Columnist for Tuesday, 6/5 - Betsy Shebang

Let There Be Punk

Or:

The Whole Thing Explained (Quickly)

Earth happened. People evolved. Food was discovered. Music was invented.

See, music wasn't invented to be "catchy" or "entertaining", but because the blueberry-sized part of the brain that handles conversation, employment and fear of deodorant failure somehow figured out there was work it couldn't do. A new language would be needed to convey the 97% of thoughts that didn't fit into a cubbyhole in the tiny mailroom where the brain's internal memos were sorted and processed. Music would be an audible representation of what was going on inside - a crude representation, perhaps, but an effective one.

Meanwhile, drama was happening. Some people passed their days simply, filled with that easy country charm; others lived in the city, read newspapers and had it rough. Religion was invented as well, in another, parallel attempt to make that mysterious 97% of thoughts we don't "understand" somehow reconcile with the 3% we do. In fact, the invention of music and the invention of religion were the same thing; both were attempts to explain stuff that didn't really bear explanation, but, as they say, "could not remain silent."

Don't get me wrong; it ain't complicated. Keith Johnstone taught his grade-school students to play music by letting them feel some object - a hammer, a coffee cup - and letting them "act out" the sound of the object on the piano keyboard, the other students guessing which object was portrayed. For the most part, that's all there is to music: language without words...not at all a universal language, but a regional language with some universal phrases, and speaking of universal things.

When religion evolves, changes its shape, and must shed its old skin, we call that cast-off shell "mythology". A religion is just a young mythology, just as a seed is a young tree, or a bomb is a young crater.

So, just as religion evolves, so does music. The sounds gather meaning; the imagery solidifies into an effective set of symbols; a community is formed and rituals are developed; and with the audience of this new language, the garbled 97% of the brain's thoughts are heard in the outside world of the senses, and start to make more...sense.

Still, some people get it and some people don't. Music critics talk about rock concerts in pointedly restrained terms: "It was almost like a ritual", that kinda thing. Susan Sarandon, who may be the smartest human being ever to win an Oscar and/or be seen topless in a Vampire movie, recognized that a midnight screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show served as a mass for those involved.

But, in short, music is religion - or rather, it's a component of it. For example, when a rebellious youth turns his life around - for better or worse - he probably does it in three steps:

1) get new friends,
2) get new clothes,
3) get a new record collection.

In moving from one social group for another, he knows he must exchange his old mythology for a new one as well. He may keep his old clothes or music, but somehow, he knows they would not...fit.

Every religion has some social purpose, offering the listener a role to play in society - more or less, a way to accept what life offers and hold one's head up high. The details, however, reflect the different roles our lives demand of us.

Country music is about simplicity. The arrangements are simple, the sounds are simple, the politics are simple. Is your life simple? Truck, roads, dog? Listen to country music.

Rock 'n' Roll was aptly named: Country music, plus sex. It involves more energy (as anybody who has declined sex due to fatigue knows), less moral simplicity, and naughtier lyrics. And eventually, the performers figured out that the guitar really is just a big dick with strings on it. Concerts really picked up after that.

Hard rock, everyone knows, is all about testosterone...anger, violence, conquest, insecurity. Yes, it echoes the frustrations of young men. Have you ever been a young man? Can you blame them?

The problem, of course, is on the borderline between "hard rock" and "classic rock"...that is, when the energy of adolescent music creates a mythology of immature sex and premature death that stays with the culture and follows generations through the decades. If all dramatic music offers a path toward personal dignity, Hard Rock is the adolescent male declaring himself victor in a battle of volume, sonic aggression and self-absorbed fantasy.

Punk Rock (if it exists as one form of music) was a response to that bloated, self-aggrandizing rock that's filled stadiums since the 1970s, and the trick it pulled was an appropriately complicated one. Punk Rock, like Hard Rock, is the sound of adolescent energy; but Punk Rock was too smart to simply wave its dick-shaped flag and declare itself the winner. Punk Rock style and performance ridiculed the very nature of adolescence, rock music, politics, and everything else it touched. Everyone was declared a loser, and a punk rocker - dressed in rags, hair in spikes, chest bleeding, arms clumsily bashing out furious noise - represented every ridiculous piece of the puzzle. Punk musicians declared that rock stardom was over. The "D.I.Y." spirit would liberate the common man. I'm paraphrasing.

The paradox is it doesn't work that way. What happens when a loser gets onstage and declares everybody a loser - if it works - is that the onstage loser becomes the victor. By offering himself as a representation of all losers and freaks, a Punk raises his status instead of lowering it; he raises his status by lowering it, if it's done with confidence and momentum. And so, of course, the punk rocker becomes the rock star he was satirizing. That's why punk rock couldn't last for long. And it's also why, in an evolving form, it has.

"Punk" will always be around, and not simply as a lingering, "retro" style. Punk is anything that ironically burns itself as an effigy of the thing that must be destroyed. Ben Franklin was punk when he published a manifesto called "Fart Proudly"; with that title he ridiculed himself, and with that confident gesture he ridiculed anybody who disagreed with him. If Ben Franklin were alive today he'd be publishing a 'zine called "It's Punk as Fuck to Start Your Own Government."


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