On the bright white roof of the newly minted Punk Rock Museum in Las Vegas, Mike “Fat Mike” Burkett, singer and bassist of NOFX, is sitting cross-legged near an HVAC unit, with snacks and drinks arranged around him. He stands up to meet me, wearing a studded cat-ear headband, a short black dress, and black patent leather Dr. Martens. In the warm blue distance, palm trees and the spire of the Stratosphere Hotel, Casino & Skypod are visible.
“Don’t judge me,” Burkett says. I tell him I won’t. He produces a blue vial of cocaine from inside the cup of his dress and takes a snort, leaving a smudge of dust around his nostril, as though he took a messy bite of powdered donut. “Am I good?” he asks, tilting his head back. “You’ve got a little schmutz,” I say. Burkett, fifty-six, apparently waited for me to watch him do cocaine. What it’s supposed to signal, I’m not sure. That he’s still real? That he doesn’t give a fuck? “THIS IS WHAT PUNK ROCK IS!!!!!!” the museum’s website reads. If this is what punk rock is, it resembles a washed-up former child star desperate to recapture the world’s attention. It’s opening day, and Burkett deepens his voice to speak seriously about his new venture. They’re memorializing punk, he tells me. “If punk rock ever touched you or changed your life or saved your life, when you come here, all the emotions come back. This is our church, and punk rock is our religion. It’s our community.”
Despite being an obvious vanity project, the museum more or less delivers on its vision of punk in the past tense. In it, you’ll find a selection of artifacts representing the movement’s DIY spirit and subversive aplomb: xeroxed zines and flyers on the walls, malodorous bondage pants preserved under glass, and legendary punk instruments—like Tim Armstrong’s pink Hagstrom guitar—available for visitors to play. (Precious items like Tesco Vee’s double dildo are, sadly, look-but-don’t-touch affairs.) Part nostalgia trip and part entertainment experience, the museum targets punks across the ages: graying Las Vegas tourists who were on their first pair of Chuck Taylors when Siouxsie Sioux caught conjunctivitis from absorbing too much onstage gobbing; elder millennials, like me, who discovered punk through the MTV-sanctioned explosions of Nirvana and Green Day; and even a new generation that has found “punk” in the domesticated verve and fashion sense of mega-acts like Billie Eilish and Machine Gun Kelly.
At the museum’s heart, however, lies the profound strangeness of what punk counterculture has become after three decades in the glittering light of the American mainstream. That effect is only magnified by the demands of its Las Vegas environs: a $25,000 luxury ticket bundle, a simulated punk dive bar, and $100 tours guided by semi-famous punks. As the museum demonstrates, punk has refashioned itself to meet popular tastes for leisure and consumption and, in doing so, achieved bourgeois acceptance. Meanwhile, most people have forsworn the naive old “rockist” notion that guitar music might uniquely deliver authenticity, let alone social change. Today, it’s almost impossible to imagine a countercultural movement posing anything like an actual threat to the existing social order. All of which has resulted in a state of punk consciousness so stale that it must constantly be refreshed, it turns out, by doing coke in front of perfect strangers.
Punk in Drublic
Punk’s not quite dead; it’s middle-aged. At fifty, its tattoos have faded. It wears sensible shoes, observes a reasonable bedtime, and frets about its legacy. It emerged in the late 1960s not only as a music but a movement, its loud, fast, and amateur rock-and-roll template soundtracking one more provocation to reject prevailing social norms, with a will to succeed where the flower children had failed. At any rate, that was the aspiration. How seriously anyone was supposed to take the MC5’s White Panther Party or the Velvet Underground’s Warhol-orchestrated performances was up for interpretation. But these nascent scenes sought to create a new way of living for people on the margins. Punk spirit spread in subsequent waves. Not all adopted the thrilling race and class politics of the Clash. (“All the power’s in the hands / Of people rich enough to buy it,” they sang in “White Riot.”) Many were more nihilistic than the radical group-house-living protest punks of Washington, D.C. (“The troops are quiet tonight, but it’s not alright / Because we know they’re planning something,” Fugazi shouted to a crowd of two thousand antiwar demonstrators on the White House lawn in 1991.) But an increasing number of outcasts saw in punk a surrogate home outside the mainstream.
