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What is (or was) punk? Is it still relevant?
2016 was the 40th anniversary of the release of Anarchy in the UK by the Sex Pistols — and as a consequence, the opportunity for London to hold a number of celebrations around the Punk movement.
Punk is one of the things I’ve been researching these past two years, in preparation for a French anthology of short stories. Its theme, “Quantpunk”, started in a friendly discussion about the recent proliferation of ~punk subgenres. What could possibly come up after cyberpunk (example: Burning Chrome), steampunk (The Difference Engine), dieselpunk (Mad Max), nanopunk, or even mythpunk (American Gods) and stonepunk (The Flintstones)? Does the suffix even mean anything anymore? Not to disparage the appeal of corsets and petticoats (and they can certainly be steamy), but what is punk about them? I consequently felt I needed to learn more about punk, its origins, themes and evolution — and also, whether it was still relevant today.
The punk movement appeared in the mid seventies, in a context of social malaise. With the economic crisis, cracks had started to appear in the model put in place in the West since 1945 (‘get a job; get a home, a car and a TV; get married; have kids; retire and die’). Communism didn’t look as bright an alternative as it once had — especially after the violent repression of the uprisings in Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia in 1956-1968. (For all the 1990s’ self-congratulations about “the end of ideology”, 1970s punks had already been there, done that.)
The strains of counterculture that had emerged in the 1960s were also showing their limits. Charles Manson had sown doubt, shown madness could lurk behind a hippie exterior. The end of the Vietnam war had also made mass demonstrations seem less necessary. The former insurgents either went back to the mainstream — cut their hair, bought a suit, found a job — or wallowed in drug-fueled denial. Society returned to normal, seemingly unchanged.
Proto-punks consequently rallied themselves around skepticism, anarchism and nihilism. For them, all sociopolitical models (religion, capitalism, communism) were equally flawed; they kept standing only through cultivated ignorance (the mainstream media) and outright coercion (the police, the army, moral standards, etc.). To find freedom and happiness, one had to reject all this — everything authoritarian power said.
Punks also rejected consumerism. In their view, it brought only empty joy, and made wage slaves out of people. A better answer was to make things themselves — their own music; their own clothes; their own newspapers. This had the added benefit of crystallizing their differences with the mainstream.
I am an antichrist
I am an anarchist
Don’t know what I want
But I know how to get it
Anarchy in the UK
It’s no longer counter- when you are the culture
By the early 1980s however, punk was in crisis. The Sex Pistols had broken up in 1978; Sid Vicious disappeared the following year. Perhaps more crucially, Punk had become a victim of its own success: it had joined the mainstream. Acts like Generation X had started making it more presentable, in order to appear on Top of the Pops. Tailor to the punks Vivienne Westwood held her first catwalk show in 1981 (“Pirates”), inviting journalists and potential international buyers. Ripped jeans, leather jackets, biker boots became common accessories.
But the main problem was possibly that many of the punks’ ideas had been recycled… by the establishment. The punks distrusted authority; their arch-scarecrow, Margaret Thatcher did exactly what they dreamt of: she dismantled the state. The punks valued DIY? The 1980s glorified the self-made man. Neo-liberalism turned the punks’ ideals into a dystopia.
In reaction, the movement had to evolve. What is punk when its ideas are perverted by commercial media, corporate fatcats and conservative barons? Some focused on music, and pushed the experiment further — created Hardcore punk. Others thought the solution was to dig deeper into social and personal aspects — giving rise to movements like Straight Edge or Krishna Consciousness. By the late 1980s, one might easily have been mistaken into thinking Punk had died.
“Punk was a dead music when cyberpunk SF was born, a cul-de-sac albeit with living practitioners who just hadn’t gotten the message yet. The music’s nihilistic, chiliastic worldview had already culminated in its only possible end: self-extinction.”
Paul Di Filippo
Paul Di Filippo consequently used a different suffix for his movement, inspired by developments in gene science and technology: Ribofunk. Similarly, other novelists like Scott Westerfeld (Uglies) decided to explore the positive aspects of cybernetics and computer technology, and coined the term ‘cyberprep’ — based on preppy, an adjective which could apply to… some Straight Edge practitioners.
Punk was not dead. It had morphed.
