Lessons I Learned From Punk Rock
Punk rock first dug its talons into my brain during my days as a suburban high school sophomore, as I allowed bands like the Ramones and the Clash to destroy my eardrums one song at a time. I was a fan of the genre for years before I witnessed a legitimate punk show last summer, when I saw the California-based band Plague Vendor on a hot day in Minneapolis. It’s hard to match the sheer enthusiasm of a wiry front man springing around stage, howling lyrics at bone-shattering volume and hurling spent bottles at the audience. Underneath its savage and unruly exterior, however, there’s something genuinely inspirational about punk.
From its origins in the mid-1970s, punk rock set itself apart from mainstream rock by aiming for simpler musical compositions. The idea was to trim the fat that had accumulated on rock and roll over the years, ditching the long guitar and drum solos in favor of a harsh, stripped-down sound. Lyrics are often shouted rather than sung, with little concern for comprehensibility. It’s fitting that Iggy and Stooges’ Raw Power is one of the genre’s foundational albums, because listening to punk rock is supposed to feel like having a live wire jabbed into your gut. Simply put, it’s something of an acquired taste.
That’s what punk sounds like, but that’s not what it’s about. Punk cribbed much of its style and attitude from garage rock, a chaotic 1960s genre known for screechy, heavily distorted music and cheap recording techniques. As the name implies, the genre was developed by inexperienced rockers jamming out in garages. Even as it grew into its own beast, punk retained garage rock’s celebration of the amateur. Rather than pretending they had everything figured out, punk rockers embraced their lack of experience and sophistication as a badge of pride. Whether you love punk or despise it, these rock innovators offer a valuable lesson anyone could stand to learn.
Perfectionism, rather than a lack of resources or skill, is the greatest enemy of a creative person. Punk wouldn’t exist if its originators were hung up on their weaknesses. They didn’t surmount the obstacles they faced so much as they ignored them entirely. However, many creatives never accomplish much out of fear that they do not have the skills to realize what they envision. That’s a shame, because amateurs can have a rough-around-the-edges authenticity that more accomplished creatives lack.
DIY ethic is the central idea that has sustained the genre all these years. Boiled down to its essence, DIY ethic is the idea that if you want something done, you should learn to do it yourself. Obviously, this idea has its limits. If you need medical attention, for instance, you probably shouldn’t browse WebMD and test your skills with a scalpel. However, DIY ethic gave punk pioneers the drive to create and innovate even if they had no idea what they were doing. It was this spirit, more than any sense of fashion or musical taste, that provided the foundation for punk rock.
First wave punk rockers learned on the job, developing a style that played to their strengths and perhaps masked their technical weaknesses. They may not have set new standards for complex musical compositions, but they could play faster and louder than anyone else. Since the early days, punk has left its mark through sheer attitude and passion. The result was something refreshing, a new genre that captured the original essence of rock and roll. The early punks were short on money and experience, but they didn’t allow the obstacles in their path to dissuade them. The Sex Pistols, for instance, recorded with equipment pilfered from other rockstars by their guitarist/resident kleptomaniac Steve Jones. Other bands may have stayed within legal means, but were no less determined. They were going to make music by any means necessary, regardless of how crude or untrained it might seem. What started out as an underground music scene in a few cities grew into a subculture and a worldwide force to be reckoned with. None of this would have been possible if punk rockers insisted on perfection from the start.
Perfectionism can become more a matter of insecurity than quality control. Leonardo da Vinci is frequently cited as saying “Art is never finished, only abandoned.” He never really said that (the quote is actually a paraphrase of a paraphrase of a French poet), but that doesn’t make it any less valid. Have you ever written a paper and hovered your finger over the submit button, only to chicken out and give it yet another read-through? Sometimes, we have to accept that nothing we do will ever be perfect, no matter how many adjustments we make. All we can do is hit the button and hope for the best. Even the most accomplished people are bound to wonder how they could’ve done things better. When doubt and uncertainty precede accomplishment, however, they can be creatively crippling.
It’s great that we celebrate the creatives of the past. However, sometimes we mythologize them until they become an unachievable standard. We have this idea that artists somehow burst out of obscurity fully formed, when in reality nearly every creative success is preceded by countless disappointments. Toward the end of his life, Michelangelo had most of his preparatory drawings burned in order to preserve the mystique of his art. He wanted to thwart potential copycats, and present his art as the result of spontaneous brilliance rather than hard work.
Michelangelo may have been a genius, but he was more than a bit pretentious. Rather than clinging to the romantic myth of the artist, it’s better to accept the unvarnished truth of punk rock. This may very well be the only way in which someone like Sid Vicious is a better role model than a Renaissance master. In order to get good at anything, you can’t be too afraid of being bad at it. If you want to be a poet, you’ll have to write a lot of terrible poetry to get there. Wanna try painting? Get ready to suck at painting until one day, you don’t suck as much. Or, you might be like Thomas Kinkade and become fabulously wealthy even if you never stop sucking.
Punk may be known for rebelling against society, but there’s also an important element of rebelling against the part of your brain that tells you to give up. With its harsh lyrics and abrasive sound, it may not be a genre for everyone. However, anyone can benefit from the attitude that inspired a motley crew of rebels, brats, and anarchists to change music forever. If you do find inspiration in listening to punk rock, that’s all the better.