Punk Slash! Musicals

[ Film and Media Studies ]

Punk Slash! Musicals

Tracking Slip-Sync on Film

By David Laderman

This lively study of key British and American punk rock musical films from the late 1970s to the mid-1980s explores how this musical cycle represents a convergence between independent, subversive cinema and the more classical Hollywood movie musical.

2010

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Paperback

6 x 9 | 200 pp. | 20 b&w photos

ISBN: 978-0-292-72885-1

Punk Slash! Musicals is the first book to deal extensively with punk narrative films, specifically British and American punk rock musicals produced from roughly 1978 to 1986. Films such as Jubilee, Breaking Glass, Times Square, Smithereens, Starstruck, and Sid and Nancy represent a convergence between independent, subversive cinema and formulaic classical Hollywood and pop musical genres.

Guiding this project is the concept of "slip-sync." Riffing on the commonplace lip-sync phenomenon, "slip-sync" refers to moments in the films when the punk performer "slips" out of sync with the performance spectacle, and sometimes the sound track itself, engendering a provocative moment of tension. This tension frequently serves to illustrate other thematic and narrative conflicts, central among these being the punk negotiation between authenticity and inauthenticity.

Laderman emphasizes the strong female lead performer at the center of most of these films, as well as each film's engagement with gender and race issues. Additionally, he situates his analyses in relation to the broader cultural and political context of the neo-conservatism and new electronic audio-visual technologies of the 1980s, showing how punk's revolution against the mainstream actually depends upon a certain ironic embrace of pop culture.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Chapter 1. Let's Do the Time Warp: Welcome to the Punk Musical Film Cycle
  • Chapter 2. Situating Slip-Sync: In/authenticity, Singin' in the Rain, A Hard Day's Night, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Blank Generation, Illusions, Nice Coloured Girls, Neocon 1980s
  • Chapter 3. The Queen Is Dead: Jubilee
  • Chapter 4. The Punk Meets the Godfather: The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle
  • Chapter 5. Your Face Is a Mess: Breaking Glass
  • Chapter 6. American Slip-Sync Remix: Blank Generation, Rock 'n' Roll High School, Out of the Blue, Smithereens, Liquid Sky
  • Chapter 7. Talk of the Town: Times Square
  • Chapter 8. Uh Huh Her: Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains
  • Chapter 9. Now Entertain Us: Starstruck, Sid and Nancy, True Stories
  • Postscript: Slip-Streaming
  • Notes
  • Works Cited
  • Index

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Jordan—intimate insider of the early London punk scene, circa 1976; notorious sales clerk at Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren's seminal punk fashion shop, SEX; comrade of Johnny Rotten and Siouxsie Sioux—is up on a stage in the role of Amyl Nitrate, strutting around in a most shocking costume: plastic British flag wrapped around her torso, high heels, Roman warrior helmet, loads of splotchy makeup. She is auditioning for the media czar of a future British dystopia, one that looks remarkably like 1977 London. She is not singing; she is lip-syncing to the blasting music track, a punk version of "Rule, Britannia." At a certain moment in the performance, military aircraft can be heard flying overhead: is the noise part of the sound track or part of the fiction? Jordan seems distracted, loses her place, slips out of sync. And the gesture seems to work, highlighting her irreverent uninterest in keeping either the seams of spectacle hidden or her body and "voice" together.

This moment from Derek Jarman's Jubilee (1978) is symptomatic and symbolic of a range of attitudes characteristic of punk's early days. Indeed, such a performance gesture recurs in several other punk-musical films that emerged over the next few years. Today such playful slippages in synchronization are more commonplace; but in the early 1980s, they reflected punk's critique of new modes of music representation and consumption. I aim to delineate this critique by considering a somewhat neglected cycle of punk narrative films. Lacking the ultrasloppy no-budget look of many punk documentaries, these narrative films achieve their distinctive complexity in how they represent punk music, dealing variously with musicians, fans, clubs, concerts, songs, marketing, and managers. More importantly, they help us appreciate the threshold over which punk traveled into its more diversified afterlife.

