Packing for Punk Rock Bowling last Friday, I realized that I no longer own a studded belt! Also apparent, at some point I must have gotten rid of a pair of spiked cuffs and a rhinestone dog collar that would’ve completed the perfect “punk” ensembles I wanted to wear over the weekend. I did hold onto the red plaid wool bondage pants I bought in London two decades ago (too hot) and the zipper-covered cheerleader-style skirts I fancied in the '90s (too short for day… for me anyway). Ultimately, I packed and wore some of my usual mini-dresses, fishnets, combat boots and converse, and wore my long red hair in a pony-tail (though I am a couple egg-whites away from a killer faux-hawk).
Discussing punk and fashion is a tricky thing. Punk was about rebellion, being weird, dangerous and basically looking like gutter trash. Old punks especially, hate how it’s become a “style” that can be bought in the mall at Hot Topic, and worse still, mainstream outlets like Target. Is there anything less “punk” then buying a Sex Pistols t-shirt with your milk and deodorant? Or, is the irony in that actually is “punk”? That bugger Johnny Rotten might say yes, especially these days. And what about “high fashion” and couture incorporating aspects of punk on the runway? I mean, didn’t Vivienne Westwood invent the aesthetic –along with Malcom McClaren and the infamous SEX store in the UK- anyway? Either way, I think most would agree that “vintage” punk and even metal tees being re-sold to trust fund brats who know like one song by the band emblazoned on their chests, and/or used by stylists on popstars who haven’t got the cred (or a clue), aint right. Co-opting punk to seem edgy or badass or simply because it looks cool, just isn’t.
Punk is not a costume and yet, at Punk Rock Bowling in Las Vegas last weekend we saw the exact same one again and again… and again. Mohawks in every color of the rainbow, tattoos so plentiful the individual pieces don’t matter, piercings, fishnets, offensive tees, combat boots, leathers, denim jackets and vests swathed with band patches, enamel pins and buttons, and plenty of the aforementioned collars, cuffs, and belts, with studs or hazardous-looking spikes.
The thing is, these looks were hardly even seen on stage this year. Punk Rock Bowling, which began 19 years ago, evolving from a bowling tournament among friends (mostly LA and OC-based hardcore bands) and concert, into a full blown multi-day festival, has always featured seminal punks as headliners, bands who may have rocked the typical punk rock gear and hair in their heyday, but who did away with the audacious accoutrements years ago. Though PRB might be more purist genre-wise than say, Warped Tour (the upcoming It’s Not Dead fest seems to be as well), it has always celebrated the pioneers of punk’s past while incorporating new bands of the present. Fidlar who played Sunday, and shared some of their newer grungier material alongside their early drinking anthems, were a good example of a group who didn’t fit the old school mold but still made some sense and not just because two of them are TSOL’s Greg Kuehn’s offspring.
Of course we’re talking about So Cal punk here for the most part. New York punk and the CBGB’s scene was much more all over the place (its kings The Ramones rocked long hair after all). LA and OC punks gravitated towards similar embellishments –crazy colored hair, tattered tees and jeans, etc.- and other contingents such as goth, metal and recently steampunk/Burning Man culture had borrowed from hardcore looks here too.
But PRB’s headliners , including Bad Religion, The Dickies, The Vandals, Bouncing Souls, The Real MacKenzies, Cock Sparrer, OFF! etc. pretty much all look like graying soccer dads these days (‘cause they are). And whether it’s because they feel too old to pull off “the look,” or simply outgrew it, the fact is the image they currently present to the world is in many cases divergent to the outsider anthems they continue to spew (Ok, not my buddy Keith Morris, but the rest yes).
Looking different and getting fucked with for it, is part of what punk is all about. And even though “punk” fashion has become normalized – hipster parents let their kids Manic Panic their hair blue in 3rd grade these days- there is still a statement to be made in looking severe. And punk style is about severity, whether that be a safety pin in one’s ear or bondage gear as accessory. For women, it’s about being tough and being able to hang (and bang around the pit) with the boys, but it’s about owning sexuality too. Scary heavy make-up, ripped stockings, and super short skirts that tweak the schoolgirl/tart fantasy. Punk chicks were owning their sexuality long before it became a feminist trend.
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Sadly there were hardly any women on stage at PRB this year to fuel comment about how this all currently reflects the music and its message. We saw some newer all-girl bands at the after-parties but noted only Aimie Allen of The Interrupters on the main festival stage. We’ll take this moment to suggest PRB talk to the following for headlining slots next year: Siouxsie Sioux, Courtney Love, Joan Jett, Debbie Harry, Exene Cervenka, Brody Dalle, Alice Bag (who did play a party this year), Dinah Cancer, Donita Sparks, Jayne County, Kim Deal, Kim Gordon… there’s no deficit of grinding grand dames still doing it on stage to choose from! And yeah, I’m curious what these ladies might wear to play a punk festival in 2018, but more importantly, I’m curious about what they’d say.
For a new generation of guys and gals, the archetypal punk look is obviously alive and well. But as Iggy Pop made clear with his visceral performance donning nothing but jeans, long hair, and weathered torso, it’s not what defines the genre, and it never really was. Punk rock is about anarchistic antics and vociferous, pummeling, noisy music. It’s aggressive and unrelenting sonically and unapologetic lyrically. It’s still anti-establishment (and with our current political situation this is obviously more vital than ever). This music-driven mindset is manifested and expressed in many different ways these days, and whether that’s with a studded belt and mohawk or a simple t-shirt, it still comes from the same place- an outsider punk rock heart. I hope that never goes out of style.