I spent my spring break reflecting on how I ended up with the aesthetic tastes upon which I plan to base my prospective career as a writer. I know, pretentious, right? This was partially due to the fact that I was unhealthily obsessing over Wavves and FIDLAR after seeing them play in San Francisco. But the main reason was that one of my childhood best friends, Jennifer, died last week. She was charming, free-spirited and what my mom called an “old soul.” What I remember most about her was that she laid the foundation for my music taste and had a peculiar view about the authenticity of listening to punk.
In short, her view was that you have to be a member of the punk subculture in order to properly appreciate the music. Even though she was a huge influence on me, I’ve outgrown her guidelines. There exist nonpunk appreciators of punk who, in theory, could enjoy Backstreet Boys and still have as much of a right to injure themselves in a mosh pit.
Jennifer was a punk rocker all the way back in sixth grade. Her wardrobe included black Dickies and green Converse. She ripped her band shirts and stuck safety pins in them. She had a Sid Vicious poster hanging above her bed. She seemed more worldly than me, so I wanted to be just like her. But according to her, my initial foray into rock’n’roll made me a “poseur.” I’ll admit that in 2002, I thought Avril Lavigne was the height of subversive culture. But in my defense, the transition of appreciation for the Backstreet Boys to the Misfits is kind of a big leap.
We eventually parted ways when we attended different middle schools, and I ended up framing my identity outside of the punk subculture’s aesthetic into a low-maintenance wardrobe of jeans and T-shirts. (Ain’t nobody got time to tie 20 shoelaces on his or her Doc Martens on a daily basis.) But I never stopped listening to punk music.
The music and the subculture seemed inextricably intertwined. But I soon discovered that’s false. Guidelines that identify authentic punks are ridiculous because the genre of music and accompanying subculture have gone through many transmutations. Seriously, Wikipedia notes 27 different subgenres of punk, including psychobilly, riot grrrl and whatever cowpunk is. Multiple subcultures have separated from anti-establishment politics to horror themes to fratty debauchery.
Ultimately, the number of strategically-placed safety pins in your shirt won’t define what it means to be punk. It’s only natural for the genre to branch out, as do all genres. New music is created by mixing already-established sounds. Even the original punk scene was contrived — people didn’t just magically grow mohawks. That scene deconstructed previous ideas of what music was. And when punk itself became a “previous idea,” it branched out.
But it’s understandable where the attitude of exclusivity comes from. The one connecting thread between all of the variation of the punk genre is the attitude of challenging authority. And by challenging hierarchical social constructs, punks would naturally want to protect their music from falling into the wrong hands of, say, bros. But the truth is that all kinds of people — even bros — like at least some aspects of the wide range of punk music, making an exclusive sense of ownership over an entire genre impossible.
And if it’s so punk to challenge authority, isn’t it punk to reject the rules of punk? I think so.
Jennifer might not have been right about the restrictions regarding authenticity in the punk scene, but she did introduce me to music that has shaped the person I’ve become, and I’m forever grateful to her for that.