Sunday, May 27, 2007

Summer Reading List: Double Your Pleasure

So my brother doesn't know this yet, but in return for playing keys in his band, I was going to make him help me write a YA book about the punk/hardcore scene--one that didn't characterize punks as kitschy sidekicks or drug-addled dead-beat dads (see Beige by Cecil Castelluci or Born to Rock by Gordon Korman). But then Rachel Cohn and David Levithan beat me to it.

There are already enough books by author-voyeurs who have no real love for punk--who just use it as a hook, a backdrop, a jacket cover. But Cohn and Levithan aren't pimping youth culture. They're tangled in the back seat making out with it.

Basically, the plot of Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist is this: two teenage music whores spend all night in the city trying to get to third base, get over their exes, and get a ride home. The prose is headlong-she-loves-me-she-loves-me-not-stream-of-consciousness. The chapters alternate between the perspectives of Nick and Norah, and the whole story takes place over the course of about 10 hours, max. You feel everything they feel: the taxi screeching to a halt, the blood rushing to their body parts.

And I really appreciate the Virginia Woolf-esque attention to detail, because it allows the authors to distinguish between the many styles of people living in the wake of the first few waves of punk. Which leads me to my next rant:

People who write about punk for YAs often focus on the commercial tailspin, which reminds me of the way some people identify hip-hop exclusively with its worst excesses. Before punk was a category like "easy listening" or "gospel," it was a phenomenon, a movement, a whole community of people to whom the phrase "mainstream success" was an oxymoron. But now, punk has an evil twin: the H&M version of itself (see Avril Lavigne). And the two are not always easily distinguishable. But focusing on the commodified part of punk culture is misleading in two ways:
  1. It overlooks the diversity of expression that characterizes the phenomenon (i.e. it's not just music: it's art, dress, dance, technology, code of honor; and it's not just tight pants, patches, and mohawks: it's Loretta Lynn in a floral print dress and bouffant);

  2. also, it validates the corporate-appropriated acts rather than the pioneers. (If you think Blink-182 is punk, please don't ever write a book about the punk scene.)
Cohn and Levithan's characters aren't purists. They're straight-edge; they drink Starbucks; they don't care what people wear; they notice every one's accessories; they claim that nothing's more punk than jazz (18), except maybe elevator music (29); they wear pleather; they love their exes; they make ironic comments about "product endorsements by Nike and IBM" (125); then they endorse iPods, Ben and Jerry's, Tiffany windows (69), CVS (71), Oreos (92), Jagermeister (132), Manolo Blahniks (151), and Pepsi (161).

But here's what I really love: they don't think punk is dead. They consider themselves responsible for keeping it alive. They were, like, seven years old when Green Day sang "Do you have the time to listen to me whine ...", but they aren't nostalgic for simpler, purer times. They're active in a current scene. Nick is the only straight musician in a queercore band with no drummer. I'm not sure that's technically possible, but it's absurdly, existentially true-to-life.

But here's what you, as a reader, care about: Nick and Norah are two parts witty to one part cheesy. When they try too hard, it only sounds more authentic ("She's hanging onto the guy ... like she's auditioning to be a pocket on his jacket" (22).). And the supporting characters reveal themselves as philosophical, canine, flirtatious, obtuse. My favorite is
Toni, a cross-dressing burlesque theater bouncer in a priest's costume. In fact, I'm going to close with some relationship advice from this ulikely oracle: "There's no such thing as ready ... There's only willing" (62).


Sam Brown said...

OK, Em, I just can't resist putting in a plug for two of my favorite books on the punk movement in the states: Our Band Could Be Your Life and Dance of Days. Anyone interested in punk as an ethos, rather than a musical genre or marketing niche, should definitely check them out. They changed my life.

From "Our Band Could Be Your Life":

"Corporate rock was about living large; indie was about living realistically and being proud of it. Indie bands didn't need million-dollar promotional budgets and multiple costume changes. All they needed was to believe in themselves and for a few other people to believe in them, too. You didn't need some big corporation to fund you, or even verify that you were any good. It was about viewing as a virtue what most saw as a limitation.

The Minutemen called it 'jamming econo.' And not only could you jam econo with your rock group - you could jam econo on your job, in your buying habits, in your whole way of living. You could take this particular approach to music and apply it to just about anything else you wanted to. You could be beholden only to yourself and the values and people you respected. You could take charge of your own existence. Or as the Minutemen put it in a song, 'Our band could be your life.'"

david elzey said...

Ah, punk. *sigh* Those were the days. Of course punk is defined by the punks who identify themselves as punk, so punk can never die until the last punk has turned off the light. Or kicked them out.

Thanks for hitting my blog and the suggestion of Criss Cross.

Btw, my punk days ended a LONG time ago, but I saw some classic shows in my day!