I was watching Bobcat Goldthwaitâs ultrablack comedy God Bless America this weekend and ever since Iâve heard the lead character say that line, Iâve been unable to get it out of my head. The character was talking about fear-mongering political blowhards of theÂ Glenn Beck variety, but at the moment I heard it, Iâd been thinking a lot about an article that showed up in the Seattle Weekly on March 6, a cover story no less, entitled âPunk Rock Is Bullshit,â written by former punk musician Jon Roderick.
My awareness of the piece came a week late, when the SF Weekly published a funny and pointed response entitled âThe Jazz Age Is Bullshitâ. Reading the parody first, I found myself starting to mentally rebut the various arguments I imagined Roderick to be making. If thereâs one thing that comes naturally to old punk rockers, itâs arguments over what punk is, and whether some particular attribute of it is good or bad. Thatâs part of the fun. Letâs roll up our sleeves and settle this.
But I was unprepared for what I found when I inevitably clicked through. Itâs not possible to argue with this. Every sentence is delivered as a slap in the face to a stupid child that needs to be woken up. Itâs so hysterical and over-the-top I find myself deciding I donât believe it, donât believe that even he believes what heâs saying.
The first red flag appears just two paragraphs in. âI was once chastised for playing at a private Microsoft function by a guy who worked there, so disappointed was he that I would sell out by playing a corporate gig.â Oh come onâŚ like that really happened. I saw his shitty band on Youtube and they do not strike me as the kind that would have a following of hardcore anti-corporatists.
But on he goes, reducing the behavior of tens of thousands of people over a forty year period to a Royal We that I donât even recognize. âPunk taught us to rebel against authority until âauthorityâ included everything: piano lessons, fire insurance, leather shoes, and, ultimately, growing up. Punk taught us to have contempt for every institution, except Fugazi, until contempt and suspicion were the first and only reactions we had to everything. Good news was embarrassing, success was shameful, and a happy childhood an unthinkable transgression… It’s time we stopped disavowing happiness and measured pride, we punk survivors, wrapping ourselves in itchy thrift-store horse blankets thinking that only discomfort is honest. It’s time we stopped hating ourselves, our ambition, and our sincerity, guarding our integrity credentials in fear of interrogation by the secret punk police.â
Who is this âweâ? I assume heâs talking about himself, but who else? Him and Ian McKaye? Him and Darby Crash? Him and the Blink-182 guys? We he part of FSU? I donât know who heâs talking about, but it doesnât really matter. If anyone ever came up to me in the last thirty years and said âPersonally, I think it’s time I stopped hating myself, my ambition, and my sincerity, guarding my integrity credentials in fear of interrogation by the secret punk police,â the only possible response would be, âWell of course! Youâre one messed up kid!â
But the tour de force revelation, and the one that truly convinces me that he is not speaking the whole truth, comes when he talks about the musicâs artistic legacy. I think most of us agree that not every punk record is a masterpiece, some bands we bought records by could have stayed in the garage, and some are given more attention than theyâre worth, and these are among the many things we like to argue about. But Roderickâs not interested in rankings. âDid it even produce good art beyond a few unintentionally hilarious ‘zines and the first-rate performance art of Courtney Love’s 25-year disintegration into a caricature of the exact kind of drug-addled, silicon- and Botox-enhanced, vacuous and babbling rich housewife that riot grrrls hated most? No. Unequivocally no.â
A punk rock musician â once upon a time, so punk that he had to endure barbs from his following of hardcore anti-corporatists – taking the stance that there is absolutely no good art produced ever in the history of punk? What the fuck?
I can believe that he was once in a shitty band and didnât get much out of the experience. As Dan Savage would say: hey, it happens. But to admit no enjoyment whatsoever of any of the music that would have theoretically inspired him to write songs powerful enough to rile up the legions of hardcore anti-corporatists who would one day hypocritically rebel against himâŚ Seriously, what the fuck?
Was he a CIA inflitrater or something? And if so what was his mission? Get signed to SST and report back on its secret operations? I could imagine sending in operatives to get to the bottom of why anyone would release half a dozen Zoogz Rift albums simultaneously; on the surface it looks like a money laundering scheme. But a far more likely scenario is that Roderick neither thinks itâs true or cares if it is.
And itâs at that point that the potential for everything to be arguable dissolves. Because I no longer believe it to be true, itâs just a shocking remark. And the shocking remark has indeed become more important than the truth.
You canât argue Democratic policyâs fine points Â with someone who insists Obama wasnât born here. I mean, you can, but whatâs the point? They donât even believe in their own message â they KNOW theyâre full of shit but they keep on talking anyway.
And people canât stop listening to it. Roderickâs piece has inspired 937 comments (including one from this writer), most in the first few days after its release, and been brought up in numerous other publications, including the one youâre reading now. Meanwhile, lots of people I know were discussing it on social media last week. (My favorite comment, from the BCB forumâs Phenomenal Cat: âI would respond but Iâm just too wasted.â) It is an irresistible clickbait title, just put it out there and the world wants to debate you.
