The Shrinking Power of Punk

Dan KubisFebruary 02, 2015
Photo by Bess Sadler

Photo by Bess Sadler

Is American indie rock fighting a war it can’t win, or is it just not fighting anymore?

It’s too quiet in independent music today, but it wasn’t always so. Greil Marcus introduces his 1989 book Lipstick Traces: a Secret History of the Twentieth Century by discussing the demands that the Sex Pistols’ music made on the world. The music’s deepest desire, he wrote, was to allow its creators to be subjects rather than objects of history—to contribute to the shape of the world around them. By transgressing the boundaries of acceptable middle-class behavior, the Sex Pistols made it possible to see those boundaries as purely ideological, and, for young listeners like Elvis Costello, contributed to a broader feeling that social change was possible.

The Sex Pistols are the most memorable example of punk music’s drive to change the world, but they are also part of a much longer tradition. From the American punk movement of the mid to late sixties through the indie rock scene of the mid-nineties, American and British independent music was a constant source of resistance to mainstream values and expectations. The forms of the music changed with time, but the pattern that emerged over decades was one of constant renewal and reinvention, with independent music persisting as a means by which individuals who felt alienated from mainstream society could express a desire to change it.

Now, as 2015 begins, there is more reason than ever to think that this tradition is dead. It’s not dead because youth culture is suddenly so much more well-adjusted to society (though this is a stereotype about it). It’s dead because the Internet has blurred the lines dividing the oppositional “us vs. them” dichotomy that independent music has always cultivated and thrived on.

Twenty years ago, when musicians considered the possibility of signing to a major label, they needed to weigh the possibility of increased record sales against the greater independence that would come with an independent label. There is no need to make this calculation any longer. The biggest selling artist of 2011 and 2012 (Adele) was on an indie label (XL Recordings); college radio is streamed by Clear Channel; and bands can play major international music festivals before they even have full-length albums out (Haim played Glastonbury in 2013). Even the old villain of “consumerism” has fallen away; as opportunities to sell songs for commercials have increased, the stigma of doing so has faded as well.

It’s possible to provide optimistic conclusions for these developments—for example, that increased exposure has allowed independent musicians to make more money from their music. Thomas Friedman and other tech evangelists will also celebrate this increased exposure as an example of the democratizing power of the Internet. And it’s certainly difficult to begrudge wider exposure or more outlets for financial reward to hardworking artists who want it.

But optimism about the social possibilities of these developments should be tempered. First of all, just as the immense size of the online music community allows for mass exposure of individual bands, and social sharing of their music, it is just as likely to encourage (or force) musicians and fans to create isolated sub-cultures—rather than larger communities centered around the values that have traditionally existed in independent music.

In November, Steve Albini, one of the most disciplined, outspoken, and consistently angry members of the American independent music scene for the last forty years, gave a talk at the Melbourne Face the Music Festival in which he compared the music scene in the age of the Internet to “a great hall of fetishes where whatever you felt like fucking or being fucked by, however often your tastes might change, no matter what hardware or harnesses were required, you could open the gates and have at it on a comfy mattress at any time of day.” This vision of independent music as a tool for feeding fetishes contains little of the desire for social change that Greil Marcus so admired in the music of the Sex Pistols.

It’s also worth placing changes in the culture of independent music within the broader context of the growing presence of Internet technology in our lives. The biggest economic beneficiaries of this presence, as Sue Halpern recently argued in The New York Review of Books, will not be individual users, but companies with the size and resources to take advantage of the massive amounts of data produced by our wired world.

In this world, if “us vs. them” has vanished—and if it has taken oppositional independent music with it—then it may not be because “we” are all better off, but because the mechanics of “their” power are less visible than ever before.

Dan Kubis is a freelance writer who writes about art and culture. He lives in Pittsburgh and has a PhD in English Literature from Pitt.