Because these films integrate conventions of independent films as well as movie musicals, they form a compelling articulation of punk music. Sometimes inadvertently, they also become a reflection not merely of punk music, but also on punk music. Spurned by punk purists as too commercial and passed over by mainstream film histories as too trashy, this punk-musical cycle demonstrates a unique genre manifestation in which the musical gets ripped apart and then reinfused with punk inspiration.

Primarily British and American, the punk-musical film cycle includes Jubilee (Derek Jarman, UK, 1978), Breaking Glass (Brian Gibson, UK, 1980), The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle (Julien Temple, UK, 1980), Times Square (Alan Moyle, U.S., 1980), Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains (Lou Adler, U.S., 1981), Starstruck (Gillian Armstrong, Australia, 1982), and Sid and Nancy (Alex Cox, UK/U.S., 1986). For context, I will touch on other relevant films that represent the punk music subculture, including Blank Generation (Amos Poe and Ivan Kral, U.S., 1976), Blank Generation (Ulli Lommel, U.S., 1980), Rock 'n' Roll High School (Allan Arkush, U.S., 1979), Out of the Blue (Dennis Hopper, U.S., 1980), Smithereens (Susan Seidelman, U.S., 1982), Liquid Sky (Slava Tsukerman, U.S., 1982), Repo Man (Alex Cox, U.S., 1984), and True Stories (David Byrne, U.S., 1986).

On the surface, most of these punk films convey a conspicuous subversion of conformity; they are loudly anti. In various ways, they deconstruct the musical genre, translating much of punk's anarchic, anticommercial energy into film narrative. Yet they also illustrate how punk music's "revolution" against dominant music-industry trends depended largely upon a certain ironic embrace of popular culture. Thus, they are interesting precisely because they are not purely punk, since they straddle a variety of borders surrounding punk.

On this note, my use of the term "musical" to characterize this cycle of punk-music narrative films is deliberately revisionist. That is, a punk musical by definition is going to be an antimusical to some degree—a variation on any genre that rejects its rules from within. A rather boisterous irony is the key to this contradictory positioning by which punk occupies but overthrows the contours of the musical genre: not the cool intellectual irony of Stanley Kubrick's or Robert Altman's films, but the noisy irony that laughs during self-destruction—perhaps somewhat akin to the mockery expressed in an episode of The Simpsons. In the spirit of such noisy irony, and in reference to this book's title, we can appreciate how punk "slashes" the musical in two ways: slashing the genre with figurative violence, thus vehemently wounding it; but also slashing the genre as a punctuation mark, thus partially embracing it.

Indeed, one primary way these films engage in a radical revision of the musical is by fusing the genre with an independent- and cult-film sensibility. In distinct ways, these punk films force the musical and the indie film to join hands, undoing genre conventions while simultaneously expanding the formal terrain of the genre. I therefore pay particular attention to the sound-image dynamic of these films, both in the representation of performance and as sound track. I also focus on the gender critique they convey through their use of female punk lead performers. Last, I consider how these films reflect critically upon the advent of new electronic music technologies as well as upon the broader culture of the time, which is perhaps best designated by the names Reagan and Thatcher.

***

"Slip-sync" is the key term that will carry us through our critical survey, the main tool for carving out and digging into the punk-musical film cycle. Deriving specifically from performance sequences like the one described above from Jubilee, slip-sync hinges upon the more mainstream performance technique of lip-sync. But in slip-sync, the singer-performer slips out of sync, alienated from yet caught up by the performance spectacle. Rupturing lip-sync from within, slip-sync articulates both resistance (the singer refusing, or unable, to be synchronized) and conformity (the sound track, or the performance spectacle, subsuming the performer). Slip-sync thus conveys punk's anxiety regarding new electronic technologies of simulation as well as music-industry submission to intensified visualization.

