Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Punk Enough? How punk rock really fits into my life and IWBYJR.

In high school, my friends and I used to joke about punk points. If you behaved in a manner that was deemed not punk enough (like maybe admitting you liked Bon Jovi when you were younger or maybe not knowing a certain band/zine/book), someone would go, "Dude, I'm sorry but you lose like 20 safety pins for that one." Safety pins representing punk points of course.

It was our way of making light of something that actually plagued me quite a bit: not being cool enough, even in a scene that supposedly did not judge or have that sort of hierarchy. For the most part, I try to remember everything that was positive about punk rock for me as a teenager, the fun I had going to shows at the Fireside Bowl every weekend for instance, but honestly, the thing that turned me off from punk rock for a few years post-high school (aka my goth years) was that I got sick of walking into shows or certain neighborhoods or hang-outs and feeling judged the same way I felt in grade school. It was just that the judges were using different standards.

Let me explain where I come from in regards to punk rock. I was a nerd/dork/geek in grade school. A total misfit who didn't share her peers' opinions about what was beautiful or important. I didn't like the plain, preppy look. I wished I could have hair like Spike on Degrassi and I constantly sketched a drawing of a girl I'd seen in one of my dad's books about the protest movement. The girl had purple and yellow liberty spiked hair and a safety pin through her nose with a chain of safety pins that led to her ear. I cared about social issues and animal rights not Debbie Gibson's new perfume. I studied hard because I thought it was cool to learn as opposed to pretending to be dumb. Ultimately, I was a kid who felt rejected and hurt and angry and sad and had only a couple friends and no real outlet until I started discovering music, bands with a certain sound and lyrics that expressed the way I felt. How did I discover these bands? A couple of them through friends, but mostly through MTV.

People forget that in the late 80s and early 90s there was more to MTV than Britney Spears and reality shows about rich kids. There were REM and Jane's Addiction and Faith No More and Depeche Mode videos. Those were my early favorites. As I got a little bit older, I conned my way into staying up late and watching 120 minutes where I discovered the Ramones and Social Distortion and Hole and Sonic Youth and Skinny Puppy. Then there were the Chicago bands that were gaining popularity at the time: Smashing Pumpkins, Veruca Salt, and Urge Overkill. This led me to explore other local music past and present, bands like Naked Raygun and Screeching Weasel.

My all-time favorite band, Nirvana, was discovered through a friend who bought their Bleach cassette tape right before Nevermind came out. It was 1991, I was starting junior high, and Nirvana spoke to me like no other band had. No, they are not punk by the traditional definition, but they were my gateway to punk. Kurt Cobain talked about bands like the Sex Pistols, the Clash, Iggy & the Stooges, the Butthole Surfers, Scratch Acid, Fugazi, and the Wipers in interviews and I went on a quest to find music by those bands. Most importantly he talked about a band called Bikini Kill, which led me to discover the whole Riot Grrrl movement. More than I ever considered myself punk, I considered myself a riot grrrl. Bands like Bikini Kill, Heavens to Betsy, Sleater-Kinney, 7 Year Bitch, and Babes in Toyland along with their godmothers like Patti Smith and the Runaways spoke to me more as a 16 year old girl than Crass or even the Clash, who I came to appreciate a lot more later. Of course there were some notable exceptions, boys I liked just as much as the girls like Social D and especially Rancid.

But Rancid was considered kind of mainstream. They played "Time Bomb" a lot on the radio then. Was it punk enough to like Rancid? It certainly wasn't punk enough to like Green Day. You could admit that you liked their albums on Lookout!, but not Dookie. I hated that crap, HATED it. And I don't mean Green Day. I mean not being punk enough because you liked a band that was getting mainstream attention. I mean not feeling punk enough because heaven forbid my all-time favorite band was Nirvana and not Crass. I never thought that just because a band signed with a major label so their sound could reach a wider audience, they'd "sold out." What's so wrong about Rise Against or Against Me!, for example, reaching more people with their political songs. They're opening minds. But maybe that's not a punk enough opinion. Maybe I should lose some safety pins for that.

There's a reason I'm bringing all of this up. It has to do with my book, which I know is not "punk enough" for some people because I've read reviews on Amazon and Goodreads (and I'm gonna stop because it just brings out my insecure teenage girl. Seriously, early New Years resolution don't read reviews except for the ones sent to me by bloggers because of course I appreciate their hard work and am interested in their feedback), so I want to speak briefly about my book and punk. I think that telling you what my punk rock background probably tells you a lot about where I was coming from in writing I WANNA BE YOUR JOEY RAMONE. My passion for punk has always been about loving the music, not really feeling like I fit into the scene. A lot of times I still felt like the nerd/geek/dork at the punk show, not cool enough, not punk enough. But my love for the music helped me ignore those feelings. And as I mentioned I always felt closer to riot grrrl than I did the rest of the punk. My book is more of a homage to riot grrrl and female musicians than anything else. This brings us to issue one, the title.

