Pair of Converse purchased at Foot Locker: $70.
Dickies you conveniently ordered online: $25 plus shipping and handling.
A Never Mind the Bollocks T-shirt – even though you don’t own the album but totally have a few tracks downloaded: $19.99.
The bastardization of a once earth-shatteringly political rock movement by an entire age group of poseurs totally deserving the label “Generation Z”: priceless.
This summer, I stood on the flea market-ridden streets of Camden, a corner of London reputed for its proximity to the punk rock genesis. That Sid Vicious played his final homeland concert in Camden’s Electric Ballroom is no coincidence. But nearly four decades later, tourists can’t walk from the vintage boot boutique to the black light poster shop without having Britain’s mightiest bands hocked at them – in one-size-fits-all T-shirt form, of course.
Repelled by a brigade of shirts, I happened into a conversation with a girl from Boston who shared both my amusement and bemusement. “I can’t believe I came all the way to England to buy a Clash T-shirt that looks exactly like one I saw at Urban Outfitters,” she said.
That random Boston girl totally nailed the situation: how odd we both found the commercialization and commodification of punk. The Sex Pistols, once vilified for inciting U.K. youth into anarchistic riot and subversively slipping a safety pin into Queen Elizabeth’s nose on the cover of their single “God Save the Queen,” are now level with miniature Big Ben as tourist fodder.
However, punk’s descent from fringe movement to manufactured mainstream music – a devolution evidenced well by the use of the Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop” in a Budweiser commercial – has already been well-documented by Rolling Stone, Spin, and any other music magazine with a lucid enough memory. What those with an eye for the do-it-yourself punk aesthetic should be watching out for instead is commodified punk’s theft of counterculture.
You’ve seen them in the mall, and you remember them from the danker nooks of your high school: the guy who was lame in eighth grade but in the transition to high school bought all the T-shirts, pants, temporary tattoos, piercings and backpack patches he needed to upgrade from “loser” to “punk.” For kids like these, grafting themselves onto the punk movement is an escape, a justification of their nonconformist status by membership in a group that allows nonconformity. And it’s these young people being shortchanged by the present state of punk.
Instead of questing for rare albums of freaky bands unheard of by their mainstream peers, present-day punk bands grace MTV just like Britney and her imitators. Instead of assembling a personalized wardrobe that iconifies their nonconformity, their overpriced clothes come off racks, just like at Urban Outfitters, Express, or Abercrombie & Fitch. And come on – safety pins just shouldn’t cost that much.
Whereas yesterpunk once offered outsiders the fury of thrashing chords, accelerated drumbeats and pissed-as-hell lyrics, the culture attached to its current avatar is a sham, pushed by the music industry just like those T-shirts in Camden. What stores like Hot Topic are marketing to the punk-hungry steals a meaningful, personal rebellion against the social forces that drove these kids to seek out an alternative in the first place.
Buy the clothes, download a few key tracks and place the appropriate patches; it’s a do-it-yourself aesthetic warped by some corporations’ pursuit of more money. Effectively, the outsider’s quest for a personalized rebellion is gone. Having been satiated by the wares of the mall, the outsiders won’t travel to the dingy niche stores in big cities and make the countercultural connections they deserve. And without forging out and piecing together their own style, their own philosophy, their own countercultural movement, they’ll have nothing to show for their young adulthood save the evidence of their slavery to commercialization.
These are the gangly, the awkward, the asthma-suffering, the Kathy Griffin-looking, the unaccepted. The least they could hope for is a counterculture they forge for themselves – one maybe that could also be commercialized and commodified in forty years.