Punk has, however, died many ego deaths. The counterculture was always vulnerable to hype and exploitation. Was it ever truly rebellious? As early as 1978, the anarchist band Crass condemned the commercial current that opposed punk’s revolutionary energy: “CBS promote the Clash,” they snarled. “But it ain’t for revolution, it’s just for cash.” By the late 1980s, the success of independent label SST Records helped create a miniature music industry, complete with the same unsavory business practices. The 1990s saw punk’s embarrassing major-label spasms as it finally encountered unlimited capital and achieved successful mass-marketing. I came of age during this strange era, when punk felt at once transgressive and obviously mainstream. From MTV’s Alternative Nation, I found my way down to the suburban basements and VFW halls of my local Long Island scene, where older toughs played terrible metal-inflected hardcore. There was a genuine community of weirdos waiting for me in those subterranean lairs, not to mention a powerful means of venting my rage against the authorities who populated my chaotic adolescent life. Even in these unmarketable environments, the sheer scale of the culture’s commercial appeal made punks quick to police the borders of authenticity. For the last time in living memory, people used the term “sellout” commonly and unironically. Underground stalwarts like Henry Rollins grinned on late-night TV and in men’s mags, all the while avowing their disdain for the entertainment industry. Eventually, in the 2000s, we got ready-made pop products like Fall Out Boy.
Since then, punk has become as much a consumer brand as hippie was before it. The seminal Manhattan punk club CBGB shuttered in 2006 and transformed into a John Varvatos menswear boutique styled to evoke Hilly Kristal’s prelapsarian testing ground for Television and the Talking Heads. Cute retrospectives like the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2013 “PUNK: Chaos to Couture” underscore how thoroughly declawed the form has been by the establishment it once bemoaned. Every teen has the option of a punk phase, and approximately every American has purchased a Ramones T-shirt from Urban Outfitters. What’s humbling about all this is that punk’s brand of rebellion has not just been co-opted but rather become a kind of national folkway. When a culture is no longer counter, what’s left to do but memorialize it?
No one owns punk’s legacy, of course. But with the Punk Rock Museum, Burkett is doing his damnedest to put a marker on it. Like most of us, he was looking for something to do during the pandemic lockdowns. Unlike most of us, he has the assets of a minor celebrity, being a member not just of NOFX but also the incredibly annoying punk cover band Me First and the Gimme Gimmes, as well as the co-owner of the lucrative indie label Fat Wreck Chords. At first, he imagined opening a record store. But as he talked to his punk pals, the idea grew and grew. What if he could create a repository of memorabilia and collectibles that would also have a store inside? A museum was born.
Las Vegas was the obvious location. Burkett owns a home there, and properties are far less expensive to buy than in New York or LA. Plus it’s dirt cheap for people to visit. Those facts aside, Burkett seems to have some kind of score to settle with Las Vegas, having been “canceled” there in 2018 after a joke he made on stage about the city’s mass shooting got picked up by conservative media. “Cancel culture is making punk less subversive,” he tells me. That idea is about as absurd and self-pitying as the notion that cancel culture is somehow undermining freedom in stand-up comedy, and frankly I’m not sure how “punk” it is to cry victim when you face public consequences for saying something so obviously designed to provoke. But all the drama, I suppose, just raised the stakes for the museum’s opening. Burkett and his team found a big, musty antique mall run by a woman who was ready to retire, and she offered to unload it to them. In the end, he paid $2 million for the twelve-thousand-square-foot warehouse, which sits adjacent to the world-famous Little Darlings strip club. (In all his recent interviews, Burkett makes a point of punning on the fact that Las Vegas’s main boulevard is called the Strip. I’ll let you decide how funny that sounds, especially when repeated.) The building is on the outskirts of the city’s gentrifying Arts District, where for the last decade developers have been replacing old lumber yards and auto-body shops with new brew pubs and cafes.
Las Vegas is ideal in other ways too. Its modern focus on entertainment—the basic “illusion” of the place, as the historian Hal Rothman puts it in his 2003 book Neon Metropolis—make it a fitting match for a museum about punk today. Like the counterculture, the city has risen from its rebellious origins into middle-class respectability. Once a mob-run town of gambling, vice, and immorality, it fell under corporate control in the 1970s as the state of Nevada made it easier for large companies to enter the casino business. The city’s economy transformed as leisure became more available to Americans, and by the 1990s, gambling was a legitimate recreational pastime. Las Vegas has roughly doubled in population each decade since 1970, and today its metropolitan area is home to 2.3 million. The city receives around forty million visitors per year. No longer just for gamblers, Las Vegas is a destination for people seeking any kind of spectacle. In its twenty-first-century form, Rothman writes, the city is “an orgy of the unruly combination of experience, self, and commodity that is what culture has become in the United States.”
