Throughout the duration of last weekend’s Pouzza Fest, Montreal’s three-day punk gathering that celebrated “fast food and fast music,” one question continually emerged: When did punk rock get so family-friendly? Look past its Pabst sponsorship: On Saturday, Pouzza had a toddler-focused showcase with, among others, Groovie Ghoulies’ Kepi Ghoulie, the Bouncing Souls’ Greg Attonito and Asian Man Records’ Mike Park performing children’s songs to yoga moms. Then, there were the cool-dad-approved headliners, among them, the Dwarves, Less Than Jake, Naked Raygun and Hot Water Music. (A batch of bands that, collectively, has released a total of one significant LP in the last decade. Hot Water Music cut Caution in 2002.) Pouzza, too, debuted The Other F-Word last year, a film exploring the unlikely intersection of punk rock and fatherhood. Fatherhood! The other f-word! Get it?
But if punk, or at least the punknews.org-approved EpiFat variety, is becoming family-friendly, it isn’t a bad thing. Music should, ideally, represent the lives of the musicians producing it. Kepi Ghoulie shouldn’t be writing songs from a teenage perspective, at least not anymore; at best, it’d be inauthentic, but at worst, it’d be deluded. Up the mom- and dad-punx.
That set of dad-musicians, however, led to another set of questions: Is it possible to balance aging with a subculture that, in its 40 years of existence, has been inextricably tied to youth? Can a youth-driven movement be authentically created by 40-year-old white men?
Or is punk becoming the next blues, a genre that lost much of its vitality with its aging fan base? Is that, as Refused wrote, the real shape of punk to come?
These were questions I asked dozens of Pouzza performers.
“The shape of punk to come?” laughed Lagwagon guitarist Chris Flippin. He lifted up his shirt and patted his beer gut. “This is the shape of punk to come.”
It was hard to argue with such evidence. So I asked Lawrence Arms singer Brendan Kelly the same set of questions. “Is punk rock still relevant? Well, it’s still my favourite type of music, but the answer’s no,” he said. “It’s not tied to youth culture, because what else is youth culture besides trying to scare your dad? Punk rock doesn’t do that. If it wanted to scare parents, it’d need more black people.”
Instead, Pouzza’s punk bands had very few black people. Or very few events that would’ve scared a yoga mom shitless. And while it was fun — as fun as any fest in Canada, quite honestly — it felt like a snapshot of a scene aging, however gracefully. Not unlike, say, the blues.
So, indirectly, Kelly explained why that was the case: Can aging punks replicate music historically created for, and by, the young? No. Because such music needs to be dangerous, and mainstream punk isn’t. And the most dangerous thing happening in Montreal — the thousands-strong student protests that clogged large parts of the city’s downtown, with fires blazing on Maisonneuve Boulevard — felt woefully disconnected from Pouzza Fest. I didn’t spot any band members publicly commenting on the protests, and none wore red felt patches in solidarity with the students.
But you know who did? The Arcade Fire on Saturday Night Live.
Punk needn’t be political to be thrilling. But Arcade Fire’s gesture showed solidarity, support and empathy with a youth movement — a protest that, if nothing else, innately concerns Canada’s young. Many of Pouzza’s bands couldn’t do the same.
I’m not detracting from those bands, though. Most of Pouzza’s headliners — Bouncing Souls, Hot Water Music, Suicide Machines — hold great personal significance. And if their sold-out performances were any indication, they were well loved by all in attendance, too. But to be blunt, the collection of headliners could’ve been Warped Tour marquee acts in 1999.
So, let’s be honest: For all the young talent showcased, from the Menzingers, to Cheap Girls, to Slobs, the fest was built on codified tastes. It wasn’t built on expanding genre horizons, as Hot Water Music did with No Division or Operation Ivy did with ska-punk. It was built on bands its attendees already knew they liked. Largely, this didn’t feel like a fest geared towards musical discovery; it felt like a good return on investment.
None of this would be surprising, except that punk seemed to transcend music-genre borders. It seemed to be a generalist attitude, a forever-young worldview or an ideal. At 2012’s Pouzza, though, this didn’t seem to be the case. Punk rock felt like a genre, one governed by visible rules, aesthetic and conduct. And every genre has a lifespan. If punk’s brightest lights can be defined by era, it might suffer country’s fate, where fans qualify their love of the genre by stating that they only listen to “old country.” And if punk becomes defined by aesthetic alone, it becomes a simple musical rubric. Like the blues scale.
What happened to the blues, then, might just happen to punk. If it’s deprived of its youth, it’ll also be stripped of its immediacy, of its relevance.
So, maybe Lagwagon’s Flippin was correct and the shape of punk to come wasn’t Refused — it was a pair of saggy man-boobs.