Punk Rock Can Be Quite Tame

Over at Amatopia, Alex has a post about Geek Conformity. The main subject is a former drummer of the band Nirvana who left to join the army. When asked why he left, he explained that punk rock was too stifling. About this, Alex says:

But his comments–“strict rules for practicing the right kind of individualism”–perfectly encapsulate the contempt I feel for a lot of so-called scenes involving “free thinkers.”

And this is something I find interesting. I grew up with music from my parents’ generation, not my own. The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, Peter, Paul, & Mary—that’s what I listened to while I was growing up in the 1980s. The closest I came to anything contemporary was borrowing my father’s Billy Joel’s Greatest Hits CD. Punk Rock was something very foreign to me that moreover seemed dangerous.

Then as an adult, I actually listened to some. (Note: I’m enough enough of an expert to tell the various genres of people in death-inspired makeup apart. If this is Emo or some other genre I don’t know the difference between and regarded as equally dangerous in my youth, please forgive me.) And I found that it wasn’t actually very different.

Granted, there’s what for simplicity I’ll call “shout rock”, which tends to be very fast and might as well not have lyrics because one can’t tell what any of them are, but amongst the supposedly dangerous stuff where the singers actually sing, well, it turns out to be a bit underwhelming in its satanic majesty.

Readers of this blog might have seen me mention that song before, because it was the opening theme to Friday Night Live’s performances. Anyway, this is hardly scary. In fact, it sounds somewhat reminiscent of The Beatles. Compare it to Hard Day’s Night:

I’m not saying that you’re going to mistake the one song for the other, but if it turned out that Friday I’m In Love was inspired by Hard Day’s Night—or even was intended as a tribute to it—it would hardly be surprising.

There’s another song by The Cure which I discovered I like:

It’s a nice song. Granted, the lead singer is gotten up to look a bit like Pinhead from Hellrazer, but it’s basically a breathy love song. The music itself sounds a bit unfamiliar because of its heavy use of synthesizer, but as this acoustic cover shows, you can easily substitute a wind instrument and it sounds similar:

At the end of the day, it looks strange, but it isn’t actually that strange. And that makes sense when one remembers the context: punk music is a performance. It was also a product, but that just means that it was a performance intended for a large audience.

Now, the thing about performances is that in order to be successful they must be intelligible to the audience. I know that it’s popular for artists to say that they make their art for themselves but that’s (about 99%) nonsense. If they did that, they wouldn’t perform it. And the thing about audiences is that they don’t vary that much in what they find intelligible. They do vary—hence the existence of shout rock and jazzy noise (I don’t know the technical term for the genre of jazz in which the musicians, all heavily under the influence of mind-altering drugs, play random notes for interminable lengths of time with traditional jazz instruments)—but the further outside of common experience one goes, the vastly more one limits the potential size of one’s audience.

Anyone who wants to make a living off of their performances requires either an impressively rich audience or a fairly large one and the former is much harder to come by than the latter. The consequence is that the performer—if he wants to be different—must clever disguise what the audience is familiar with as something that it isn’t. Those who wish to be popular may only ever use novelty as a spice, never as a main course.

All the same, it’s tempting to thing that Rob Parvonian is right: “Punk Music’s such a joke, it’s really just baroque.”

4 thoughts on “Punk Rock Can Be Quite Tame

  1. You are right that punk and other “extreme” forms of music can actually get kind of boring.

    Did you know that the Ramones, often considered the first punk band, were huge Beatles fans (“Ramon” was Paul McCartney’s nom de plume when he’d sign into hotels), but realized they sucked? So they tried to play their versions of Beatles and Beach Boys songs to the best of their limited abilities, just fast, and viola: punk rock.

    At least, so goes one apocryphal version of the story.

    Liked by 1 person

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