Michael Jackson: Nina Prommer/JR/Pool/Globe Photos
December 24, 2002 at 05:00 AM EST

Which music stars embody the new punk sensibility?

For anyone who remembers the golden era of punk — roughly 1976-1979 — it’s got to be slightly disconcerting to see what punk has become. Let’s face it: The happy-face, let’s-all-jump-around-and-act-silly music of acts like Sum 41 and blink-182 seems pretty lightweight when stacked up against that of the Sex Pistols or the Dead Boys.

Punk rock was all about deviance and transgression; it was music made by and for malcontents and screw-ups. Sure, the Ramones sounded poppy, but their music was informed by real pain — those songs about sniffing glue and zoning out in mental hospitals were based on the band’s real-life experiences. ”People who join a band like the Ramones don’t come from stable backgrounds,” wrote the late Dee Dee Ramone in his autobiography ”Lobotomy: Surviving the Ramones.” By contrast, the new wave of sanitized, parent-approved Top 40 punk rockers seem like All-American kids.

So where’s a person seeking authentic latter-day punk role models to turn? Well, the most outrageous punk attitude actually seems to be emanating from folks who no one would ordinarily think about labeling punk.

Take Whitney ”Crack Is Cheap” Houston. For the past few years, we’ve watched her get skinnier and twitchier than dead Dead Boy Stiv Bators as rumors swirled that she was caught in a whirlpool of destructive drug use. Then came her jaw-dropping performance with Diane Sawyer on national television, in which a blasé Whitney copped to drug use while flaunting a defiantly unapologetic attitude about her erstwhile ”partying” lifestyle. Now THAT’S punk.

Let’s look at another multi-platinum diva. After exhibiting increasingly erratic behavior, Mariah Carey had a very public breakdown and was hospitalized. When she reemerged, it was with an album of almost completely unlistenable music. Hey, that’s even more punk than if she had recorded versions of the Ramones’ ”Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment” and ”Bad Brain.”

And check out Michael Jackson. The dude has been going out of his way to antagonize his record company and its chief, Tommy Mottola, even though the facts prove that Jackson is almost totally in the wrong. Fighting unwinnable battles — not to mention making a laughing stock of yourself — has long been a hallmark of the punk aesthetic. And just look at Mike’s face: The damage he’s inflicted on his visage is far more extreme than anything old-school punks accomplished with the aid of makeup or safety pins through their cheeks — and he paid to have it done! Plus, he almost dropped his kid off a balcony recently. How punk is that?

And let’s not forget Christina ”Sweet Young Thing Ain’t Sweet No More” Aguilera, who seems to be trying to outdo the Plasmatics’ Wendy O. Williams, Courtney Love, and the Runaways combined in the let’s-pretend-we’re-slutty-teen-hookers sweepstakes. Public reaction to her new image already rivals the shock and repulsion of the British when the Sex Pistols cussed up a storm on the U.K.’s ”Today Show.” That spells P-U-N-K in our book.

Think you know what constitutes punk? Get hip to the real junk. Just remember: In this strange new age, punk attitude can be found anywhere — even atop the Billboard charts.

What do you think? Which mainstream stars embody punk?

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