Remember when punk rock wasn’t something you bought in the mall?


Originally published on my other blog, blahblahblah.pyradraculea.com

“I’m, like, so punk rock today. You like my boots?”

It was the early to mid 2000s. The news director of our college radio looked at me with an expectant look in her eye as the gold spray-painted bust of Lenin looked on from the shelf in the newsroom. She was wearing the same thick-soled knee-high black boots I’d bought at Aldo a month earlier, black tights, and a plaid miniskirt I saw at the local mall’s Mariposa.

While it must have seemed to her the most natural thing in the world to consider punk a thing that could be put on and taken off with less thought and commitment than it takes to decide to which dress to wear on your next date. (Is a dress trying too hard? Maybe just wear nice jeans and a casual hippie top so he’ll think you’re low-maintenance.)

I was of an in-between generation, a few years older than her and perhaps just that little bit closer to the original punks to know that pretty much by definition, anything that could be bought in a mall wasn’t punk. Or at least not punk as-is. The original punks were in theory street urchins who simply wore what they had. The safety pins came from keeping things together as they fell apart. Later they got added in a kind of personalization frenzy, kinda like a young, alternative, rock n roll version of the later Bedazzler fad amongst grandmas.

I wasn’t exactly Johnny Rotten, but I’d spent a fair portion of my high school years trying my hardest. At the time I thought I was the most outside outsider that had ever outsided, but the reality was I was copying others just as much as my college radio cohort.

After skipping school attending a marijuana legalization rally with a friend one day, I was so taken with a fellow rallygoer’s hoodie with a rubber Halloween skeleton safety pinned to it that I immediately found a rubber skeleton of my own and pinned it to the back of a jacket. Of course, being a girl, I had to have a little extra bling so I also pinned assorted bits of costume jewelry around the skeleton and thought myself so original for it.

Let’s be honest, I was looking for attention. And I got it, a wee bit of bullying, but mostly just lots of schoolyard props for being all independent-minded-like.

I also listened with rapt attention to a music teacher’s tales of being a high school goth kid in Surrey, then went out and listened to most of the bands he said to listen to and set myself to dutifully copying Peter Murphy’s tight black jeans, pointy boots, and baggy top from the Bauhaus videos while swapping in Robert Smith’s hair.

So… there I was with my hacked-off hair dyed black, teasing it up and crimping the ends because that was the thing to be done. It was the correct answer for how to do goth punk hair and if there was one thing I was good at in high school, it was regurgitating correct answers, be it on homework, exams, or my head.

I wasn’t immune to treating punk more as a style to be consumed, either, though only a few basics like black leggings and black sweatshirts could be acquired at the local mall in the early 90s. The rest came from pilgrimages to the rock stores downtown. Band shirts, studded belts, wristbands, and the like came from The Rock Shop, and assorted “punk bracelets” (actually BDSM restraints but that flew over my head for another 5 years or so) and all manner of items in red plaid and/or black PVC came from a place called The Underground. CDs, books, and posters came from a few blocks over on Seymour Street back when there was still a row of indie record shops there.

And while I studied a bit in school to get my straight As, I put far more effort into studying the likes of Jon Savage’s England’s Dreaming and as many books on the Sex Pistols as I could find.

I suppose this wasn’t really new, being a continuation of my grade school obsession with devouring every copy of Metal Edge, Circus, and RIP that I could get my hands on and plaster my bedroom walls with, reading all about the likes of Guns N Roses, Faster Pussycat, L.A. Guns, and more, and buying the same bands’ cassettes at Discus in the local mall with whatever allowance money didn’t go to buying the magazines.

If you had a band in LA in the 80s that had teased up hair and tight leather pants, I had a preteen opinion on which of your guitarists was the cute one. (Unless you were L.A. Guns, because in that case it was obvious that the cute one was the bassist, Kelly Nickels, instead.)

I wonder now if that drive to treat a musical identity as a thing to be purchased and consumed is a female thing or a cultural thing. Certainly my older brother was more inclined to live his metalhead years, playing in bands and going to shows and everything that goes with being in the scene, but then, to this day he’s an avid record collector as well.

