What Is Punk?

Image of What Is Punk?
Release Date: 
October 6, 2015
Black Sheep
Reviewed by: 

Eric Morse’s What Is Punk? is an odd project, given that it’s aimed at 3–7 year-olds and meant to, at least according to the back cover, “[lay] the groundwork for the next generation of little punks.” For what self-respecting little punk learned her anti-authoritarianism from the Man (aka Mom and Dad)? One of the questions posed by the book’s rhyming couplets is, “Did punk die long ago?” Perhaps the assumption that parents would buy and read a book about anarchic guitar-smashers to their children is answer enough.

One imagines such parents are likely to be primarily nostalgic punk fans looking to share fond memories of wilder times with their kids. To that end, Anny Yi’s meticulously designed clay scenes were a perfect choice to capture the edgy, unpolished sensibility of punk’s heyday. And so parents still waving a Black Flag (or with the band’s T-shirts preserved in a box, anyway) will want to hurl themselves right in.

But they may want to hurl themselves back out when the text elicits predictable questions from their preschoolers: “Daddy, what’s a Buzzcock?” and “Mommy, what’s a Sex Pistol?” are sure to be fun ones. Maybe Uncle Sid can explain the etymology of “Circle Jerks.”

If the band names can be successfully navigated, the book will require less uncomfortable, but still quite mature explanations. For example, the reader is told that the Sex Pistols “would harass the upper class with songs of Queen and anarchy,” with no explanation of what that might mean. Similarly, that “when London was burning, the mighty Clash heard the call.” Lots to explain there, though what part of it would be of interest to a six year-old is hard to imagine.

The book’s grandest claim is its first: “Once upon a time/there was a deafening roar/that awakened the people/like never before.” But the book offers no evidence of any such awakening. What it does offer is a list of many icons of the punk movement, along with brief mention of some of their stunts, causes, and stylistic differences. At the end, the author seems to recognize the book’s limitations: “Punk is movement, it’s art/it’s culture and vision/but if you really want to know punk/You just have to listen.”

Which begs the question: Why didn’t the creators of What Is Punk? take their own advice? Why not include a CD, or at the very least web links to samples from the featured artists so readers could get a feel for what they’re being told?

Maybe these days that’s just too mainstream. Or maybe Corporate said securing the rights would cost too much.