Punk, Politics, and the Production of Illegibility

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by Ben Parker

I would like most of all to ask a question about political aesthetics, and more specifically, about the politics and aesthetics of punk rock. At no point in this discussion will it be possible to digress into the interesting sociological aspects of punk, nor will there be space for the enjoyable diversion of conjecturing about what actual persons think. That is to say, this is neither an anthropology nor a statistical survey. It is, as I said, a question, posed here to a cultural product, in the manner of a critique (an exploration of its possibility).

The question is as follows: is punk “innately political?” By this, I mean anything but, what would be the particular issues for which a political party representing punks would advocate? No—nor do I mean, do punk lyrics and the banter at punk shows have some explicit political content we can tease out and explicate? Anyone who has ever been in love can, I am sure, remark upon the wide gap between explicit statements and the divergent interests or complicated bases they attempt to render opaque.

And, so, rhetorically, I have come to the point I wish to analyze (preliminarily): the thematic of the obscure, or the opaque. This might go in one of two directions: that of the fetishization of the obscure or hard-to-find punk record, on one hand, which I shall have to leave for another time, and on the other hand, the thematic binary between transparency and opacity between which punk is always caught politically.

My method of approaching cultural phenomena is guided to a great degree by that advanced in Roland Barthes’ Mythologies, which, however, somewhat naively expresses the viewpoint that there are not “left mythologies”—the possibility of which would also be another way of phrasing my question. In any case, reading Roland Barthes’ Mythologies, one learns a great deal about the unarticulated, subtle, pervasive, and inscrutable judgments of capitalist society—judgments derived from (but inexplicit in) the prevailing bourgeois consciousness. The real, economic basis of our present society (the conditions and means of production) is obscured by “ideology” (in the Marxist sense of the word). The economic reality thus takes on the appearance of being natural or inevitable, as do these derivative mythological value judgments.

What I draw from Barthes for use in the following discussion are the following principles:

  • Cultural phenomena are to be analyzed according to their “function” in a cultural field, rather than the “aesthetic individuality” they purportedly instantiate. The corollary here is that phenomena actually do have such a function.

  • That is, nothing cultural is random. The cultural needs to be thought in terms of a historical development, as well as in terms of its relation to other cultural objects.

  • Also attached to the concept of “function” is the removal of intention. The contingent biographical or circumstantial details of artistic production, in this analysis, are not taken into account.


The importance of what a mythology signifies can usually be related to a particular of the bourgeois self-conception—that is, our stock set of hackneyed cultural “values”— and/or the obscuring of the circumstances of capitalist production.

As I said, rather than posing the question to punk in terms of its explicit content, I would rather interrogate it obliquely. Taking “obscurity” as the thematic, let me tackle, oh…I don’t know, as seemingly tangential a facet of punk as the aesthetics of the recording process. Let’s imagine, naively, that the Marxist implications of the term “production” are irrelevant. (I think I will be able to bring them in again by the back door.) Following the conclusions drawn from Barthes above, what can be said about punk recordings that “sound bad”? We must say that the existence of a quality to the production of a certain genre is not random but rather can be analyzed; moreover, this quality cannot be explained away on contingent bases. For instance, many believe that the aesthetic of punk production can be explained based on small recording budgets. However, within the larger cultural field, this cannot at all be seen as meaningless: we must rather ask why small recording budgets or self-production obtains as an aesthetic in the first place, and not explain a cultural result as its own cause.

Further, I think we cannot allow the following predictable answers: 1) punk needs to be recorded a certain way, or else it will sound “too clean” and somehow un-punk; nor 2) in the history of punk music, things have always sounded this way, and so the production is “referencing” (to some advantage) the sound of classic records that have a “dirty” production.

What is wrong with these arguments? In defiance of all style or suspense, let me give everything away first, and then be more satisfyingly analytic. I concede that the words “clean” and “dirty” are my ventriloquisms, and I would withdraw them instantly if I thought they were not the universal (ie, omnipresent in usage) descriptors of un-punk and punk production. But by drawing these (sonically descriptive) boundaries on lines of cleanliness, the metaphors have already relocated the argument, from the merely descriptive to the loaded and political. What we learn from George Orwell in his The Road to Wigan Pier is the irreducible marker of class in British society: “The lower classes smell.” I don’t want to lean heavily on punk’s several British origins here; suffice it that “clean” and “dirty” production say far too much about class where they might have been supposed to be neutral and even clichéd.