That said, I think of other female hobbies. I’ve seen gals whose lives revolved around their favorite dance forms (be it belly or pole) who became obsessed not only with learning the moves but with watching every DVD and every YouTube clip and amassing as much of the costuming and related knickknacks as possible. We’re seeing the same now with geek girls and cosplay at conventions, there’s the ongoing cliché about quilters and knitters with their stashes of fabric or yarn overrunning the house, and of course entire TV networks and retail chains have succeeded on the female drive to be trendy with one’s interior design choices.

Are we filling a void? Are we hoarding for imaginary future need? Is it an innate female thing related to the nesting instinct somehow? Or a kind of mental magpie syndrome, woman as active collector of resources and passive recipient of culture?

Or is it just another way we look for approval, the same way the news director was hoping I’d tell her how perfectly punk she was and ignore that she was consuming a mass-produced co-option of something that in theory was supposed to be all about DIY and individual expression and rebellion?

I say “supposed to be” since so much of the style was invented by Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood in their designer boutique shop and sold to kids like Johnny Rotten who might not have been a rich suburban brat but who did still live at home with his parents when he joined the Sex Pistols. And the Pistols were semi-orchestrated, just as McLaren had had a hand in directing the New York Dolls before them.

Rebellion, but at the direction of the manager or the record label. Sometimes going off the plantation, more often not. And the fans followed the following stars, especially as far as fashion was concerned.

I recall an old goth scene friend with her new custom corset outfit, wanting everyone to gush over it and also know it was a one of a kind (just like all the rest) made for her by a local designer. Oh, and you’d better believe we all just had to know it cost her $700, because that was just as vital to her validation.

Meanwhile, last year a dear friend of mine was gushing over how much he loved an army green shirt I have with a couple different embroidered rock-style patches on it. I think he was a bit disappointed to learn I’d bought it a couple years before from Forever 21 for $18 and it came exactly as he saw it with no DIY from me. (Psst… no one tell him my favorite Guns N Roses and Ramones t-shirts also came from Forever 21, OK?)

So it occurred to me that in the end perhaps the mall-ification of punk wasn’t so much a dilution as it was a democratization. After all, if you’re going to buy your style, what difference – other than to your wallet – does it make whether it’s a niche boutique downtown or Mariposa in the suburban mall? Either way, it’s off the rack, and unless you’re making clothes from scratch, the main way you’d make your own style is through curating your collection of other people’s designs.

One can build an original seeming collection from Forever 21 and Old Navy and thrift store finds just as well as the latest and greatest from Lip Service and Vivienne Westwood. Pinky swear! (Especially since the only Lip Service shirt I still have is a black snap-front shirt with a buckle on the collar that I found for $10 at Value Village one day when the heavens opened wide and the gods smiled upon me.)

The point is, don’t take yourself and your style so damn seriously. Clothes don’t make the punk, that’s an attitude, and a mythical one at that, for the most part.

And at the end of the day we’re all suburban brats. The news director lead no authentic punk life as she went to school to study something useless and fluffy on her daddy’s dime and tried on different identities. And my biggest problem in life isn’t crushing poverty or drug addiction or fighting a government I hate (though there is that, but it’s tucked down on my list of problems somewhere below trying to get my hair to have more volume but above trying to perfect a homemade pizza recipe); no, my biggest problem is trying to find a husband now that I’ve left it til my my late 30s.

Think I’ll pick three chords and write a song complaining about it.

And on the suburban brat note, back to me in high school. The funny thing is that despite my self-proclaimed outsider status, throughout it all I remained near enough to the epicentre of the popular crowd. I was friendly with all the football team members and their cheerleader girlfriends despite being one of the weird artsy kids. So much so that I realized – 20 years too late – I could have been a cheerleader myself had I had the inclination.

Sometimes the barriers to acceptance you think you have are the ones you put on and actually no one minds at all. They might even think you’re cool in spite of or because of them.

Way to fight the system, Pyra.

But back to college radio and those punk boots.

I seem to recall feeling a bit sadistic that day or maybe it was just that I never liked that news director and saw an opportunity.

“Oh yeah, $150 at Aldo, right? I got the same ones from my local mall last month. Did you get that skirt at Mariposa? I was wondering when it was gonna go on sale, so…”

She scowled. I won.

Well, it ain’t Johnny Rotten spitting at his fans, but it was punk enough for me.

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