FWIW, the MTV Books marketing department did not come up with the title I WANNA BE YOUR JOEY RAMONE to sell more books. I came up with the title. No, my book is not about the Ramones (though I have always loved that band dearly), it's about a girl who wants to be the queen of rock 'n' roll and the title comes from a Sleater-Kinney song. It's my homage to bands like Sleater-Kinney and the lyrics, which you can read here, fit my main character.

And let's talk for a second about MTV Books. MTV Books is not like MTV the channel. Yeah, they put out some books about Fall Out Boy and the Hills and I don't buy those books, but they also put out a lot of great YA books and books that fall on that cusp between YA and adult like mine. These books tell stories centering around many different topics, not just music, by authors with very diverse backgrounds. The Perks of Being a Wallflower is an MTV Book. And I very highly recommend books by Laura Wiess and Kelly Parra to show you the diversity and quality of MTV Books. The variety of stuff you find on MTV Books reminds me of MTV the channel when I was a kid and loved it.

Lastly, I'd like to address: "I wanted to read about real punk bands, not bands like Nirvana."/"There weren't enough real band references." This is really a two-parter. I'll start with the Nirvana thing.

My character, Emily Black, is slightly older than me in real life. She comes of age in the late eighties/early nineties. She is from a small, podunk town and dreams of escaping it by playing music. Who escaped a small town by playing music during that time period? Nirvana. The Nirvana reference is in the book because it's something that my character would be aware of at the time and it would influence her. If I had set my story earlier, maybe she would have been influenced by a different band. But I set her story when I set it because I saw a gap in the late 90s/early 2000s where mainstream music was just totally atrocious and I wished a band like the Distillers was the most popular band out there instead of Britney or Limp Bizkit. So I timed my story so that in my fictional verision of history a band like that was huge, Emily's band She Laughs. Maybe Emily is not punk enough because she does want to reach a larger audience or maybe her influences which range from Nirvana and the blues to The Clash (an influence coming from her father) and Patti Smith (an influence coming from her mother) are not punk enough. But Emily doesn't really care. That's why I like her, she's a hell of a lot less insecure than me and she does what she wants.

As for not making a ton of punk references through the book, well, I was just trying to keep it subtle. If I namedropped a bunch of bands, I'm sure I'd be criticized for that, too, but more importantly that wasn't the point of the book. Ultimately, my story is not about any real bands. It's about a band I made up and a woman who tries to escape into music. Louisa journeys back and forth across America visiting places at the time when the music scene was really happening. She's in SoCal in the heyday of Social D and the Germs and late 70s/early 80s LA punk. She's in DC for Minor Threat. She's in Minneapolis for the Replacements. She's in Boston for the Pixies. She's in the Bay Area for Operation Ivy. I carefully researched and timed this in the book because if I could travel through time those are the places I'd go. It would be cool to see all that. However Louisa is seeing it while she's running from something pretty heavy, so no I don't write a bunch of scenes of her at infamous concerts. It would have been fun to write, but it would have taken away from the story a bit. I use some musical references as a framework and also for my own writing enjoyment and for the reading enjoyment of music fans who are going to get the Joy Division reference in the beginning of chapter 2, or who like me would have liked to visit all those indie music scenes across the US through the years.

But there is more to the story of IWBYJR than just the music and I wanted to make it accessible to all kinds of different readers. Accessible doesn't mean "fake" or "dumbed down" or that I wrote for a current MTV the channel audience. But I didn't want anyone who read it to think, "I'm not cool enough or punk enough for this book." I hated those feelings as a teenager and even now and I don't want to engender them. I wanted music lovers and non-music people alike to be able to enjoy my story. I also hoped that it would open people's ears to music they haven't discovered. Maybe some teenage Britney or Avril fan will discover Sleater-Kinney and that's pretty cool.

Anyway, I hope this doesn't come across as defensive because I certainly didn't intend it to. I just thought I should speak up and talk about where I come from musicially and where my book comes from musically. I really do believe music fans and non-music fans will enjoy it. Maybe some people won't dig the characters or the writing style, but everyone has their own tastes and I get that. Maybe it won't be cool enough/punk enough for everyone, but to me, the root of punk rock is about feeling free enough to be yourself and expressing yourself in your own way. And that's what I did by writing this book.

