I. The Infernal Assembly Line
I imagine it could have happened anywhere. Maybe Woodstock, or Altamont. Maybe the Summer of Love, or the Days of Rage. All the ingredients necessary were there, thousands of young people, born at a certain time in a certain context, filled to the brim with verve and many shades of lust, ceaselessly wound up by the onslaught of events that are thrown at them, but centered by their belief that they can combine their efforts in so inarguable a way as to entirely reverse the parade of evils battering them without relent: the evils of war, the evils of economy, the evils of men. It only takes one, with comparably fewer bearings about him, wandering off from the hang-ups of his concrete existence and into a rainbow-pattern vortex. He is greeted by a warmth emanating outward from his core being that many associate with freezing to death. He has found it, he realizes: Aquarius. But before he can frolic through the magic mushroom fields or drink from the acid river, the vibe is undermined completely. The flowers shrivel and the sky is ashen, the shag lounges are hollowed stone ruins. Aquarius has shifted into Carcosa. And then appears a Hassle, perhaps a cop, a recruiting officer, HAL from 2001, or his dad. He freezes and falls back, expecting the throttling of a lifetime. But this is not to be:
FIGURE: Please allow me to introduce myself …
FIGURE: I am a man of wealth and taste …
FIGURE: Fuck. I’m Satan. I’m here to give you a gift.
MAN: What is it?
FIGURE: Whatever you want.
MAN: You can do that?
FIGURE: Yes. I’m the Lord of Darkness.
MAN: There’s just so much to take in. I think I’m coming down.
FIGURE: The first thing that comes into your head. Really.
MAN: I want to stay young for the rest of my life.
FIGURE: It is done, though I should disclose that it is not exactly free.
MAN: No man, I’m good for it. Just … have the Dean call my folks they’ll get it squared and I’ll graduate on time.
FIGURE: Okay, sign here.
Hours later he awakens in some shrubs, his girlfriend arrested, his other girlfriend has moved in with her other boyfriend, one of his shoes is missing. He goes to Burger King and gets an underwriting job at New York Life.
Though a healthy percentage of this scenario is purely speculative on my part, its plausibility is without question. I think you will find that it is entirely plausible that anyone within conscription age in the late 1960s could be convinced by even the crudest of tricksters that he or she could converse at any point with Satan. It is more plausible still that any baby boomer today could formulate this as a very persuasive rationale for what they see as the karmic debt they are paying as pioneers of perpetual adolescence. Things like disco, the oil crisis, and Oliver North seem like dollar store items compared to the abberative presence of the millennial, the progeny that infests not just their homes, but their newspapers, their screens, increasingly, though gradually, their office space, and perhaps their sleep as well.
Appearing mostly on the farthest reaches of their periphery like pastel gargoyles, the mere presence of millennials is draining and haunting. They seem to know little of the contents of their characters or the depths of their desires. “What purpose do they serve,” the boomers ask, “than to give us dread? Or worse still, to collect on our debt; to come in when we are at our weakest, unhinge their jaws, and transfer our virility and zest onto themselves, to abuse and make mockery of?” Those few who have dared to ask directly, often in a spattering of emoji, have only received an ever blinking ellipses in return. There is a time to find out, not of their choosing. It is in the fine print somewhere, covered in bile.
Though the temptation is there, it is important here that we not fall for them. Rather, that they do not use their pitiful circumstances to illicit from us our feelings of pity. It is not so much that we are free of obligation to feel pity for them, collectively or individually, but it is more that pity is a poorly secured gateway into what they actually want.
Whether, in the end, they see their situation as a bargain, a hex, or an illness they nonetheless see it as nonnegotiable, irreversible, or incurable. The ideal world has the Faustian figure make his deal then either accept its terms and commence damnation or find an out based on the selflessness, kindness, and good nature on which Satan is predominantly bearish. Whether these options were never made explicit to them or they simply didn’t find them workable, the boomers have opted against them, choosing instead a third option, seemingly of their own design. They will accept damnation, but will not do so alone. In overcoming the millennials, the boomers will seduce them into empathy, derailing whatever original plans they had in store for them. They will bring them, in effect, under contract and become rentiers over their own retribution. Adolescence is not only perpetuated onto new generations, but perpetuated in a single image, and will replenish itself with the merciless, untiring rhythm of industry. It’s enough to make one wonder if Satan is in the mold of Henry Ford, a tycoon with unparalleled technical foresight, or Abraham Lincoln, a politician whose every action seldom, if ever, bore consequences that backfired against his intentions.
II. Teen Creeps
Youth as a romantic ideal is nothing new. We could perhaps chart its birth as early as 1774, the year that Johann von Goethe’s debut novel The Sorrows of Young Werther was published. Goethe himself was 24 when he wrote it and like most things one creates at that age, he came to regret ever having done so, and despised the romanticism it helped to catalyze. But of course the novel shadowed him for the rest of his life and long after. Werther was an immediate success upon publication. Some might say that Goethe was the Bret Easton Ellis of his time, but that is insufficient. Ellis triggered higher than usual book sales among tony college students, to be sure, but nothing in Less Than Zero suggests the unprecedented intensification of the connection between product and consumer that was “Werther fever,” which caused men to replicate Werther’s mode of dress, and in some cases his mode of death. Frank Sinatra, James Dean, or Madonna are more fitting comparisons. It is a novel more replicated than read. It is on Werther that all of the tropes of pop culture and pop fandom are founded, and as such so is the drama and passion of modern youth.