Like most major cities, Las Vegas is also home to a long-standing punk scene. Starting in the late 1970s, kids threw local house shows, and promoters rented out warehouses where West Coast acts like Dead Kennedys played when they came through on tour. Most notorious were the Mojave Desert shows, where promoters would bring hundreds of punks, some generators, and a PA system out to an old water retention site, and the crowd would slam to hardcore bands until the cops showed up. In the 1990s, an independent record store and local college radio station created infrastructure for young punks. The Double Down Saloon—incidentally the only punk venue I’ve ever been to where the bar is studded with multi-game casino machines—has hosted small punk shows for thirty years. Anxious not to be the kind of uninformed “carpetbagger” whom Rothman says typically writes about Las Vegas, I spent hours researching the city’s current punk scene before I arrived. The band that kept coming up was Gob Patrol, a thrashy 1980s-tribute act with spiked vests, lyrics about stuff like anarchy, and videos that limply threaten violence. What they seem to be, more than anything, is a Las Vegas entertainment based on the idea of punk. Otherwise, the city is mostly a magnet for loathsome large-scale events. This year, the When We Were Young Festival hosted punk-celeb gods like Green Day and Blink-182. Punk Rock Bowling, a two-stage, three-day event, has run annually since 1999, drawing fifteen thousand fans with guys who still spike what hair they have left like members of Rancid and the Casualties. In Las Vegas, as elsewhere, punk is now big business.
“If it could be anywhere, it might as well be here,” says Dayvid Figler, a lifelong resident who cohosts the City Cast Las Vegas podcast and sang for local punk polka band Tippy Elvis. “If a bunch of entrepreneurs get together, grab a bunch of artifacts, and don’t call it Planet Hollywood or the Hard Rock Hotel, you might have something there. If it’s marketed well and they’re into education, does it become a legitimate museum? I mean, they made a legitimate museum out of old-ass neon signs.” No one would accuse the Punk Rock Museum of skimping on marketing. Its very nice publicist is a mom, roughly in her fifties, who doesn’t even have blue hair or visible tattoos or anything and seems pretty effective at running media operations. If you, like me, somewhat pathetically follow punk nostalgia accounts on Instagram, the algorithm will already have served you clips from the many puff pieces she has generated since the museum’s first press offensive last fall. SPIN, Artnet, and Brooklyn Vegan credulously reprinted the museum’s publicity statements. Smithsonian gave it a glowing write-up, apparently sight-unseen, with special attention paid to its novelty features; People followed suit shortly before it opened to the public. (Burkett claims that the People reporter wept, which I refuse to believe.) The museum’s educational aims, on the other hand, remain obscure to me. Respectfully to Figler, I’m not convinced that marketing and education are the most relevant ways to judge the legitimacy of a museum devoted to punk in the first place, nor that “entrepreneurs” are the ones best suited to launching it. He makes a good point, though: the museum may be a glorified Hard Rock Cafe whose founders are little more than businessmen hot on the trail of a new investment opportunity.
As the museum demonstrates, punk has refashioned itself to meet popular tastes for leisure and consumption and, in doing so, achieved bourgeois acceptance.
During the Punk Rock Museum’s two-plus-year path toward dubious legitimacy, a ragtag “collective” of punks, many of whom are multimillionaires, funded the approximately $5 million venture. To his credit, Burkett decided not to seek corporate funding, fronting around 30 percent of the money himself. Other backing came from various quarters of the mall-punk industrial complex: Less Than Jake drummer Vinnie Fiorello, former Vans Warped Tour promoter Kevin Lyman, and noted skateboarder (and DraftKings Sportsbook spokesperson) Tony Hawk, among others. A ludicrous array of presale ticket bundles aims to dredge up additional funding from fans. Modest punks can purchase, for example, the $250 “I Gotta Six Pack” package, with one-year passes, VIP laminates, and limited-edition T-shirts, while high rollers can treat themselves to the $25,000 “In the Shitter” package, with lifetime tickets, a name-plaque above a urinal, and a tattoo by Fletcher Dragge from Pennywise. Some fans have invested significant sums of their own volition, perhaps envisioning some reward in the form of proximity to punk microcelebrity, or else simply sentimental at the prospect that bringing an Instagram punk nostalgia account to life might inspire the kind of religious experience that Burkett promises.
