PUNK’S PLACE IN THE 21ST CENTURY

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by Mike Vinti

This year, as I’m sure you’ll be hearing a lot of as we move closer to summer, marks 40 years(ish) of punk. As such there’s a plethora of punk-themed exhibitions, celebrations and, inevitably, memorabilia knocking around with the aim of inducing some punk-nostalgia in the generation that came of age during the mid to late 70s and early 80s. However, while there’s much to celebrate about punk’s legacy, and the modern punk scene itself, a lot of the ‘official’ anniversary celebrations are somewhat missing the point.

One such celebration is Punk.London, a year long series of events intended to honour punk’s impact on the capital. Sounds great right? One problem: it’s endorsed by Mayor of London. As far as punk’s anti-establishment credo goes, an endorsement by the Mayor of London, especially when that mayor is a Tory, is about as ‘un-punk’ as you can get.

In response to this, Joseph Corré, son of punk-Malcolm McClaren and Vivienne Westwood called on the masses to join him in burning their punk memorabilia as a protest against the co-option of punk culture by the establishment. This is no doubt a slightly extreme response and critics have argued Corré should donate the items to charity instead. However, it’s clear Corré also has a point. Coinciding his bonfire with the 40th anniversary of the Anarchy in the UK’s release is a reminder that, while ultimately manufactured and now totally removed of any meaningful politics, punks of old like the Sex Pistols were a genuine disturbance to the establishment. To celebrate ‘God Save the Queen’ reaching number one, after being banned from Top of the Pops, the band took to the Thames to perform the song on a boat floating outside the houses of parliament. If you were to see a punk band playing on the Thames now, chances are the event would be sponsored by Vans or Converse.

 

Part of the reason for this is the legacy of punk these events purport to celebrate. Rather than explore punks’ experiments in housing co-ops, DIY organisations and radical politics, and their attempt to explore those through music and culture, events like Punk.London celebrate its impact on fashion, music and aesthetic culture. Of course, these things deserve to celebrated but isolating them from the politics that informed them prevents us from actually drawing anything from punk’s legacy.

Now, I should qualify I am not a ‘punk’, I’m not hugely involved in the contemporary punk scene and I certainly wasn’t a punk back in the day, primarily because I wasn’t alive then. However, I consider myself a fan of punk music, both past and present, and growing around metal and hardcore scenes, I’m fairly well versed in ‘punk culture.’

I think part of the reason I’ve always had trouble getting more into the modern punk scene is that, like events such as Punk.London, it’s always seemed a little out of date. At its height, punk was terrifying to the establishment. A vast youth movement that encouraged its members to learn about politics and question the status quo, it represented a direct threat to those in power. On top of this, unlike the hippy movement before it, punk was aggressive as well: its music, its fashion and its attitude were abrasive and hostile to those it sought to challenge. Today, the punk scene is looked on by society at large and the elites in particular as something of a curiosity. Its aesthetic and message have been co-opted by brands and corporations and its music no longer resonates strongly in society.

 

This is not to criticise those involved in the scene in any way. There are still plenty of genuine punks living out the movement’s ethos and causing a nuisance. The contemporary punk scene also offers a fantastic community to those involved, and is a vital part of the modern musical landscape, both of which were demonstrated by the show of solidarity around the closing of the Owl Sanctuary in Norwich recently. Perhaps instead of clinging onto punk’s past, if we really want to learn from its legacy, we should should celebrate this spirit of community and encourage more progression in the scene. This is, I think, what Joseph Corré is tryin to encourage with his ceremonial burning; a symbolic wiping of the slate for punk, a chance to free the genre from the constant attempts by the establishment to re-appropriate it, as part of the whitewashed version of ‘British culture.’

In many ways, the model for punk in 2016 has already been shaped, and its aggression and anti-establishment politics have found a new home in grime. Grime MCs like Novelist, JME and Skepta are shocking the establishment and making waves in youth culture in much the same way as the punks before them. Punk’s not dead – it is changing shape. The best way to prevent things like Punk.London from ruining its legacy may well be to embrace this evolution.

 

40 years on from its origins punk isn’t new or exciting anymore, and no matter how many anniversary events takes place, it can’t force young people to care about it. If punk is going to make it to 50 without becoming a series of car insurance adverts, credit cards and Ramones t-shirts in regional branches of H&M, its radical politics and uncompromising aggression towards neo-liberal society cannot be allowed to be written out of its legacy. The Mayor of London is not going to do this and ultimately neither is the middle-aged founder of a lingerie company burning his parents’ stuff – it is up to young people today to celebrate punk’s community, embrace its messages, and demand their voices be heard.

Featured image © Jamie Reid

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