If Matt Diehl had given his book, My So-Called Punk, a subtitle like “How the Corporate Music Machine Co-Opted the Most Obvious Traits of a Socio-Musical Revolution and Suckered Joe Public into Thinking It Was the Real Deal,” and approached his story from that direction, this might not have been too bad a read. The sad reality most of us still actively involved in punk have to constantly deal with is that a rather large, perilous wall exists between the “punk rock” championed by Ashlee Simpson, Sum 41, and Avril Lavigne and the still-largely ignored masses that populate the underground—and one faction does not necessarily speak for the other. It’s a situation not exclusive to punk—the Dead continued to schlep their hippie idealism around the country for decades while the Jefferson Airplane became a Starship and forgot what they were about somewhere in the mire of drug habits, pleasing their industry masters, and building cities on rock’n’roll—but it’s no less a poignant reminder that the record industry still hasn’t learned how not to fuck up a good thing in their rush to make a profit.
Instead of making clear the delicate dance of this reality, however, Diel chooses to cash in what little “old school” punk cred he earned as a member of über-obscure ‘80s Chicago punk band Nadsat Rebel (yes, I’m long enough in the tooth to remember them when they were active) to make the same fatal mistake many more talented but less connected quasi-punk historians have made before him: assuming that Fall Out Boy, A Simple Plan, Blink 182 and the hordes of other pop-friendly, industry-approved rebels are the true descendants of The Clash, The Germs, and Black Flag. Over the course of two hundred-odd pages, he spins a jumbled history of what he calls “neo-punk” (a term he didn’t coin but drops so often that one wonders if he’s getting paid a buck every time he uses it) with an embarrassingly myopic zeal and a stance that seesaws between proclamations that it’s not the punk he grew up with and assessing this “neo-punk” phenomenon’s attitudes—its open-armed acceptance of corporate sponsorship; obsessive attention to marketing strategies, moving product and embracing of the traditional “rock star” mentalities by both bands and their fans; and its willful ignorance of its gadfly, if not musical, roots—with a not-so-critical eye that ultimately comes off as apologetically accepting it as, indeed, a mutated, perfectly logical version of “his” punk.
Ignoring wholly a vibrant, varied punk underground that continues to flourish despite the mainstream’s best efforts to buy it or bury it, Diehl uses as his book’s spine the melodramatic tale of the Distillers’ Brody Dalle, focusing on her with such singular enthusiasm—he provides a wholly one-sided account of the disintegration of her tumultuous relationship with Rancid’s Tim Armstrong, and almost every point he makes about what’s cool with this neo-punk thing is followed up by an example of how it applies to Brody—that it’s almost creepy in its ardor.
Filling out the pages are quotes from neo-punk’s ambitious movers and shakers, from assorted band members to those responsible for the Suicide Girls phenomenon to entrepreneurs Brett Gurewitz (Epitaph Records) and Kevin Lyman (The Warped Tour). Diehl’s kid-glove handling of the latter two—it appears no hard-hitting questions were lobbed at either about the direct roles they’ve played in the commoditization and homogenization of punk music and culture, Warped’s ushering in corporate sponsorship and punk “festivals,” or the symbiotic, almost monopolistic relationship their two enterprises share—is particularly eye-opening considering his years spent writing for Rolling Stone, Sassy, GQ, Elle, Vibe, Spin, Blender, and others.
Even more interesting is the number of misspellings, errors, flubbed names, and quotes recycled from one chapter to the next that all that writing experience, a Master’s degree, and a publisher like Simon & Shuster apparently were unable to excise. Ah, but it’s just punk rock, so fuck it, right? In the end, all Diehl has managed is yet another tragically flawed attempt at chronicling a scene he apparently no longer understands, destined for the pyre of similarly crappy books that have preceded it. Given his aforementioned “old school” cred, I’m flabbergasted by his apparent inability to suss that a band like New Found Glory is about as representative of the evolution of the punk ethos as MC Hammer is of hip hop’s underground. Then again, after spending his years covering music genres where units shifted and money generated equal relevance and quality, maybe his angle here ain’t so surprising after all. –Jimmy Alvarado