The Promise Ring, “Why Did We Ever Meet,” Nothing Feels Good (1997)
As nebulous as the punk ethos became almost immediately upon its inception, as a locus of creative energy it retained and flourished with a set of apparently complementary ethical touchstones. The DIY impulse wasn’t punk’s to begin with, and couldn’t remain tied to the genre for long — most young Londoners couldn’t fly to Jamaica for a recording session with Lee “Scratch” Perry — but, over time, the various splinter sounds descending from the 1977 breakthrough kept in common an adherence to authenticity and a wary perception of social conformity.
I don’t generally value authenticity, but I understand it in its punk conception: as a fealty to one’s self, to one’s place, and to one’s community*. Meanwhile, punk’s wariness of conformity has generally manifested itself in an embrace of the aesthetic of various inner urban artistic and youth-oriented subcultures.
I say these ideals were apparently complementary because they often were. Whether in New York’s downtown punk and post-punk scenes, or L.A.’s hardcore or the D.C. area’s post-hardcore scenes, fealty to one’s community equated with a fealty to that community’s remove from dominant American culture. The remove was not always that significant — the puritanism of the straight edge scene echoed earlier strains of American conservatism; the white, male heteronormativity of many of these scenes suggested they had more in common with prevailing American values than they might have hoped — but the point was that the punks believed themselves to be outsiders, and that they maintained a determined loyalty to the communities they had fostered as outsiders.
But what happens when those punk values came into conflict with each another? What if a punk’s authentic expression of self and of community marked him as more a part of the American mainstream than anything else? What if a punk kid looked around and saw a world of manicured lawns and wide driveways instead of cramped apartments and graffiti-covered bars? What if punk was malls and interstate exits, not CBGBs and warehouses? What if punk was memories of bible stories and family vacations instead of white riots and anarchism?
One option was to fake it: buy the right clothes, listen to the right records, move to the right neighborhoods, and eventually become part of a community sufficiently socially peripheral as to be called punk. I’m sure many kids did this, and found it deeply satisfying. But the other option was to mute the oppositional ethos and instead focus on the equally significant ideal of authenticity. If your community was white and middle class and suburban, then why not be in a punk band that talked about white, middle class, and suburban things as directly and with as much detail as earlier bands had talked about grimy urbanity?
The video for The Promise Ring’s “Why Did We Ever Meet” shows a bunch of white, twenty-something punk kids doing blandly ordinary things. They play their tune in someone’s living room; they drive round a suburban neighborhood in an old car and almost hit a passing roller blader; they head to the local park for a game of touch football. It’s anti-punk in its execution — at least when the Smashing Pumpkins traversed similar terrain they had their avatars rebelling against suburban conformity — except that it does what so many punk bands have done before: say This is us. This is who we are. This is where we’re from.
It’s the music of suburban identity politics, perhaps. It had its antecedents — think of Pavement’s slacker outlook, except even slackers were outsiders in that they dropped out of mainstream society; and it was quite unlike country music, the other music of suburban identity politics — but the mid ’90s really marked the beginning of this punk and indie rock approach of portraying artists as uncomplicatedly belonging to middle class suburbia rather than obscuring or fleeing those origins. (See the Get Up Kids’ “Action and Action" for what functions as a spiritual successor to the Promise Ring video.) From there you get Death Cab for Cutie’s quiet college party dramas, or Brand New’s aimless parkway loitering or Jenny Lewis’s chain restaurant crises.
And this is not by any means an indictment of that ethos, or of the Promise Ring. (Nothing Feels Good is one of the greatest albums of all time precisely because of its wandering suburban anomie.) Like I said, I understand the punk ideal of authenticity, even if I don’t buy into it. Bands should tell stories about their lives, including the lives lived by white and middle-class kids from the suburbs. And telling those stories in ways that are detailed and vivid and evocative makes it clear that they are not the only stories out there: that those stories are exceptional and as incomplete to a full picture of America as is any outsider tale.
*It’s this shared understanding of a certain kind of authenticity that has lead to the occasional crossovers between punk and hip-hop: the Beastie Boys’ transition from the former to the latter, for instance; Travis Barker’s uncomfortable wanderings into the realm of rap; or the way groups like Rancid or the Offspring constructed their songs and albums in ways that bore a remarkable similarity to those that their West Coast hip-hop brethren were releasing in the early ’90s.)