These roots are further explored in great detail by Jon Savage in his book Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture, which makes mention of innovators like Goethe and Rousseau, but focuses on the period between 1875, with the dropping of child labor laws and 1945, with the dropping of the atomic bombs. Savage’s territory is familiar to us, but not entirely known. He details the authoritarian roots of the Boy Scouts, the socialite ghosts of London’s “Bright Young People,” and the redeeming Depression era appeal of both the New Deal and the Hitler Youth. The book’s cutoff at the end of World War II has a culminating effect. This is implied more heavily in the film adaptation of the book.
At one hour and 17 minutes in length, it is a kind of mood documentary comprised mostly of image collages and first-person testimony read by young actors. Though it is as much interested, perhaps more so, in what Savage’s tome foretells as it is in the history it narrates. Youth and adults are kept fully separate throughout the film. They are worlds at odds, seemingly impossible to coexist. But if a bridge can be built, it comes through in the subtlest suggestion. “[My mom] asks me why I thought [jazz music] was good” states the testimony of a British boy, “and I said: ‘Because it comes from America.’”
That Teenage is centered largely on the twilight years of old world Europe is no accident. Nor are the vague incantatory mentions of America, as that is primarily what America was at the time: a figment and legend, an unnatural country, the fabric of which is sewn together by repeat onsets of anxiety, pangs impelling repeat, and habitual rebirth. Yet that anxiety has allure compared to the iron stability of the great continent, which in short order revealed itself to be no less stitched in place by frantic patchwork. “The old had sent us to die,” another disembodied teen declaims, “and we hated them.” America comes in under a shockingly uncritical gaze. An anxious Joie de vivre must have appealed as near-revolutionary to the young Europeans stifled, and then some, by their elders’ shame-ripened death drive. It is almost surreal to see America’s postwar economic opportunism reflected back as a beacon of liberation and redemption, let alone appreciated as a veritable utopia of romantic renewal and consummate agelessness.
III. How Punk Rock is That?
Savage’s interest in youth culture is rooted in no small way in his direct participation in it. His entry into writing was through British music magazines in the late 1970s, coinciding with the ascendance of punk in the United Kingdom. Punk informs all of his career directives and this is no less the case with Teenage. “[P]unk’s historical collage … marked the moment when the linear forward motion of the sixties was replaced by the loop,” he wrote in its introduction. “Suddenly, all pop culture time was accessible, on the same plane, available at once.” Here Savage is talking about punk aesthetics rather than its character, a not uncommon tradition as the former is pinned down with less difficulty than the latter.
If forced to pinpoint where punk as we understand it came into being, it would be somewhere in the early to mid-1970s, in between Suicide using “punk music” on their show fliers to Lester Bangs’s fleshing out the concept in his billowing anti-jargon. Bangs notwithstanding, the baby boomers seemed to have overlooked its emergence almost entirely, as evinced by the hasty catch-up being played on Martin Scorsese’s Vinyl. Punk’s occasional relapses into the mainstream, when not disdained, are often viewed through their particularly colored lenses. Youth, crying out from under the suffocation of workaday conformity, wanting to be heard. It is in the spirit of Elvis if not quite as good, but mostly an inconvenient detour between comeback album hosannas and flowery canonizations. But punk’s resilience is neither surprising nor impressive, the generational framework a conceptual shackle on its far vaster scope.
What is most off-putting about punk, and not without justice, is that it is all things to all punks. Punk is unceasingly wrestling one contradiction against another: resignation against resilience; detachment against intensity; indifference against earnestness; artifice against authenticity; individualism against populism; sophistication against simplicity. It is why, on the surface, bands like Minor Threat, Black Flag, and Negative Approach come off only subtly distinct in sound, but, on further examination, worlds apart in concept; and indeed, for all intents and purposes in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Washington DC, Los Angeles, and Detroit might as well have been different planets. Punk’s character makeup, then, isn’t all that different from its aesthetic makeup. It too is a hodgepodge of ideas long ago growing from the American cultural grain. It takes from the radicalism of Thomas Paine, Lysander Spooner, William Lloyd Garrison, and Victoria Woodhull; from the anarchic satire of Ambrose Bierce and William S. Burroughs; from the bleak noir of James M. Cain and Jim Thompson; and from the high ideals of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Adams, Woodrow Wilson, and John Dewey.