We’re all punks now
While some bands tried to ape early punk for profit, the movement’s ideas, esthetics, energy and taste for experimentation percolated through mainstream culture. One of the most successful (on a commercial basis; less so on a personal one) bands of the early 1990s, Nirvana, blended heavy metal and hardcore punk. More generally, grunge matched punk on many aspects, from themes (social alienation) to distressed clothing and DIY esthetics.
Punk’s musical influence extended to less obvious areas: the Beastie Boys, who had started as a hardcore punk band in the early 1980s, soon became one of the defining acts of 1980s rap and hip-hop — from where they further went on to inspire electronic and… rock artists.
But perhaps the two surest signs of a movement’s strength are when people from different horizons arrive to similar conclusions — thus confirming the soundness of its theses –, and when the movement’s output inspires its members to go even further — thus ensuring that it is self-sustainable. In this aspect, it is interesting to turn to one of punk’s most famous literary influences, Cyberpunk, and particularly one of its highlights, Neuromancer. To quote its author, William Gibson:
BLADERUNNER came out while I was still writing Neuromancer. I was about a third of the way into the manuscript. When I saw (the first twenty minutes of) BLADERUNNER, I figured my unfinished first novel was sunk, done for. Everyone would assume I’d copped my visual texture from this astonishingly fine-looking film. But that didn’t happen. Mainly I think because BLADERUNNER seriously bombed in theatrical release, and films didn’t pop right back out on DVD in those days. The general audience didn’t seem to get it, relatively few people saw it, and it simply vanished, leaving nary a ripple. Where it went, though, was straight through the collective membrane to Memetown, where it silently went nova, irradiating everything from clothing-design to serious architecture. What other movie has left actual office-buildings in its stylistic wake? Some of this was already starting to happen in the gap between my submission of the manuscript and the novel’s eventual publication; I noted with interest, for instance, the fact of a London club called Replicants. (http://www.williamgibsonbooks.com/blog/2003_01_01_archive.asp#90199532)
[Note: where else than London, capital of punk, could such a club emerge first?]
A decade later, Gibson finally met Ridley Scott and discussed influences:
“I met Ridley Scott years later, maybe a decade or more after Blade Runner was released. I told him what Neuromancer was made of, and he had basically the same list of ingredients for Blade Runner.” (Interviewed by the Paris Review)
[To be completely exhaustive, both Gibson and Scott acknowledged French comics, and specifically Métal Hurlant as a major direct influence, thus opening interesting questions on the influence of Giraud, Druillet and Dionnet on punk and post-1980s global science-fiction, but these are probably outside of the scope of the present article.]
One final fact: in 1982-83, Vivienne Westwood returned to punk for her new collection, “Punkature.” Her inspiration? Blade Runner. The circle was closed; punk influenced punk, and became self-sustainable.
Revenge of the hippies
But after all these mutations, is punk still punk, or has it transformed into something else entirely?
To answer this, one might have to return to two of the elements that defined punk most acutely, at least at the beginning:
- a deep-rooted skepticism about authority and the way “the system” (be it capitalist or communist, democratic or autocratic) works, for some people ranging all the way to nihilism;
- a rejection of consumerism, with a clear preference for DIY.
One — disturbing — confirmation comes from a report published by the Pew Research Center in 2014. Among advanced economies, 65% of people believe their children will be worse off than their parents, at least on financial terms; only 28% believe the opposite (see left): not a great sign of confidence in the system that emerged “victorious” from the Cold War. Inequality, public debt, unemployment and purchasing power are seen as the most pressing problems — which the political elites seem unable to fix: hence the pessimism, and hence also the temptation to shake things up with Brexit, or “make America great again” / “drain the swamp” (Trump). The Brexiters’ slogan, “take back control”, could have been uttered as easily by Thatcher as by a 1970s anarchist: implied is the idea of giving power back to the individual, albeit (of course) in different forms.
This resonates interestingly with another modern anxiety, the feeling of helplessness that arises in an ever-more-complicated world. Who understands the intricacies of the EU, the causes of the financial crises (plural), Facebook’s user agreement, or even modern science for that matter? Discoveries and inventions are no longer made by single people, but by teams, sometimes international; new drugs are found by machines, running millions of automated tests much faster than any human could. The feeling is not new: the second World War was won by mathematicians like Turing, who built the first modern computers. Who knows what technology, what level of sophistication a new world war might require? — Maybe nothing more than what has been lying in hidden silos ever since the Manhattan Project, actually — the war not ending in victory, but in Mutually Assured Destruction. If nothing is understandable anymore, and everything might end up in flames at any time, nihilism might be the most rational position, after all.
