Punk Needs New Ideas

The current state of punk is actually great. It's just been done before.

Nov 13 2014, 4:35pm

A few years ago, I was at a hardcore show with a friend of mine who claimed punk was a dead genre that hadn’t produced anything genuinely new in over a decade. My initial response was to call bullshit; the idea that “punk is dead” is a cartoonishly tired cliche. I countered his argument with a lengthy list of new bands I felt were killing it. My memory is hazy, but that list probably included The Menzingers, Title Fight, Iron Chic, and half of the Tiny Engines’ and Topshelf Records’ rosters. His response? All of those bands sound like they could have come out of the 90s and, as much as it left me frustrated, I had to concede that he had a point.

Flash forward just a few years later, and that point has only gotten sharper. Take a look at what’s blowing up the most right now in punk, hardcore, and their extended subgenres, and it sounds as though everything old is new again. Midwestern emo has obviously enjoyed a resurgence recently, with bands like American Football, Mineral, Braid, and others reuniting and joining the stage with bands that sound… well, exactly like American Football, Mineral, and Braid. This development is awesome by itself, but as much as I love those bands, it’s hard to avoid the sense that 90s nostalgia is filling a void left by a shortage of anything new or interesting.

And that’s where there’s a problem.

While emo has gotten the most attention recently, it’s not the only genre currently mining music from the Clinton administration for inspiration. My Bloody Valentine’s (which, OK, predated Clinton by about five minutes, but bear with me) delay-drenched sound is all over the current crop of shoegaze bands, like Whirr and Nothing. Code Orange, undoubtedly one of the fastest-rising bands in hardcore right now, wouldn’t sound out of place on the mid-90s Victory Records roster (before that label turned into garbage). The Menzingers and a good portion of this year’s lineup at The Fest can draw a clear line back to influences like Hot Water Music and The Lawrence Arms. Fuzzed-out alt/indie guitar rock is making waves again too (see: Creepoid, Speedy Ortiz, and Beach Slang).

It doesn’t stop there. Nu-metal is making a comeback for whatever reason, as evidenced by the otherwise inexplicable success of stuff like Issues and Islander. On the more commercial side of pop-punk, Five Seconds of Summer (puke) may as well be Sum 41 (that would put them in the early 2000s, but close enough), and the entire easycore movement has been ripping off New Found Glory for years now. Even Deafheaven’s (absolutely ripping) Orchid-meets-Mayhem sound borrows directly from two established genres (screamo and black metal) that arguably hit their peak around 1999.

There’s a good reason why everything that was popular 15 to 20 years ago is coming back now, and that’s because 1) a lot of that shit was awesome and 2) even if it wasn’t, it at least resonated with people. Furthermore, there have always been bands playing 90s-influenced emo, shoegaze, metallic hardcore, and indie/alt-rock; all that’s changed is there are now a lot more of them getting more attention from a wider audience. For better or worse though, these things have become trends.

And with any trend, there’s bound to be a backlash.

While there’s an entire generation of kids retreading the past, albeit as well or better than their source material, there’s just not enough else that’s genuinely new or interesting gaining the same kind of traction. Part of what made bands like Texas Is The Reason, Unbroken, Slowdive, or (insert your choice of popular 90s archetypal band here) interesting in the first place was they were doing things that were new in their time. They had an energy and a vitality that contributed to the culture and identity of the generation they came from. Bringing those sounds back now isn’t bad in itself, but it’s tough for a generation to claim an identity of its own with that same kind of vitality when it’s stealing so much of what it has wholesale from the one that came before it.

That kind of complacency is going to lead to stagnation, and stagnation leads to shit getting boring. As Refused once said, “We need new noise.”

Same as it ever was.

So, what do we do about this? Maybe one or all of a few things. For one, it’d be ridiculous to advocate that labels abandon what they’re most passionate about, but there’s probably room within the punk/hardcore/indie rock/whatever world to take more chances of bands doing new things rather than consistently relying on safe bets. Conversely, maybe kids starting bands should try looking beyond what’s been done and try doing something different. It’s not as though we need anything radically new and completely unheard of before, but a less paint-by-numbers approach to ripping off the past would be a step forward.

The press isn’t off the hook either. How fucking many clueless “emo revival” articles did we have to suffer through from places that would NEVER have covered the genre in the first place? Covering what’s culturally relevant is important, but so is telling the world about things it hasn’t heard before. When being at the forefront of what’s cool means beating a dead horse, then something has gone wrong.

And maybe there’s a role for technology to play in this. While music recommendation engines— Spotify, Last.fm, Pandora, and so on—are excellent tools for finding new bands, they often lead you down a path of just finding more of what you already like, and not much beyond that. When you’re always able to find more of what you’re already into, there’s less reason to branch out. There’s probably a lot of money out there for anyone who can make a legitimate music discovery platform instead of something that just regurgitate more of what you already like.

For now though, what’s likely to happen—and what I fear most—is that too many copycat bands jumping on various parts of the 90s bandwagon are ultimately going to lead to a massive case of collective burnout. There is a lot of good music coming out right now, but when so much of it is so focused on mining the past for nostalgia, ideas are going to have to run dry eventually and there’s a real risk that the resulting backlash is going to send it all back to obscurity, and something else will have to take its place.

Here’s to the new what’s next. Hope it doesn’t suck.

Ben Sailer is on Twitter - @bensailer