Having run ahead to what is implied by the terminology that the debate was framed within, now let’s quickly return to and rebut the earlier (numbered) arguments. Does punk need to be recorded a certain way? I, for one, don’t see why. The production spectrum of classic punk records is extreme. (Even sometimes within the same catalog, eg, the Buzzcocks, and even hardcore bands like Tragedy and the Bad Brains have expensive, “name” production.) Also easily rebutted is the “reference” argument: the most dedicated “clone” band of all time, Disclose, do not even attempt to mimic the guitar sound of Discharge—surely one of their more salient characteristics. Indeed, this is the point at which they most differ from their predecessors, as the Disclose guitar noise is much more extreme than, say, that of Anti-Cimex.

One is also tempted to explain bad-sounding punk records by the motive of concealment. Certainly one’s parents would guess that untalented bands would like to mask their ineptitude by mixing everything into a homogenous roar. But probably the only explanation lies in an aesthetic realm outside the actual sound, because we have seen the concrete sonic reality of punk recordings to be so variable as to fail to explain much.

Here I will admit a slight contortion in my argument. If punk does not, as I maintain, always sound a certain way, how can I use that to dismiss an answer to a question asking why it does sound a certain way? How can I use the Vibrators’ production to rebut a straw-man answer to a question that it itself invalidates? Well, I don’t think the variety of actual sounds invalidates the logic (or trope) under discussion. In the contemporary moment, production that is audible qua production is always “bad” production, within the terms of a successful modern punk record. Thus, Tragedy’s “good” production is just “necessary to render the complexities of their sound,” whereas a record with noticeably poor production (say, Lebenden Toten) is intentional. Expensive, clear, technically satisfying production is transparent (please forgive the synesthesia here), but production that draws attention to itself is meant (by whatever actual expense and effort) to sound off-the-cuff, “raw,” etc. Needless to say, the “successful modern punk record” itself is something of an anomaly, and this argument cannot be extended here to encompass or explain the numerous pitfalls offered as enhancements by modern technology. Interested readers should seek out the documentary film Some Kind of Monster, which tracks the recording of the most recent Metallica album.

To jump ahead to what will be my answer: yes, punk music is the politicization of the aesthetic, but ultimately it is an incoherent politics, expressed in this case by an incoherent aesthetics. Central to punk’s ideology is the belief that the problems of society can be rendered transparent by a marginalized lifestyle group’s cultural expressions. What punk rarely, rarely if ever, reflects upon is this dependence upon conceiving of politics as a question of transparency. Thus, punk squabbles tend to be about identity positions, the “scene” itself, and a self-reflection that is thought to be productive. These discussions founder upon an ever-renewed effort to incorporate more identity positions: women, persons of color, other sexual orientations, etc. Why? Because they take for granted the importance of the issue at question: the composition and goings-on of the punk scene. I am not suggesting—repeat, I am not suggesting—that one should look “at the bigger picture.” What must be done away with is the trope of transparency in politically expressive aesthetics.

Let me describe this task in musical terms. Punk music can be most accurately differentiated from other music in its straight-forward enunciations of political or social viewpoints lyrically, and its obscurantism musically. That is, the message of punk is transparent, and the medium is so loud and fast as to render it inaudible. I would go so far as to offer this as a definition of punk. What, then, of production? It is apparent that the contradiction stated above is aestheticized on more levels than one. One would be the extreme elaboration of punk “looks,” paired with their irrelevance and collapsibility-into-one in the eyes of the public. (Whether this has some other value I cannot address here). Another would be the hidden ideology of punk production (violated betimes, yes) that above all things the guitar riff be audible. This also is a fascinating preoccupation that cannot be approached just yet.