Yet some people seem to master this new system — modern technology, economics, and even politics: Steve Jobs, co-founder and long-standing CEO of Apple, the most admired companies in the world; Larry Page and Sergey Brin, co-founders of Google / Alphabet (#2 on the list); Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon (#3); Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook (#14); Bill Gates and Microsoft (#17)… All these fortunes built in only a few years, through computer programs developed by just a handful of individuals — the revenge, in a way, of that patron saint of cyberpunk, the hacker.
It is thus possible for the individual to “take back control,” or at least reaffirm him or herself in the modern world — even when one does not master the latest edge of technology. When every job seems to be threatened by robots over the medium term, the answer might be to focus on quality rather than quantity; handicraft rather than mass production; and more than anything, the ‘human touch’. This seems to be the choice made by a number of Gen Xers and Millenials, launching their own microbreweries, artisan cheesemongers and bike repair shops, among others — the hipsters. The war against Skynet may well be fought in knitted cardigans and Buddy Holly glasses, using colonies of urban killer bees.
And yet here lies the irony: for these hipsters, as their name imply, are the latest incarnation of the forebears the punks disparaged, the hippies. They have appropriated DIY, but it feeds their faith in the future, their belief that the system can be mended, improved, made better for everyone. We can make cars clean; our energy can become fully sustainable; we can go to Mars, says Elon Musk; the only thing you have to do in exchange, is to buy our products and have fun with them — have a “gig”.
But can everyone really purchase an electric car, not to mention travel across the Solar System, when the jobs created by some of these “gig economy” behemoths like Uber, Deliveroo or TaskRabbit seem to create a race to the bottom, in terms of wages and stability? And is it still possible to change the world in a positive way, when Google’s algorithm might reinforce one’s biases, and when social networks are accused of propagating fake news? The jury is still out on both (Google results don’t seem to differ much from user to user, and false news don’t seem to have had that much of a numerical impact in the 2016 US Presidential election), but a healthy dose of skepticism seems warranted — an innately punk attitude.
This might be the next challenge for punk, actually: to take back control, claim back ownership of DIY, while at the same time gaining some of the hippies’ (or hipsters’) faith in the future. Can they do it?
Extra! A probably non-exhaustive list of (insert word here)-punk literary currents, based by era of inspiration:
Earlier / hard to date:
- Stonepunk: assuming that Stone Age technology allows anachronistic devices. Example: The Flintstones.
- Mythpunk, Elfpunk: assuming that mythical creatures / powers exist, typically in the modern world (e.g. Neil Gaiman’s American Gods), or at a different age (Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light).
Renaissance / Enlightenment:
- Clockpunk: based on eighteenth-century science (think of the Mechanical Turk, for example). Term coined 2000.
- Steampunk: based on nineteenth-century science. Term coined 1987, but works by Jules Verne, H.G. Wells and Mary Shelley could qualify.
What is interesting to note here is how subcurrents have proliferated, depending on which aspect they focus on — but they are not necessarily mutually exclusive:
- Dieselpunk: coined 2001, but predated by movies like Mad Max, for example.
- Atompunk: focusing on nuclear technology. The Fallout series of videogames is emblematic.
- Decopunk / “Decodence”: focusing on Art Deco aesthetics, showcased in a gritty universe; think Batman, for example.
- More anecdotally (at least for now), our own Quantpunk experiment…
- Cyberpunk: based mostly on computer technology developments; also, secondarily (in spite of its name), on artificial prostheses. Term coined 1980, with forerunners as early as 1975 (John Brunner’s The Shockwave Rider).
Note: Cyberpunk used to be futuristic, but now appears to be near-current, or even retrofuturistic (cue the surprising lack of mobile phones in the movie adaptation of Johnny Mnemonic, released in 1995 — the same year when GSM operators launched the first commercial text and data services on their networks).
- Biopunk / Ribofunk (coined 1998 by Paul Di Filippo): exploring the subversive impact of biotechnologies on society. Examples: The Wind-Up Girl; Orphan Black.
- Nanopunk: one of the most recent subgenres, dating from the 2000s, and looking at the impact of nanotechnologies.
Not grounded in a particular era:
- Splatterpunk: extremely graphic horror. Coined 1986.
Feel free to suggest additional genres we might have forgotten…