jun 24

St. Marks Place

When the teenage version of me visited NYC, the destination was always the punk-infested East Village. I don't know if anyone has written about that moment at St. Marks Place, before hip-hop made it to MTV and grunge blew its head off, but it was a weird mix of stuff. Punk, at that moment in the form of hardcore, persisted as the prevailing aesthetic of the region, but it also seemed vaguely interested in the popular music of the time, which happened to be heavy metal and country music. It's a weird memory, but that strange influence created more hairsprayed manes and cowboy hats than you'd expect. It was punk, but it was punk trying to stay current -- somewhat humorously, or maybe ironically. And politically, punk seemed alive because it was a bit flexible, current, pragmatic. Now when I walk through St. Marks, I see something different. The punks who remain, in far smaller numbers, and now peeing on the Chipotle, all look like original '70s punks, with an aggressively retro aesthetic. Perhaps my philosophy of pastiche pragmatism would make no sense to these purists, but I can't help feeling that this reactionary anti-style is only style. Anyway, that's what I was thinking while reading this NY Mag story on the current punk scene at St. Marks.


What I wonder is this - if the current anti-style is indeed only style, and this article does make it sound like that, was the original punk anti-style itself more than just style? I imagine that's a huge can of worms to open, essentially asking, "What was punk?"

But it strikes me that it too was a reactionary style. At least you couldn't say they were copying anything like these kids are. But absent the issue of copycatting, having the right look and the right music and all must still have been terribly important back then too, and overinflated drama of youth must have ruled the day then too, which means they likely weren't the idealized noble savages we might want to retroactively paint them as having been. Were they mostly politically-aware, forward-thinking, paradigm-challenging thinkers looking to combat and defeat repression and conformity? Or were they kids just wanting to rebel against anything and be cool and get loaded?

Maybe another way to examine it would be to ask what kids/people would be doing today if they were not copying punk style but were instead doing something as legitimate and original as whatever punk was underneath the mohawks. And maybe the question doesn't have to be hypothetical: Who are today's closest equivalent of the original punks? Is there any close equivalent or was it a unique cultural phenomenon native only to its era? If there are modern, non-copycat equivalents, what do they look like? What is their music? What are their influences? What are they rebelling against in our time as distinct from or similar to what the originals rebelled against? Do they have aims and ideologies? What tired conventions and assumptions do they reject in their lifestyle?

posted by Eric at 12:22 AM on June 25, 2008

Youth culture is never a zero sum game; it's an odds match where we take as many losses for our alliances as we do wins. So while there may have always been reactionary elements at various historical moments, there's also cultural products that are worth their baggage. And they change from time to time.

As far as a political subculture today.... I get into this conversation a lot lately. Because I'm a reluctant optimist, I'm always searching for this, convinced that it's happening somewhere that I'm not looking. Recently, I decided that it's happening right under my nose: in comments, on blogs, in chat rooms. I haven't completely unpacked this, but basically it's the ultimate mission realized: the political becomes personal.

posted by Rex at 1:01 AM on June 25, 2008

This reminds me of the day in 5th grade when I kept smelling B.O. all day and was like, "Jeez, who stinks? Can't figure out who it is." Turns out it was me! So the next day was day 1 of my deodorant use.

I guess if you are looking around and can't locate the avant-garde, then there either isn't one or you are it! The latter seems more likely. Time for your mohawk. Okay fauxhawk, at least.

posted by Eric at 10:56 AM on June 25, 2008

Wow. The intro sounded so Klosterman-esque

posted by Mark at 12:09 PM on June 25, 2008

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