Punk and Me: A Dissociation Love Story
Photo via Wikimedia Commons
It’s very possible that I am your nightmare. I’m a lot of people’s nightmare, I guess, when it comes to this stuff. Even, or maybe especially, here: VICE is, fundamentally, a strange place for me to be. But I like that: I like that because the very counterintuitiveness is what makes it so appealing. So, hiii!
OK, so this year the Met Ball (honorary chairpersoned by Beyoncé!), a.k.a. the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute benefit, a.k.a. ginormous fashion party, is themed “Punk: Chaos to Couture.” Maybe you read about it? There is a lot of throat-clearing (without a lot of attendant spitting, though: HEY-O!) about that event, the museum exhibit that it celebrates, and the status of punk, most of it removed from the fact of punk music itself, but, obvi.
I care and I don’t care. Here’s the deal: I’m not a punk, and I never was. In fact, most of the cues and symbols of and around my life are cartoonishly unpunk. As a kid, I was a lot like Blossom, with her books and hats, or a more violin-lesson-y Rory Gilmore. I grew up in preppy headbands and floral dresses. Until I was 12, I was way into drama school and the Phantom of the Opera soundtrack. I spent a lot of time by myself, I had allergies, and I didn’t really understand other kids, the kids who had brothers and sisters their own age to scrap with, who were allowed endless Saturday-morning TV, who didn’t get prints from the Philadelphia Museum of Art for their 11th birthdays, who talked, incredibly, like kids. (Eventually, I figured this out and Queen Bee-d around for a while, but didn’t like that much better.) I have been a version of nerd my whole life, and while the versions have shifted, my primary sense of self is of a very emotional, heart-on-sleeve super-sensitivo who covers for it in different ways, like, through a devotion to work and Type-A Excel-documentation and shopping and joking around like I’m a tough guy. All of that helps. Now, I’m on some steady, life-defining self-help shit, but I guess that’s just another kind of nerd.
What has historically helped me through everything has been punk, of which I am an active and longtime fan, though not a scholar or discography-memorizer. (About SST, though…) There was a year of high school where I basically only listened to the Velvet Underground, and so it went from there. My primary bands are hardcore: Black Flag, Minor Threat, and the Adolescents. I also like X and Social Distortion and Bad Brains and some Fugazi and the Germs. I tend not to like anything British, really, unless we’re folding in postpunk, which I love. I hated Blink-182 when I thought I was too rad for Mom and Dad, but now I am all about them and others like them, maybe because my first love, a sciencey-smart skate kid, made me listen to a lot of Lagwagon, Bouncing Souls, Pennywise, and Less Than Jake (I made him listen to girls). I temporarily aged out of the Warped Tour (I aged back in around 25, 26) and missed most of that weepy emo era in between. I don’t know much new punk at all. Before I got into a more commanding, authoritative version of masculinity, Iggy was my sexual ideal. When I wrote about music, I interviewed some old punk guys—Henry, on the phone in my parents’ kitchen after I begged them to please be quiet and cool, was the best—and I still have CDs, some 7''s, zines, and shirts, and I still have the books. (Most of them are bad, though. Maybe you only need Please Kill Me and American Hardcore, actually? And Our Band Could Be Your Life. And Just Kids, and maybe that Richard Hell book but I haven’t picked it up yet.)
My early rebellion—and it came early—was not the rebellion of a punk kid, which I know, because I knew then how different I was, how distanced. Mine was more about sneaking undetected into weddings to get cake and then sliding down hills that were wet with mud, dropping the cake somewhere and walking home around sunrise crusted in dirt and icing; it was more about playing elaborate, highly produced summer-camp games in the dark; about road trips to nowhere; more about older, smarter boys and bigger, dumber ideas, about discovery, about doing everything I could to slip away from adolescent and teenage-girl normalcy, where my feelings and identity didn’t then fit right, and into the nighttime of boys (mostly boys, then; this changed) being goofs. There’s more, but those are the basics. Mostly, I had an incredibly difficult time growing up, and then about five or six or seven years ago, I started to get over it. I also have been writing about this constantly, so you can skip ahead if you’re a regular. Now I am a 32-year-old woman who is arrow-straighter than basically everyone else I know, including my friends who were on course at 20, 21. I definitely get invited to fewer parties than I used to, but I am about 600 times happier, nicer, and more productive than I ever have been or knew I could be. I don’t drink alcohol or take drugs or smoke or have casual sex or do anything other than work, hang out with my friends, and all that nice-nice stuff that you’re supposed to, like walk around in the breeze or whatever, and acknowledge the existence of yoga, and name your demons and do what you have to do to dismiss them for real and feel better. I’m not, like, “finished,” but I am, objectively, happy. I am good.
