EARLY IN THE DYLANOLOGY CLASSIC Invisible Republic (later rebranded The Old, Weird America), critic Greil Marcus deconstructs the early 1960s folk movement with the cruel detail of a fanboy scorned. “Art was the speech of the folk revival — and yet, at bottom, the folk revival did not believe in art at all,” he says. “Rather, life — a certain kind of life — equaled art, which ultimately meant that life replaced it.” By Marcus’s lights, that version of life was “defined by suffering, deprivation, poverty, and social exclusion”; the folkies, he suggests, were paternalistic and oddly self-aggrandizing, at root a cachet of class tourists dressed in utopianist togs. Worse, all this feel-good slumming warped the movement’s music into hymns for a bourgeois mythology — tunes serving the gospel of pop fetishism and reliant on a view of the oppressed as victims of a world the folkies “graciously” decided to reject. “When art equals life there is no art,” he concludes, “but when life equals art there are no people.” No matter how alive to civil rights and internal politics, he seems to say, the folkies just couldn’t construct a terribly self-aware or adaptive movement. Instead, they let neo-Wobbly ideals turn them into hopeless cultural Luddites, progressives who refused to account for the vagaries of actual social progress.
That in mind, it’s less than shocking that Marcus sidestepped (for the most part) his Boomer cohort’s Big Chill-y self-congratulation and spent the 1970s and 1980s covering the explosive ascent of punk rock. In its toddling and tween years, punk might as well have been folk’s chain-smoking, caustic antidote, a worldly-wise answer to the folkies’ senses of tradition and future focus. Borne of equal parts performance art and urban squalor, punk tended towards world-bending, Situationist subversion, as well as a skeptic’s love for the existential “Now” — a “No Future” ethic, as the Sex Pistols famously yowled. If the genre had a primal objective it was immediacy, the urge to create a moment: the Pistols uttering “fuck” on the BBC, say, or Los Angeles hardcore mavens Fear causing a riot on Saturday Night Live. In the punk world, gesture and creative empowerment were values unto themselves. And, as any reader of Marcus’s punk half-history, 1989’s spiraling Lipstick Traces, might attest, this emphasis on moment and autonomy made punk nearly impossible to pin down. Though theorists like Dick Hebdige tried to frame punk through the lens of “style” (most famously in 1979’s Subculture), the form imploded and regrouped like a sneering phoenix, swapping clothing and musical elements and “stars” and cities of scene-wide import on an almost yearly basis.
As the form wandered into adulthood, however, that mania for reinvention began to strain against outside forces. Punk’s present-tense power — so startling at its inception — broke into the mainstream via bands like Green Day and Nirvana, both infecting and becoming infected by Western culture itself; the result was, largely, a Manic Panic–stained syncretization of style and meaning. Writ large, punk came to represent a type of dress and performative anger rather than a coherent attitude, its meaning as atomized as other pop constructs like “rock ‘n’ roll”...read more