By comparison, the Seattle Weeklyâs current cover story on a policeman turned gun salesman â an excellent piece of real journalism by Rick Anderson â has inspired just twenty-one comments after being up for four days. Presuming that comments equate to page views, Roderickâs piece is getting forty times the national attention as Andersonâs, the latter being the kind of writing that deserves to be the cover story of a major city weekly.
This is perhaps inevitable in the times we live in. Had a writer for the Seattle Weekly done a similar piece in the print era, there might be some angry letters from regular readers, but no letters from non-regular readers, who wouldn’t have read it. They would circulate the same number of copies as they had the previous week, and the week after that. But by putting these instantly disagreeable titles into the world, they manage to raise their own readership, possibly enough to affect ad rates.
The LA Weekly has for the last couple of years been a prime offender in the proliferation of clickbait criticism. Many of the most popular/memorable pieces theyâve done lately have been the regularly-appearing Worst lists â the worst nineties albums (56 comments), whitest musicians (100 comments), worst bands of all time (now theyâre striking nerves, 1174 comments), and perhaps the ultimate clickbait accomplishment of all time, their collection of the Twenty Worst Hipster Bands (1889 comments, which must be some kind of record).
It really is genius, that last one. Not only would twenty bandsâ defenders be sure to write in to argue the point that their favorite groups are among âthe worstâ, they could also argue whether all twenty of these bands were being properly classified as âhipster bands.â To my knowledge there are not communities of self-identified hipsters that argue passionately over what is and isnât hip, how hipsterism should be perceived and portrayed, on who was turning their back on hip principles and selling out to the squarejohns. Maybe that argument is happening on 4Chan and I donât read it. But the only arguments Iâm aware of over what is âhipsterâ, are going on between people who want to disparage a particular band or restaurant or something, and the people who want to defend it.
Most of these pieces are delivered in that same inarguable tone of voice adopted by Roderick. No real explanation is given for why the Eagles are among the twenty worst bands of all time, and again, looking at the complete list, I donât really believe it. Look, I hate the Eagles as much as anyone, and would be happy to see them all set on fire, except for Joe Walsh, Â but even I fail to see the logic in putting them alongside pre-fab fish in a barrel like Pussycat Dolls and Pretty Ricky or forgotten non-entities from twenty years ago like 4 Non Blondes and the Spin Doctors. If youâre going to walk around slaughtering sacred cows, at least acknowledge that you have some understanding of the subject. Even we who hate the Eagles would have to acknowledge they live in a different world than Hootie.
Thereâs something about these works that feels manipulative, like theyâre only there to draw attention to themselves and make themselves popularâŚ which, if weâre going to assign any kind of values to punk rock as a thing, at least during my prime years in the eighties, yeah we did maybe have a tendency against art that went too far out of its way to be liked, or whose primary purpose seemed to be making money.
Itâs not that I have anything against hate pieces in general â heaven knows, bad reviews are among the most fun to write. Iâve enjoyed the AV Clubâs Hatesong series where they get a famous artist to go in-depth about their one least-favorite bit of music. (Robyn Hitchcock on the spiritual emptiness of âArthurâs Themeâ was an especially nice entry.) At least they take an analytical approach and try to get at it, why this song and not that song, or that artist, what is it that got under the skin so badly. Thatâs a lot more reflective and potentially insightful than anything in Shea Serranoâs Why This Song Sucks column. As targets run thin, and the urge to go after the most beloved works in music gets stronger, Iâm sure we can look forward to articles about Why James Brown On The TAMI Show Sucks and Why The Beatles Are Bullshit within the year.
I can even handle the sweeping generalization if itâs made thoughtfully and in context. In the final entry of his highly readable Winners History Of Rock And Roll for Grantland, on âlast band standingâ the Black Keys, Steven Hyden says âIndie has failed usâ â which is practically a more polite way of saying âPunk rock is bullshit.”Â Again I find myself knee-jerking to rebut as soon as I read that, but Hyden, in a few well-constructed paragraphs, manages to explain what he means, which is that heâd like to see more bands trying to compete on a Black Keys level and make a difference to large numbers of people, rather than stay in their own comfort zone and please the narrow audience they already have. I donât happen to agree with that either â I think bands need to worry about making the best music they can and let everyone else decide if it coincides with whatâs popular â but itâs a point of view that I can understand, that doesnât feel like a needless provocation or a lie. If anything, itâs a provocation to think about it, and see if you can argue the point. In that case, bring it on.
But Village Voice Media critics, please spare us any more of these shouty, oh-so-clever denunciations that we know you donât even mean. Youâre not Norman Mailer or Lester Bangs or even Ed Anger. Not only was Ed Anger actually funny, he was lucid enough to explain his point of view using examples and creative metaphors. Youâre actually sometimes not bad at real music coverage â the LA Weeklyâs recent pieces on Austin Peralta and Shuggie Otis were admirable. More of that, please.
If you really need clickbait to pay the bills, maybe itâs time to have Glenn Beck do a monthly column. I wouldnât be surprised to find out Jon Roderick is a true believer, perhaps you could get them to team up.
Photo by mcritz courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons.