There are a number of factors that facilitated punk subculture to prosper, including the emergence of a ‘youth’ market in the 1920s, the post-war socio-economic changes in Britain, and a change in political ethos following the 1960s Hippy movement. Aesthetically and aurally, the punk movement was a reaction to the blandness of the disco era in the 1960s, punk style of dress was purposely offensive and considered anti-fashion. The politics of early punk subculture were of resistance through rituals and gestures of refusal toward mainstream society, but rarely coherent, organized political statements or movements. Some people question if punk is dead in today’s hyper-commercialized society. By examining the factors that gave rise to punk as a subculture, the philosophical outlook, and then analyzing the response from media and the public, especially how this changed over time, we can understand punk rock’s influence on youth culture on a deeper level than just enjoying the genre of music or style of dress.
Author’s Note: Many punks would tell you that you cannot put a label on them, so lest we insult any individuals or groups, we will be using the label of ‘subculture’ or ‘cultural variant’ or ‘deviant’ for convenience of analysis in connection with the works cited.
Hall & Jefferson define ‘culture’ as the “level at which social groups develop distinct patterns of life, and give expressive form to their social and material life-experience,” (11) be it dominant, subordinate, or counter-culture. Osgerby argues that a subculture’s emergence is “symptomatic of changes taking place within the dominant cultural order” such as a post-war environment, transition to working-class lifestyles, or urbanization (Osgerby, 95) as seen with punk rock in the United Kingdom. Subcultures have a distinct place in, and relationship to, wider society and culture; Hall & Jefferson call this the ‘parent’ culture. They argue that you cannot analyze the subculture without also examining the parent culture.
The common approach of most scholars on punk is to tackle the subject from a sociological perspective, assessing strictly the cultural and political impact the movement has. Cohen criticizes many ethnographic studies of music culture that “rely upon pre-formulated questionnaires, surveys, autobiographies or unstructured interviews which study people outside their usual social, spatial and temporal context” (qtd in Herrmann, 5). Herrmann believes that one had to experience the subculture in-person to understand it, not just observe and study it outside of the natural environment. Building on this idea, Redhead feels that “‘authentic’ subcultures were produced by sub-cultural theorists, not the other way around” (qtd in Herrmann, 5) which is sort of ‘chicken or the egg’ predicament, asking which came first. Herrmann provides and excellent overview in a literature review proceeding own in-person studies:
“Social scientists applied a number of grand theories to 1970s punk rock practices. Unfortunately, in so doing, they overlooked the everyday realities of the local punk scene, where cultural and personal performances are enacted (Cohen, 1993). First, scholars generally framed punk culture as an economic phenomenon. For example, Marsh (1977) conceptualized punk culture as a reaction by youths to the economic difficulties of 1970s England. Similarly, Hebdige (1979) argued punk is socio-economic, operating as a potential resolution to contradictions found in the everyday experiences of working-class youth. Taste culture theorists, on the other hand, posit an individual’s pattern of consumption is based primarily upon position in the social structure of society (Gans, 1967)” (Herrmann, 3).
These frameworks require us to examine the world in which the subculture developed. However, in sociological analysis, it can be difficult to reconcile between a Sex Pistols “No Future” nihilistic attitude and the more utopian viewpoint of the radical left.
An alternative view is that subculture and society are not at odds with each other. In the opening chapter of his book on subcultures, Chris Jenks quotes Kluckhohn & Kelley (1962, 67) stating that “the dividing line between ‘a culture’ and ‘subculture’ or ‘cultural variant’ has not yet been firmly staked out.” These ideas raise an interesting concept of co-existence. Hall & Jefferson believe that “subordinate cultures will not always be in open conflict with [dominant culture]” and will often find ways to “negotiate the spaces and gaps” left by dominant culture (12). Osgerby also notes that the style and music of youth culture are constantly changing and therefore analytical generalizations are difficult to make, which fits well with a co-existence model. This applies quite well to punk rock, which rose to prominence in 1976 in Britain and over the years has changed and adapted to society and the subculture youth. Not to mention that there are often smaller factions, niches, and fusions within particular subcultures, each characterized by particular styles of dress and music; for example, within punk subgenres you can find hardcore, Oi!, garage punk, Celtic punk, ska punk, and psychobilly to name a few. I personally feel that a co-existence model is the best fit as a theory. We can see many niches, subsets, and specializations within greater society as a whole, and the existence of one does not negate the other. As well, a co-existence model allows for the punk movement to change and adapt with time.