At the same time, a visionary audio vision, a new sound-image dialectic, emerges through punk slip-sync, reflecting a significant shift in the cinematic narrative representation of musical performance. It articulates rock-music performance through a peculiar sound-image fissure, one that is sometimes playful and often reflexive. The notion of slip-sync I am proposing as a distinctly punk and cinematic gesture thus falls within Stacy Thompson's incisive explanation of punk economics. Punk's subversive attitude toward the commodity yields an overall aesthetic that privileges "shows over recordings and raw over clean production: punks valorize modes of punk commodities that they take to represent affect rather than professionalization" (Punk Productions, 123).

I will argue that in this punk-musical film cycle, the slip-sync textual and narrative operation becomes either a deliberate or an inadvertent commentary upon the tension between "affect" (the spontaneous performing body) and "professionalization" (cinematic and narrative performance spectacle). In a variety of ways, punk slip-sync in these films deconstructs the performing body by representing it as both fusing with and refusing mass-media technology and celebrity-culture commercialism.

My replacing of the term "lip" with "slip" intends to evoke the displacement of sound: slipping as the dislodging of something from its proper place; sound slipping away from its apparent source, especially the singing body (thus "lip" becomes "slip"); slipping as a gesture that involves improvisation, a somewhat accidental or unexpected gesture, one that moves against design. Theorized as a marginal performance terrain inhabited by punk, camp, and cult film, slip-sync displaces and exceeds lip-sync, becoming something "wrong" in the performance, yet something that embraces this wrongness.

The slip-sync moment in these punk films thus engenders a split in the show, a rupture involving what we might call a double excess: the performer exceeds the performance by disengaging, yet the performance spectacle exceeds the performer by continuing, in a sense, without him or her while still carrying along the performer's voice. All the while, the performance spectacle assimilates the authenticity signified by the performer's dissociation. Indeed, punk slip-sync seems like a postmodern riff on Jane Feuer's notion of the "myth of spontaneity" in classical musicals, which usually privilege authentic "bricolage" performances over those that are "prepackaged" ("Self-Reflexive Musical," 443-444).

In the postmodern context of punk performance, slip-sync is more ambivalent and ambiguous; spontaneity and standardized design become effects of each other, become less easy to distinguish. Over and against the classical or pop musical, punk slip-sync should be understood as a gesture that splits open the "privileged kind of space" that, according to Ian Garwood, facilitates a "fit" between the persona of the musical performer and the cinematic staging of his or her performance ("Pop Song in Film," 108-109). Such splitting open of this fit, however, is subtle and slippery.

As a kind of enigmatic almost-sync, punk slip-sync can thus also be usefully contextualized by Steven Connor's notion of ventriloquism as "the curious, ancient and long-lived practice of making voices appear to issue elsewhere from their source" (Dumbstruck, 13-14). As we will see, the sliding separation in these punk musicals between the singer's voice as bodily expression and the singer's voice as mediated effect dramatizes a peculiar convergence of both forms of ventriloquism identified by Connor: active ("the power to speak through others") and passive ("being spoken through by others") (14). In slip-sync scenes throughout these punk musicals, performers appear to become perturbed by, or at least aware of, the ventriloquist ramifications of the performance framework surrounding them. Connor's polyvalent sense of ventriloquism becomes a useful metaphor, illuminating both the visionary, or active, and the institutional, or passive, manipulation of thrown voices.

Slip-sync occurs in certain key films, such as Jubilee and Sid and Nancy, as a concrete performance gesture. However, some of the punk-musical sequences I will be discussing offer looser or more indirect versions of slip-sync, articulating the latter on a narrative or thematic level, almost as a metaphor. Put differently, each of the films offers distinct variations on slip-sync performance, sometimes as a moment of rupture, at other times as an overall unhinged sound-image design, and at yet other times as a subtextual theme related to artist-industry conflicts. Thus, while my primary aim is to discuss slip-sync as a specific textual operation, I also intend to unpack the notion across various discursive levels, opening it up as an interpretive trope that speaks to narrative and cultural issues beyond specific moments of performance within the films.

