KARJAKA New York: Perspectives on Punk Rock

by | Aug 22, 2023 | 0 comments

I was 13 when I got a second hole pierced in my ears. It had been a pretty typical day of school, followed by a trip to the Monmouth Mall with my first boyfriend Zach, accompanied by his younger sister Peri and chaperoned by his mom Stacey. We ran rampant through Hot Topic, sifting from band t-shirt to band t-shirt to band t-shirt, giggling at the vaguely sexual keychains at Spencer’s Gifts (not yet understanding why a bear with a ball gag and leather briefs was funny or what it meant), and landing at Piercing Pagoda. Ah yes, Piercing Pagoda; The kiosk embedded somewhere between The Gap and Aéropostale that allowed disillusioned and unamused high schoolers looking for extra income access to piercing guns and, judging by the multiple piercings they each had themselves, a pretty rad employee discount. Supposedly with my mom’s blessing (the details are fuzzy), both Zach and I got pierced that day. I got simple titanium balls, increasing my piercing count from a modest and girly 2 to a very rock ‘n roll 4 (what a goddamn badass), and he got his left lobe pierced with a very cool looking black tungsten stud. When I came home later that day, slurping on the remnants of my food court Pepsi and feeling quite chuffed, I walked into a shitstorm. My dad went totally ballistic and my sister started crying, telling me I looked like a freak. It is here where I would like to state for the record that my sister did end up getting a second hole pierced in her ears a few years later, but I digress – I was punished (the conditions of this punishment I can’t recall) and I was absolutely pissed off. Why should anyone tell me what I can do with my body? They were my ears, and I would get them pierced if I wanted to! I was like, 13 years old, which is basically an adult anyway. Why was “because I said so” anywhere close to a legitimate reason to be sequestered to my room? This, I would say, was the extent of my teenage rebellion. I was a pretty straight laced, rule-following kid. I did go against the grain a little, wearing mostly black, owning a plethora of the aforementioned Hot Topic t-shirts donning the logos of my favorite bands, and sporting those studded leather cuffs that told the world – nee, my middle school classmates – that I definitely didn’t give a fuck about how popular they were and that they didn’t accept me, even though I secretly did.

Growing up comes with its share of, well, growing pains. There’s a lot of fumbling on the road to self-discovery. The overarching theme of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland” (more colloquially “Alice In Wonderland”) is growing up. In the text, Alice struggles with identity, explores curiosity in her journey, and learns to adhere to conformity and authority in order to rise through the social ranks, represented by the Red Queen. Depicted as an erratic tyrant and a sadist, it can be said that the Red Queen exemplifies the establishment, the class system, and the principle that actions have consequences and at times punishment – whether just or unjust. One thing I think we can all agree on is that the older we get, the less we want to be told what to do. For some, the questioning of authority starts a little sooner than others. This can be authority from parents, teachers, bosses, cops, and of course, the United States Government. It’s argued that rules and regulations aim to keep the general populous safe, to retain order and mitigate chaos. However, challenging authority is innately part of the human experience. Life is our greatest and most significant game of “choose your own adventure”, the likes of which I certainly don’t want a bunch of old white men dictating every aspect of for me (especially as a woman, especially in 2023). But nothing really brought the experience of challenging authority and convention to the forefront of society with the intense vigor and piss and vinegar of punk rock. I’ll define the societal meaning of punk and shed light on the origins of the movement at large; But for a more well-rounded grasp on what punk means, I went straight to the source, interviewing some of the most badass colleagues I know. I’ve had the pleasure to work very closely with both Michele and Austin who both grew up during the apex of the punk movement. Naturally, I needed to know more about their experience and their individual perspective, how punk has shaped them as individuals, and what it truly means to embody the punk ethos. Austin remembers his initial exposure to punk, when a girl he had a crush on gave him a mixtape, which he says was “full of pretty much every artist on the Lookout! Records roster at the time from Screeching Weasel to Green Day.” His first punk show was Offspring. “[It was] just as their album Smash was released and Rancid opened. I met a bunch of kids about a year or two younger than me at that show, but went to my high school and really started to feel that sense of community that comes with the scene. A couple years later I helped a friend with a zine and started my own, and got to interview a ton of bands that were fantastic and became friendly with many I stay in touch with to this day.” From then on, he was pretty much fully immersed. Michele grew up in the post-punk era. Yearning to play drums since the age of 6, but given a violin in the school band instead, she finally got those drum lessons at age 23 (her drum teacher’s first female student) when she moved to the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and has rocked in bands like Flowers Inside and Loki the Grump ever since. Michele recalled her first show, which was the catalyst to her concert obsession. “It was Billy Idol at the local college where my friend’s sister went. She took us – we wore matching black plastic/nylon outfits and thought we were cool (we weren’t). I’m pretty sure we were the youngest kids there. The show was AMAZING,” Michelle recalls. “A small venue, packed, and so exciting. By the end of his tour his album blew up and he added arena shows to the end. Went to one of those, too. Still great, but nothing like the college venue show. After that I went a bit concert-crazy…when we could get a ride of course.”

