I'm reading Greil Marcus's Ranters and Crowd Pleasers: Punk in Pop Music, 1977-1992 at the moment and finding it difficult to put down. Composed of 15 years of assorted reviews and brief essays loosely organized around the idea of "punk" (for Marcus, this term is capacious enough to include the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, and Cyndi Lauper alongside the Sex Pistols and the Clash), the book turns into something much more: a sustained critique of an increasingly moribund music industry and the deadened popular tastes that the industry shapes and serves. In the process, Ranters also becomes one of the more lucid treatises on aesthetics I have read.
In "Corrupting the Absolute," Marcus makes his clearest statements about what makes good music good and bad music bad:
Now, by a good record I mean one that carries surprise, pleasure, shock, ambiguity, contingency, or a hundred other things, each with a faraway sense of the absolute: the sense that either for the whole of the performance (as with the Rolling Stones' "Gimmie Shelter"), or more often for a stray moment, someone (the singer, the guitarist, the saxophonist) wants what he or she wants, hates what he or she hates, fears what he or she fears, more than anything else in the world.... By a good record I mean one that, entering a person's life, can enable that person to live more intensely.
By a bad record I mean one that subverts any possibility of an apprehension of the absolute, a record that disables the person whose life it enters into living less intensely. Words like corrupt, faked, or dishonest suggest themselves, but there are plenty of corrupt, faked, or dishonest records with moments that are just as deep and powerful.... By a bad record I mean one that is so cramped and careful in spirit that it wants most of all to be liked.
In this opposition, Marcus efficiently clears away a number of venerable misconceptions about Art. It is not about the purity of the artist's soul; it is not about mastery of craft or beautiful forms; it is not about about either fitting into or overthrowing a tradition; it is not about being honest or sincere or even well-intentioned. He demands only that art help us "live more intensely." As vague as that may sound, it is easy to recognize when in happens, and if I had to sum up what great songs (and also great books, great pictures, great films, etc.) have done for me, that pretty much nails it.
Likewise, identifying the key trait of bad art as "want[ing] most of all to be liked" dispenses with presumptuous critical pronouncements about what artists must not do and gets to the heart of the matter: art is bad inasmuch as it panders to its audience, telling them exactly what they want to hear in forms guaranteed to be acceptable to them. Such a definition, incidentally, explains why so many artists or movements (musical or otherwise) that begin with an exciting flurry of revolutionary energy, sooner or later degenerate into something dull and conventional. As soon as a movement become successful, imitators emerge, and you soon have scores of lesser artists trying simply to duplicate that initial success, Even the originators of the form may not be immune may not be immune to the temptation or the pressure to pursue popularity for its own sake.
Throughout Ranters, Marcus uses "punk" as a shorthand for the kind of intensity he sees as essential to good art. For him, the essence of punk is not a fashion for nihilism and safety pins (which can be, and has been, easily aped and parodied and co-opted), but a spirit of defiance, a revolution that goes by many names (punk, new wave, grunge, riot grrl, indie) and is perpetually being reborn out of its own ashes. The central tenet of this revolution is a refusal to settle — for the roles, forms, ideas, lifestyle dictated by mainstream culture. It is not necessarily about negating or rejecting the mainstream, but rather about not confining oneself to what is safe, tested, acceptable, and unthreatening.
All of this may seem like a lot of fuss to be making about pop songs, but it is, in part, the point of punk — Marcus would argue — to refuse dismissal as mere entertainment (in Lipstick Traces, he traces punk's ancestry backwards through Situationism and Dada to medieval heresies). The debasement of popular taste is a political issue. As Marcus puts it:
Bad politics, which can be based in real desires, can produce good art; bad art, which can only be based in faked or compromised desires, can only produce bad politics.
The popular success of boy-bands and reality TV is of a cloth with the demagoguery and spin-doctoring that have sucked all substance out of American political life. What they all have in common is "want[ing] most of all to be liked," which they achieve by appealing to the lowest common denominator and staying within a limited range of conventional, perpetually recycled ideas. Each time we accept these things into our culture, we diminish our capacity to think outside of the possibilities they dictate to us until the very concepts of rebellion and originality are reduced to marketing buzzwords and clothing fads.
Punk may be a negation, but it is a negation that is ultimately affirmative. Like all good art, it makes a promise that there is an alternative to the status quo, if only the alternative of refusal.