Slip-sync therefore designates not only an aesthetic gesture full of performance tension, but also an overall narrative tone or attitude, which should be understood as punk: a resistance to figurative synchronization with performance venue, film genre, the music industry, and the stable institutions of dominant culture more generally. But as we shall see, slip-sync not only operates within each film on numerous levels, but also cuts across the films, becoming likewise the key critical operation of reading them, binding them as a cycle. We are thus rescuing the films from a scattered oblivion, which may be a more truly punk destiny for them. Nevertheless, let us work against such a destiny, elucidating correspondences between them and resonances beyond them. They have slipped between the cracks in the canon long enough.

***

A few words are in order on my use of the term "punk," which, like my use of the term "musical," can be characterized as loose, casual, open. I respect those who might take issue with this informality as being perhaps too convenient or watered down. I do not deny that there did exist an original, "pure" punk-music scene and subculture or, for that matter, that pure punk-music scenes and subcultures continue to thrive today. But for the present study, "punk" will signify much more than what is delimited by this restrictive definition, which sometimes engenders a certain narrowly applied nostalgia. While a purist sense of punk informs and hovers around my analysis (and I will touch upon this definition below), I use the term "punk" in broader, more diverse, and more diluted ways, partially in order to account for the potency of its influence.

Thus, some of the film imagery and music I discuss may be more accurately described as New Wave rather than punk. On the other hand, parsing the difference between punk and New Wave can seem like splitting hairs, since the two rebellious music styles, which both emerged in the late 1970s, were so crucially and intricately bound up with each other. A fair and commonplace speculation is that New Wave was a more accessible and potentially commercial version of punk. But this distinction, which in many ways is not one, bears exactly on my angle: how punk became absorbed by, or left its mark upon, other cultural productions—for example, what I am calling the punk-musical film cycle. I am not calling it the "New Wave-musical film cycle" because "punk" more accurately captures the historical and aesthetic core sensibility inspiring these films, even if they move some distance away from this core sensibility, sounding and appearing more New Wave.

We will therefore be furnishing a historical context to the sundry ways punk has survived and thrived for thirty years beyond its "end," a moment that might as well be marked by the final Sex Pistols' concert, held in 1978 at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. The last gig of their gloriously disastrous American tour has been mythologized as punk's last hurrah, when a glowering Johnny Rotten snarled at the crowd, "Ever feel like you're being cheated?" (Marcus, Lipstick Traces, 88-90) As a film critic for the New York Times recently observed: "Like a song by the Ramones or the Sex Pistols, it [punk] was over before you knew what hit you" (Rafferty, "What Are You Staring At?"). But as my quotation marks around "end" intend to convey, the end of punk, in typically punk fashion, was also its opposite, its anti-end: its beginning.

From today's perspective, the "no future" punk motto has become ironically negated and inverted: yes, future. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that the first line of the recent anthology No Focus: Punk on Film reads "punk was (and perhaps is) wildly schizophrenic" (Sargeant, 6). Or that the first line of the introduction to a recent coffee-table "encyclopedia" of punk begins: "In writing about punk rock, certain contradictions must be considered" (Cogan, Encyclopedia of Punk, viii; see also Rombes, New Punk Cinema, 7). In my view, one of the most compelling contradictions around punk is how its paradoxically self-destructive emergence launched a perpetual recycling effect that is, indeed, essentially punk.

Essentially punk. Whatever that may be, let us recall before continuing a few of the more salient features defining the original punk movement.

Punk emerged primarily as a radically underground music scene in New York in the late 1970s. The first New York punk scene is often associated with avant-garde artists, perhaps second-generation hipsters drifting from Andy Warhol's Factory into seedy East Village nightclubs. This scene, which dates from approximately 1974 to 1976, was characterized by underground music committed to rejecting the commercial music industry and erasing "the difference between performer and audience member" (Thompson, Punk Productions, 11).

Running from approximately 1976 to 1978 and largely orchestrated by Malcolm McLaren and his "creation" the Sex Pistols, the London punk scene engaged in a more sardonic embrace of commercialism. McLaren apparently borrowed much from the earlier, more authentic New York scene, but injected it with a heavy, though ironic, dose of sensationalism. Replacing the cool collectivity of the New York club scene with a viral antagonism during performances, British punk "attempted to negate the spectacle itself, but its attack upon the spectacle assumed the paradoxical form of hyper-spectacle" (Thompson, Punk Productions, 24).