The punk subculture of the 1970’s itself encompassed not only music, but also art, literature, film, and fashion, and was a giant middle finger in the face of concepts that America abided by such as gentrification, white supremacy, consumerism, and capitalism (you know, the building blocks of this great nation). According to National Geographic’s Simon Ingram, “the word punk was originally an archaic term for a prostitute – ‘Puncke’ was used by Shakespeare as such in Measure by Measure, though ambiguously – and was later a common slang term for any kind of miscreant, or charismatic, good-for-nothing threat to authority.” Punk was all about nonconformity and individuality, advocating for causes and concepts such as free thought, animal rights and gender and racial equality…which sound a lot like modern Liberalism. Punk rock was rooted in what was then called garage rock, which was characterized by a rough and fuzzy sound, simple chord structures, and aggressive lyrics with a nasal tone that sometimes came with an arrogant snarl. New York’s Lower East Side (and specifically the iconic music venues CBGB and Max’s Kansas City) was where it’s said that punk rock was born; Out of frustration with adhering to the status quo, rising rent prices, oppressive regulations and overall mounting classist and racist ideologies, punks wrote music that reflected the growing dissent of the American youth. Some of the earliest and most recognizable American punk bands were The Ramones, The New York Dolls and The Stooges whose sound swept the nation and resonated with so many of the discontented youth. Across the pond, London’s own punk scene was making strides with The Sex Pistols, The Damned, and The Clash. But aside from the punk rock sound, London was the place that solidified the look of punk. Chains, spikes, safety pins, tartan, and clothes with rips and tears were staples in the punk community, spearheaded by now fashion icon Vivienne Westwood and then-partner Malcolm McLaren (also then-manager of The Sex Pistols) at their King’s Road shop SEX. According to Marie Claire’s Kat Lister, it “was a backlash against the etherealness established by the late sixties’ Summer of Love ethos – all waves, flares, drapes, peace and love. In its place came super tight jeans, leather jackets, ripped tees, sweat and anger.” 

The music itself was the soundtrack to the dissent and frustration of the youth at the time. Rebelling against showy, elitist and star-focused bands like The Rolling Stones with that cocky, pillow-lipped motherfucker Mick Jagger peacocking around, punk music sounded a lot like, well, just noise. At its roots, punk cut out all the bullshit excess. “Eliminate the unnecessary and focus on the substance,” as Tommy Ramone once said. Via Simon Ingram again, “Punk rock, when it arrived, was edgy, brief and unpolished, with unpredictable and chaotic live performances which sometimes ignited pent up crowds into violence. Out went virtuoso solos and twinkly stagecraft: musicianship came second to attitude, and the feeling of accessibility – that those on stage weren’t couched and pampered rock stars, but just someone with struggles, frustrations and something to say.” The lyrical content of most formative punk songs sought to bring attention to societal privilege, global crises, political corruption, and acted as a call to arms in some respects. While some may argue that punk is simply an ethos, it is nearly impossible to separate politics from punk. Punk birthed a new wave of activists, accompanied by a soundtrack of rage and angst personified. Punk had roots and drew influence from more mainstream genres, such as rockabilly, reggae, and, even in some cases, country. The evolution of punk birthed a multitude of sub-genres; Hardcore married together thrash metal and punk to make a louder, faster, meaner, and more aggressive sound that definitely worried parents everywhere (examples being Misfits, Black Flag, and Minor Threat). Post-punk bands like Joy Division and The Cure experimented with production techniques used in jazz, dub, funk and disco and melded with more intellectual pursuits like art, literature and philosophy. Pop-punk was arguably the most mainstream product of the punk movement and now more likely grace the car stereo’s Contemporary Hit Radio or even [gulp] Classic Rock station (think Green Day, the Offspring, and Jimmy Eat World). Punk is also regarded as the forefather of Grunge, the musical and cultural phenomenon of the late 80’s and early-mid 90’s; We can thank Naked Raygun for injecting punk directly into the veins of Nirvana drummer/Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl, who has since for years adamantly gushed over the Melvins, the Pixies, and Hüsker Dü among others and the influence they had on his music. 

