!!” tour.  Until Greg Graffin announced it from the stage, I was totally unaware of this mini-tour’s concept: playing songs from ten of their 20th century albums on the first night, and five of their 21st century albums the next.  Had I known that I was paying nearly $40 for this, I probably wouldn’t have gone to the second night.  But as it turned out, the old men in Bad Religion can still play real fucking loud & real, real fucking fast.  And not only that, but their 21st century material is actually pretty damn good.  Maybe not as iconic as the work of their youth, but still very much relevant & very much rockin’.  Perhaps even more surprising was an unexpectedly experimental performance (by traditional punk standards, at least) which featured atmospheric guitars, modulated vocals, and layered effects all bleeding into each other—not like a cacophonous roar, but more like a sonic collage.

2 Hot Topic (i.e., that ubiquitous mall store specializing in “alternative” culture) has a whole “Punk” section of their website which you can browse for clothing, music, jewelry, and lanyards(?).  The reason I know this is because Bad Religion has an exclusive deal with Hot Topic for limited edition re-releases of their albums on vinyl.  I *really* want Recipe for Hate, the first album that truly compelled me to seek out more punk music.  Though I did step inside one of Hot Topic’s stores as a suburban kid, this would probably be the first time in my life I’ve ever actually given them money.  And if I do wind up giving them my money, I honestly don’t know which entity in that transaction is actually the least punk.

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A shorter, and more historical, but still mostly personal, list of things which are definitely, maybe, or absolutely not punk:

  • Greg Graffin’s punk manifesto, which includes this definition: “Punk is the personal expression of uniqueness that comes from the experiences of growing up in touch with our human ability to reason and ask questions.”1
  • For an assignment in my Argumentative Writing class in college, I penned a screed entitled “Why Bad Religion is the Most Important Band in the World”2
  • My former favorite hot dog stand, whose owner worked the counter, open to close, every day that it was ever open, sold t-shirts in homage to the Sex Pistols, Black Flag, and the Ramones.  It also gave free hot dogs for life to anyone who tattooed the store’s logo anywhere on their body.

graffin-xoazuree1 Bad Religion celebrated their 30th anniversary in 2010 with a 17-track live album which they gave away free downloads of just for joining their mailing list.  Graffin has a master’s degree in geology, and a doctorate in zoology, and is now 50 years old.  During the show, his black eyeglass retainer cord was clearly visible against the back of his head & his now nearly shock-white hair.

2 I may well be the least qualified person you know to be talking about punk.  I grew up in a suburb of Chicago—the kind of suburb that helps keep the stereotype of suburbs alive.  It was wasn’t terribly wealthy (at least, not back then), but it definitely wasn’t poor.  And it wasn’t as culture-rich as Chicago, but it also wasn’t so boring or archconservative that I felt compelled to rebel against it.  It was just… nice.  As a student at a high school run by Benedictine monks, the closest I got to being punk was really liking Green Day’s Kerplunk album.  As a freshman at a college run by LaSallian monks, I dyed my hair fire-engine red & really got into Bad Religion—but I was also terrified of wearing a “crossbuster” t-shirt in front of my decidedly Christian family.  This is who you’re dealing with here.

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In the course of writing this post, I wondered if maybe modern punks are so punk that not only will they not self-identify as “punk,” but they’ve rejected a core principle of punk (i.e, the primacy & importance of the individual).  Is it possible that hackers & groups like Anonymous are really the modern-day flag bearers of punk, even if they don’t describe themselves that way?  Have true punks pushed themselves so far down the spectrum that they’ve swung around to the other side?  To the idea that it’s not really individual identity that matters, because that’s an idea inherently doomed to crumble in the face of ginormous multi-national corporations & the G-8?  I don’t know, but it might make good fodder for a Bad Religion song.

Here’s something I do know, though (mostly because Greg Graffin told me): punk has changed.  During the show the other night, Graffin reminisced about how when they started out, the pit at their shows was a real “sausage factory.”  But when they’re on tour now, he’s pleased to see that the biggest difference between now & then is that there’s a whole lot more women in the crowd.  And whatever you may think about my or your punk bona fides, can we at least agree, as a starting point, that this has everything to do with why punk still matters in 2015?

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Greg Graffin image courtesy of Azuree Wiitala; Riot Fest photos from Kirstie Shanley.

3 Comments

  • Amaris Amaris says:

    Also, Sex Pistols Virgin credit cards (“Introduce a little anarchy to you wallet…”), which you can read about in this Bloomberg View article that takes a look at how a financial company can be “cool”: http://www.bloombergview.com/articles/2015-06-10/virgin-s-sex-pistols-credit-card-is-pretty-vacant?et_mid=759166&rid=240561481
    (Although “the only notes that count are the one that come in wads”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SXOMcPeea9M&et_mid=759166&rid=240561481)

  • Did you see the Warped Tour in your teen punk heyday? One “unpunk” memory of mine from the 2002 tour in San Francisco is vendors selling water for five dollars a bottle at a venue with zero drinking fountains.
    Vans shoes as the permanent sponsor makes demographic sense (as I guess Journeys does, though I’ve never been inside one) and its brand “authenticity” makes for some cleverly insidious punk-rock-and-capitalism synergy.

    • jason says:

      i was *this* close to going to a warped tour in ’98 when BR was on the bill. it was in the united center parking lot & i can’t recall why i didn’t go. probably because i was a poor college kid with no car or money or any friends in illinois who were really into punk. i do remember seriously considering taking a train into the city & hanging out on the sidewalk by myself at the UC (which is generally an ill-advised thing to do in that neighborhood). after that, the warped tour moved to the suburbs & probably the shittiest venue in all of chicagoland.

      fun fact: i did buy a $12 ticket to that same shitty suburban amphitheatre in 2000, when BR opened for blink-182 (and i finally had my own car). me & buddy bought lawn tix, snuck down into the (mostly empty) seats for bad religion’s set, and then left to drive back home before blink ever took the stage. a teenage parking lot attendant thought that was pretty great & it might’ve been the most punk move i ever made.

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