HOW PUNK ROCK IS THAT?: A REPLY TO SETH MANDEL
by Chris R. Morgan
[Note: This was initially a letter to the editors of the New York Post in response to an opinion article they published by Seth Mandel on Green Day, but I thought I’d share it here anyway. To be honest I’m posting more for motives performative rather than substantive, as the piece mostly condenses two previous posts (maybe three or four) on this blog, which you should read as Mandel’s editorial indicates that they are now even less superfluous. This piece probably reads better in its intended medium but, I don’t know, enjoy.]
In the annals of hate-reading there are three distinct types: those that fill the reader with a heightened sense of superior glee, those that fill the reader with despair, and those that utterly confuse the reader entirely. Mr. Mandel might take some pride in having elicited all three of these types as I read his article from end to end, though it fell decidedly on the third type as I wasn’t sure whether to be annoyed or disappointed.
Let me be clear that Mandel’s central point about Green Day is correct. The band has long been a cultural nonentity, and the Broadway adaptation of American Idiot deserves triple the ire that Hamilton is getting. That said, Mandel’s rhetorical motorcycle self-destructs mid-bus jump in a flaming fury of what I think the forensics club nerds call false dilemma. Contrasting Green Day with the Sex Pistols is not unlike contrasting Suzanne Collins with J.K. Rowling. But that misses the larger point.
In criticizing Green Day’s shallow politics, Mandel could have benefitted Post readers with a contextual gloss of its roots in the punk movement. That over the course of the 1980s, Americans like Ian MacKaye, having seen the dead end of the Sex Pistols’ nihilism, saw fit to alter punk’s course that was, in part, influenced by the liberal Protestantism in which he was raised. MacKaye and others in cities like Olympia, Athens, and San Diego saw punk as a means of moral fortitude, of doing the right thing where an indifferent power structure could not. While the Sex Pistols floundered as a promotional tool for Malcolm McLaren, a baby boomer opportunist, Fugazi, Black Flag, and other American punks networked, started businesses, and perpetuated itself across the country. That that environment sometimes fosters complacency and sanctimony is unfortunate, but no one elected Green Day presidents of punk.
But Mandel is not interested in cultural context, just polemical cudgels to score political points. Fair, but futile. Never Mind the Bollocks turns 40 this year and it sounds like it. Punk rock as we have known it is slowly going extinct, as it should. It is a notch on the bedpost of the voracious force that is youth culture, and youth culture has found a new paramour.
This September, thousands of juggalos will converge on Washington DC to march in protest of the FBI’s crusade to designate the grouping as a gang. You might know the juggalos through their oft-mocked bombastic degenerate “gatherings,” their unlistenable music, and their ludicrous mode of dress. Sound familiar? Writing of punks in 1978, Auberon Waugh noted “how genuine punks go out of their way to make themselves too disgusting for the dilettantes. Punks ”remained essentially and exclusively working class though few, if any, of them worked,” and whose attitude turned the “proletarian triumphalism” of the 1960s into “proletarian defiance.” The juggalos with their communal permissiveness sound like history repeating itself, or the counterculture just moving forward at steady pace.
While it may be fun and cathartic to mock desperate middle-aged rockers, Mandel does so at the expense of American culture itself, which is far more vibrant and bizarre and unpredictable than it is given credit for by any office-seeker. Indeed, Mandel comes close to exhibiting as much contempt for American culture that he attaches to his politically correct foes. At the end of the day, who cares what punk is? Certainly not punks, who knew this sea change would come. That is not Mandel’s point, of course, but his point is moot.