Punk Rock IN Pence Country
written by Mike Templeton
In 1980’s Indiana, every small town had a little shop that sold records and skateboards. They were that one place, way before the advent of the internet, where kids could find tiny pieces of pop culture in order to form their own sense of cool. Though fairly unassuming, these stores somehow offered just what the local skate kids needed, this thing called Punk, which was innocently mixed in with the popular records of the time.
Hidden among top 40 radio hits were copies of the first Clash albums, along with some Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, and a few other titles. As only music has the power to do, these records managed to force open cracks in the façades of peaceful small Midwestern towns. Even now, some form of punk culture still seeps into this part of America for those few who simply refuse to be named in advance by the prevailing consumer culture. Punk still offers an escape tunnel for the weird kids, the kids who just cannot be like everybody else. This particularly dark escape tunnel continues to maintain one of the few real challenges to consumerist culture. Admittedly, punk was swept up into this machine almost as fast as it emerged, but it keeps reigniting in another form. It keeps popping up with the same intention, just a little differently each time. It always sustains its danger.
By the end of the 1970's, the choices left to the youth of America could be boiled down to feathered hair, disco, or some version of prog-rock on one end of the spectrum and Lynyrd Skynyrd on the other (to this day, their music conjures an olfactory memory that consists of piss, b.o., and Right Guard). The logic of the American suburb mixed with the shit legacy of hippie culture to breed a monster hybrid of over the top return to highly produced culture or a slick, but smelly, redneck aesthetic. The failure of peace and love to people coming of age in ’78 rather than ’68 was apparent. In the United States, the absolute humiliation of the Vietnam War and the disgraceful resignation of the president had shattered the high illusions of American Exceptionalism to many young people.
This disillusionment, mixed with the homogeneous malaise of suburban America, brought youth culture to a place where something had to give. American subdivisions had given rise to an endless regeneration of the same mediocre thing. Anyone who could not recognize himself or herself in this world was immediately made to feel just wrong. You had everything you could want, as long as it fell within the range of options fed to you from the corporate masters who owned the local mall. If you could not find your identity in The Gap, you could always try another retail outlet that offered a full uniform to fit whatever sense of self you had picked up from television, movies, or top forty album covers.
What happened in music culture on the U.S. coasts and in the United Kingdom dripped into the Midwest slowly in the days before MTV's 120 Minutes and the internet. Record stores like these were godsends to some of us. There was a population of young people who simply were not going to find themselves in the spectacular images produced by commodified culture. It was like a foreign language spoken by everyone they knew. The most bizarre form of alienation imaginable is to find yourself in a world that you cannot understand, but is completely inhabited by people you have known all your life.
The change came as bands like the New York Dolls, Ramones, and Iggy and the Stooges made their way into the Midwest. As corporate culture sought to sterilize and lobotomize pop culture, the Ramones came along with a theme song about being a teenage lobotomy and going to a rock and roll high school. It was perfect for small pockets of teens around the Midwest, and the rest of the country for that matter, because it was explosive.
Amy Britton offers an explanation of the earliest days of punk in the U.K. as a deliberate, situationist response to Thatcher’s economic depression. Essentially, situationism is the concept that external social factors force moments of response and some of these responses are explosive. American punk was a response to the rage of suburban youth who hated the bland and strangulating pseudo-culture of the subdivision and the corporate mall culture. And whereas the Sex Pistols and The Clash picked up the quasi-Marxist ideals of their handlers, American punks grabbed whatever was around them. They (we) were responding to the age of Ronald Reagan, the smiling hypocrite with the jellybeans on his desk.
Certainly, skateboard culture had everything to do with the Los Angeles and other West Coast punk scenes, but for many of us in the Midwest, cosmopolitan L.A. and New York might as well have been on the moon. The music coming out of those cultural centers was astounding and without a doubt the music of both coasts fueled punk in the heartland. But the music that came out of flyover country took its own form. Jason and the Scorchers more or less perfected cow-punk coming out of Nashville. The Reduced in Cincinnati created a scene of mutual bottle fights every time they played. (I saw them open for the Damned in ’88 and the place was such a minor riot that even the Damned were afraid to take the stage.)
While the list of punk bands that came out of Minneapolis is too long to name, Hüsker Dü is the most well known because the sound they created was unlike anything that had ever come before. Arguably, it is a far better example of American punk, and far more extreme, than the Pistols. Hüsker Dü is also famous for covering both the theme to the Mary Tyler Moore Show and “8 Miles High” by The Byrds. The goal, seemingly, to completely undermine the innocence of the former and the peace and love of the latter. Bob Mould sings these songs in a way that sounds like someone who has been set on fire. The point is that a great confluence of cultural anti-energy came together in the same way it gave rise to punk in the first place.
The consumerist culture that took over by the end of the 1970's was so pervasive that the only way to resist it was to use it against itself. Johnny Rotten once said that his response to the poverty of urban England in the ‘70’s, which materialized as piles of trash left in the streets from a garbage strike, was to actually wear the garbage. However, punk in America was a largely suburban phenomenon. The young people of Midwestern subdivisions took mall culture and weaponized it against itself. Fear, the Circle Jerks, Minor Threat, The Dead Kennedys, Black Flag—these bands were made up of mall kids just as much as they were made up of urban street kids. A song like “Gimme, Gimme, Gimme” speaks to a culture of consumption. Consumer culture was the enemy and the first point of attack.