So now I'm going to try to take a page from Emily's book (oh god, I didn't mean that as a really bad pun, I swear!) and not worry what everyone thinks of me and my writing. I write the kinds of stories I write because I'm passionate about them and I believe in them and I know at least a few of you out there can relate to the kinds of stories I like to tell. Even though I'm 29, my teenage (and pre-teenage) insecurities tend to rear their ugly head from time to time. My main character in BALLADS OF SUBURBIA and in the book I'm working on now are more like me in feeling like they are too geeky to fit in even with the misfits, so I'm trying to channel my leftover insecurities into them instead of feeling it.

Instead I pride myself on the good moments. Like last night's reading was completely amazing. Meeting Jolene Siana and Chris Connelly was awesome and I loved what they read so much. And to do an event with Joe Meno, who was my professor at Columbia and will always be a huge mentor of mine, dude that was just unbelievably cool. And the thing that really made me feel good was that when I finished he reading, he called me over and hugged me and told me he was so proud, that I'd really come into my own and that in fact he didn't really want to read after me because he thought I'd done so well. Then right after that, an older man walked over to me and told me that I'd done really well and that he thought I was going to be huge one day. Praise from one of my heroes and from a complete stranger, not to mention I read with three totally kick-ass authors and didn't feel like I wasn't cool enough. Yeah it was a good night.

Thanks for listening to my ups and downs. I have a feeling that lots of you can relate about not feeling good enough/cool enough/whatever enough. And that means you will really love the book Good Enough by Paula Yoo, tomorrow's WWRW feature. So please check that out tomorrow and if you want to be entered to win a mix CD, remember to leave a comment on last week's WWRW here!

8 comments:

Annika said...

There's a Slapstick song called "Punk Enough" - do you know that one? "You're not as punk as the punk rock girls I've seen, but you're punk enough and hey that's good enough for me."

Soupytwist said...

Here via Annika, and I just have to let you know that I'm in the same boat. I grew up in a tiny town, too smart, too introverted, and too intimidated to be who I wanted to be. No matter what I like and what interest me, there are too many rules to follow in order to belong (punk, goth, comics, music, art, etc.) and I just can't be arsed. Your book (which I haven't read yet) sounds fantastic, and I'm going to buy myself a copy ASAP.

Stephanie Kuehnert said...

Lol, Annika, I did almost quote the lyrics to that song in my blog because Slapstick was one of the Chicago ska/punk bands I grew up on and went to tons of their shows and I always related to that song! And thank you for sending Soupytwist my way!

Thanks for relating Soupytwist! I knew there were fellow misfit souls like me out there. And thanks for checking out my book, I'll be interested to know what you think!

Annika said...

I was so pissed when I moved to Chicago and found out they'd broken up. Also, I am such a dork that the one time I rode the 74 Fullerton bus I called Will.

Stephanie Kuehnert said...

That is totally why we are friends, Annika because I would do the same thing! Are you into any of the post-Slapstick bands? Alkaline Trio, Broadways (not that they are around anymore either), or Lawrence Arms? I love them all though I do like Alkaline Trios early stuff better than their newer stuff. And that's not me being punker than thou, I just like the sound on those albums more.

Sarah Quigley said...

One of my favorite things about IWBYJR was the time setting. I graduated high school in 1994 like Emily, so all of your references meant a lot to me (and I'd been wondering why you'd chosen that time). Looking back, I was actually probably cooler than I realized, and I don't mean that in a conceited way. I was, and still am, into a lot of the bands that you mentioned in your post, and their music gave me the courage to be myself. One of my HS friends pointed this out to me several years after graduation when I was bemoaning what a dork I was. She said, "You were awesome in high school. You spoke your mind and didn't apologize for it. I always admired that. You were cool."

Most of us are too hard on ourselves and feel that we don't measure up. I'm now learning that the way we perceive ourselves is not always correct. And in the words of India.Arie, "What matters most is what you think of yourself."

Mike said...

i find it really funny that you guys did safety pins, cause me and my friends always jokingly talk about losing punk rock points. i recently lost 10 for leaving a pit at a show after getting a bloody nose.
I'm 16, and i totally relate to your feelings of not feeling 'hip/cool' in the punk scene. My friends constantly find new bands that are much faster and heavier then the bands we are currently listening to, leaving me behind listening to what is 'so last week'.
I'm about halfway through 'I want to be your...' and really enjoy your writing style. It reminds me a lot of some of Joe Meno's writings, particularly Hairtyles of The Damned...
-Mike

Stephanie Kuehnert said...

Thanks Mike! The Joe Meno comparison is the ultimate compliment. And yeah, I totally know how you feel. Just continue to be yourself and listen to what you love. That's real punk and worth a million punk points!