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Fashion rocks

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Monday, Jul 3, 2006

Everytime I see punk celebrated somewhere I think about what a misleading cliche it is. Punk ended rock. I guess that’s self-evident, considering that was its goal: no Elvis, Beatles or the Rolling Stones. And though it is championed as liberating pop from the dinosaurs and encouraging more people to get involved and make their own culture, it is actually pretty lame, the sad result of music becoming entirely subsidiary to the image a band presents. The music was purposely crude so that the fashion could stand out more starkly. When I think of the Sex Pistols getting their start in a fashion shop and how dogmatic punk scenes could be, and how much revolved around what hair cut you came up with and how many people you intentionally offended, it seems to me that punk was on the whole a pretty bad idea. (Lydon seemed to realize this and made three profoundly unfashionable records meant to alieneate and exclude everyone as a kind of atonement.) We tend to celebrate punk now because some musicians transcended its framework, not because the framework itself was worthwhile. Everything that was good about punk rock was already epitomized by garage rock—the relentless intensity, the DIY amateurism, the countercultural commitment to politicize teenage angst. Subtract garage from punk and you’re left with a pseudo-subversive fashion show and empty, always-already-coopted gestures against the mainstream. Far from fighting punk, the mainstream immediately embraced it, reporting on it eagerly at first and eventually making it the template for shallow, merchandise-centric youth culture—it nicely channels teenage anger at the system into the system’s very support mechanism—the concern for image and identity, and how to express it through products. Greil Marcus, in Lipstick Traces seems to argue that punk was a explosion of subversive, situationist-style anarchy that disrupted the culture of spectacle; but that may be the same as saying that punk made pop a permanent spectacle and ended its usefulness as a popular art form, as a bridge to the kind of contemplation culture ideally inspires. Now, viewed from a distance, rock music is another arm of the fashion industry, mechanically revolving through styles in accordance to the collective efforts of culture workers with no aim other than making something different happen each season and having the bragging rights of being the one whose “innovation” has been adopted. Manufactured controversies abound.

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