Sometimes I occupy my busy brain with the exercise of thinking-of-things-that-are-punk-rock-that-aren’t-actually-punk-rock.
First, of course, it is necessary to arrive at a definition from which to work. “Punk” has a long and fascinating history, well-documented here, with a meaning ranging, over the centuries, from mild praise to damning condemnation. For the most part, though, it has not been a compliment. The word has always suggested a sort of marginalization, something odd, imperfect. Often there’s an extra level of removal from all that is proper, polite, and normal. Not just a criminal but a young and petty criminal. Not just a circus worker, but an untrained and unskilled circus worker. And apparently at one time the word might have meant amateur, and an amateur is a lover, and “punk rock” means passionate–a lover or a hater–but with more than a hint of ennui, more than a sense that it might all not matter. The idea of punk is full of these contradictions: self-consciously unself-conscious, seeking attention but resenting it.
And there’s a pervasive meaning, over the years, of something worthless used to start a fire: “Rotten wood used as tinder” (1680s), perhaps from Delaware (Algonquian) ponk, literally “dust, powder, ashes;” but Gaelic spong “tinder” also has been suggested (compare spunk “touchwood, tinder,” 1580s).
I really love this, I really love all of this; something useless ignites a flame, someone untrained and unskilled, with insufficient training and imperfect equipment, creates something speakingly powerful, which is embraced by all of us who are outside the outsiders, weirder than the weirdos.
So here are some of the things I think of as punk-rock-but-not–actually-punk-rock. I’d like this to be living list, so if you have suggestions of your own, I would love to add them:
Jean Vigo, Zero de Conduite. EVERYTHING about this film is punk rock. The characters, the director, the storyline, the creation of it.
Jane Eyre, (of the novel Jane Eyre fame) is Punk Rock as are pretty much all the Brontes, as far as I can understand it.
Ruth Bader Ginsberg probably too.
Nina Simone is punk rock. I don’t want to suggest that she was unskilled or untrained, but if “anger is an energy” is a punk rock anthem…
I’m a little torn on this one, because seemingly by my definition most outsider artists are punk rock, but I think…not. The ones I love are completely unselfconscious, completely not seeking attention, and have a passion of a different nature that I don’t want to touch here.
Manu Chao is punk rock, and don’t take it from me, take it from Punk and reggae historian Vivien Goldman who said, “He’s one of the punkiest artists out there I can think of. It’s an inclusionary spirit that is punk.”[
And this is my pick for punkest Manu Chao peformance.
My husband, sons, and mother are punk rock. I am punk rock when I cook.
Help me out, Ordinary friends! Who is punk rock but not punk rock? Let me know in the comments and if it passes muster I will add it to my list.