Jacobin Magazine pubblica la recensione a firma di Alexander Billet del libro We’re Not Here to Entertain: Punk Rock, Ronald Reagan, and the Real Culture War of 1980s America, l’ultimo lavoro dello storico statunitense Kevin Mattson.
In music, ubiquity breeds misunderstanding. The minute any genre breaks into the mainstream, its gestures and aesthetics become diluted, mass-marketed. The meaning that gave them urgency is boiled away. An insurgent scene, full of rebellion and creativity, is suddenly not so rebellious anymore, and far less creative.
This is what happens when art is commodified. Questions raised by this process are enough to stymie anyone preoccupied with the role of artistic expression. Does “turning rebellion into money,” as Joe Strummer once put it, necessarily neutralize authentic rebellion? Can a scene “go mainstream” without being sanitized — transforming the mainstream rather than the other way around?
These questions apply to virtually any artistic community over the last century, but they seem particularly contentious when punk is brought up. Nobody can deny the transformative impact punk rock has had on culture, evident in everything from couture fashion to the fact that Green Day continues to sell millions of records, with a hit Broadway show to their name, too.
On the other hand, no other milieu contains so many stubbornly crusading for purity, against the boogeyman of “the sellout”. Even the basic definition of “selling out” can spark intractable debates, further confusing the general perception of what punk’s values are and why they even matter. To most Americans, punk is about style over substance. Green hair, torn clothes, fast guitars.
This is truly tragic. Not only did underground punk — particularly of the late 1970s and early ’80s – have a huge impact on that wide pantheon of “indie rock,” but according to writer Kevin Mattson, it was for a short time a dynamic counterculture, testing the boundaries of a quickly conservatizing country.
In We’re Not Here to Entertain, Mattson paints a picture of 1980s punk as musically diverse, experimental, intellectually curious, and motivated by a growing need for some sort of radical change. There are the usual suspects: Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, Bad Brains, Minor Threat. There are also wildly inventive songwriters; radicals and avant-gardists; intellectuals, sci-fi writers, poets, filmmakers like Jim Jarmusch and Alex Cox; graphic artists like Raymond Pettibon and Gary Panter, and an endless list of scenes and zines.
The zines, many of them little more than xeroxed pamphlets, play an essential role in Mattson’s narrative. Virtually every metropolitan area had its underground scene in the early 1980s. Within each you would find local kids stapling photocopied pages together, containing everything from reviews of local shows to treatises on art and politics. Taken in toto, they are Mattson’s archive of American punk, its samizdat and communiqués, the basic unit of who and what it rejected and desired. Who the scene rejected is, to a degree, obvious. The book’s subtitle is “Punk Rock, Ronald Reagan, and the Real Culture War of 1980s America.”
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