Music, etc. by Eric D. Johnson
Awhile back I joined a Facebook group called Punk Rock Dads. The organizers have a website outside of FB too. There’s a lot I like about the group, maybe because I’m invested in both punk rock and being a dad. It can also be supremely irritating because there’s a lot of variance in how different members of the group understand both of those terms. But, its valuable in terms of support and entertainment, and might be the focus of some ethnographic work for me too.
One of the recurring conversations in the group is about gatekeeping, Or maybe more accurately, the specific conversation evolves out of acts of gatekeeping. Usually it starts with a declaration that something definitely isn’t punk. Today it started with the opposite:
“Ok so I normally dont do this but… Your NOT PUNK IF….YOU START A POST TELLING PEOPLE IF THEY ARE NOT PUNK UNLESS THEY MEET YOUR CRITERIA!”
Reading the post and responses, I had the conflicting thoughts that (A) he’s right, and that (B) actually punks tell each other this all the time, so doing so has to be in some way a characteristic of being punk. So I posted a response, and in my ongoing quest to keep Facebook from colonizing all of my writing, I decided to bring it over here.
Short version: If we look at this from a practical point of view, it looks like telling people they aren’t punk is actually a huge part of the genre, simply because we (as a group) do that a lot. Of course, telling people who say that that what they’re saying itself isn’t punk is also a pretty big part of the genre.
Longer version: Genres in general aren’t exactly categories. They’re more like ongoing arguments about what does and doesn’t fit into a given category and why. They’re kind of attempts to create fixed categories through these arguments. Is Van Halen heavy metal, or hard rock? To answer that either way you have to define some characteristics and argue that Van Halen fits those characteristics.With punk it gets a little different, and a little more personal because for a lot of us its a personal identity genre and not just a musical style. In fact, one of the characteristics I think most of us agree on is that it’s a way of being and not just a kind of music we play or listen to. And I think we could get pretty broad agreement that it’s a way of being that involves some kind of commitment, some “realness,” some willingness to push against the currents of the society around us and a conviction that it’s important to do so. But we have a lot less agreement on what that commitment looks like in terms of politics, personal behavior, clothing, lifestyles, musical subgenres, etc.
So, more so than a lot of groups organized around a genre, we spend a lot of time arguing that X or Y isn’t punk, and then arguing about whether it’s punk to tell someone that X or Y isn’t punk. I think we do this because we’re invested in being punk (and not just listening to punk music) and we’re invested in the idea of defining ourselves through opposition.
Which is all a longwinded way to say that these posts aren’t going away anytime soon.
On a more personal note, I don’t think that spending a bunch of time telling people “that’s not punk” fits my ideal of what punk should be about, most of the time. If you substitute one uniform for another, you’re still wearing a uniform. On the other hand, there are certain ideologies and political stances that I personally reject as part of my way of being punk and I’m always going to argue for a formation of punk that doesn’t include, say, fascism. There’s some contradiction in this, but I think of it as kind of an in-game, out-of-game perspective switch. Part of thinking critically about anything you’re actually part of is trying to see what it looks like from outside, based on an actual accounting of practice. But, being able to understand it that way doesn’t necessarily have to, and shouldn’t, void or invalidate your commitments to making that accounting come up differently.