The consumer culture has now completely subsumed and homogenized the cultural geography of the United States. Even in those areas that are not specifically suburban in the traditional sense, rural parts of the country, the urban centers, and small town, the logic of the subdivision has taken over. Target is as much the urban city center as it the center of the suburban beltways. For example, if you look at a town like Aurora, Indiana, the bulldozer of consumer culture is in the final phases of wiping out anything and everything that the town once was. Aurora is in the southeastern corner of Indiana, Mike Pence country, at a central point of the railroads and the Ohio River. It was once a key point in moving agricultural products from the heartland to the rest of the country via the railroad and the river.
Now, you approach a town like Aurora via a desolate four-lane state route that passes gravel pits, shitty old houses that are crumbling from the inside out, and a church for every sect of Christianity you can imagine. Besides gas stations, the bright lights of McDonald’s, and the desperate hold on Jesus, there is not much more to remind you that civilization is still here. High atop a hill, like a beacon to all who wander by, is the brand new Walmart. Beyond it is bare earth and asphalt, stripped in anticipation of more retail and fast food. All the markers of modern life are here, swallowing up the town, its culture, and everything around it in order to feed it into the machine of the contemporary subdivision. The old town center is hidden now, becoming forgotten even to the people who are still there.
Even as the old churches continued to hold service, the frayed edges of a meaningless belief is visible in a window of an abandoned gas station. A flyer for a fundamentalist religious group displaying a cheap, Xeroxed image of the Shroud of Turin surrounded by biblical messages begging for salvation. The tract is cheap and flimsy, just like the message it delivers. It came from Holy Wounds Apostolate, Inc. and offered an address to send a check or money order. God Incorporated came to town, and these are the kinds of things that appeal to the fringe of religion and to junkies on their way to the bottom. Here, at last, is the new spiritual center of every small town in the USA, where all sense of internal community is being effaced by the engine of consumer culture: the Walmartization of America. The shit logic of Walmart is now reality. There is no other reality. If you do not find yourself in Walmart, then there is no place for you.
The type of alienation that began in the 80’s is compounded under these conditions, with today's outsiders being pushed even further to the margins. Those who cannot find themselves in such an empty cultural moment are left with few alternatives, but might find solace in the voice of Lee Ving from Fear screaming “I don’t care about you. Fuck you!”
The same sentiment has come back around as the vapid cultural life of the 1980's has become even more intolerable in the 21st century. The same drives to homogeneity that gave rise to the earliest days of punk are even more pronounced in the age of computer generated stardom, YouTube, and social media; an age in which the merchandise is “click to buy,” easily enabling you to express yourself exactly like everyone else does.
As a result, just like they did in the first wave of punk rock, today young people refuse to simply see themselves in the society of the spectacle. They are escaping to nearby cities like Cincinnati, Louisville, and Lexington. Even within punk culture, we find stores like Hot Topic in the mall where any suburban kid can buy their insurrectionist counter-culture uniform, complete with buttons and slogans designed to appear as spectacular marks of resistance. This drives legitimate forms of critique to an alternative extreme. Punk rock still represents a stand against the consumer bullshit to the extent that punk culture manages to re-appropriate what was appropriated from them in the first place. Punk rock and punk culture reverse the relationship between corporate culture and the delusion it seeks to sustain.
In today’s punk clubs, you can witness people performing the same staged celebratory crap that superficially resembles what you’d see on The Voice or American Idol. However, in the world of punk, this spectacle takes on a subversive edge, staged in the total absence of the cult of celebrity. For example, the “host” of the show at the Southgate House Revival in Newport, Kentucky offers impromptu rhymes for the acts even as the meaning of the rhymes are lost by the deliberate ugliness of the “beauty” he announces. That pre-fab shit from Walmart is on display to be puked on by bands who enact the supermodel runway walk in clothes that have been ritualistically shredded. The homogenized style is handed back as the very thing is seeks to efface.
Punk culture takes the commodified versions of alternative culture and refashions it in ways it was never intended. This style manifests as a Barbie wristband worn by one of the original Murder Junkies. It is cheap makeup from Claire’s Boutique smeared around the eyes of a screaming face. The punk songs celebrate a complete capitulation to hipster culture even as it shoves images of the rural heartland right back at it. Punk bands from Pence country take on a semblance of the lost culture in the form of psychobilly bands singing about Jesus on a jet- ski, and they offer these messages in overblown performances of the culture of old time religion. That is why you find bands with names like The Pisswater Preachers.
Today, since it takes more than shredding clothes to reverse the pressure of consumer culture, punks are now prepared to shred their skin (branding has become more common). The most outrageous aesthetics are marketed in gentrified urban and suburban centers of commerce. For this reason, punk continues to reformulate the very thing that is commodified. Nothing is sacred in the punk culture. The bearded hipster drinking craft beer will find his counterpart in punk as a bearded freak tattooed up to his chin drinking PBR. It is as if the more the American consumer spectacle exerts itself, the more people are willing to actually mutilate themselves to get out from under it. The homogenizing forces of the 20th century subdivision created its own monsters in punk. They still do today.