I’m a street-walkin’ cheetah with a heart full of napalm. I’m the runaway son of the nuclear A-bomb. I am the world’s forgotten boy. -Iggy Pop
[Punk music: what does it mean? What, when and where does this turn to hardcore, punk-rock, intellectual hip-hop, grunge, alternative and indie music? How do social, economic and political moments effect Youth Culture, and how are these interpreted through Youth Culture? If punk is about tearing down, what remains when all is torn down? What subjects make punkers sing? What rhetorical voice does each lyricist use? How low can a punk get? I argue these questions can be answered through a close reading of the best albums in the punk project and the following punk tradition. Of their lyrics, song titles and album titles, mixed with analysis of 21st cultural theory and a few additional 20th century texts. This column is about lyrics as text, not a history of music column.]
Judith Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure
Iggy Pop and the Stooges, Funhouse
Lou Reed, Berlin
Seminal pre-punk albums by the Stooges and Lou Reed can be read as studies in failure. Analyzing pop-culture sources such as Finding Nemo, Judith Halberstam’s 2011 book the Queer Art of Failure tries to de-stigmatized failure. The book is situated in the contemporary Queer Theory projects of Lee Edelman and José Muñoz, that attempt to deconstruct binary neo-liberalism. They disassemble these constructions, in favor of a Queer Futurism. Halberstam argues for a shift in “interpretive strategies,” viewing failure, not as the binary success/failure, but a multi-axis graph of failures, and quotes Beckett, learning “to fail better.”
I argue punk lyrics can be viewed through this theoretical lens. Funhouse begins with Iggy Pop’s sexualized grunt, and the album is immediately placed in socio-economic space by the opening track’s title: “Down on the Street.” Sexual morality is then explored on track two, “Loose,” with Pop declaring, “Stick it deep inside, cause I’m loose.” But this is more than an explicit endorsement of free love; Pop’s lyric has a double entendre of a caged animal–or prisoner, or madman–that, now, is loose.
Some issues of bodies in interaction can only be explored through low-culture mediums. Track three, “T.V. Eye” is a song about sexual magnetism, or mojo, envisioned by Pop as a television signal, broadcasting desire. Where is the medical discourse–in neo-Liberalism, the highest authority–on sexual magnetism, the discourse on hypersexuality, on mojo?–a phenomenon some medical authorities deny as delusory. Only Queer Theory and Sexuality Studies fields are willing to grapple with these issues. However, Pop’s lyrics are limited on the subject. This exposes the importance in musical lyrics of song titles within the meta-narrative of the album; this briefest statement of subject is frequently all needed to express the point, to move the album in a certain direction.
Pop then makes his most potent statement of failure: “I been dirt and I don’t care… I been hurt and I don’t care.” Without the neo-liberal importance constructed around the binary of success/failure–as well as health/pain–lowness, pain and failure become a way of life. This is Halberstam’s “interpretive strategy” at work. The final three tracks spiral the album into nihilistic musical insanity with the climactic introduction of a saxophone player in the song “1970,” which continues across the two chord structure of Funhouse and the final chord-less instrumental track, “L.A. Blues.” The “raw power” of Pop’s screaming, rambling and roaring on this track need not be further analyzed. The sound of punk has been born.