A Paradoxical Relationship: Punk Rock and the Media

A Paradoxical Relationship:

Punk Rock and the Media

By: Daniel Anton

tomandtravis

“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.

iggypop

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”).

nakedblink

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.

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18 thoughts on “A Paradoxical Relationship: Punk Rock and the Media

  1. I always hear groans when I mention Green Day in a music conversation. I never really considered them sellouts. I think that a lot of people forget that American Idiot was such an important album for its time. It was a pretty intense rock opera full of social commentary, especially criticizing the media and the older generations and their lack of understanding for the problems that the younger generations are plagued with. The making of the musical was, to me, a way to get their message out to another social class and age bracket. More and more people listened to what they had to say regarding the media and the people that were a part of the new generation. It just so happened that money was involved. Billie Joe Armstrong needs to pay his bills. Great project, by the way!

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    1. Yeah I wouldn’t consider them sell outs either. I’m a huge fan of Green Day \m/
      I think they simply became successful and other people got jealous so they labeled them “sell outs.”

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  2. Daniel, this was a really interesting project to read. I occasionally listen to punk rock and didn’t even realize that some of the songs I had played on RockBand or on Guitar Hero were considered punk rock. Wouldn’t that make them just as much as a sellout as Billie Joe Armstrong, who allowed a musical to be created about Green Day? I have seen multiple songs by Iggy Pop, blink-182, and The Sex Pistols on these games. I am a big fan of The Sex Pistols and I found an article stating that they had made such an impact after only really releasing one album and four singles. Here is the link:
    http://www.sexpistolsofficial.com/bio/

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    1. Thanks Drew!
      And The Sex Pistols (mostly Sid Vicious) would probably be turning over in their graves over the fact that their music is so highly commercialized in thing like Guitar Hero. It’s funny though cause exposure like that helps gain new fans and helps the genre grow.

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  3. You make an interesting point, that Punk Rock has not simply dissolved due to media’s over involvement. I agree with you. Punk Rock, in itself, is simply a genre. The fact that it is not as DIY as it was in its roots does not mean that it is no longer Punk Rock, or that all Punk Rock is made up of sell-outs.

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  4. Although I don’t know how long the careers of The Ramones, The Clash, and The Sex Pistols, it seems to me, as a big fan of the termed ‘pop-punk’ genre, the current punk artists seem to either mature or sell out the further their careers advance and perhaps seem to sell out because they are aging. A few examples I know personally are as you mentioned Green Day’s Dookie compared to their more recent Uno, Dos, Tre trilogy, Fall Out Boy’s Take This to Your Grave compared to their recent Save Rock and Roll, and My Chemical Romance’s Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge versus Danger Days. Not only are the most recent albums more commercialized, but they also have an incredibly different sound compared to the punk sound of their older albums. Whether these are bands selling out or maturing is unknown to me, so I was wondering how long the careers of the classic punk bands lasted?

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    1. Classic punk bands usually fizzled out pretty fast actually. In fact, the Sex Pistols only produced one album. More often than not, drugs or alcohol tear apart punk bands. But that’s the spirit of rock and roll.

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    1. Well Ariston, you could make the argument they were proto-punk. They certainly had punk influences, but yeah you could also say they were not punk. It gets really tricky to put music into set genres though. Punk is more a mindset than anything. If the Talking Heads want to call themselves punk, they are then.

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  5. Daniel, great project! Though punk purists complain that modern punk bands are sellouts, the proliferation of the media today leaves little room for underground movements. In your opinion, do you think it is possible for bands to operate under the media’s radar (including both mass and personal media)? Personally, I think that media is so pervasive today that punk bands have no choice but to embrace media exposure in order to control the message that is being shared.

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    1. Thanks Katie ❤ You're making me blush :)))))))
      In today's world, I'd say 98% of punk bands use some sort of social media. A band would have to be full of stupidheads to not take advantage of mass and social media in today's world (even punk bands).

