The fervid fever that spawned and defined American Punk was as much a personal response to the blasé culture of the early 1980s as it was a middle finger to late-'70s music. You know the usual suspects: Reagan and his cronies, disco, Frampton Comes Alive. It's as cliché as a Hallmark card.
About a decade later, however, punk crawled out of the gutter and enjoyed commercial and popular success. Suddenly, latter-day punk bands like Green Day were as big as God, and some (cf. Nirvana) were even bigger. Come 1994, the underground was as omnipresent as tattoos, though what was and wasn't punk was the debate of the day. Pick up any Maximum Rock N Roll from then and read countless diatribes about why so-and-so is or isn't punk.
"[The year 1994] was the culmination, to me, of a couple of years of debate within the scene," says 26-year-old Daniel Sinker from his office in Chicago. "And what happened was this pretty reactionary response to this extreme focus and intensity put on [it] by mainstream media and major record labels. And it resulted in [a] circling of the wagons and becoming very focused on internal conflict. Ultimately, even though I feel that that debate was a good debate, I just feel that it became enrapt in itself, and there was really no ability to progress past that point. It really overstayed its welcome."
Rather than wait and see what happened to a subculture they appreciated, Sinker, a graduate of art school, and a number of like-minded young people started their own magazine to sustain the cause. That publication, Punk Planet, is now in its seventh year, and the fruits of the staff's labors can be seen in We Owe You Nothing--Punk Plant: The Collected Interviews, edited by Sinker and recently published by Akashic Books. Nothing provides a compact precis of Planet's beliefs. There are interviews with the expected music types like Kathleen Hanna, Steve Albini and Sleater-Kinney. But there's also people and organizations that aren't necessarily punk per se, such as filmmaker Jem Cohen, linguist and political thinker Noam Chomsky and the Central Ohio Abortion Access Fund. As conducted by Sinker and Planet contributors--David Grad, Joel Schalit, Kim Bae and Ryan Downey, among others--each interview, transcribed as a dialogue, becomes a conversation about the topics and issues that face people young and old living in America today.
It's not a bunch of fan-driven mishmash or Entertainment Weekly puff pieces, either. Every interview has the tenor of a think piece. Frequently discussed is the peril of being a working musician and flirting with becoming another high-paid cog in a corporate machine. As a result, the book's 340-something pages stand as a testament to what inspired Planet's founders to start the magazine in the first place: Punk is more than a musical genre.
Granted, the idea of not selling out is older than beat bohemia (thank you, Emma Goldman). And it's easy to belittle the idealism with which Sinker and Planet operate as a folly of youth. But the best foil to such disdain is Planet's very existence. Internet start-ups with monstrous budgets lasted maybe two years during dot.com mania, and 2001 has witnessed even daily newspapers, monthly periodicals and alternative weeklies trim page counts and tighten staffs as national advertising dollars dwindled.
Planet, surprisingly, has weathered this turn well. "The shrinking economy hasn't hit us as hard because we were never tempted to suckle at that tit," Sinker says. "We never lost Internet ads. We never lost tobacco ads because we never accepted tobacco ads. So now that there isn't as much money going around, there's no one standing over me going, 'Hey, we need that investment back.' We kept everything at a minimum, so now that [the economy is] back to normal, relatively speaking, we're fairly solid. We're more solid right now than we've ever been."
That a small publication can sustain itself in 2001 is no minor boast, especially one that addresses such a specific topic. Punk isn't MTV's darling any longer, and with a lower profile you'd expect interest in it to wane. Pop culture's fascination with it has, but for the community that still considers itself punk, media disinterest has, in Sinker's eyes, enabled punk to grow again, rather than splinter.
"The kind of magnifying glass that punk culture was put under in 1994 wasn't a good thing," Sinker says. "Now that mainstream media isn't paying attention to what we're doing, I really think it's a return to pre-1994, where we're really able to continue to build without the scrutiny that we started to get under."
Sinker's observation of punk today is a candid reminder of what spawned punk in the first place. And it poses a chilling question: Is America on the verge of returning to 1980s culture freeze? For Sinker, the answer is yes and no, and it's intertwined with the 1990s economic boom. "Actually, I need to make an amendment to what I said earlier about us returning to pre-1994," Sinker says. "You can't ever turn the clock back. And we can't say that punk is just like it was, as if Green Day and Nirvana never happened. One of the lasting legacies of that time frame is the realization for a lot of people that you could make a lot of money doing this. Whether that meant record labels and A&R reps moving in or if that meant that people in the underground itself realizing that they could make some money off of it. We're never going to get that out now."
Even so, now that punk has weathered the underground-to-limelight growing pains, it leaves you wondering what the future may hold in store. Sinker has two goals of how he'd like to see punk mature. One--and this part is a trend that Planet has demonstrated quite well--is that he'd like to see punk continue to evolve beyond a musical genre. Planet has effectively shown that punk's do-it-yourself ethos can be applied to any aspect of life, from planning shows to political mobilization.
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The political element, however, is where Sinker would also like to see punk grow, but that may prove to be a daunting task. "The much more important thing for me for punk in the future," Sinker says, "is that I think especially now, now that the economy is coming back to earth, now that we have one of the biggest idiots that's ever walked the earth in the presidency, now that we have all those sorts of things, now more than ever, punk needs to get its head out of the sand and realize that we're not alone in the struggle that we have. There are other groups very much like punk--hip-hop, or alternative country, or the rave scene and nonmusical entities like gay and lesbian organizations--[and] we have a very shared struggle. And that is a struggle against corporate takeover of our lives, of this conservative takeover of our lives. We're all fighting this battle. And we're all very small groups, and we remain small groups if we don't start building bridges between each other."
Sinker's hopes are the sort of rallying cry that's been espoused by every small, left-leaning political group since the 1960s, whether it was the identity politics of African-Americans and Mexican-Americans or gender equality or sexual orientation, though it's rarely become an actuality. That sort of solidarity has never taken hold in American politics, for whatever reasons.
"I think [that is] because people are given scraps, and they're left to fight over the scraps," Sinker says. "I think that's been a fairly good plan for whoever thought of it, to keep people fighting among themselves. But [lateral dialogue] is not an easy struggle, and it's not an easy task. And it's not something that I am entirely sure is going to be able to be pulled off, but it's something that I feel that part of my energy needs to be spent on, trying to build some of those bridges."
While Sinker can eloquently communicate these long-term goals, the short-term is less certain. He admits that Planet issues aren't planned more than six months in advance. It's a pragmatic approach that's a good fit for a magazine that produces four issues a year and has fewer than 10 people involved in its production. The next issue is a split cover of Ralph Nader and Chicago thumpers Shellac. The issue after that focuses on visual art. Beyond that, Sinker has no idea, but he's going to enjoy getting there. And it's a similar attitude with which he'll watch how punk grows in the coming year. "I put very little stock in my ability to predict the future," he says. "But I think you'll see [punk] starting to learn from the lessons learned in 1992 to 1994. I know I am. I see it soldiering on. It's proven that it can't be killed, because Lord knows, if it could be, it would be. If it could be, it would only be blink-182 at this point, but it's not."