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How Punk Lost Its Funk

How Punk Lost Its Funk

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Published by: Miguel Paolo Celestial on Jul 25, 2008
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06/14/2009

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How punk lost its funk
By Miguel Paolo CelestialPublished in The Philippine Star, 17 October 2007It was only recently, 2006 spring-summer to be precise, that Vivienne Westwoodreleased her “anti-propaganda” t-shirts, the most famous of which was the oneshe designed for a human rights organization. It bore the text: “I Am Not ATerrorist – Please Don’t Arrest Me”. Another statement t-shirt from her collectionread: “Active Resistance to Propaganda: Culture versus Dogma”, printed with theface of Rembrandt and a baby satyr.She has released a paper, no less, with the text as its title, which expresses her frustration over contemporary culture and what she feels are its inadequacies. (Ina previous interview, Westwood declared, “Our culture is stagnant.”)Sounds like pretty heavy stuff from the designer who began her fashion career dressing and inspiring the influential punk rock band Sex Pistols.Well-established and commercial, yet still widely regarded as the deviantdesigner of London, Vivienne Westwood has very strong ideas on culture and onsubversion—the very essence of the punk movement that made her famous. Shedeclares at the end of her paper, “This word subversive, which people brag aboutlike it’s an accolade—well, subversion means bringing down society,undermining the society.”But was this premise ever achieved by the band that she helped bring to iconicstatus? Or even earnestly worked towards? At the onset, one may say that theinitial progressiveness of the group and of the movement itself may have giventhe idea of subversion, of genuine rebellion. But as the ideology was forgotten bythe attitude, it didn’t take long for the progressive attitude to wear away from themusic, and for the wild abandon of the music to finally disassociate itself frompunk’s last remnant, in whatever permutation: its fashion.Returning to the band, the Sex Pistols began as a response to the “increasinglysafe” and fully satiated “progressive rock” and manufactured pop of the mid-1970s. The band was looking for something else, something defiantly new,hating their predecessors as they were vehemently against any restraining formof authority. The band’s future vocalist, Johnny Rotten, was already dressed in apeculiar way when he was “discovered” and was asked to sing. Before VivienneWestwood could prop him up, he already wore green hair and had on astatement t-shirt.Sex Pistol’s debut single, “Anarchy in the UK”, served as their credo, expressing
 
wittily and angrily how they did not agree with the status quo, and thus wanted todestroy it. (“I wanna be anarchy! The only way to be!...I wanna be an anarchist.Oh what a name. Get pissed, destroy!”)Allegedly pushing for individual freedom by expressing discontent through shockand rebellion, the punk movement not only screamed, kicked, and smashed outits frustration; it donned its attitude while doing so.The main ethic of punk fashion is do-it-yourself (DIY), in the pursuit of rejectingcommercial and societal standards of dress. Punk fashion in the 1970s wasoriginally used to challenge conformity as a counterculture, expressingaggression and rebellion, for which individuality was highly valued. The fashioncovers not only clothing, but also jewelry,
hairstyles, cosmetics, and even bodymodifications. The wardrobe catalogue is endless: from torn shirts to vestsand tartans, from military and motorcycle boots to Chuck Taylors, fromskinny leather pants to leopard tights, from messy hairstyles to Mohawks,from spiked and studded jewelry to swastikas, and from powder to heavyeyeliner. The dress largely depended on the subgroup of punk:
pop punk,cyberpunk, skater punk, industrial punk, emo, grunge, metal, gothic, plus othersmore.
Supposedly anti-fashion, the DIY ethic produced unique t-shirts screen-printed, stenciled, and painted with one’s own personal views andpersonality, complete with hand-made tears and tatters, and tailored usingsafety pins. But over the years, personal touches gave way to run-of-the-millshirts with band logos. As the appeal of the music and the fashionbroadened and reached a wider audience, the kick of originality gave way toonly minor deviations to a few typical standards.The culture that was meant to counter the status quo rose to prominence,though sanitized and simplified, and was embraced by the mainstream.Surely, the proponents and diehard followers of punk gagged at thesacrilege. But as far as trends went, it was easy to say that commercialismand mass production killed the cat, but maybe the genuine punk movement,by its very premise, was meant to be impermanent, as it could never stayisolated and untouched as long as it reached more and more people.Struggle as it may, punk was dragged onto the assembly line.
Though argument will always come from the punk “underground”—pockets of communities devoted to keep punk as a counterculture—what they possess, atbest, is only a shadow of punk’s former self. Kept in the dark, hidden from greater public participation, and most importantly, divorced from the general frustrationand unease of its original setting, present-day punk only appears as inherited, asa hand-me-down.

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