Slate runs a discussion between their frequently boneheaded critic Stephen Metcalf and Simon Reynolds, the English author of Rip It Up and Start Again, a history of what they call post-punk, but what everybody back in the old days called New Wave. It's actually fairly good. Metcalf is insightful about some of the identity politics behind punk and post-punk -- that white musicians were attempting to come up with something that wasn't just another development of a style invented by blacks. The two of them can't really come up with a common denominator of what this highly fertile era was for, but they are good on what it was against. Metcalf writes:
Punk rock, you argue, burned hard, burned fast, and burned out quick: The Ramones debuted in '76, their hopped-up, rootsy, retro-garage sound hopped quickly across the pond, the Pistols and the Clash hit big, and by the summer of 1977, the whole thing was already a wearisome cliché. In 1978, the Pistols "auto-destructed," as you put it, and the Clash (this is me now) turned into an FM-friendly classic rock band. (I would say, to their credit; and would love to hear what you think of the London Calling period.)
That was roughly my view in 1978 when I was reviewing records for the Rice U. newspaper (although the Clash's London Calling, certainly the greatest album of the era, is perhaps more world music, avant la lettre, than classic rock). Metcalf continues:
A quick list of bands that were postpunk, or had roots in postpunk, would include the Talking Heads, U2, Gang of Four, Devo, the B-52s, Joy Division, the Cure, Public Image Ltd., Echo & the Bunnymen, the Specials, the Human League...
If I trace out the influence correctly, and in its broadest terms, postpunk's first contribution to pop was its refusal to hew to the old guitar-based formulas of rock 'n' roll. The '80s synth sound comes out of postpunk, as does an angular, choppy, anti-blues style of guitar-playing that now dominates rock 'n' roll (cf Franz Ferdinand, Interpol, the Libertines). You describe the new sound beautifully, so let me let you:
Rather than rama-lama riffing or bluesy chords, the postpunk pantheon of guitar innovators favored angularity, a clean and brittle spikiness. They shunned solos, apart from brief bursts of lead integrated with more rhythm-oriented playing.
The sound was self-consciously new; the attitude, meanwhile, was very anti-hippie, anti-'60s, anti-peace and love (as punk had been), but also anti-'70s druggy malaise.
My teenage son listens to KROQ, the "new rock" station, just like I did from 1977-1982, and the music sounds about the same as in 1982, which I never expected back then. The synthesizers of 1982 are seemingly gone, and most of the girl singers other than Gwen Stefani have been banished, but the guitar rock of 2006 sounds an awful lot like the guitar rock of 1982. Popular music changed so incredibly rapidly for most of the 20th Century that in 1982 the idea that it would hardly change at all in the next quarter century was unthinkable.
To me, it's weird that my son listens to my opinions on his generation's rock music with respect. When I tell him that his new album by The Libertines, their 2003 release Up the Bracket, sounds good enough to be from 1978, he takes that a lot better than if my father had told me in 1978 that my Talking Heads album "More Songs about Buildings and Food" sounded like it was from 1951.
Much of what pop music is for is to allow teens to try out different personae as they try to identify with different stars. The New Wave era emphasized quite a few different personae, such as the lovable loser (The Ramones), the smart tough guy (The Clash), the fop (various British synthesizer bands like Duran Duran), and the nerd (Devo and Talking Heads). The nerd turned out to be most important in the long run, as the spread of computer technology liberated him from audio-visual club geekdom.
When I was at Rice, a science-engineering school full of nerds, Devo and Talking Heads were liberating for the students. Although Black people had gotten bored with rock and roll about two decades before and moved on to other things, mainstream rock was still trying to keep it the same just in case black people ever came back to reclaim their music. It was like South Pacific cargo cultists waiting for John Frum to come back.
Okay, okay, was my feeling, the blues had been great, but we'd all heard those same riffs a million time. So, when "Devo" did their robotic demolition of the Rolling Stones's "Satisfaction," the message was that you didn't have to pretend anymore that you were cool like Mick Jagger, that you weren't what Norman Mailer praised as a "White Negro." You were a white nerd instead and that was who you were.
Talking Heads were a funk band, but they were also the whitest band in the world. When they covered Al Green's "Take Me to the River," they, unlike everybody since Elvis, weren't trying to sound black. They weren't trying to sound like the Rev. Al. He's got soul, but David Byrne had his own kind of white geek soul.
Metcalf makes some insightful remarks about the difference between British and American culture. A lot of it comes down to the degree of male preening permissible.
