While it can’t compete with the lines for the Rain Room at MoMA or the blockbuster James Turrell show at the Guggenheim, the Met’s Punk: Chaos to Couture has been one of the big art exhibitions of summer 2013 in Manhattan, drawing 285,000 visitors in its first month alone. The show has generated some controversy, though, panned by critics as diverse as music journalist Sasha Frere-Jones and grunge diva Courtney Love.
I have to agree that the show is somewhat intellectually unsatisfying. It doesn’t do much to help the viewer understand the context from which punk emerged, or really explore what it means for that beauty-from-trash aesthetic innovated by have-nots to be co-opted by contemporary luxury designers. But I also have to admit to thoroughly enjoying my visit. Seriously, questions of authenticity aside, the clothes look fantastic – from Vivienne Westwood’s original tartan bondage trousers to Gareth Pugh’s contemporary trash-bag ball gowns. They are anti-pretty, powerful, heroic even, just as the exhibit claims. And the show did get me wondering about why the aesthetic, and the ethos, of punk are so lingering and pervasive.
Thinking objectively, you might not place a bet on punk’s lasting cultural influence; its origins in mid-70’s New York are pretty marginal. Despite a glowing critical reception for the Ramones, the first band to wear the label “punk,” their early albums sold poorly. Still fewer people heard Richard Hell, progenitor of the punk association with ripped clothes and ravaged hair. When punk impresario Malcolm McLaren recruited John Lydon to front the Sex Pistols, the flaming comet of rebellion that first brought punk to international attention, he was motivated by a desire to shock and a desire for cash, not any clarity of political purpose. Mick Jones of The Clash declared that “pure” punk was dead after its first 100 days. And many other die-hard fans felt that punk music and punk ideas were thoroughly deracinated after Green Day’s massive success in the mid-90’s (not to mention the later Broadway musical.)
So why are we still looking at punk, listening to it, wearing it, talking about it nearly 40 years after its birth and proclaimed death? Why have Mohawks and safety pins had such longevity? My suspicion is that it’s about empowerment. Punk is empowering. Its aesthetic makes people who feel invisible very visible. Impossible to ignore, even. And its DIY ideology (“This is a chord, this is another, this is a third. Now form a band.”) is demystifying. It tells people they already have the tools to do what they want, they just need to get busy doing it. It’s this sense of empowerment that seems to have inspired people all over the world through the present day, from the cultural resistance of young Burmese and Indonesian punks photographed by Pari Dukovic to the feminist defiance of Russian protest band Pussy Riot.
Empowerment is transformative wherever we find it, dressed up in leather or not. When people feel empowered, they make things happen. At Kelton, we’ve seen again and again that the strategies that really make an impact on our clients’ business are the ones that empower their customers to meet their own needs – whether those customers are women coping with menopause (Pfizer), or guests working to manage their finances (Target), or shoppers just trying to get the groceries home (Del Monte). And it’s an insight that all of us who work in consumer research and strategy should be striving to keep at the forefront of our work: empowering – not just advising – our clients is the most effective way to help them navigate change.