Punk Rock: So What?

Book Reviews | Mar 10th, 2007

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Author: Roger Sabin, Ed.
Publisher: Routledge
Genre: Punk
Pages: 247
Retail Price: 9.99
Buy on Amazon.com link

The history of punk has become romanticized to the point of being rewritten. “Most accounts assume punk was liberating’ politically, and created a space for disenfranchised voices to be heardnotably women, gays and lesbians, and anti-racists,” says editor Roger Sabin. But the reality, he asserts, is that punk was way too culturally schizophrenic in its ideology to be defined in simple terms. One has to look at the whole picture of punk its original historical context and its influence on various aspects of mainstream culture in order for punk and the early “punk experience” to be truly understood.

Instead of being directly involved in the punk scene, each writer is an expert within a certain field, and they attempt to relate different aspects of punk to their fields, analyzing punk’s influence on that piece of mainstream culture. For instance, Robert Garnett, a critic for Art Monthly, looks at pop art’s influence on punk imagery, and vice versa. University lecturer on writing, Miriam Rivett, discusses “punk literature” (a.k.a. the shitty, trashy pulp novels of Richard Allen and others). Other topics include comics, film, and etiquette.

Some of the articles don’t have much point (pulp punk books were never commercially successful and their characters/storylines were too exaggerated to be indicative of the real punk experience; the piece on cyberpunk culture also doesn’t matter much, considering no one but Billy Idol looks like that anymore), but there are some good insights, especially Roger Sabin’s piece on racism in punk, and Lucy O’Brien’s article “The Woman Punk Made Me” is good in its personal touch, though it disappointingly backs down from discussing the sexist aspects of punk. (And I think this backing down and artificial sweetening of punk hurts this book, since it claims to want to do the opposite.)

The articles are not (for the most part) personal anecdotes, but at the same time, they fail to achieve real scholarly objectivism. While the authors are experts in their fields, most of them (besides the editor) don’t make their profession in cultural studies. The result is a sort of pseudo-sociological book that relies more on opinions than primary research or even first-hand accounts.

To make matters worse, while the scope of the book attempts to be broad, many important pieces are missing. The articles only look at punk from 76 to 79, blatantly disregarding punk’s roots (which I think is important when discussing the definition of punk culture’s influence on punk, and punk’s influence on culture), as well as glossing over the transformations within punk and its musical offshoots (Oi!, hardcore, riot grrrl, pop punk, emo, etc.) in the time since Sid’s death. The other problem is that it has a very strong British bias, focusing almost entirely on the Sex Pistols brand of style and music (save for a brief handful of pages on American punk).

While I agree with the editor that people’s thoughts toward 70’s punk have become twisted by romanticized nostalgia due to a rewritten history, I feel this book is just another rewrite, continuing to ignore the reality because of innocent selective perception.

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