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  6. This was so interesting to read! I think there’s a big catch-22 with media and punk rock. Like you mentioned, when a punk rock band branches out and capitalizes on their success, it is often followed by people claiming that they’re sellouts or not true punk artists. So I pose the question- what makes a punk rock band punk rock? If punk is about separating from the norm, how can it survive without becoming part of the thing it is so desperately trying to avoid?

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    1. Thanks Amanda! XOXO
      It is definitely a catch-22, and truthfully it is so hard to define what punk rock really is. Billie Joe Armstrong has a funny but true quote about it. He says, “A guy walks up to me and asks ‘What’s Punk?’ So I kick over a garbage can and say ‘That’s punk!’ So he kicks over a garbage can and says ‘That’s punk?’ and I say ‘No, that’s trendy!’”
      So as you can see there is no real definition of what makes something punk. In my humble opinion, punk just means you do whatever you want to do, and you don’t listen to critics or care what they have to say. Punk musically has certain characteristics, but really it’s more a way of life and thinking and self-confidence above anything else.

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  7. This was very interesting to read in that I have little to no experience with punk rock. Of course, I have heard of the bands/artists that you mentioned, but I do not listen to their music on a regular basis. Before reading this, I was under the impression that punk rock has simply retreated into sort of an underground genre. I now see that it has merely transformed. My only question is this: Media exposure is obviously essential for entertainment careers. If some bands were considered “sell-outs” because of their media use, then what was the true purpose of punk rock? In other words, can you explain how was the genre expected to carry a message without exposure? I apologize if my question seems confusing! I can clarify if needed. I did enjoy reading this project. Very informative!

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    1. Thanks Terr-Bear!
      I understand your question and my answer would be that punk was never really supposed to “carry a message.” In it’s essence, it was just people who were either oppressed, tired, angst-y, or generally upset and wanted to express their emotions. It’s a form of expression like any art form, but it differed in the fact that it was never intended to actually hit the mainstream. Bands were venting their frustration over problems they saw in the world, and, as it turned out, the masses could relate. It was always intended to be a form of commiseration and when it caught on above the underground, it was unexpected. People didn’t start a punk band with the intention of getting rich and famous. They started it because they wanted to right some of the wrongs they saw in the world.

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  8. Hey Daniel! I was excited to see your post, I prefer punk rock music to almost any other genre. Additionally, I greatly respect the approach you took at analyzing how the media’s exposure of punk rock related to the so called evolution of the genre. I just have a few questions about your observations of how the genre is accepted today.

    You had stated that you absolutely don’t think the genre is dead and I couldn’t agree more with you. However it does appear that it is more of an acquired taste of music for the general population and only certain groups of people are readily exposed to it. Besides on possibly Pandora or Spotify, Punk Rock is never going to be the first genre of music for a radio station to play and I think a lot of people seemed to have forgotten that there are artists that exist who continue to create this type of music. I went to an All Time Low concert with a few friends last year (granted they are a softer version of the genre) and I had never heard of them before our trip. I started to do research into their music and discovered a lot more bands I had never heard of who I really liked. It surprised me that the genre, which is very successful, was so unpopular with the local radio stations and hard to “randomly stumble upon.”

    In your opinion, why do you think that may be? It makes me start to wonder if the music industry is just so heavily dominated by Pop or country or “name brand” artists that it stifles other genres.

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  9. Thank you for the kind words!
    I am also a fan of All Time Low, and I think a lot of people discovered punk rock and were turned on to the genre in ways similar to you.
    The reason I’d say behind the fact that popular music is not punk is largely due to the attitude of not caring what others think. This usually leads to more inappropriate and profane music than the radio is comfortable with. But I mean really the music industry is in shambles and the stuff they churn out today is just flat out horrible. I think that’s because our society is getting dumber and dumber and any type of music that isn’t a simple pop song is just too much to handle.

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