To reiterate: what must be done away with is the trope of transparency in politically expressive aesthetics. From here one might argue in several directions: one might psychoanalyze the desire to have one’s message be (literally) “inaudible,” and reconstruct from here punk’s insistence on small pressing quantities as itself a virtue; one might see in punk’s subject matter (punk or “subversive” lifestyles, and adolescent difficulties, and the larger, world-political scale, but nothing in between) a recapitulation of Socialist Realism’s drab solipsism; one might discuss “production” itself as, in the field of labor, that which is precisely not transparent (the commodity fetish).

What I propose to explore, however, and however briefly, is whether the concept of DIY has any bearing on the question of aesthetico-political coherency in punk. My answer must be, in short, no. Doubtless DIY is the most important and best quality of the punk “scene”—a simple and noble ethos that has every desired effect, but one. DIY succeeds in giving music self-determination. That this has any implication outside of the creation and distribution of rock music, I deny. There can be no “alternative economy” on a large or meaningful scale unless (as is the case here) largely subsidized by volunteer labor, the income from day jobs, and a kind of spontaneous enthusiasm for putting unpaid work (or paying much more) for a “good cause.” History has shown (the excellence and variety of punk music being proof) that this is the ideal way to create rock music. However, as no rational political implication can be drawn from this ideal, DIY cannot be said to have a coherent political application—unless there is a very backward one I am not imagining.

What ought a political aesthetics accomplish? In other words, what is the challenge I am offering to punk here, starting from my initial analysis? 1) It cannot be stressed enough the degree to which these “badly recorded” records come from the world’s most developed countries, and proceed, like gentrification, everywhere hand-in-hand with capitalist development and globalization, in their dissemination. 2) Rather than espousing the self-evidence of its goals, a political aesthetics must patiently grapple with the certain reification and impenetrability of all “false consciousness.” Less condescension, and more willingness to explicate again and again. 3) In this previous point will be seen the source of much of punk’s political anger, its sense of “screaming at a wall.” 4) Political aesthetics should proceed not by the stubbornness of didacticism or postmodern irony but by reflecting on its own coherence in form and message (judged pragmatically), and 5) by raising the kinds of incompatibilities I have been discussing here to the level of expression (for instance, in the songs of The Sex Pistols, the degree to which the famed distastefulness of early punk is how ugly their desires are versus how ugly the form of expression—in utter contrast to the PC and “friendly” message lying behind the much-scarier noise of today’s bands.) The last thing that punk ought to do is “reach out” to other communities, other forms of dissidence or counter-culture. 6) That is, punk should stick to what it is good at, which is anything but the understanding of others. As the formative moment of many a punk is outrageous nonconformity, it is no wonder that some punks want to legislate the aesthetics of, for instance, “offensive” and “degrading” rap music, ie, to aggressively transport incompatible concepts into a community with a completely discrete problematic. And, above all, 7) it is crucial that all aesthetics constantly be in dialogue with its historical origins, as this is the point where development and coherence fold in upon one another. Thus, much of this article might be seen as a call for the reappraisal of the works of The Velvet Underground, The Stooges, The Sex Pistols, and The Ramones, over and against the later forms that dissolved and misinterpreted the coherence of these bands. Thus, rather than the incompatible apologetics that asserts both that punk is “innately” (ahistorically) political and that it acquired politics at a certain point (this point also is not subject to historicism or to the ebb and flow of punk’s aesthetic), I would simply put forward the evidence of the reality of punk’s first appearances. One could even say that the history of punk in America since the mid-1980s has been the Borges-like conquest of all of America by the standards of a publication from the liberal-bohemian-hippy enclave of San Francisco, Maximum Rocknroll. To say that MRR’s “version” of punk and punk history was mistaken and itself revisionist is not to condemn it—like all viable cultural explanation, its arising at all must be taken account of, dialectically. And after all, none of us can jump over our own shadow. Still, there remains to be written the history of this revisionism, by which The Ramones, Black Flag, The Misfits, Germs, Bad Brains, etc., all get written into the prehistory of (let’s face it) Crucifix (the political, “canonical” Crucifix)—a contradictory and unhistorical version that nonetheless has come down to us, uncritically (I would say “transparently”), as inevitable and desirable.