Meanwhile, Burkett and the investors set about figuring out how to make a museum. “We’re not playing the museum game,” he says. “None of us know what a museum is. We just did what we thought would be cool.” It’s a nice-sounding DIY sentiment. But it’s also true that anyone who creates a museum cannot escape such an institution’s charge to choose what counts as culture—and what doesn’t. Punk is at once wildly inclusive of disparate micro-genres (e.g., cowpunk, psychobilly, screamo, mathcore—I did not make any of these up) and notoriously contentious about their definitions. It’s also famously suspicious of institutions and authority, and a museum is nothing if not both. “[Punk] was about real freedom, personal freedom,” said Legs McNeil in Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, his definitive 1996 account, with Gillian McCain, of the anti-movement movement. “It was about doing anything that’s gonna offend a grown-up. Just being as offensive as possible. Which seemed delightful, just euphoric.” With the museum’s opening, punk has at last become the grown-up it delighted in pissing off, and I’m not sure it’s up to the demands of its new role.
A consummate Las Vegas tourist attraction, the museum is all about experience. General admission costs $30, but for $100 you can adopt a real live punk to guide your tour. Roger Miret from Agnostic Front, Mike Roche from T.S.O.L., and Jennifer Finch from L7 are listed among many less respectable figures as initial docents. In practice, the punk tour guides all kind of mill around like exotic animals on display in Burkett’s petting zoo until they’re prompted to tell their stories or appear in a selfie with a fan. The museum also contains a semi-soundproofed “jam room” where local punk elder Rob Ruckus will show you how to use the presets on Wesley Willis’s Technics SX KN3000 keyboard, or pick out a guitar for you from Green Day’s giant road case. A charmless, corporate-looking wedding chapel and tattoo parlor occupy a separate corner of the museum’s second floor. In April, a first couple was wed there, and the museum released several packages for future ceremonies, which include a list of punks who will act as witness for an added cost, taking the captives-in-a-petting-zoo quality to a whole other level. “In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles,” wrote Guy Debord in 1967, when punk was still a twinge in Lou Reed’s loins. “Everything that was directly lived has moved away into representation.” Today, punk has been repurposed for maximal Instagramability.
No museum, of course, would be complete without its requisite gift shop. If you’re hoping to find it stocked with self-released seven-inches or small-run zines or anything that makes punk seem like a living art form, you’ll be disappointed. Instead, it’s a Hot Topic-style affair full of T-shirts emblazoned with ransom-style lettering and the museum’s mohawk-guy logo ($35), stickers, pint glasses, and little metal studs for your denim jacket. There’s a display of miniature punk records in miniature milk crates (I can’t tell if these are for sale). You can buy a five-hundred-piece Punkzle-brand jigsaw puzzle depicting an image of H.R. from Bad Brains ($39), or choose from a stack of punk memoirs and histories. Gift shops are a staple of modern museums, often contributing as much as a quarter of their revenue. Anyone can tell you that the all-consuming flame of commodification has reduced the possibility of dissent in America to a smoldering heap of stupid, hideous, soul-sucking shit that we can buy. “Merchandise,” Fugazi’s Ian MacKaye once sang, at a moment when punks were quaintly suspicious of commerce, “keeps us in line.”
In all these ways, the museum is a simulacrum of punk, much as Las Vegas is a simulacrum of human desire writ large. There’s an appetite for its brand of nostalgia, wherein punk is not so much a culture as the theme of a comforting fiction, like the experience of visiting the New York-New York or the Paris Hotel & Casino. I’m squarely a member of the demographic that’s hungriest for this vision of the punk past. We’re just reaching the age and income bracket at which leisure becomes an attainable concern, and the museum fits neatly within the extraordinary variety of wish-fulfillment experiences that Las Vegas offers to visitors to part them from their money—it’s one more bullet on the attraction list. You can shoot a fully automatic machine gun in the desert, skydive in a hotel, or crush cars with a thirty-thousand-pound Caterpillar excavator. While you’re at it, why not play Joan Jett’s famous white Epiphone guitar?
