Zeitgeist

Shock Value

July 07, 2015


Courtney Love was right, and she was robbed.

Thirty years ago, while still an unknown, she campaigned relentlessly to win the role she quite reasonably believed she was born to play: that of the clownishly made-up, blond, vulgar paramour of a doomed junkie rock star.

Director Alex Cox picked another girl to play Nancy Spungen to Gary Oldman’s Sid Vicious in his 1986 biopic about the Sex Pistols “€œbassist”€ and the woman he presumably killed. While it boasts Oldman’s eerie inhabitation of the onetime John Ritchie, and a superb original song, Sid & Nancy is marred by too many such mortal and venal sins of commission and omission: a “€œJohnny Rotten”€ who looks and acts more like Captain Sensible, for instance, and”€”more bizarrely”€”a white, thin, straight-toothed “€œPoly Styrene.”€ (In real life, a chubby brown girl with braces.)

When, like Cox, you”€™ve set yourself the task of re-creating a milieu in which wearing the wrong color bootlaces could earn you a black eye”€”and in which Joe Strummer’s gnomic motto “€œLike trousers, like brain”€ passed for wisdom”€”sartorial details aren”€™t simply part of the story. They are the story.

That’s why Cox shoving his “€œSid”€ into a hammer-and-sickle T-shirt, rather than his iconic swastika one, still sticks in every punk purist’s craw.

“€œThe very notion of doing something just to shock your peers and your elders is repugnant or utterly foreign to most millennials.”€

It’s easy to imagine what prompted Cox’s sucky move because three decades later, his sensibility permeates the culture at large: an obsessive-compulsive sensitivity about certain words and images”€”even when historically accurate or just plain harmless”€”for fear of banishment from the Guilty White Liberal tribe.

The admittedly gnostic, you-had-to-be-there semiotics of punk political T-shirt imagery aside, it’s this perverse, pervasive atmosphere of “€œprogressive”€ trepanning that makes it difficult to explain to young people today why a very few punks in the late 1970s”€”a statistically significant number of whom were Jews“€”sported the notorious Nazi emblem.

Difficult because the answer is so obvious to the rest of us, and so quaint: Épater le bourgeois.

The very notion of doing something just to shock your peers and your elders is repugnant or utterly foreign to most millennials. Oh, they think they are daring, with their open-carry mattresses and other faggotry, but as a campus rabbi complained to me recently, there’s a demonstration at his school every day for every cause”€”except the abuse and slaughter of women, children, and gays by Muslims. Because, of course, that might invite disapproval and even violent retaliation, and our helmet-headed, minivan-chauffeured youth are conformist and risk-averse to a depressing degree.

I never wore a swastika when I was a punk and never would have. The brief, bratty fad was over anyhow, and widely denounced and atoned for, by the time another shy, weird girl lent me her copy of Never Mind the Bollocks and”€”quite against all my low and even hostile expectations right up until the needle touched the vinyl”€”it turned my brain inside out.

That same brain prompts me to cringe at the wave of “€œconformity for the revolution”€ we all witnessed online after the SCOTUS gay “€œmarriage”€ verdict, as tens of millions of Twitter and Facebook avatars were switched to rainbows in celebration.

Needless to say, I didn”€™t change mine (a red gun-sight). Some of my online friends mashed up rainbows with Charlie Hebdo‘s Muhammad, swastikas, and other secular blasphemies, with Kate at SmallDeadAnimals winning the sadly nonexistent “€œSomebody Had to Do It”€ prize for her rainbow Confederate flag.

Because, of course, the other big news is that stripping a “€œstars and bars”€ decal from the roof of an ugly orange car driven in a late-“€™70s sitcom will prevent the next black church massacre. (Mr. Watson, you are unworthy of the name “€œBubba.”€)

So I bypassed the rainbow altogether and changed my avatar to a Confederate flag.

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