One day, during my sophomore year in high school, a friend introduced me to MxPx. From that moment, I listened to virtually nothing but punk rock music for five years. I’m hardly exaggerating. Punk is not my favorite style of music anymore, but I keep coming back to it. And every time I listen to one of these albums from my teenage years, I remember the appeal. It goes beyond nostalgia—I truly enjoy listening to punk.
The draw of punk music is its simplicity. You typically have electric guitars, a bass, and drums. In most punk music, the guitars are distorted in every song, with the possible exception of a song intro here or there that begins with clean tones. You also have a lead singer who typically is not a “good” singer. They can get the job done, and often on key, but you’ll find few vocal flourishes.
That’s a very limited palette, but with that simple arrangement punk bands explore all of life.
The whole approach is very raw. Most punk songs consist of only four chords (that’s true of most pop music, actually), and most punk bands use what are known as “power chords.” Instead of forming the full chord using five or six strings, the guitarist holds down the first three notes of the chord and mutes the rest. This is a very basic form of the chord. There’s no embellishment, nothing to make it sound more interesting or unique. Punk rock hits you with driving distorted guitars, steady bass lines, and aggressive drum beats.
You might be struck by the simplicity of punk music. Many think that every punk song sounds the same. This critique is raised against most genres, and it’s never as true as the casual listener assumes. Yet there is some truth to this critique of punk music. The genre functions within very narrow constraints. But that’s not necessary bad.
Jack White is an advocate for the beauty of constraints. If you give an artist all the options in the world and all the time in the world, he’s likely to be paralyzed. Jack White explains that in his band The White Stripes, he intentionally limited his options (only drums, guitars, and vocals; only red, white, and black; only rhythm, melody, and storytelling; and surprisingly, only two musicians). He’d intentionally give himself less time to record an album than he needed. He continued to play with old, worn out guitars that he had to fight to keep in tune. He made sure his organ and spare picks were a step further than he could reach in time in order to force himself to strain.
When most of us think of creativity, we think of doing something brand new, something far outside the box. For White, creativity comes when we restrict ourselves and then force ourselves to create something interesting within those constraints.
Consider punk music in this light. These musicians are very limited in “building materials.” They’ve got a few instruments, a few cords, a few variations in sound or tempo. That’s really it. And then they set out to create. And what they come up with when they work within these restrictions is often incredible.
You could argue that my teenage emotions were not well developed (and you’d be right). But I found a host of punk songs that spoke to my longings, my anger, my fears, my social insecurities, my feelings of love, even my relationship with God. Within the raw simplicity of unrefined vocals and unembellished power chords, these punk artists compellingly explored the human experience. I could relate to these simple songs. I still do.
In my opinion, punk is ideally suited to express or explore raw emotions: anger, love (whether reciprocated or not), excitement, etc. Most of the punk songs I love (typically from bands like MxPx, The Ataris, Slick Shoes, and New Found Glory) express a longing more than they provide an answer. And that’s what all great art does. It pushes us to wrestle with the human experience. Great art gives expression to our hopes and fears, it poses questions or presents us with a unique perspective on the familiar. That’s what punk did for me in my late teens, and that’s what it continues to do when I come back to these beloved albums from time to time.
Music is a gift from God, a means of enjoying him, his world, and the people he made. Music allows us to see more clearly, to grow more attuned to who we are, why we’re here, and what it means to be God’s image bearers. Though many dismiss punk rock as an impoverished form of music (or perhaps a perversion thereof), my generation found a lot of meaning in these simple songs. Perhaps you did, or do, or will (I’d start with those bands I listed above if you’re interested). And if you want to dive more into the power and importance of music, here’s a great place to begin.