Part Time Punks
“This is my first tour,” Burkett says, in his little California surfer accent, as he gathers visitors in the museum’s first gallery, just off the gift shop. “I haven’t done this, but I know stuff.” Today, Burkett is my celebrity guide, and he commands a crowd of maybe thirty visitors, roughly 70 percent men. Most of us are in our forties or fifties. Many of us are draped in the garments of the culture: Vans checkerboards, a cabbie hat, a Punk-O-Rama hoodie, a denim vest covered in patches. One guy has a mohawk. All of us all look like characters played by Fred Armisen or Carrie Brownstein. The museum is gleefully free of wall text or written history. For all its claims to memorializing punk, its attitude toward narrative is pretty blasé. There are some printed placards inside its glass display cases to identify a guitar here or a painted leather jacket there. But with many photos and other artifacts, it’s an if-you-know-you-know type situation.
Burkett is not exactly trying to fill you in either. His approach is a “punk” one, heavy on irreverent stories of sex, drugs, and violence in the scene—and sprinkled with petty grievances. He draws our attention to an image of Minor Threat, the D.C. hardcore band that developed the drug-free “straight edge” ethos in the 1980s, and points to the guitarist: “What’s funny about Brian Baker—every time he does a line of coke, he says, ‘I started straight edge.’” (It’s at this point that I remember my docent is likely very high.) In an early gallery displaying the hardcore wave in 1980s LA, a display case holds a T-shirt that Henry Rollins threw into the crowd at his first show singing with Black Flag. If you look, the collar reads “Garfield,” Rollins’s given surname, apparently sewn in by a caring hand (his mother’s, Burkett speculates). “Henry Rollins is a prick,” Burkett says. “He tried to start a fight with me. He can’t take a joke.” Even as TMZ-level celebrity gossip, are these observations worth the $70 ticket premium? Why anyone should care is unclear.
Still, it’s undeniably cool to see the punk artifacts, right? Archivists trucked in authentic pieces of punk history: glossy photos of Sid Vicious bleeding, early posters of the Ramones, Joe Strummer’s last bag of weed. In the LA hardcore exhibit, we find the late Germs singer Darby Crash’s phone book, with an entry for someone denoted only as “Poser.” Elsewhere are Fear’s saxophone, the original wooden mold for Devo’s energy dome hats, and stage clothes worn by Johnny Thunders. In the New York hardcore skinhead wing, Burkett brags about a new acquisition of Dr. Martens from the Cro-Mags: “We’re getting Harley Flanagan’s boots next week. They have teeth marks in them!” Between conducting tours, Louiche Mayorga from Suicidal Tendencies slumps on a couch in a gallery styled to look like a 1980s wood-paneled living room where VCRs play grainy old punk videos, roughly evoking a suburban basement where you and your friends might sniff glue. Don Bolles from the Germs, a one-thousand-year-old wizard, leads tours sporting a giant Andy Warhol wig and a Germs T-shirt. Yes, it’s all very cool.
The bulk of the place, however, is dedicated to punk’s dumbest subgenre, most accurately described as mall punk. Bratty-voiced bands like Bad Religion, NOFX, and the Offspring emerged from California in the late 1980s, singing about their vague anti-government politics and angling to appear on the soundtracks of prankish skate videos. Their sound and attitude is largely what defined punk in the mainstream after Green Day’s breakout success in 1994 made the movement safe and suburban for good. I’ll cop to listening to a couple of NOFX records in high school, and even to attending the Vans Warped Tour in 1998, but my lasting association of these bands is with dudes who both rollerbladed and threatened to kick my ass. I can’t say I’m excited to see the Offspring’s bright, furry stage clothes or Noodles’s thick-rimmed glasses. Nor do I think that the size of the gallery devoted to Fat Wreck Chords—with loads of album art and merchandise from lucrative mallrat staples like Lagwagon and No Use for a Name—stands in proportion to the label’s significance. Visitors crowd around a replica that Pennywise created of their rehearsal room, with a garage door thrown up, perfectly placed posters, and new equipment ready to be played—a punk version of an American Museum of Natural History diorama. (Future anthropologists will no doubt spend countless hours interpreting the lyrics of “Bro Hymn” as they once studied cave paintings.)
After a while, it’s pretty tough to give a shit whether I’m looking at an Obey x Bouncing Souls skateboard deck or the Dropkick Murphys’ bagpipe blowstick, and I’m starting to wilt by the time we reach the museum’s second floor. There, the Vans Warped Tour receives lavish treatment, celebrating the mega-commodification of punk with a chart of the long-running festival’s acts and stages and a deeply graffitied merch table. The bands—Sum 41, the Used, Simple Plan—are those you would expect to find gelling their hair at the bottom of an emptied pool as a camera fixes a fish-eye lens on them, or else posing in the eyeliner aisle of a shopping mall Sephora. It’s hard to imagine any of these preening clowns featuring so prominently in a more balanced retrospective, one that wasn’t essentially designed as an advertisement for a particular group of buddies.
