As a student of rhetoric, I’m well aware of my obligation to wax eloquent on the democratic process and the power of deliberation on the heels of an historic election, but can I please not, please? Instead I want to talk about punk rock.
I was introduced to punk rock in high school when a friend gave me a Bad Religion CD for my birthday. After seeing Rancid and Bouncing Souls live at Playschool in downtown Salt Lake City in 1994, I was hooked. As I stood next to a stack of Marshall amps, getting my eardrum ravaged by percussive violence, watching a swirl of people, mostly young guys, pommeling each other in the mosh pit, I felt that I was doing what Henry David Thoreau described as living deep and sucking out all the marrow of life. Punk rock life, I thought, my reptilian complex throbbing, was life reduced to its lowest, most essential terms.
I didn’t think of punk rock as art—as a subject worth discussing, even in a rarified place called “Humanities”—until recently when I read Rip It Up and Start Again, Simon Reynolds’ fantastic history of the late-70s music scene. But while reading the book, I learned something about myself as an intellectual that wasn’t particularly flattering, something that taught me more about life and art and cultural seeking.
I learned that two major trends split from each other at the moment punk rock was born in the 1970s. One tributary took the fast-paced lama-lama guitar of early punk and kept right on doing that, as loud and as fast as possible, up until the time I was listening to it in high school twenty years later. A simplified Family Tree of this punk branch might look like this: Ramones >> Descendents >> Green Day. The punk rock bands in the 90s received the tradition and kept it alive. This was the tradition I received as a teenager. Let’s call it the receiver tradition.
The other branch was less interested in what punk rock sounded like and more interested in what it had tried to accomplish as art—as a way-out-there rejection of the popular trendy Creedence Clearwater rock-and-roll of the age. This branch was made up of groups who were intentionally seeking to estrange, bewilder, confuse, even alienate with their music. They were seeking a DIY strip-down of rock for a new era. They were seeking to blow up the tradition and build on the ashes. These post-punk groups were fronted by art school dropouts who mixed in synthesizers, wore weird costumes, made long mad grinding noise on stage with instruments and/or power tools, and syncretized the best of unknown (to westerners) global music into their work. A simplified Family Tree of this branch could take many forms, but here’s one: Public Image Limited >> Devo >> Sonic Youth. We’ll call this the seeker tradition, as in seeking out the new.
While reading about these traditions, I thought about my own experience as a young person with art, literature, film, language, ideas—the subjects very much alive in the Humanities. Like many of you, I loved reading as a kid. I loved listening to music. I loved movies. However, most of the time I kept to the safe stuff that everyone else (i.e., mostly males) liked: I read Tom Clancy, Stephen King, and John Grisham; I listened to Power 99, the top-40 radio station, and ordered the top-selling cassette tapes from the Columbia House Music Club; I never watched any movies in black and white or with subtitles—Ghostbusters and James Bond for me. In other words, I was a cultural receiver, accepting whatever the supermarket rack of paperbacks and MTV’s video countdown offered up to me (i.e., lots of Def Leppard). By the time I was in high school, I had a fairly narrow cultural palate, in part because I had become a cultural receiver.
Lucky for me I had friends and teachers who were cultural seekers. One high school friend took me to the Tower Theater to watch weird independent films I didn’t know whether I liked, and he made me listen to Leonard Cohen records—and I wasn’t sure I liked those, either. A buddy took me to my first local jazz show, which, I swear, was in the building where the J-Dawgs is, south of campus. In college, a friend’s girlfriend took us to local theater performances that bewildered and offended me. My English professors made me read novels I never would have chosen to read on my own, like As I Lay Dying or HERmione or Their Eyes Were Watching God.
While I continue to be a somewhat-conventional white middle-aged man in Costco pants driving a minivan around—and finding, to my shame, that I love the stupid minivan—I’ve learned from the artful punk-rock mentoring of others to seek out the new, to let my sensibilities get scrambled, to feel the euphoria that comes from being disoriented yet still delighted—that feeling akin to stepping off a bus in a foreign city and realizing that everything in front of you requires a shift in your paradigms to comprehend. Rip it up and start again. That kind of disorientation can be uncomfortable and thrilling at the same time.
What does it mean to be a cultural seeker? For me, it means learning to practice a wide-eyed openness to as many cultural artifacts as possible. If we do, in fact, believe that everyone on earth is a child of God, then we children of God have been making awesome stuff since the beginning. And there’s so much stuff! Too much. Certainly enough to make it indefensible to stick to what’s comfortable all the time. Even at their most alienating and tedious, the Post-Punks in the seeker tradition had something essential on offer: a new experience, a story from a foreign brain, a perspective that in my chronic state of vanilla I never could have taken up on my own. One way I’ve learned to expand my cultural palate is to take risks. Sometimes those risks don’t pay off. More often than not, they do. Even when they don’t, they do—by don’t-ing in a way that disrupts me and therefore teaches me.
I’m forty-five this year. I’m not old, but I’m sure not young, and there’s so much more to discover. What should I seek out next?
This post was written by Brian Jackson, Humanities Center Faculty Fellow.