One thing we're missing and likely will never locate in American culture is the great U.K. tradition of heterosexual wimpiness that runs from at least Keats ...If you're an American, the very ideas of "literate, playful, witty, camp" conjure up a gender indeterminacy that makes many American males squeamish ... As someone imprisoned within a bizarrely testosterone-addled culture, it seems to me that the hermetically sealed universe of grad student twee ... does have a larger significance.
What Metcalf is getting at here is the influence of the aristocratic tradition in Britain, as seen in, say, Brideshead Revisited. (Much of William F. Buckley's glamour stemmed from his importing English styles of upper class boyish narcissism and charm.) As I wrote in "Decline of the Metrosexual" in The American Conservative:
The aristocratic and religious arts that make up the high culture of Western Civilization were part of a thousand year project to restrain and redefine the unbridled masculinity of all those Conan the Barbarians who poured into the old Roman Empire at the beginning of the Dark Ages. The aptly named Vandals and their cohorts were slowly converted into knights, who were supposed to know not only how to fight, but also how to appreciate the finer forms of music, painting, sculpture, theater, dance, conversation, and dress...
We Americans claim to be a classless society, so the social pressures to study the traditional aristocratic arts were always less in America, and are declining even more. Ballet schools, for example, need male dancers to partner all the little girls who want to be ballerinas, but they've given up on finding enough American boys. Instead, they try to recruit lads from immigrant families from more class-ridden lands that are attracted to the old snob appeal of ballet.
In contrast, white Americans tend to assume that anyone who acts dandyish must be a homosexual (assuming they are not black -- African-Americans males are of course seen as so masculine that they are free to be almost as narcissistic as possible, to sing in falsetto voices, to wear purple, or whatever, until they get completely out of control Michael Jackson-style) rather than a social climber, so we don't get as much of it as in Britain.
I think one reason I prefer the brand of epicene rock ... a friend has labeled, hilariously, "sissycore" is, in addition to being a committed sissy, I prefer it to rock's more masculinist ideal.
I must confess that I liked it all, the heterosexual wimpiness of The Cure, with "In-Between Days" as my all time favorite of theirs, and the political machismo of The Clash, exemplified by "Death or Glory." Joe Strummer of The Clash was so masculine that he refused to write lyrics about girly stuff like personal feelings and, well, girls. Joe was like a very intelligent, very tough 10 year old boy who thought his older brother used to be cool until he discovered girls and now he just likes stupid squishy stuff.
This, as you deftly point out, often slid into a romance with fascist imagery during the punk and postpunk era—at one point or another, the Clash, the Pistols, the Ramones, Pil, and Joy Division all played with swastikas or related imagery. This co-existed with a powerful streak of fringe leftism that animated punk and postpunk, though the contradiction is easy enough to account for: Both were responses to a drastic spike in U.K. unemployment in the late '70s that created an avid culture of dead-enders in search of an extreme politics. All the poses of the '60s were suddenly considered not only suspect but revolting; and this led to some pretty extreme posturing.
Definitely. Leftist punk rockers doth protest too much. It is, of its nature, a far, far rightist-sounding music. The freikorps ex-soldiers in Germany after WWI who went around beating up Communists would have loved punk. (It's not a coincidence that the song that launched the punk era was the Ramones's "Blitzkrieg Bop.") Metcalf continues:
Now I think we can begin to piece together an idea about the English mainstream and the American mainstream. The American mainstream revives itself almost always on the backs of the legacy of Jim Crow. For the black experience, of course, is where innovation meets commercial success in American music history, from Satchmo and Ellington and Billie Holiday, to Miles and Coltrane and Sly and George Clinton and Prince and Chuck D. So familiar are we in my country with this maneuver, that when a band like Pere Ubu expands into a sound so completely outside the tradition of jazz, soul, funk, it boggles our mainstream tastes completely.
Unfortunately, the remarkable musical innovativeness of blacks seems to have ground to a halt with the invention of rap at the end of the 1970s. I don't know why. Perhaps blacks do their best work when they feel the pressure to impress whites. Nowadays, white people just want blacks to show off their worst -- "You Know It's Hard Out Their for a Pimp"" -- and blacks give whites the hip-hop minstrel show they want.
Of course, nobody else is doing much innovating in music either.
Which brings us to one final topic: authenticity. I wonder if you could talk more about how odd that dialectic is in the postpunk movement. After all, authenticity was rescued from a set of petrified counterculture clichés by bands that trampled all over the twin paradigms of authenticity—the hey, man, that singer-songwriter, he speaks to my soul of folk—and the endless attempts by white middle-class teens to appropriate the attitudes of blacks.