At the same time, the museum (“the world’s most expansive, inclusive, and intimate display” of punk, according to its website) excludes whole scenes and movements. Little material commemorates the actually respectable contributions of punks from Chicago, Minneapolis, Olympia, or Austin. Likewise, there’s nothing from the last thirty-plus years in D.C., which birthed the emo subgenre, defined the post-hardcore sound, and contained one of the most politically radical communities in twentieth-century music. Ian MacKaye, figurehead of the D.C. underground, declined to be involved in the museum, according to Burkett, who is forthright about these deficits. “We’ll get more comprehensive as we go,” he tells me. “Now that we’re open and people start hearing about it, they’re going to want to be in here.”
But are they? Currently, the collection seems entirely dictated by the personal tastes and connections of the founders—and by whom they’ve alienated in the past. Nothing, for example, highlights the enormously consequential riot grrrl movement, a 1990s effort to address sexism and create community among feminist punks. When we reach the museum’s lone photo of Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna, Burkett simply says, “We don’t get along,” alluding to a feud that spans a couple of decades and at least one song by each artist. Allison Wolfe, singer of the formative riot grrrl band Bratmobile, tells me that nobody contacted her proactively about contributing artifacts. “It just looks like a bro-fest,” she says. She’s not exactly wrong. Similarly, while Black punks—from X-Ray Spex’s Poly Styrene to Bad Brains’ H.R. to Fishbone’s Angelo Moore—are represented across the chronology, there’s no mention of the Afro-Punk movement. James Spooner, director of the documentary Afro-Punk and cofounder of the eponymous festival, tells me that he looked at photos of the museum’s collective on social media. “I didn’t see many people of color, if any,” he says. “That tells me right away that diversity is going to be lacking in the exhibits.” Spooner contacted representatives at the museum, whom he says were open to a proposal for an Afro-Punk exhibit in the future. These omissions are, frankly, fucking unpardonable, and the museum should have kept its doors chained shut until it could find a way to resolve them. Calling attention to this problem isn’t just a matter of representation or diversity but a question of whether the museum is interested in presenting punk, even in retrospect, as a meaningful cultural form, or whether it’s more interested in maintaining a nonthreatening status quo. Everything about the museum suggests the latter.
After the tour, inside the museum’s “dive bar,” I meet a couple from New Jersey who tell me that they invested in the museum and flew out for the opening. “The Misfits aren’t in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,” says Keith, a fit forty-year-old with sharp features and a long beard. “There’s no home for punk.” When he learned about the museum, he emailed Vinnie Fiorello from Less Than Jake directly and asked if there was a way to get involved beyond the ticket bundles. He and his wife Cat, thirty-four, decided to place a portion of their retirement savings into shares of the project. “We’re still fighting wars, the government’s still fucked, society’s still not in a great place,” says Keith, explaining why it’s important to preserve punk history. “All punk’s messaging is still applicable.” I nod my head in agreement while the Ramones play at a very reasonable volume in the background. Keith loses me, however, when he suggests that blockchain might be the new counterculture. Later, when I look him up, I learn that he’s a salesman for a financial services company that specializes in cryptocurrency. I begin to wonder whether there are punk NFTs, and a search directs me to the unfortunate existence of CryptoPunks, a collection of “punky-looking” pixel art images on the Ethereum blockchain. It seems certain to me that punk has many ego deaths left to die.
We’re all too desperate for transcendence, some easy religious experience that distracts us from capitalism’s savage machinations, to maintain something as rigorous as a mass movement for very long. Commercial culture has become our dominant means of imagining and describing dissent, and so much of our rebellious energy has been displaced onto nostalgic purchases. In the past year alone, I have bought tickets to reunion shows by three different punk bands that broke up twenty years ago, like a baby boomer eager to see the Eagles’ Hell Freezes Over tour in the Clinton era. Beneath it all, though, an underground remains, mostly obscure to institutions like museums and middle-aged guys like me. In basements and backyards and VFW halls, kids play music that delights them, only for each other, outside the confines of mass culture. You can call this phenomenon punk, or you can call it something else. It doesn’t require the branded mantle of dissent if it’s actually living dissent. That was the freedom that punk promised in the first place.