While punk might encompass fashion and music that bear the same name, Michele argues that punk is more than what meets the eye (and the ear). “In general I consider ‘punk’ to be a state of heart/mind as opposed to conforming to a way of dress or very specific music (other people most likely don’t agree — but I don’t give a rat’s ass!). It’s doing what I want, dressing how I want, listening to whatever I want without anybody else dictating what should or should not be. But that was an epiphany that happened after feeling for a long time like I had to do the same as everyone else, otherwise I wouldn’t be ‘accepted’ in the scene.” Recalling a specific incident in college, Michele elaborates further, “it was a very, very hot day and I said ‘fuck it’ and wore a very plain grey tank top and shorts outfit with my black Chucks, no makeup, very little jewelry, hair up in a ponytail…all of which was not my typical way of dress at the time. This one guy (who I knew through the alternative scene) dressed in his leather boots, black jeans, and leather jacket came up to me and very nastily said, ‘What…did you get a college transfusion?’ And then he just turned and started walking away. I remember at first I felt really embarrassed – probably turned an interesting shade of crimson, but then almost immediately I got really angry and yelled after him, ‘I didn’t realize I had to conform to be a nonconformist!’ The freedom I felt after that was incredible. [That] changed everything for me. And that’s what punk now means to me…freedom to be who you are!” Austin shares that sentiment of individuality and self-expression, emphasizing that within that collective unbothered attitude, community is also created. “There was always a fashion element to it, but the real draw to me was the community”, says Austin. “I actually think that has gotten stronger over the years as initially it was very segregated between subgenres like pop punk, crust punk, hardcore, and the mainstreaming that happened in the mid-90’s with Green Day, Offspring and the punk explosion. I always found  an element of punk ethic across many genres beyond ‘Punk’, especially in industrial and metal of that era, but that definitely was not the popular opinion back then, so I guess I was pretty punk. Ha!”

While on its face punk may seem hyper-masculine, make no mistake that women were an integral part of the punk crusade. Though it came at the latter part of the punk movement, the Riot Grrrl subculture and subsequent subgenre was the original battle cry of “girl power” before the Spice Girls kicked it with their platform boots into the global lexicon and covered it in bright pink and glitter. Via Mia Avendano of wav zine, “Riot grrrl ideologies focus on equality for all genders and a fight against gender based violence. Many Riot Grrrl groups were known to host meetings and chapters that aimed to support and uplift women in the punk scene, which still occur today.” Izzypedego of wav zine elaborates further: “Bikini Kill and Bratmobile were two of the big driving forces in the Riot Grrrl movement in the early ‘90s. They recognized that if you wanted something to come to fruition in a punk scene, your best bet was to communicate it through music. At their shows, performers often called for ‘all girls to the front,’ to encourage participation of women in the crowds at punk shows, where they were often harassed or overlooked.” Some of my favorite vitriolic lyrics of the riot grrrl era come from Bratmobile’s “Do You Like Me Like That”, wherein Allison Wolfe sings, “The only thing you know is your rich boy world/You’re talking politics on your pedestal/And you half-baked idea of ‘what it means to be a girl’/But you can’t feel how we suffer or we bleed/You can’t give us what we want, much less what we need.” Simply put, men ain’t shit. Austin is even helping to rear the next generation of riot grrrls, bringing his 8 year old daughter to shows like The Interrupters & Frank Turner. Needless to say, she’s got the coolest dad. Michele uses her punk roots to give back and do good, having been a long-time member of an organization called Girls Rock & Girls Rule, founded by her friend Gail Silverman. “The mission of GRGR was to get girls and women inspired to learn how to play instruments and get out and play some music”, said Michele. “We played so many shows, organized and went on two tours, with local female rockers on each bill in addition to our 4 bands. It was full female empowerment! We raised money for Willie Mae Rock Camp, Habitat for Humanity Women Build, and VOW which deals with domestic abuse.”

Growing up in an innately capitalist, misogynist and classist society, it may be hard to forge your own path. Conformity is easy – you follow the White Rabbit down the hole and let the Red Queen tell you what to do, lest your head get cut off, right? Wrong. If punk has taught us anything, it is to challenge authority, stand up for what you believe in, demand change, create waves, and make friends and enemies along the way. In the end, the Mad Hatters might be the sanest of them all. From my first brush with rebellion 20 years ago to present-day with 7 piercings (and 2 tattoos) total, I’ve obviously grown a lot, doing things my way, even when told I shouldn’t or couldn’t. Enjoy the accompanying playlist, in which I created a fun little rollercoaster through the evolution of punk rock. I’ll leave you with Austin’s resonant message from years of embodying the punk lifestyle: “Find your path, find your community, support them, support the marginalized and fight alongside them, be an ally, listen and learn to form new ideas and continue to grow. Sounds like hippy stuff, right, but nah, it’s punk as F@&%.” – NV

Nicole is Sr. Manager, New Release Content at Warner Music Group. She lives in Jersey City, NJ and loves Oreos, puppies, and the smell of laundry.

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