“A Punk Etymology,” slipped into the back of Punk: An Aesthetic, informs readers that Shakespeare used the word in Measure for Measure—“My lord, she may be a punk, for many of them are neither maid, widow, nor wife.” That was in 1623; the Bard also penned it into The Merry Wives of Windsor more than 20 years earlier. Used to refer to a prostitute starting in the late 16th century, “punk” has long stood in for a rabble of words that can be applied to people of shady or unscrupulous dealings, as well as those who don’t conform to sexual norms, refuse to play by the commonly accepted rules of society, or think the rules are just plain stupid and ignore them. Edited by Johan Kugelberg and Jon Savage, this new book is an “illustrated narrative of the evolution, realization, and legacy of the punk aesthetic,” and the story told through several hundred examples of album covers, show flyers and posters, fanzines, and press clippings is cocksure in its fidelity to the origins of the word being applied to deviants of varying degrees.
Kugelberg admits in his introductory essay that “a lot of ink is spilled on punk now,” but this collection doesn’t attempt to over-explain the term or make it an academic matter of socioeconomics. Kugelberg insists that “the notion of what punk became as a signifier and yardstick remains a maze and a riddle, and amen to that. The history of the punk aesthetic cannot be told, only shown.” This book certainly draws together the visual output inspired by the music and the culture it exploded throughout the world.
We all know the story, or at least the version told by the punks: the hippies failed, became baby boomers, and traded in protests for material complacency. Boredom became popular culture’s baseline, thanks to media and marketing that established a commercial nostalgia for a time past (or at least a fabricated sense for a time that might have passed by), with the aim of making everything relatable and accessible. Urban blight drove families to the suburbs and attracted marginal characters to the squats and cheap rents of emptying cities. As they congregated and tried to make sense of the contrasts between the lives they were leading and the lives they were told they were supposed to be living, the wide-eyed and desperate clawed and grabbed at anything within reach, making sure they were noticed even if they were not heard. Just like the amps through which the match-strike-short songs blared, the visuals that came to define the punk aesthetic were slapped together, frantic for attention if for no other reason than to piss off others in the name of feeling something, anything.
At its roots, punk music burst out of a need for an authenticity of experience, a validation for not accepting the idea that “everything was OK,” that being fucked up wasn’t really all that fucked up. Savage’s essay kicks off with the words of the Sex Pistols’ first press release in 1976: “We hate everything.” For anyone who sided with the likes of Malcolm McLaren and Johnny Rotten, this attitude was genuine, and the music became the locus of a raging cyclone of brash sensibilities fueled on what today we call DIY attitude. And so concerts were advertised with hand-scrawl and ransom-note lettering. Turning the media culture it so loathed on its head, zines appropriated tabloid headline treatments and used poorly photocopied images of public figures. Punks made their own media, highlighting its ultimate disposability, and for a while it towered as a true act of defiance, something to be avoided and feared. Savage writes: “Montage was the ideal method of dealing with the detritus of consumer culture, the proliferation of pop’s past. . . . In the act of dismembering and reassembling the very images that were supposed to keep you down and ignorant, it was possible to counteract the violence of The Spectacle and to refashion the world around you.”
In London and New York, punks became the media’s excuse for everything that was wrong with youth culture—which only attracted more and more kids. As audiences grew, the record companies began to take these bands seriously. Kugelberg explains how the labels “midwifed great art for the wrong reasons, a consistent specialty of the record business,” pointing to the Ramones’ first record deal resulting from the 1950s rock ‘n’ roll nostalgia that served as the basis of Bruce Springsteen’s early popularity. The punk mentality was soon absorbed into the mainstream-media mentality. Savage astutely identifies what exactly went down: “The need to face individual and collective demons was all too often replaced by a degraded idea of authenticity that fed into sensationalism at the same time as it trapped its proponents into a dynamic of diminishing returns.”
Yes, this book contains the expected photographs of Richard Hell, the New York Dolls, and Johnny Rotten, and it does not shy away from the slicker end of the punk spectrum, seen in new wave and its fashion-house gloss. But this sort of imagery is in the minority; page after page of immaculately reproduced ephemera showcasing handbills and zines like Vile, Fuck You – A Magazine of the Arts, Sniffin’ Glue, and Art-Rite make this an unparalleled collection that captures a moment in time without it coming off as dated. As a whole, Punk: An Aesthetic comprehensively demonstrates how the people who found solace in this mindset were communicating very real concerns and needling nerves in the name of raising awareness about being aware of our surroundings. Questioning authority and the status quo is always necessary, and no matter how the legacy of punk looks today in the light of John Varvatos and Never Mind the Bollocks onesies, its core flame will never be extinguished, and this book goes a long way in showing how that fire might change shapes but will forever burn.
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