by Rhian Sasseen on June 17, 2012
“Fuck!” Even his sweat was ironic. Somehow I had found myself in hell, the back room of a video store in Jamaica Plain, and now a teenage boy was rolling at my feet, screaming “Fuck!” into a microphone over and over again, as though he wasn’t playing lapdog to a music scene in crisis. Punk’s been dead for awhile, and Friday night, in a room of obsolete technology and obsolete sound, I bore witness to its last self-conscious gasps.
What does a do-it-yourself aesthetic mean when nothing is actually being done? Forty years after the genre’s founding, screaming non-contextualized obscenities will only take you so far. Of course, to a band like the Fucktrots and the scene I saw at the Video Underground, this is essentially the point. Everyone’s in on the joke – unfortunately, there’s no real joke to be had.
The imposition of late-capitalist irony into the vocabulary of a genre like punk, formed in direct opposition to the decadence of classic and progressive rock, marks the triumph of conformity and consumerism in the American alternative world. Irony, with all its implicit distance and remove, has so infiltrated the contemporary American alternative music scene that the question of its validity isn’t even a question that’s supposed to be asked. Rather, it is to be accepted, wholly and completely, as an essential element – perhaps the essential element – to the cultivation of the ideal alternative persona.
This tyranny of the obvious has infiltrated other pockets of the faux avant garde. The “alt lit” of someone like Tao Lin or Miranda July has been argued by some to be evident of a post-9/11 “New Sincerity,” but the supposed sincerity of their work rests on the essential irony of an adult writing in a willfully childish voice about rather adult subject matter. This style is simple to replicate – easily digestible in its manic and repetitive simplicity, its internet-based appeal is a twenty-first century example of the emperor strolling without clothes.
Allowing irony to become the main defining feature of one’s work essentially ensures that nothing produced by the irony-lover will be particularly interesting. That’s the danger, of course – thought-provoking and forward-looking work can only stem from a place of vulnerability, a moment of risk-taking anathema to the cool-hunter, safeguarded by his or her remove. Art, music, and literature thus become stagnant, frigid, and irrelevant to the culture and public at large. Which came first, the anti-intellectual or the vapid ironist? – And so the cycle continues on.
The idea behind a music scene like that which I watched two days ago is, essentially, that one can sidestep criticism by making uncritical work. It’s true that not caring has always been an important element of punk, but there’s a vast difference between not caring about singing something like “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine” and not caring about whatever empty obscenities you decide to throw at a willing and eager crowd. Not caring for not caring’s sake has turned an inherently political genre of music into a passive and predictable celebration of the mundane, as easy to categorize as a jacket or a pair of pants.
Punk, on both a national and a local scale, has become a microcosm of cultural inanity. The boy rolling on the floor in JP is the same as Yeah Yeah Yeahs frontwoman Karen O spitting beer onto a rapturous audience: expected. There is absolutely nothing rebellious to a studied rebellion, and so punk has lost its ability to terrify, provoke, and disturb. There is no question to punk anymore, only an answer as to the exact nature of boredom.
My roommate and I turned to each other and shook our heads. We left, and the next morning as I got dressed iTunes shuffled “Entertain” by Sleater-Kinney on and into my bedroom, and I hummed along as the problem at hand was delineated. Nostalgia, you’re using it like a whore…Where’s the ‘fuck you’? Where’s the black and blue? Where’s the black and blue? Well, ironists – where is it?