Despite, or perhaps because of, early punk music's often violently rebellious nature and image, it attracted disaffected working-class youth, especially in Britain. Whether of the New York or London variety, late-1970s punk seemed to be an apt, though extreme, reflection of the political cynicism left in the wake of Watergate, the Vietnam War, inflation, and high unemployment.

Disgusted by the pretentious and pompous arena rock popular in the early 1970s, the original punk bands reverted to simple raw energy and amateur musicianship. Instead of conventional concert venues, they preferred dive bars, strip clubs, low-life nightclubs, and scrappy warehouses. While the earliest punk bands often vociferously antagonized their audiences during performances, an equally violent fusion of fan and band permeated the original punk scenes—fans stumbling onto the stage, band members stumbling into the audience, fans forming bands, etc.

This "antirock" club music scene is where the distinctive punk fashion look—safety pins, tight black leather, Doc Marten boots, spiked and dyed hair—originated and still thrives. This is also where the notorious pogo dance was born: audience members jumped violently up and down, pounding the floor as the music furiously pounded them, and thrashed side to side, deliberately ramming anyone within reach, an appropriately stripped-down and visceral form of contact and community.

Perhaps the most important punk concept to emerge out of the original punk music scene was DIY: do it yourself. A 1976 issue of the formative punk zine Sideburns furnishes the best core explanation of DIY: next to a crude but accessible diagram of three guitar chords is the exhortation "Now form a band" (Savage, England's Dreaming, 280). Anticorporate and celebratory of the amateur, DIY has evolved into a flexible credo for citizens working to engage in creative and productive activities outside the conventional restrictions of commercial, institutional culture. Like, and often intertwined with, grassroots political activism, DIY implies the forging of an alternative network of information flows and object exchanges. Independently produced zines, videos, bootleg recordings, and multifarious other forms of communication constitute a crucial dimension of punk's particular claim to alternative authenticity.

This sense that punk offers something authentically alternative is what has persisted over the years, attracting new generations of participants in new locations and new configurations. From Los Angeles hardcore in the early 1980s to Washington, D.C., straight edge in the mid-1980s to Seattle grunge in the early 1990s; from Goth to industrial to rave; from riot grrrl to lo-fi to trip-hop, punk—or at least punk's legacy—has been resurrected and rearticulated in various stylistic guises. For example, the Nortec music collective in Tijuana, Mexico, applies punk theory to hybrid electronica dance music as cultural activism (see Asensio, "The Nortec Edge"). Likewise, recent scholarship on "new punk cinema" traces the influence of punk's DIY philosophy on a variety of global independent film movements (Rombes, New Punk Cinema). A recent issue of Wired magazine even compares blogging to the early years of punk: "Punk rock became a beacon for creative people of all walks. We thought that energetic counterculture would last forever, but it didn't. So enjoy the blogs while you can" (Hamsher, "Blogging Is So Punk").

***

Since its brief moment of "pure" explosion three decades ago, punk has rippled continuously and dynamically throughout popular culture, testifying to, and perhaps outdoing, the power of those original power chords. If, in fact, "punk is an open and constantly morphing movement" that is "best seen as a virus, one that mutates constantly and resists codification—or vaccination," such staying power is one of the main reasons this early cycle of punk-musical films deserves to be analyzed and historicized (Cogan, Encyclopedia of Punk, x). These films form one of the first instances of punk's circuitous cultural dissemination.

Another compelling reason this punk-musical cycle demands our critical attention is the recurrence of strong female performances. These films often focus on complex gender politics within the punk subculture, a focus that in turn becomes a potent feminist comment on the larger rock-music culture. This narrative centering of the female breaks the gender hierarchy pattern of both the classical and pop rock musical. A film cycle driven by such strong female leads also presents a glaring contrast to the cinematic landscape of the early 1980s and its embrace of the patriarchal action hero. However, as we will see, such "feminism" is not without its complications.4 While many of the punk-musical films highlight the patriarchal roadblocks that insidiously persist within the punk subculture, they also incorporate traces of the backlash against feminism that emerged in the neoconservative cultural and political climate of the early 1980s. In any case, I situate this punk-musical cycle alongside more experimental feminist films of the early 1980s that likewise explore sound-image desynchronization, thereby constituting a parallel version of slip-sync. By positing this correspondence, we are suggesting that punk slip-sync has everything to do with these performers' being young women and with the struggle they articulate to perform.