Punk helped me do this. While there are wide swaths of punk culture that I either ignored or really didn’t like, some of it is everything: the goofiness, community, the all-ages stuff, straight-edge, DIY, some feminism, the specific and unembarrassed positivity, the fact that Rollins worked in an ice-cream shop... It dovetails nicely, for me, with the Protestant work ethic and more specifically a United Church (read: Methodist-y) sensibility that I was raised with. In punk, if you cared enough, if you were hard enough, you could play, make a band, record, post flyers, and book shows, from nothing. In punk, you were allowed to feel hideous and ugly and talk about it, which then didn’t exist anywhere in girl culture, except sort of in Sassy. (I missed riot grrrl, but I would have been scared of it, anyway.) I was ashamed of all of it. Punk sort of metabolized my feelings, the ones I had no vocabulary for and still sometimes don’t, on my behalf.
I don’t know how I might have conceived of the daily punishments of writing, or handled them, if I hadn’t already known about Rollins sleeping on a dirt floor. Although our young lives were very, very different, I thought a lot about him and about Black Flag while I was shaking like a dry leaf every night for a year when I started working, throwing up with anxiety and fear fairly often, wondering what I was doing with my life when easier options (Law school! Business school? Anything!) were available, all soft and plush and rosy, in front of me. I don’t think I would have realized that smoking pot was actually gross, to me, until Ian MacKaye was like, “You know that stuff is gross, right?” The id of punk skewed every different way, but for me, it suggested a way out of chaos, rather than into it.
(Punk, I thought, could also contextualize and offer an artistic framework for the kind of regular guy behavior that I struggle, through a long history of prissiness, to be OK with. It didn’t really “work” because while I can watch a pretty gross stage show with no problems, I still get all wide-eyed scandalized when a friend’s boyfriend burps and then smiles. Pobody’s nerfect.)
Now that I’ve established myself professionally, and know for real what I want to do and not do, and know what I’m doing and why—all of this took about eight years—I don’t relate to other writers or whoevers who get off on complaining ad infinitum, infinitum, infinitum about the vagaries of their industries, about the external circumstances of it. “Do more. Be better. Work harder.” Henry would, relentlessly. My baby-sister-softness needed to be organized by some specific, visible principles in order to achieve anything I could be proud of, and punk provided it. I mean, I still cry all the time.
I’m also into fun—its meaning and uses—and punk is fun. Even its most productive (feminist political punk) and destructive (uh, a lot of it) strata, none of which I tend to like at all, are about activity, or, just addressing some circling anomie. This is why I dig hardcore and dumb-shit pop-punk the most, and don’t care about the rest of it: it’s very “work hard, then hang out” even if two philosophies like “straight-edge” and “drink beer, pull down your friend’s pants, watch TV” are in conflict. Maybe my most private compact with punk is that it is approving of the kind of good-fun that I like, which is positive and healthy and toward each other, toward love, instead of outward, toward an abyss. Or at least, that’s how bad-fun felt to me way back when I was very unhappy and trying to get over it by being shitty and callous and drunk and alone. It’s definitely weird to know with full recognition that you have outgrown yourself, and I feel that way about the person I used to be, but the purest, best, sunniest stuff of punk still feels relevant in a way that most of the other tenets of my younger life do not.
Being very much into something that you are simultaneously and unequivocally not a part of doesn’t tend to be an issue between “you” and “you,” because you know what your intentions, motivations, feelings, and needs are. But when that affiliation—just fandom, really—is considered externally, which it often is when it comes to genres created by and in service of an experience, there is often an assumed obligation or responsibility to explain yourself, triangulate yourself, remove yourself. At Gwar (not punk, but this example will do just fine), I was given shit for wearing high heels (I’m 5'2'', I can’t see anything at shows without angling my head around for hours or moving farther away from my friends, the crowd, the band); it was very “Of course you had to wear heels to a Gwar show,” very ha-ha-on-you. I had a few hot tears about the fact that when I was being regular-me, which is inclusive of different cultural influences and interests to the same degree as anyone else who has the internet, exercising that inclusiveness was supposed to be a joke or a weirdness or an imposition. Whether or not I was or am punk (easily, no, not now, not then, not ever) is a nonquestion, but that my relative status was somehow at issue for my friends—how could it be!—is still unsettling. I barely ever go to shows now, though. (Maybe I still would, but I go to bed at, like, ten so unless the Minutemen are returning from the half dead and doing a postwork show to accommodate people with jobs, I’m probably not going to go.)
I guess all I want is to see and know and feel beauty, even when life is garbage. Maybe that’s it. The kinds of things I used to say—more importantly, feel—have been veeeery slowly replaced by a new or probably just uncovered yearning, desire, need, whatever, to be open and vulnerable, which is what I think “beauty” is. When I needed it to, punk helped me get to know my anger. When I needed it to, punk let me get rid of it. Now, I just need it to be fast and hard and fun and enlivening, to pull me further away from whatever low moments I fall into, all “Do more. Be better. Work harder.”
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