William Gibson on Punk Rock, Internet Memes, and ‘Gangnam Style’
- September 15, 2012 |
If punk emerged today — instead of in 1977 — how would it take hold on the popular consciousness?
“You’d pull it up on YouTube, as soon as it was played,” hypothesized William Gibson in a recent phone interview with Wired. “It would go up on YouTube among the kazillion other things that went up on YouTube that day. And then how would you find it?”
In the third and final installment of the Wired interview with William Gibson, the noted science fiction author discusses punk rock, internet memes, the dawn of recorded sound, and the now-infamous “Gangnam Style” video by Korean pop star Psy. The video, which has nearly 170 million views on YouTube and counting, has captured Gibson’s imagination.
“That’s something from a subculture we would have no way of knowing anything about, and suddenly it’s on YouTube and it’s got millions and millions of hits, and people all over the world are saying, ‘Wow, will you check this out?’” Gibson said.
It’s unlikely, Gibson noted, that the video will be more than a blip in popular culture — soon to be supplanted by the next big meme. But, as he added with a laugh, “I want to see his next video. I will be totally on it. I’m sure I will be, because people will tell me about it on Twitter.”
Wired: In your essay in the new book Punk: An Aesthetic, you write that punk was the last pre-digital counterculture. That’s a really interesting thought. Can you expand on that?
Gibson: It was pre-digital in the sense that in 1977, there were no punk websites [laughs]. There was no web to put them on. It was 1977, pre-digital. None of that stuff was there. So you got your punk music on vinyl, or on cassettes. There were no mp3s. There was no way for this thing to propagate. The kind of verbal element of that counterculture spread on mostly photo-offset fanzines that people pasted up at home and picked up at a print shop. And then they mailed it to people or sold it in those little record shops that sold the vinyl records or the tapes. It was pre-digital; it had no internet to spread on, and consequently it spread quickly but relatively more slowly.
I suspect — and I don’t think this is nostalgia — but it may have been able to become kind of a richer sauce, initially. It wasn’t able to instantly go from London to Toronto at the speed of light. Somebody had to carry it back to Toronto or wherever, in their backpack and show it, physically show it to another human. Which is what happened. And compared to the way that news of something new spreads today, it was totally stone age. Totally stone age! There’s something remarkable about it that’s probably not going to be that evident to people looking at it in the future. That the 1977 experience was qualitatively different, in a way, than the 2007 experience, say.
Wired: What if punk emerged today, instead of in 1977? How do you think it would be different?
Gibson: You’d pull it up on YouTube, as soon as it was played. It would go up on YouTube among the kazillion other things that went up on YouTube that day. And then how would you find it? How would it become a thing, as we used to say? I think that’s one of the ways in which things are really different today. How can you distinguish your communal new thing — how can that happen? Bohemia used to be self-imposed backwaters of a sort. They were other countries within the landscape of Western industrial civilization. They were countries that most people would never see — mysterious places. You’d pay a price, potentially, for going there. That’s always cool and exciting. Now, where are they? Where can you do that? How are people transacting that today? I am pretty sure that they are, but I don’t have that much firsthand experience of it. But they have to do it in a different way.
My initial experience of punk was I went to Toronto, and I happened to go to a couple of nights of what historically turned out to be their first punk concert series. They had some bands from as far away as Los Angeles playing this kind of music I’d never heard before. So I absorbed that, and went home to Vancouver sort of thinking, “I wonder what that was about.”
Then a friend of mine who had been in art school in London returned with a knapsack full of British punk zines and everything that the Sex Pistols had released up to that point. And he pulled these records out of his knapsack. I had never heard of the Sex Pistols, and neither had anyone else in Vancouver. By the end of the evening we were all talking about them [laughs]. That’s just a very different kind of spread, than getting up in the morning and seeing the first page of Boing Boing.
Wired: Perhaps punk, if introduced now, would be a meme that goes viral, and the Sex Pistols would have millions of hits on YouTube.
Gibson: You know that “Gangnam Style” video from Korea? That’s kind of in the ballpark, you know? That’s something from a subculture we would have no way of knowing anything about, and suddenly it’s on YouTube and it’s got millions and millions of hits, and people all over the world are saying, “Wow, will you check this out?” That’s something. That’s something like that. But it doesn’t necessarily play out in the same way…. Our expectations and what it could become are different.
Gibson: But you know, I want to see his next video [laughs]. I will be totally on it. I’m sure I will be, because people will tell me about it on Twitter.
Wired: You’ve had some interesting thoughts about the dawn of recorded sound, and how weird it must have been to suddenly have recorded sound. And in the early days, how it was almost grotesque to hear sound emanating from a disembodied source.
Gibson: People at the time learning about it….were extremely upset, judging by the records they left of it. I think what I said there, and I know I’m sure I’ve said elsewhere, is that it’s harder to imagine a world without recorded music than it is to imagine some things in that strange, fabulous imaginary technological future.
The recorded music industry was a huge deal for those of us who lived through it, and we took it absolutely for granted, and now it’s really gone; it’s not what it used to be. You can’t really get super rich just doing that; you have to be able to sell merch or something to go along with it, or have concert tours.
One thing I realized when I was having my vintage wristwatch hobby was that the mechanical wristwatch lasted from about 1914 to about 1970. We still make them and stuff, but they’re actually kind of pointless, because a two-dollar quartz watch is more accurate than all but the very finest mechanical watches, which cost as much as small cars now. So that was something that all humanity took absolutely for granted, that this technological thing that was absolutely ubiquitous, and kept the world on time, and was absolutely necessary. It’s gone because it was supplanted by something cheaper and more efficient.
And recorded music — in the sense of what it was when The Beatles arrived — was probably really gone with the advent of cassette tape. Because that was all of what it took to break
the monopoly of production, of manufacture. There was never any real way to copy a vinyl record except to make another record, or make a copy on a reel-to-reel machine. It just wasn’t something you could carry around. But as soon as that cassette tape was there, the monopoly was gone and the things started falling apart…I’ve yet to come to a very clear opinion myself on how that’s going to play out with printed books, but definitely, something is happening.