“The Birth of Punk Rock: A Benign Blemish on the Face of Modernity”

“Modernity” can be thought of as the broad cultural reaction to the Enlightenment’s emphasis on rational and empirical thought in western civilization of the 1800s. It is very much the world of today. Also known as the age of “Enlightenment,” the birth of Modernity was characterized by the emergence of a scientific empirical search for abstract truths and concrete laws that could explain many particular areas of life for the better, including arts and social life. In other words, Modernity was the birth of a necessary search to make sense of all the chaos in the world without the irrational assistance of the church, divine intervention, and the aristocracy. Modernity, which is still with us today, has seemed to have become as dogmatic as the cultural systems it sought to replace during its conception. It in turn also gave rise to artistic reactions that would question its authority of scientific thought. More specifically, American rock and roll music of the late 20th Century boiled up, popped, and gave birth to a bastard and careless piece of genius musical art that turned every aspect of Modernity upside down and kicked it out the door along with the typical criticisms, the self-titled album “The Stooges.”

The various reactions to Modernity seem to fall under the broad general concept of “The Critique of Modernity.” These reactions, such as early artistic Romanticism and the Frankfort school’s ideas of critical social theories, were characterized by contempt of scientific thought’s ability to make life better. It is not hard to picture the contradictions that lie within the belief that science makes life better. All one has to do is ask the question, “Better for whom?” Certainly fallacious scientific thought that was used to justify slavery as well as the capitalistic drive for pharmaceuticals doesn’t make life better for everyone. Actually, in most cases, scientific thought has just been used to make the life of some better at the expense of others. It is also easy to consider that the culmination of scientific thought found its climax in the horrors of World War II.

At this point in American rock and roll, the Romanticism, or escape to “better” times of the past retrospectively, and protest of folk rock as well as the reality of blues rock was emerging to challenge the status quo of happy pop rock, which was eaten up by a market of content masses of post-war prosperity. Musicians such as John Lee Hooker and Bob Dylan were about to take the stage and had plenty to speak of. By the time The Cold War started to rear its ugly face, by way of the Vietnam War, Romanticism of “better” times of the past and critique of life developed fully in rock and roll to give happy pop music a run for its money, no pun intended. Rock and roll concerts were staged alongside protests and vice versa, musicians were speaking out, drugs were used to change perception, and the status quo of culture and society was fighting back. At that point in music and society the struggle over Modernity was almost banal, and the Vietnam War continued forward.

It seems as if even at some point in the late 1960s, the idealistic Romanticism of the hippy movement, including art, to some was probably ridiculous. How could anything be beautiful after all the struggle and horror in the 20th Century? This took its toll on rock and roll, as well art in general, being a creative and expressive modification of the world. Artists tend to draw upon life experience for inspirational material and life in the late 1960s seemed to be consistently bubbling from forces of status quo, romanticism, and critique nearly to the point of a volcanic eruption that also seemed as though it would never explode.

In American rock and roll, in fact the volcano never erupted, much as the same way it never did in social and political issues. Ideals gave way to the banality of struggle. The boil that was supposed to pop in rock and roll and society just slowly oozed out an unnoticed boredom of desensitized youth with a need for absolute irrational fun, purposelessness, disregard for rules, and ignorance for anything in the outside world. In 1969, a dirty, ugly, careless, and unskillful group of guys oozed their way out of a college town in Michigan, releasing their first record, “The Stooges,” which, through its brainless genius, would go on to blaze a path for the punk rock movements in England and America.

In 1970, one of the first known written accounts of the term “punk rock,” critic Lester Bangs of Creem magazine claimed that the Stooges were a“blaring group whose gimmick (Iggy) still leaves them leagues behind such get-it-on frontrunners in the Heavy sets as Grand Funk, whose songs at least make sense, whose act shows real showmanship (i.e., inducing vast hordes of ecstatically wasted freaks to charge the stage waving those thousands of hands in the air in a display of marginally political unity ‘nuff to warm the heart of any Movement stumper), and who never make fools of themselves the way that Stooge punk does, what with his clawing at himself, smashing the mike in his chops, jumping into the crowd to wallow around a forest of legs and ankles and god knows what else while screaming those sickening songs about TV eyes and feeling like dirt and not having no fun ‘cause you’re a fucked up adolescent, horny but neurotic, sitting around bored and lonesome and unable to communicate with yourself or anybody else.” 

