Punk, Nostalgia, and the Archaeology of Musical Utopia

Friday, January 23rd, 2009 by Bill Caraher

Last week, Kostis Kourelis initiated a collaborative project designed to explore the concept, experience, and potential of punk archaeology.  As we had bantered about this very topic over the space of our two blogs, he invited me to contribute.  The format is completely experimental and part of a greater goal to find those points of contact between intellectual life and scholarly life.

My first contribution to this project is completely in the spirit of punk rock.  It’s raw, garage-band quality thought and seeks to question the relationship between nostalgia, archaeology, and the punk aesthetic:

One thing the Kostis’ post on the Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun” reminded me of was the nostalgic tone to so much popular music.  This is not exclusive to the 1960s British invasion bands, nor to punk rockers, of course, but it does intersect with a key characteristic of an archaeological preoccupation with the past.  Archaeologists are in some ways nostalgic (in the same way that they are often secretly utopian in aspiration).  We hope that excavating the past we can reveal the deeper significance or truth in some fragment of the contemporary world.  The fragments of the past become recontextualized in within our contemporary sensibilities — reassembled and redeployed to capture a kind seemingly authentic past full of utopian innocence and beauty.

The rediscovery of the American blues, whether by the 1960s British pop music scene or the later 1960s American folk rock scene seems to capture a similar craving for authenticity, a desire both to appropriate a past reality and recreate it in the present as a utopian critique of the plastic, mass-produced, insincere present.  The mid-1960s blues revival craved this authenticity, and in this was both genuine and, to a certain extent, naive.  (And in some way, this is what made the intersection between these two groups so potent.  Here I’d refer a reader to Sonny Boy Williamson’s date with the Animals or, more haunting still, Alan Wilson’s (of Canned Heat) work with Son House in the mid 1960s).  It’s possible at times to detect (over the ironic, post-everything din) the quest for a kind of primordial authenticity still echoes in the blues inspire guitar rock of the White Stripes (see their version of “Death Letter “from De Stijl) or the Black Keys.

Punk rock’s engagement with the archaeological stratigraphy of music reveals a more post-modern disposition.  While on the one hand, the punk movement continued to champion a kind of a kind of musical authenticity.  The low-fi, garage band postures and sound spoke to a more basic and visceral kind of musical experience.  “Always leave them wanting less.”  On the other hand, when punk musicians dug through the stratigraphy of past music and excavated classic pop songs from just a generation earlier, they regarded them with a new spirit of ironic detachment.  These songs no longer deserved the kind of authentic (re)productions embraced by the blues revival but a new reading that revealed by the potent gaze of the punk rocker.  The very name of the iconic early punk band, The Velvet Underground, invokes the seedy underbelly of the domesticated suburban life in the same spirit that the Germs raucous versions of Chuck Berry’s “Round and Round” or Johnny Thunders version of The Commodores (and perhaps as significantly the Dave Clark Five) “Do you love me?”

I am not positive how this relates to archaeology, but in the spirit of garage band ramblings, I offer this:  The most recent trends in archaeology have pulled back from romantic dalliances with the idealized symbols of pure “Classical” past (think: alabaster temples and philosopher-filled stoas) and dedicated themselves to uncovering and subverting such idealized symbols through the study of the more mundane objects and spaces.  Over the last several decades serious research has recovered the significance of domestic structures, rural installations, and coarse and utilitarian pottery.  By appropriating the mantle and methods of Classical archaeology and its associations with utopian visions of the past, a new Mediterranean archaeology recontextualizes the research of a generations of scholars romanced by the illusory notions of authenticity offered by monumental, urban, elite architecture, sculpture, and ceramics.  The Punk Archaeologist shifts the attention from such elaborate acts of nostalgic commemoration toward a sustained and subversive effort to appropriate the notion of the Classical in the spirit of social and political critique.  The goal is less to preserve the Classical world, than to use it as weapon against itself.


2 comments on “Punk, Nostalgia, and the Archaeology of Musical Utopia

  1. […] The urbanism of Punk contributes to its resistance to commodification (and makes its appeals to nostalgia more ironic still) and preserves it for a different method of documentation later.  Punk […]

  2. […] The link between these houses and punk music is clear. As we have observed before, punk music is a nostalgic, utopian, critique that seeks a more profound authority than punks observe […]

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