By Mimi Thi Nguyen and Golnar Nikpour
Punk, the music, has been shredding stereos and rejecting authority for close to half a century. Or a bit more or a bit less, depending upon who you are, what scene you were a part of and how many beats-per-minute you prefer to thrash to. Punk has been a fashion statement; a driver of violence and rebellion; a cause for peace; a shot across the bow of the music industry; a shot in the arm of the music industry; a cultural nexus; and a well of nostalgia. Punk has been around so long that it has become an anti-establishment institution.
In terms of the historiography noted in the discussion here, punk is a moving target. But it has always acted in opposition to what can just as opaquely be referred to as the “status quo”. That aspect is what Punk, the chapbook, seeks to explore.
Punk, the chapbook, is set up as a dialogue between two academics who also have legitimate street punk cred: Mimi Thi Nguyen, a zine publisher and Associate Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies and Asian American Studies; and Golnar Nikpour a former coordinator for venerable punk publication Maximumrockandroll, now PhD candidate. But this isn’t a recounting of such and such’s endless touring in a beat up, frosty panel van, or how many times this or that filthy basement venue was busted by the cops. There isn’t gratuitous name-dropping, other than bands (Los Crudos, the Ama-Dots, Third World Chaos) that were never part of any standard Punk Rock canon. What it offers is a lively exchange of ideas on what made/makes Punk punk. As Nikpour says, “When we talk about punk, we are really talking about many thousands of punk scenes, bands, zines and individuals”. As such, Punk also presents an in-depth look at the values of rebellion itself.
Of course, the discussants occasionally mix it up in a denser mosh of academic jargon. At one point, Nguyen, discussing formal punk cultural studies undertaken by other authors and academics, refers to “the incorporation and management of my ‘difference’ into an increasingly institutionalized archive…This is a all-too-familiar telling that describes feminism, or race theory, for instance, as a necessary intervention in a time of crisis, but also as a temporary intervention that thereafter restores the integrity of a movement, or maybe an institution (like the state), and returns us to a continuous history.” Those are some weighty concepts that will roll right over the head of your average Cro-Mags fan like the Doc Martins of an errant crowd surfer.
But, overall, this is not a dry, journal-bound treatise that reduces the passion and raw energy of punk to heuristic milkbones. Rather, it is an informed conversation as vital as much of the music itself. Let’s call it a punk Socratic dialogue on the virtues of dissent captured in do-it-yourself hand-bound chapbook form, almost like an interview transcript cut-and-pasted into the xeroxed pages of a zine (though much more artisanally produced in this case) where two participants exchange ideas on politics, class, economics, and culture at the meeting point of music.
Some appendix-worthy jargon aside, Nguyen and Nikpour are no droning lecturers or politically correct apparatchiks. Their dialogue is spiced and edged with the humour and bite that often characterizes the best of the music. They certainly maintain their outsider status by satirizing aspects of the academic convention to which they belong. For instance, at one point, Nikpour observes that:
“In many examples from even the earliest wave of punk studies, the author presents himself – and it is almost exclusively men who have written these books – as a scene insider through embellished anecdotes of his teen exploits and an author photo of himself in the pit. Like, hey look, I was there!! And I got sweaty! Now give me a book deal and/or tenure track job!”
As a moving target, punk certainly adheres to one of its earliest and consistent principles: Be Yourself. The movement has always had its uniforms, such as mohicans and DK shirts, but such is one costume among many, and these have always been subject to change, modification and revisitation. Punk music has always demonstrated the ability to explore new realms of fast, furious songwriting, even if there will always be some band copping the riff of “Clash City Rockers”. Punk, the chapbook, is also successful at ensuring that cultural multifacets are explored – punk has provided a creative outlet for socialists, feminists, anarchists, grassroots capitalists, along with a few unfortunate darker elements.
Punk, the music, as many associated song lyrics go, is not dead yet. It may be an institution itself, but still one that constantly questions and reinvents itself, while also inspiring passion, ideals and action, and maybe still in some corners, a little bit of creative chaos. Punk, the chapbook, gives intellectuals, music-lovers and curious readers-by a window into why.
Jump in the pit (or just study the action) here.