Bangs attempted to denounce any aesthetic importance of The Stooges’ music as an irrelevant case of teen angst and rebellion, based on the rationality their music and live show lacked. But it is precisely the irrationality of the music that calls up an unintentional beauty and genius in regards to Modernity and the “Critique of Modernity” itself, that leads to a sort of freedom from all scientific authority, critical or not. This is music that portrays the beauty of aimlessness itself, a sort of freedom from any cognition leading to a capability of true aesthetic judgment alone. It denies all attempts to place a condition of rationality upon it, offering true aesthetic judgment as suggested by German philosopher Immanuel Kant. According to Kant, this concept of true judgment is the contemplation, through understanding and imagination or “free play,” that allows the freedom to enjoy the art in its actual state, regardless of what it was supposed to be in comparison to a possible potential finality. The Stooges’ music gives no way to any preconceived conception of potentiality, or direction at all. Or in other words, the music seems to have never been created to fulfill some foreseen idea, plan, or use nor does it seem to have to. It is seemingly the perfect source of aesthetic judgment and appreciation through its freedom from constraints or standards.

The Stooges’ music on their first self-titled album is the simply harmonious combination of fuzzy and aimlessly wandering (noodling) guitars, raw and immature percussions, and the howling bluesy screams of boredom. It is pleasant in that it is experimental & chaotic but warm and real at the same time. In contrast, the Romantic and critical music of their contemporaries Grand Funk Railroad, also of Michigan, symbolizes the more popular counterpart of the era with well written, purposeful, and well-produced rock and roll with beautiful vocals of freedom and protest which had become commonplace already. The Stooges’ music conveys the fun image of an alternatively beautiful lost cause, at times seeming as though it was never rehearsed and created on the spot. The music in a sense is more real than any idealistic rational approach to rock and roll because it is natural life with an acceptance of struggle by not addressing these issues at all. The lyrics of the first song on the album, “1969,” relay the message of the music and attitude as well, “Well it’s 1969 okay, All across the U.S.A., It’s another year for me and you, Another year with nothing to do.” These words seem quite bland in the current era but given the context of the times in 1969, they are quite mind-boggling and free from the social reality of the times.

Kant would rollover in his grave at the enduring artistic popularity of a Stooges’ musical piece so lacking in form and content, while at the same time providing a standard of genius for generation upon generation of punk rock musicians to come. The first Stooges’ record has in a sense aesthetically defied all rationality whatsoever in the name of boredom, self-loathing, and fun which was a direct result of the eruption of rock and roll Modernity. It is as if there is no purpose at all but to have fun. A question might arise as to exactly do you judge the beauty of such chaotic and aimless music, seemingly lacking in actual musical talent. However, the Stooges’ music reveals the beauty of a form of cognitive release from a chaotic and confusing world that has being so banal of struggle and strife.

There is a true aesthetic beauty in just setting cognition free of internal and/or external conditions of bias and standards in that it takes one to a place of true enjoyment without purpose. Music such as this, symbolizes an importance of art altogether; the ability to escape from such a mundane and hard existence of Modernity, in which the everyday existence calls for Prozac to allow content, as the pharmaceutical corporations profit to no end. In this freedom from constraint, The Stooges’ music is a true source for the capability of true aesthetic judgment. The Stooges as a band did not endure for a long period, due to the nature of their relationship and music. However, they (along with other such as Black Sabbath and the MC5) served an important role in helping to open the door of acceptance for those, such as the Sex Pistols and Ramones (that actually played Stooges’ music), to blaze a new punk path of rock and roll full of discontent and criticism of Modernity conceptually, as well as modern society practically. The Stooges’ music and attitude may have been nothing but a simple blemish on the face of Modernity at the time, but rock and roll history certainly shows that it was benign.