I limit my assessment to America for the same reason it is so casted in the Teenage film. The United States is often seen as the pinnacle of the reactionary state, and in some ways it is. Americans cling to its traditions, its habits, and its legal framework as they would a dying lover. Yet those grips are easily loosened when played out in historical practice. Americans have upended their society numerous times since its founding, if not (always) on a level of law then certainly on a level of character, admittedly with varying degrees of bloodletting and equitable results. The America of Washington and Jefferson is hardly the America of Jackson and Polk, or Lincoln and Grant, or Roosevelt and Roosevelt, or Reagan and Clinton. Before the Orange Juice lyric “rip it up and start again” became a punk slogan, the United States had perfected it in example. The catastrophic unraveling of France in 1793, though sometimes within reach, has been averted fairly successfully so far. More enshrined than any constitutional principle is the dynamic, self-determinate ethos so often professed and/or carried out by punk bands throughout its existence.
That America is the punk state is perhaps the most confounding contradiction of an already sufficiently contradictory genre. Its implications are at once empowering and terrifying, depending on who, at any given time, can take the scissors and shred the fabric once more. In this sense, punk is not a freak accident of culture that many, not least of all punks, like to portray it as. It is an inevitable outcome, a feature rather than a bug. It is in no way impossible to see in Ian MacKaye and Guy Picciotto or Kathleen Hanna and Tobi Vail as latter-day embodiments of Paine’s summer soldier and sunshine patriot.
Punk’s demonstrated ethos, then, on both the local and world-historical levels, offers an alternative to rather than a pushback against the specter of perpetual adolescence. It is, to redeem a long ago tainted phrase, a positive good at its core, a social covenant of its own.
IV. Dream Baby Dream
But one people cannot be held to two covenants, so one must then be a corruption bordering on heresy, but hopefully one born of woeful disorder rather than willful misdeed. Punk’s final and most contested contradiction is between idiosyncrasy and absolutism. Few cultural movements have been so fruitful and so varied in its creation, especially with so little resources to go around, rivaling only hip hop in productivity, diversity, and reach. But hip hop never succumbed to punk’s unshakable reflex for policing. From Darwinian scene politics to poser purges to the more unsettling and widespread militant straight edge movement (not to mention the more peculiar but no less earnest offshoot “Krishnacore”), the authoritarian urge burns brightly beside the creative passion, often searing it in the process.
Punk is an orthodoxy of change. If it can’t change then it can’t live. In seeing the boomers, punks have their own reasonable fears. No one is more conflicted about his or her station, and their effect on punk culture, than the punk who is aging. Nostalgia is a recurring theme in the genre, but one that is conveyed with perplexity, like a final effect of puberty. Ian MacKaye reached it early, just barely into his twenties when he wrote “Salad Days” for Minor Threat: “Look at us today/We’ve gotten soft and fat/Waiting for that moment/It’s just not coming back.” Punk is a relentless passion with physical and cerebral limits. Shaking the ideals which propelled one into punk is more difficult than falling out of love, yet it is incompatible with the energy required to endure the passion of its newcomers or to comprehend their own vision of what punk is and should be.
Ian MacKaye looms large in the mind of aging punks. MacKaye’s crisis would only deepen after Minor Threat’s breakup with the emo predecessor Embrace, but he would right himself with Fugazi. He does not cease, and the young give him no disdain for it. When they move the dial, MacKaye is somehow in sync with them, the making of true postmodern hero. To this the aging punk can nod wistfully, and somewhat nervously. Maturity has not always been a great boon to punk. SSD went metal, Government Issue went prog, Henry Rollins went from poet to character actor to pundit, and Black Flag itself became more self-destructive than anyone thought possible. The idea of retiring from punk’s everlasting fracas is easy enough to conceive. One last show, in your old high-tops and hoodie, then off to selling your vinyl and transferring Pony Express Record onto your iPhone only to realize that it’s actually kind of ingenious. But doing so is less simple in the concrete. Though he does not mean to and couldn’t care less about this, MacKaye’s casual consistency (as opposed to Bad Religion’s stubborn consistency) and Bismarckian resolve stands as a challenge to his peers. How punk are you, he intones in our heads. Not very, we reply. Well, were you ever?
This dilemma does not go unnoticed by the younger punks, but not with annoyance or arrogance. Stoked as much by Emersonian compassion as Jacksonian passion, flowering punks want nothing more than to seek a solution that offers help to those who need it and keeps ideals pure. If older punks have trouble retiring on their own, the younger punks will assist them. Their ever resourceful organizing prowess being what it is, the could conceivably create Youth Brigades, going around the country in search of punks of a certain age—say 35; Ex-Spectators, they might appropriately call them—and dispatch them to fresher pastures. The older punks, less out of resignation or deference than out of ethical example and desire to properly pass the torch, will likely acquiesce. Youth, change, and absolute purity, and the other plates of punk’s balancing act, spin confidently in place.
In these designs, however, the boomers have nothing to fear. They may well not even notice. Theirs is a twilight of imprisonment rather than retirement, in a gray complex of their own construction. They are, in a sense, like Jonathan Pryce in Brazil, their minds frozen in a waking dream. But instead of heroism and peace, they find contentment deferred in the endless pursuit by demonic creditors or tech-savvy vampires or latte-drunk children of the corn. But what is prison to them will be monument to others. Monuments of warning are far more impactful than monuments of mourning. It shall stand monolithic over the entire people. A perpetually ageless society, it will say to us, is brought on not by cheap bargains or cut corners. Like everything else it is worked for, it is ethical.