The word "punk" gets thrown around a lot these days, to the point where it's tough to tell exactly what it means. Has punk become just a worn-out term with no meaning? The short answer is yes. The long answer is also yes.
Punk officially got its start in 1974, when the Ramones formed in Queens, New York, but its roots go back at least to the Stooges, who formed in 1967. The Stooges laid the groundwork for future punk bands by playing loud, aggressive riffs and choosing a howling madman as their lead singer.
Not pictured: self-mutilation
Despite the obvious handicap of being out of their fucking minds, the Stooges managed to release several contenders for GREATEST ROCK ALBUM OF ALL TIME. Alongside other acts, like MC5, the Stooges cemented the Garage Rock genre, which is still awesome to this day (thanks mostly to Jack White). They also inspired a number of similarly aggressive, edgy acts, including New York Dolls, who somehow managed to invent hair metal while playing Chuck Berry-style blues rock.
If this doesn't make you uncomfortable, nothing ever will.
Then the Ramones burst onto the scene and it was a great time to be an American. Punk rock was blossoming, disco made it easier than ever to identify and mock tools, and- best of all- the limies still didn't know about it. That is, until the Sex Pistols went and ruined it for everybody by letting Europe in on this cool new thing from Queens. Also, Johnny Rotten is an ugly motherfucker.
Exibit A: Johnny Rotten is an ugly motherfucker
But, what was done could not be undone, and soon London was a bustling hub of punky activities- everything from dying hair pink, to dying hair black, to styling hair into mohawks. These trends culminated in the greatest of the London punk bands, The Clash. If you know what a casbah is, you probably owe it to these guys. And even if you don't, you probably still thought that song rocked.
THEY ALL HAVE PENISES.
So, punk had crossed the Atlantic and gotten uglier along the way. What was next for this exciting, still-relevant music movement? It was back to the good ol' U.S. of A., now home to even angrier white people! In cities from D.C. to the West Coast, a new 'hardcore' sound was developing, one that was even harsher and more agressive punk music for even harsher and more aggressive fans. Offshoots of this movement were as diverse as the straight-edgers and the skinheads, and the movement was notable for its DIY stance on production and distribution. Fun fact: Henry Rollins of Black Flag got buff because disgruntled fans started trying to beat the shit out of him at shows.
That's right. THIS GUY was gitting hit at shows.
Unfortunately, it was at this point that punk began running out of steam, and while increasingly unpleasant undergound forms of it began appearing (check out 'crust punk' if you want to see some terrible people), as a broader musical movement it became incorporated into the mainstream pop, rock, and New Wave music of the time. Punk would not see a resurgence until groups like the Pixies came around and paved the way for a garage rock revival and the birth of grunge. You may notice that the Pixies' frontman resembles Andrew Zimmern.
Left: Inventor of Grunge. Right: Guy who finds testicles delicious.
Of course, this lead to great bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam, true heirs to punk's proud heritage. But it also led to some less-spectacular acts, which brings us to our next section....
Seriously, these guys are douchebags
Okay, so there's more to it than just Green Day. But if you ever find yourself wondering why most good punk songs are under 3 minutes, try listening to '21 Guns.' It's so infuriating it might drive you to listen to actual punk music.
Okay, so this one was alright. But their new stuff is yak balls.
Other culprits include Blink 182, sum 41, and the various other numbered bands of the latter nineties and early 2000's. Their music had many of the superficial traits of punk music- fast, musically simple riffs, inane lyrics- but had a poppy, kid-friendly vibe that betrayed the fact that punk had totally stopped being edgy. The dawn of the new millenium marked the point where punk's marketable qualities had been skillfully maximized, and its more subversive properties stripped away. In other words, punk had become lame.
This guy agrees.
And now, a decade into this new century, punk rock has deteriorated into a sub-genre I like to call "White Kids in V-Necks." These "WKVs", as they will be referred to hereafter, are the unfortunate bastards who grew up on Green Day and Blink 182, and are now armed with disposable incomes, power chords, and a vast wardrobe of brightly-colored v-necks. They make up nearly 85% of Warped Tour's non-scene attendees, and would resemble the innocuous pop rockers of generations past if not for the fact that they can now capitalize on the heritage of punk rock to play music of lobotomy-inducing directness and simplicity.
Prime examples. Note the hair that looks like an unbrushed Schnauzer.
The good news is that good punk never went away, it's just gotten a little trickier to find. An ungodly alliance of punk and folk has been producing some great stuff recently, and gypsy punk (as in, punk played by real, literal gypsies) is also taking off, spearheaded by groups with names like Gogol Bordello. Even "artsy," "experimental" groups like The Mars Volta and TV on the Radio have made some great punk music (go listen to The Bedlam in Goliath or Return from Cookie Mountain and tell me there's nothing punky about them). In fact, the Mars Volta are actually the result of a split in classic post-punk band At the Drive-In, who were wild enough to land a guest vocal from punk's original howling madman, Iggy Pop, on their 2001 album Relationship of Command. And, of course, garage rock never even went underground, with folks like the White Stripes, Weezer, and Foo Fighters scoring hits all over the damn place.
Look into the face of punk and be afraid.
In conclusion, all is not lost. And I think we can all be grateful the 3-foot mohawk is out.