genre theory and Situationists and British punk and post-punk subculture
Genre theory is this thing where academics try to define what constitutes a genre and what meets the requirements for entry into said genre once it’s been defined. But it’s not as easy as “horror,” “science fiction,” “romance,” you get the idea, because genre isn’t the only way to categorize media. There are also modes, styles, themes, techniques, formulae… how do you decide when something is a genre and when it’s a mode? If you have a comedy television show set on a spaceship, is the genre “science fiction” and the mode “sitcom?” Or vice versa? Is one a sub-genre or a super-genre? If you read a sad play, is the genre “drama,” or is that the mode? or the style? or the technique? Is the genre “tragedy,” or is that the theme? or the technique? or the style?
So genre theory. Breaks your brain. And those are just the genres that theorists try to define! Media consumers, fans, the general public, categorize things completely differently. Do you guys have Netflix? Have you seen the categories it creates? ”Obscure grainy black-and-white films about angry British pilots who suspect they may be gay but aren’t brave enough to explore that facet of their identities!” You see what I mean?
This stuff is all easy until you actually think about it, though, right? Like, you can think of a film and go, oh, that’s an action film, and then you think, why is it an action film? There are guns and explosions, but there’s also a spaceship (so why isn’t it science fiction?) and a pretty girl (so why isn’t it romance?) and what’s the actual definition of an “action” film and what makes something not an action film even if it has guns and explosions? What makes it cross over the line to another genre? How do you define any of those genres in the first place?
And then everything runs roughshod over arbitrary genre lines anyway, so even if you’ve managed to overcome the problem of extension to actually define a genre, you face normativism in trying to decide what belongs to that genre and monolithism in trying to decide what genre a particular thing is and what do these words even mean genre theory is confusing
So the Situationist movement (they didn’t like the word “situationism” because it implied a doctrine, a notion they rejected because they considered ideologies to be repressive delusions) was this idea that you could construct and transform your own life, and other people’s, by critically analyzing that life and, essentially, going after what you really wanted – by actively creating “situations” in your environment that enabled you to achieve your desires.
The idea is that all of this is concrete, that it’s based in art and politics and humanity and everyday life, and that none of those can ever be separated from the others. In short, the Situationists believed in concepts like the idea that false divisions create structure where none truly exists and prevent artistic and political subversion; that it’s the responsibility of society to turn artificial structures and false freedoms against themselves; that no art is fully separate from the politics of its time and place; and that this connection extended to not only outwardly-expressed art, but even the emotions and ideals of individuals.
Basically, Situationists were crazy punk rock, all “revolutionize the establishment” and “create your own ideals” and “art is political” and “life defies strictures.”
You see where I’m going with this?
So let’s talk about punk rock.
Punk rock is a situation: it creates a subculture, influences the mainstream, tells us it’s okay to be dissatisfied with the status quo. It shows us how to defy what we don’t believe in and that we’re not alone in our disaffection. It spreads like wildfire, because it’s gritty and real and ready to fight and it breaks the spectacle (a Situationist idea, the surface appearance of satisfaction and happiness in a degraded society). You’re not happy? Punk rock isn’t happy, either. And you know what? Punk rock believes that something can, something should, be done about it, and that you should be the one doing it.
Punk rock is the epitome of destroying the separation between art and politics. Punk is politics, as much as it is art. Punk is the defiance of the capitalism that leaves the average punter begging on a street corner; it’s the rude gesture at the governments that take away rights and create rifts in society; it’s the massive “fuck you” to any society that needs punk rock, because if freedom and equality are the subversive message, then something is deeply, deeply wrong.
You want to see punk that is simultaneously art and politics, punk that defies genre theory in the extreme because there’s no way to categorize this, punk that is rock and reggae and rhythm and blues and Clashabilly and Clashrockers and fifteen other genres that Joe Strummer had to invent and one genre that he just called “strange” because it completely defied description? You want to see art that cries out, “here’s what’s wrong, we’re not stupid, we can see it and we’re gonna fix it?” Here. Here. Here. Here. Here. Here. Here. Here.
Punk breaks the spectacle like nothing ever did before, stands on the shoulders of a thousand other movements from the Situationists to the drunken pub-rockers and changes the world.
But that’s not all.
In the immortal words of Tony Wilson, “Punk enabled you to say, ‘fuck you,’ but somehow it couldn’t go any further. It was just a single, venomous, one-syllable, two-syllable phrase of anger, which was necessary… But sooner or later, someone was going to want to say more than ‘fuck you.’ Someone was going to want to say, ‘I’m fucked.’”
And that’s post-punk.
What is post-punk? Is that a genre? How can it be a genre when by its very definition all it means is “the thing that follows in the footsteps of punk?” Is that acid house, is that rave culture, is that Madchester, is that the depressive stylings of Joy Division or the electronic rhythms of the Happy Mondays, is that the harsh sounds of Siouxsie and the Banshees or the gentle guitar riffs of the Durutti Column? How can those possibly all be in the same genre? Or are they? Is the desire to go against the revolutionary convention, to break out of the new spectacle created by punk rock, enough to define a genre? Are they different to one another only in style, technique, formula?
Post-punk is allowed to be happy with the world or to hate it; it’s allowed to say everything’s great if you seize the moment or to say everything’s awful unless you numb the pain with drugs; it’s allowed to tear apart stages and drill holes in nightclub walls or to sit quietly in a wooden chair and softly pick at an acoustic guitar. It’s allowed to defy genre; it’s allowed to defy the idea that genres can be defined; it’s allowed to explore and expand and shift and change and grow.
It’s art that doesn’t separate itself from life or politics or partying or revolution. It’s art that doesn’t, can’t, define itself (“Is it avant-garde? Is it jazz? It’s just tunes, innit, daft tunes!”). If punk rock is the epitome of Situationist ideals, or vice versa, then post-punk takes it one step further and says, even your defiance is a stricture, and we’re breaking it.
And it’s amazing. It’s amazing that the Situationists were able to reach across divisions and say, none of this is truly separate, throw off your chains, look at the real world. It’s amazing that punk rock was able to say, you’re not trapped, make your freedom, make your fun, live your life and don’t let anyone stop you, not ever. It’s amazing that post-punk was able to say, this is complex and difficult and multi-faceted, life is complex and difficult and multi-faceted, and we want to fight and we want to escape and we want to live.
No wonder genre theory is so bloody complicated. Life defies definition, no matter how hard we want to pin it down.
Thank God for music.