When the underappreciated Spike Lee joint Summer of Sam depicted a circa-1977 punk rocker thrashing to The Who, smartypants punk historians scoffed that Lee was revealing his ignorance of white people's culture. The stadium-shaking clamor of The Who, tittered the cognoscenti, was just the sort of flatulent sixties monster rock that the punkers hated more than anything else. But I always figured Lee was onto something: The priggish rules of punk cred had not been fully codified at the time, and it seemed believable that some untutored Bronx yahoo might interpret "My Generation" or Keith Moon's Nazi antics as proto-punk stylings.
But what Spike really gave away was the pretense that there's a definable punk aesthetic. Ask a few of the basic punk-cred koans and the system always falls apart: Why isn't any band that hews to a reliable three-chords-in-two-minutes pattern a punk band? Why, other than that the band members could play their instruments, wasn't the Bon Scott-era AC/DC a punk band? If The Edge stole his guitar style from Gang of Four, does that mean U2 really (as they claimed) had their roots in punk—and if U2 qualifies as punk, who doesn't? If the Velvet Underground is supposed to be the great ancestor of punk rock, why did so many seminal punkers hate the Velvet Underground while lauding various early-sixties bubble gum bands? If punk was a retort to bloated prog-rock pomposity, why wasn't Sha Na Na a punk band? If it was a reaction to psychadelic excess, why isn't the White Album the first punk record? For that matter, if (as others have claimed) punk isn't so much a musical style as an attitude, who is the most punk Beatle? Was there a punker in the Rat Pack? Why shouldn't the Kinks qualify as a punk band? (What's more punk than repackaging the same song a dozen times or so?) Why is Combat Rock the record that ruined the Clash's punk credibility when Sandinista! sucks a million times more than Combat Rock? Since the Ramones always wanted to sound like a sixties girl group, are the Donnas more pure punk than the Ramones?
Vexing questions, and here to really complicate things is this Onion interview with Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney. The princesses of latter-day girl punk have lately defeated expectations by releasing a record heavily styled on the ultimate punk kryptonite—Klassik Rock. Brownstein gives some reasons:
I guess I think I've always kind of liked some of those bands. I've always loved The Who or some Led Zeppelin, and, you know, like Cream and Blue Cheer and those bands. But in a way, they didn't really speak to me the way The Clash spoke to me, you know? But I would listen to the radio and listen to modern-rock stations, and I would just be so annoyed at the direction of where, like, the legacy of punk and alternative rock had gone--like just this super safe, "Oh, every song that the station plays has to be under three minutes. I have to know what the chorus is going to sound like even before it happens." It was just so safe and predictable. And then I would turn to the classic-rock station, and it would be like this eight-minute song that breaks into this insane part, and you'd have no idea what was going to happen. I was just like, "How did we come so far from this? Why does this sound punk-rock now?" I thought punk rock was about breaking rules and going to a place that's a little bit dangerous, and nothing on the contemporary rock station sounds dangerous at all.
Lame self-justifications from a darling of the mainstream media? Perhaps. But let this be a lesson to everybody who believes in hard and fast categories. As Borges says at the end of his "Unknown Pleasures.