Punk will die if it doesn’t change, if it just becomes a documentary [points directly at camera] where all us old farts are, like, fucking talking about shit that happened a hundred thousand million years ago. That’s not punk. It’s what kids are doing right now, to take what’s already happened and turn it into something for the future. That’s the whole point of this; that’s the whole point of talking about it. Because we don’t want to canonize it. You canonize it, it’s dead. It’s in a coffin. —Kathleen Hanna, Bikini Kill
The best punk show I ever saw was over in thirty minutes. The band — Teenage Bottlerocket, out of Laramie, Wyoming — played their firecracker set straight through, without a single pause. It was fast; it was loud; it was perfect. I left the cramped gig space run from the basement of the local line dancing club sweaty and flushed with adrenaline and ready to take on my tiny teenage world.
Punk, the new docuseries about the birth and legacy of punk rock that premieres tonight on EPIX and was executive produced by Iggy Pop and John Varvatos, left me feeling none of those things—and not just because I’m no longer 17. Where a great punk show is all wild crowds, frenetic energy and the pulse of the contemporary cultural moment, Punk is individual punk rock elders striding slo-mo into the frame from the shadowy depths of an empty industrial space to perch themselves on leather-couch pedestals bathed in almost hagiographic light to wax at length about their contrarian youths.
In other words: It’s not what I expected. And I’m having trouble squaring it.
My first instinct was to declare that punk—whose signature quality is to defy—defies, with a special kind of fuck you force, the very things that define documentary as a narrative art. Introspection is not punk rock. Self-contextualization is not punk rock. Taking chaos and smoothing it into meaning is not punk rock.
But then I stepped back and thought about all the punk bands people my age loved growing up, from Sleater-Kinney to Against Me! to, yes, Teenage Bottlerocket, and I realized that, actually? In the right hands, those things are totally punk rock. Sure, punk can be about giving an outlet to all the “combustible ingredients” kids load up with as they careen into puberty, as Black Flag/Rollins Band frontman Henry Rollins puts it in Punk’s third episode. It can absolutely be a “vehicle for a vicious animal energy” (Flea, about the punk scene in the 1980s), or “having fun, doing what you liked, and not getting so heavily involved with the political situation” (Marky Ramone, of the early American punk scene specifically). But it also can be about giving an outlet to kids unjaded enough to get fucking incandescent at the infinite injustices happening all around them, even if they’re still too young to do much about it but rage on a crowded dance floor. That’s introspective. That’s self-contextualizing. That’s taking chaos and finding a way to give it meaning.
Punk is absolutely aware of the more socially engaged, documentary-friendly side of the scene, which has existed since the very beginning (Joe Strummer “had this great empathy towards his fellow human being,” Don Letts notes at the start of one promising narrative thread in the second episode, “and he believed in music as a tool for social change”), but for whatever reason, it doesn’t have the tools to incorporate those elements with any nuance. Whenever it starts an important thread, the thread just… fizzles out. There’s a chasm between what punk can accomplish and what Punk can’t, and this, I think, is where this particular documentary project misses the mark.
Most of the series’ key elements touch this chasm at some point (bizarrely slick aesthetics included), but it’s especially gaping in the few instances in which the series tries, and fails, to take on Big Issues. Punk’s rocky relationship with race, for example, is introduced by Letts and Pauline Black and DC hardcore pioneers Bad Brains, but beyond giving them each a few scenes to note how “straight-up Caucasian” punk was in the early years—before Strummer made some room for progress and the Bad Brains innovated the subgenre of hardcore— Punk evinces no interest in investigating racial issues any further. (Adding to the frustration, Death, the black proto-punk band that got its start in Detroit at the same time that Iggy Pop and MC5 were making names for themselves, and which was the subject of a recent documentary, is excluded from Punk entirely.) Similarly anemic is Punk’s handling of gender, an almost literal cock-up which manifests first in the wild number of punk elders who seem wholly indifferent to the concept of correctly gendering punk pioneer Jayne County (despite her identifying publicly as a woman since 1979), then in how unfailingly women’s legacies in punk rock history, from The Slits to Debbie Harry to Joan Jett, get short shrift.
On the one hand, a certain amount of shortchanging happens to most of the stories started in the three episodes made available to critics—I had to have Wikipedia open almost the entire time I was watching, just to try and catch half the necessary context elided on screen (dates; whole people, just disappearing). On the other hand, there’s the fact that Punk seems happy to have made the Sex Pistols’ miserably smug Johnny Rotten a key player, in spite of the fact that at one point he blames Nancy Spungen not just for corrupting Sid Vicious, but for instigating her own murder. With such baseline contempt making it past the cutting room floor, it’s no wonder that the most interesting parts of the stories behind how women (let alone other, more marginalized groups) made punk a safe and more open space for themselves aren’t given the space or attention they deserve in a history meant to be as sweeping as Punk’s.
Ultimately, the broadest point of the of the chasm that Punk can’t seem to cross is the very question of what it is trying to accomplish. While the first episode opens on Penelope Spheeris, Legs McNeil, Iggy Pop and other OG punk giants declaring that, so long as there are 16-year-olds around to rage against the world, punk will never die, the idea that punk is about the future is not something that the series’ first three episodes seem to believe. I don’t think the series is trying to say the opposite, but it wasn’t until I was sent a clip from the fourth episode, in which Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna points at the camera and says that looking backwards is akin to putting punk in a coffin, that I realized many of my frustrations with Punk could be boiled down to the fact that punk rockers reveling in the kind of navel-gazing nostalgia this kind of documentary project requires seems anathema to the whole punk-rock ethos. (To be fair to punk’s older luminaries, it’s clear that many of them—Rollins and Pop and MC5’s Wayne Kramer, most notably—seem to be on the exact same page as their 1990s-era legacies. Pop, astonishingly, goes further than most by declaring Soundcloud punks to be this cultural moment’s biggest risk-takers; Billie Joe Armstrong, at least, has the good sense to argue for genre fluidity being the next big punk frontier.) To be punk rock is to be introspective and self-contextualizing, sure, but more than that, it is to be young, looking hungrily forward; none of the aging punk elders looking back at punk’s origins would disagree. So the fact that they spend so much time basking in retrospection, half of them wearing the same fuck-you outfits that made them edgy when they were 20 but just make them look caught in amber today, feels like the kind of grown-up bullshit that they would have spit at when they were actual young punks. And that cognitive dissonance is hard to overcome.
Punk premieres tonight at 9 p.m. on EPIX.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.