Punk is Freedom

Never mind the bollocks, here’s the designer punk pumps and handbag.


We’ve seen this before. The commodification of punk rock happened a long time ago, back when it all began in the 1970s. This almost always happens with zeitgeist moments. So, nothing should surprise me and my seen-it-all punk rock soul at this point.

Punk rock is an attitude. An ethos. As a way of life, it has influenced much of how I navigate this world, for many decades now. I never had spiked hair or pierced my nose with a safety pin, but eventually I learned that’s all stereotypical window dressing anyway. Besides, I live in my Converse Chuck Taylor All Stars and have long, shaggy hair, like those old crusty New York gutter punks, the Ramones. Punk is everywhere and everything and having a punk rock spirit can manifest in many ways.

So when I see punk rock inspired high-end fashion these days I just chuckle. Not selling out was very important to me, to us, back in the day. But as we age our perspective on selling out changes. A designer slapping “Punk” all over a a handbag and a pair of stilettos—and the model pole dancing in them—doesn’t really faze me. Sure, the peace and anarchy symbols are cheesey, but more power to you if you can pull it off. A musician like St. Vincent (Annie Clark) could wear those shoes onstage today and rock them like nobody’s business—because she has the punk attitude to pull it off.

Punk has always lived at the intersections of art and commerce—last I checked, all those classic punk rock records were put out by record labels, and Vivienne Westwood’s and Martin McLaren’s London boutique SEX was selling fashion that defined the movement in the mid-1970s. Besides, fashion and fashion photography are their own art forms, and the influence of punk is everywhere, remember?

The modern conception of punk has survived and thrived—underground, at times—for more than fifty years now. But the spirit of it goes way back. So many of the 1970s artists who established punk as we know it were reading Burroughs and Rimbaud, and were steeped in various literary and cinematic educations that greatly influenced the work they produced. In Todd Hayne’s glam rock masterpiece Velvet Goldmine, we see a young Oscar Wilde acting as an early progenitor of glam, a musical form that shared DNA and artists with punk rock—Bowie being the best example, as he adored and took inspiration from punk pioneers like Lou Reed and Iggy Pop. Punk rock had been here for ages, but finally had its true coming out in the 1970s, thanks to a collection of artists who pushed the envelope and embraced the chaos and disorder of punk.

What is punk to me? It’s creativity. Freedom. Nonconformity. Not caring at all. Caring too much. Not backing down. Backing down when it’s the right time. Not selling out. Selling out when it’s the right move. Cribbing from your idols. Killing your idols. Not fading away.

It’s like punk rock high priestess Patti Smith once said:

“To me, punk rock is the freedom to create, freedom to be successful, freedom to not be successful, freedom to be who you are. It’s freedom.”

The punk rock spirit is the spirit of the artist. Take Patti’s word on that too:

I’m an American artist and I have no guilt

That’s from her spoken word song “Babelogue,” which itself stands as one of the most perfect expressions of punk rock ever written. The final line is absolutely epic and the sort of “fuck you” that only punk rock can deliver:

I have not sold myself to God

Art and commerce. Throw in a little religion too, just for good measure. Punk is a reaction to all of it; punk is everything and nothing, a blasphemous, roiling stew of contradictions, meant to offend and inspire, and it all depends on how punk rock you are as to which of those reactions you have. Me, I love the contradictions of punk, especially when they confuse and confound the squares who will never grasp the ethos. You’re either born with a punk rock soul or you’re not, I firmly believe that. You can seemingly convert, but it had to be inside you already; you just didn’t know it yet. Sometimes it takes an artist like Patti Smith to ignite that flame in you.

So, throw on your Chucks, spike your ‘do, or slap on some designer heels—just do you. Being true to yourself is the ultimate punk rock move. Nothing else matters.

I haven’t fucked much with the past
But I’ve fucked plenty with the future
Over the skin of silk are scars
From the splinters of stations and walls I’ve caressed

A stage is like each bolt of wood
Like a, like a log of Helen, is my pleasure
I would measure the success of a night by the way, by the way I
By the amount of piss and seed I could exude
Over the columns that nestled the P.A.

Some nights I’d surprise everybody by skipping off
With a skirt of green net sewed over
With flat metallic circles which dazzled and flashed
The lights were violet and [Incomprehensible] white
I had an ornamental veil, I can’t bear to use it

With the way my hair was cropped, I craved, craved covering
But now that my hair itself is a veil
And the scalp inside is a scalp of a crazy
And a sleepy Comanche lies beneath this netting of skin

I wake up, I am lying peacefully
I am lying peacefully and my knees are open to the sun
I desire him and he is absolutely ready to seize me
In, in, in, in, in heart, I am a Muslim, in heart, I am an American
In heart, I am Muslim, in heart, I’m an American artist and I have no guilt

I seek pleasure, I seek the nerves under your skin
The narrow archway, the layers, the scroll of ancient lettuce
We worship the flaw, the belly, the belly
The mole on the belly of an exquisite whore
He spared the child and spoiled the rod
I have not sold myself to God

— Patti Smith, “Babelogue”

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