With the arrival of PUNK: Chaos To Couture, the Costume Institute’s exhibit and theme for this year’s Met Ball, it’s time once again for another round of the punk debate: What did it mean? How did it change us? Was it for real?
The New York Times has already published a couple of articles teasing the concept of the exhibition; Punk? At the Metropolitan Museum of Art? Shock horror! To up the ante they hauled Legs McNeil out of mothballs to sputter that this is all some “masturbatory fantasy for Anna Wintour and Vogue…/…..They always go and try to co-opt what they can’t own. They try to co-opt authenticity and turn it into something boring.” But the way people go on about exploiting punk’s authenticity is the most boring thing of all. It’s all a load of old bollocks.
Punk was always a sham and the clever prank of master-commodifier Malcolm Mclaren. It was only ever born to be sold. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. After the Sex Pistols Johnny Rotten became John Lydon and launched Public Image Limited, a nod that posing and packaging were integral to punk rock’s DNA. Just the other day he had a viral moment showing his true colors as a good old-fashioned chauvinist, reprimanding a female Australian anchor for being to shrill and that she should be quiet when a man is talking. Really, that just about sums it up. He’s just a grumpy old man. Nothing especially revolutionary there. And if you thought punk still had any teeth, well, just consider that they played the movement’s anthem, God Save The Queen (“a fascist regime” etc etc) at opening of the London Olympics, in front of the Queen herself, poor thing.
I think if you want to find the real roots of punk you have to look to Alice Cooper’s Billion Dollar Babies, an album released 40 years ago and several years before anyone had ever heard of punk. For me it’s the ultimate punk album, because it really is beyond the pale. God Save The Queen is a nursery rhyme compared to the tawdry necrophiliac power ballad I Love The Dead. It’s appallingly specific and not for the faint-hearted. Such a thing is unimaginable today.
Second it’s punk because it’s as camp as Christmas. Just look at the fabulous gatefold sleeve in the form of a green snakeskin wallet, with Alice and his band on the inside holding some poor baby naked as a butterball turkey and tricked out in Kiss-style make-up. Someone call the child abuse hotline!
But ultimately the most punk thing about it is that it is true. Sontag threw so many off the scent when she said that camp is the lie that tells the truth. No. Camp is not a lie. It tells the truth, warts and all. Although School’s Out is not on the album Cooper’s outrageous breakout single was nothing if not prophetic. The song ends with the line “School’s been blown to pieces” and in so many ways that’s true, from the unspeakable shootings to the fact that increasingly students know nothing. My favorite twitter thread ever was the one where kids were tripping on the fact that the Titanic wasn’t just a movie… it was a real boat that really sank. OMG.
And so here we are with the billion dollar babies having their frou-frou punk ball at the Met. It’s not so much that it’s like Marie Antoinette on her pretend farm at Versailles, it’s more that the billion dollar babies are the boomers who fiddle while Rome burns. The album came with a giant billion dollar bill, a nod to the idea that in the future – i.e. our present day – the dollar isn’t worth what it used to be (and indeed billions have become trillions of downgraded debt). And our values aren’t worth much more either. From Hello Hooray to No More Nice Guy, the songs on the album evoke a completely bankrupt carnival society in just about every imaginable way.
Well of course Billion Dollar Babies won’t be a part of PUNK: Chaos to Couture, because it defies assimilation which surely makes it truly punk. That said, I can’t wait for whatever delicious overpriced miniature collectible they’ll be selling as I exit through the gift shop. Bring on the gold-plated Swarovski-encrusted safety-pin broaches!