One significant recent echo of the punk-musical cycle's critical representation of gender was the riot grrrl music phenomenon of the early 1990s, perhaps the most potent reincarnation of the spirit of punk (Bayton, Frock Rock, 74-80; Nehring, Popular Music, Gender, and Postmodernism, 156-165; Thompson, Punk Productions, 58-70). Spearheaded by underground bands like Bikini Kill and Bratmobile, the riot grrrl movement was heavily inspired by the DIY, anticorporate punk subculture, but injected it with a politicized feminist perspective. A complement to the alternative grunge-rock scene (itself a revival of the punk spirit), the riot grrrl subculture demonstrated how zine publishing and other forms of media activism could be effectively integrated with a lively lo-fi music genre. Many of the punk musicals of the early 1980s foresee riot grrrl's testy appropriation of punk as well as riot grrrl's own struggles against appropriation by the mainstream media.

At the other end of the pop-culture spectrum from riot grrrl, various pop-music lip-sync scandals dating from the late 1990s were likewise envisioned by punk slip-sync. Milli Vanilli got caught "singing" live to prerecorded tracks of someone else's vocals; at a concert in Madison Square Garden, the R&B hip-hop singer R. Kelly "put down his microphone in the middle of a song and let his recorded vocals keep singing" (Nelson, "Lip-Synching Gets Real," 30); Elton John scolded Madonna for lip-syncing during certain elaborate concert numbers (she denied doing so); during a performance on Saturday Night Live, Ashlee Simpson started lip-syncing to the wrong song. All these incidents of slippage in synchronization around lip-syncing were previsioned, although in more dystopian terms, by punk musicals. That is, these films implicitly examine a whole range of issues relating to the problem of maintaining authenticity in the context of a deeply mediated performance mode. If riot grrrl uses slip-sync as a visionary moment of feminist resistance to what Philip Auslander calls "mediatized" performance (Liveness, 5), live lip-sync suggests the more demonizing connotations of slip-sync, namely, a brazenly inauthentic commercialism.

***

Let me next sketch a further preface to the cycle itself by elaborating upon some of the frameworks suggested above. My goal here is to establish various lenses through which we can better situate and appreciate the impact and complexity of these films. This will involve articulating punk in relation to various cinematic and cultural forces and generating a historical and theoretical sense of slip-sync, briefly unearthing some surprising precursors. Our first lens expands upon the issues around live lip-sync just mentioned, by theorizing the slip-sync gesture more fully in relation to its broader companion concept: in/authenticity.

By David Laderman

David Laderman is Professor of Film at the College of San Mateo in California. He is the author of Driving Visions: Exploring the Road Movie and was featured in the IFC documentary Wanderlust.

"It is rare indeed to encounter such a lucid, entertaining, yet highly theoretical book that promises to say something new about punk. Punk Slash! Musicals updates the celebration of punk to present a nuanced reading of the punk musical's richly complex negotiations of the popular."
—Bishnupriya Ghosh, Professor of English, University of California, Santa Barbara

"David Laderman's sterling book is one of the most intelligent and creative contributions to the literature on the rock 'n 'roll film I have read. He surveys the cycle of punk musical films that ran from Derek Jarman's underground Jubilee (1978) to Alex Cox's Sid and Nancy (1986) through the optic of two wonderful original critical coinages: '(s)lip-sync' and 'in/authenticity.' These enable him to manage with great verve the interdependence of resistance and collusion that makes punk (along with rap) prototypical of popular culture in the era of late capital. Punk Slash! Musicals will be of major interest to scholars of both cinema and music, but it's so engagingly written, it deserves a wide popular reception."
—David E. James, Professor, Critical Studies, School of Cinematic Arts, University of Southern California

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