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Green Day recently made their theater debut with American Idiot, a Broadway show based on their last two albums. This angered a friend of mine. “It’s a joke,” he said. “They pose as a new-age Clash, and they take the show to Broadway? What’s punk about jazz hands?”
If 1991 was “the year punk broke,” then Kurt Cobain was the man who broke it. Cobain once defined punk with one word: freedom. By my friend’s definition, there’s nothing “Punk” about jazz hands. And he’s right. But by Cobain’s definition, there’s everything punk about jazz hands. Punk is the freedom to take your music anywhere you want.
I prefer Cobain’s definition for two reasons:
1) It’s inclusive. It looks for reasons to like something rather than reasons to dislike it.
2) It acknowledges a truth that purists of any genre (punk, metal, jazz, etc.) willfully ignore: successful artists actually have more freedom.
Take James Cameron. After Titanic shattered every box office record in history, was he beholden to Hollywood for future films? Was he consumed by the enormous pressure of a follow-up? Was he financially obligated to make a certain type of movie within a certain time frame?
Nope. In fact, the opposite occurred. Titanic‘s unprecedented success gave him unprecedented creative freedom–it bought him the leverage to do whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted. As many have written, Avatar might be the first truly independent film in American history–the product of one man’s singular and unrestricted vision, a project where money and time were no object and outside pressure had no influence. For better or worse, Avatar was Jim Cameron’s movie. He was free to make anything, and that’s what he made.
Radiohead self-releasing In Rainbows and letting fans pay what they want for the album? Punk.
In Rainbows debuting at #1, selling 3 million copies worldwide, and opening the door for a new music business model? Uberpunk.
U2 skipping the southeast for tours (how many folks in Little Rock can afford those tickets?) but playing halftime for the Saints’ first televised game since Katrina? Not punk.
Music, at its best, can reach anyone at anytime. It can transcend its medium. It can support new audiences. It connects regardless of age, or background, or aesthetic prejudice. I think punk’s big enough to support this kind of music. I know Green Day’s great enough to make it.
What Green Day, Nirvana, Radiohead, and even U2 understand (and what so many purists of some nebulous punk credo don’t) is simple: to win the game, you have to play the game. To operate with true impunity–to really Damn the Man–you have to buy your independence. You have to earn leverage. You have to play the game to win it.
And the best way to play that game is to bring people in, to use a pop song to subvert a pop audience. Punk isn’t a rigid rulebook, a purist philosophy, a dress-code, or an angry diatribe sung to four people who already agree. It’s Outkast getting dance-happy sorority girls to sing along with “y’all don’t wanna hear me, you just wanna dance.” It’s Dylan getting every generation–both the establishment and the youth–to sing “your old road is rapidly aging.” It’s Green Day getting a Bible-Belt arena to sing along with “East Jesus Nowhere.” It’s It’s Green Day getting a theater-full of academics and patricians to enjoy music they typically wouldn’t listen to.
If punk is freedom, then punk is Green Day on Broadway. And if punk isn’t freedom, then it’s serving a lifetime sentence.
And I’m happy on the outside, clapping from the mezzanine.