A Paradoxical Relationship:
Punk Rock and the Media
By: Daniel Anton
“I don’t give a damn ‘bout my bad reputation.” This was the chorus screamed by Joan Jett in 1980 while her band, The Blackhearts, backed her mezzo-soprano voice. In one line, Jett summed up just about everything punk rock stands for and its disregard for positive publicity. However, even though punk rock preaches rejection of the media, it has needed that very same media to survive and flourish as a musical genre.
(Many punk rock acts will be mentioned in this essay, and a very useful interactive punk rock timeline appears here).
The 1960s are not often thought of musically as the breeding ground of punk rock music, but that is exactly what it was. While bands like the Beatles and The Rolling Stones were thriving on media exposure and using it to their full advantage, punks rejected this commercialized notion and bands sprang up accordingly. The first of these bands was The Sonics, which formed in 1960 and though a far cry from modern punk, paved the way with their simple chord progressions and loud, fast playing style. Many musicians today, like Jack White, do not believe The Sonics get the proper recognition they deserve. This lack of recognition can be attributed to the lack of media exposure; the same media entertainers essentially need to continue their careers. Ironically though, on The Sonics’ website, there is an entire section titled “Media,” which displays the band’s twitter, YouTube videos, and various other announcements and links. Has anyone ever really heard of The Sonics though? Probably not unless you happen to be very knowledgeable in the roots of punk.
Ultimately, it can be argued that the relative anonymity of punk rock’s founding father was due to the choice of The Sonics themselves to take on a largely DIY (do it yourself) work ethic. This is a common, recurring theme in punk rock music. It is the interesting paradox that surrounds the genre: how can an entire genre be built on rejecting the media but then need the media for exposure to make a living?
This tricky question was more fully answered with the formation of The Velvet Underground four years later in 1964. The Velvet Underground is a more widely known name largely due to the fact that they were the first punk band to be featured in Rolling Stone Magazine. In this 1970 article, the magazine reviews the band’s fourth album, Loaded. Rolling Stone did not bother to review the band’s first three albums, as they were not yet large enough to be noticed by a big-time publication. The method the Velvet Underground used to garner the attention for their first three albums set the precedent for punk rock bands to follow. This method was a true DIY ethic rooted in underground (no pun intended) success and genuine care for fans. The band experienced little commercial success while active—aside from brief moments in the spotlight like the Rolling Stone review—but it had a profound effect on not just punk but all music to come. English composer Brian Eno put it best when he said, “everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band,” in reference to the fact that the first Velvet Underground album, The Velvet Underground and Nico, sold only 30,000 copies.
The Sonics and The Velvet Underground were considered protopunk bands which means that while their music may not have been too closely related to what we think of as punk today, it contained elements that later punk musicians built off. Both bands were received very quietly by the media and made little splash. The first protopunk band to really attract media attention was The Stooges, also known as Iggy and The Stooges. Fueled by their wild lead singer, Iggy Pop (commonly referred to as the “Godfather of Punk Rock”), The Stooges began to create media buzz. Pop was known for crazy stage antics like cutting his body with glass, smearing peanut butter all over his chest, and diving into the crowd. Rolling Stone Magazine credits Iggy Pop with inventing stage diving and crowd surfing. This iconic image taken at a Cincinnati show in 1970 demonstrates Iggy Pop’s total commitment to showmanship and the media caught on.
By the mid 1970s, punk rock began to become the genre most of us know today. In 1974, the Ramones were formed after being heavily influenced by The Stooges, and the media began to take notice. The band’s iconic logo, which was based on the seal of the President of the United States, became widely distributed through the use of advertisement. The logo was well received and was featured on everything from T-shirts to tattoos. Arturo Vega, who was in charge of marketing for the band, is credited with designing the logo and creating a brand for the Ramones in the media department. The ironic point here is of course the fact that a punk band, which stands for DIY, has a director of marketing. Although many people have labeled the Ramones as sellouts due to the fact that they signed with a major record label and became heavily commercialized, it was a necessary step for the genre of punk to reach the mainstream.
Punk rock in the 1980s rode the wave of success started by 70s bands like The Ramones, The Clash, and The Sex Pistols. It became more and more marketable through the likes of bands like The Talking Heads and The Misfits, but struggled to find the success of the earlier bands. Then in the year 1994, punk rock once again entered the mainstream, and this time it blasted into it with the release of Green Day’s Dookie. Dookie is considered by many to be a punk rock masterpiece. In fact the Miami New Times credits it with “single-handedly bringing punk rock back aboveground.” The album went on to sell over 20 million copies and the media began to embrace punk rock again. The New York Times reviewed the album saying, “Punk turns into pop in fast, funny, catchy, high-powered songs about whining and channel-surfing; apathy has rarely sounded so passionate.” The massive media exposure once again caused many people to claim punk rock sold out and became too commercialized. These criticisms would only continue with an up-and-coming band from San Diego, California known as blink-182 (the band has expressed their dislike for a capital “B”).
The above picture is one of blink-182 who rose to fame and shocked the media with their blatant displays of public nudity, excessive swearing, and sex jokes involving incest. The media generally responded negatively to these antics with Steven Wells of British magazine, NME, telling them to “fuck right off then.” However, as it is often said, there is no such thing as bad publicity, and blink-182 used their shock value to ride all the way to 2005 before breaking up (after selling over 35 million albums and playing in stadiums around the world).
Punk purists today will say the genre is dead, and has been dead since the Sex Pistols. They will say that the music you hear today that is labeled as punk is commercialized, formulaic rubbish. Most punk rockers will denounce Green Day as a has-been band and a giant sellout, especially after the 2010 release of a Broadway musical rendition of their album American Idiot. Successful modern punk bands like Green Day have touched every aspect of media from personal to mass and have used the media to their advantage to further their careers. As much as it wants to refuse this truth, punk rock, just like most things, lives and dies by the media. Punk today is very much not dead, rather it has evolved into a new genre that recognizes the necessity of branding, marketing, and the media to stay relevant in today’s fast-paced world.