Despite the subdivisions of punk, it is safe to say that the changes in the late sixties and early seventies to British social and political society would not have been unnoticed by the youth culture and we must also examine where the ‘youth’ came from as they were not a distinct demographic in pre-War Britain. Laba details the emergence and focus on youth as a demographic in his essay on youth culture and the marketplace. Although ‘youth’ was defined in the 1920s as a marketplace category, it wasn’t until the baby boom of the post-war era that youth became a buying power know as the ‘teenage market’. “Music is situated as one of numerous, co-determinate commodities/identity vehicles available for purchase by the appropriate target segment” (Laba, 79). Osgerby describes the US and British rise of the youth market during the 1950s and 60s, crediting the labour market shifts for the increase in British youth’s spending power. As the commercial economy focused on the buying power of the youth market segment, many youth turned toward other like-minded individuals, thus creating subcultural groups like punks. As a side note, it is ironic that the Sex Pistols’ style was essentially put together by Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood in their clothing store. However, although they may be credited with ‘creating’ the distinct style of punk, they had no control over how or where the ideology of the punk subculture evolved, which raises an interesting aspect of how youth construct style and perform identity within society as well as how it changes over time.
Identity is a social performance, which means there is no universally accepted way to convey your personal identity. Humans learn through the norms and practises of society what cues to use when expressing ones own identity to others, and these norms change over time. Our identity is not simply biological or natural; we perform gender, sexuality, and personal taste through clothing, behaviour, and even consumption patterns. Paraphrasing Umberto Eco, every object is a sign and intended to express or communicate a particular message (Hebdige, 125). Discussing the meaning of style and dress ensembles, Hebdige states that style is selected “within the constraints of finance, ‘taste’, preference, etc” and are significant as each has a position “in an internal system of differences … which fit a corresponding set of socially prescribed roles and options … In this, [punk subcultures] go against the grain of a mainstream culture whose principal defining characteristic, according to Barthes, is a tendency to masquerade as [natural]” (Hebdige, 125). And here Hebdige gets to the crux of the matter: subcultures have an intentional communication that is not expressive of normality or fitting in, it is intentionally subverting the ‘norm’, obviously fabricated and declaring themselves different within society as a whole.
In the 1960s and 70s, punk youth used music and fashion as forms of identity expression. Hall & Jefferson feel that subcultures “take shape around the distinctive activities and ‘focal concerns’ of groups. They can be loosely or tightly bounded” (14) whereas Brake feels that “subcultures arise as attempts to resolve collectively experienced problems arising from contradictions in the social structure, and that they generate a form of collective identity from which an individual identity can be achieved outside that ascribed by class, education and occupation” (vii). I feel that both these statements are true—punk is both political and personal. Punk rockers were anti-establishment, concerned with individual freedom, and they used clothing and music as a form of cultural expression, community identity, and social commentary. Identity was expressed through music with fast, hard sound, typically short songs, and often with political and anti-establishment lyrics, as well as using fashion that countered the mainstream view of what was acceptable or appropriate. Herrmann states that “resistance is not deviant, but an ethical choice, an act of personal opposition. Punk’s DIY ethic comes through as a contentious debater, the need to be creative, the drive to produce something of value, to affect positive change” (Herrmann, 23, emphasis his own). The chaos, resistance, and organizing of punk all happened concurrently within the DIY ethos including clothing, record labels, distribution, specialty record stores, and even live music venues. “In these places, culture could be produced with less capitalism, more autonomy, and more anonymity” (Clark, qtd in Herrmann, 4). Herrmann believes that the punk ethos is “more than the result of economic frustration or a clothing style […] Punk is always personal, political and communal” (23, emphasis his own). Being part of something larger than oneself, even if it was never formally realized by most punk rockers, was still an important aspect of the early movement.
According to well-known music journalist Jon Savage, “punk’s musical conventions are firmly anchored to questions of politics: that is, punk is often approached principally as an expression of youth rebellion and disenfranchisement, rather than as music per se” whereas “Sabin defines it primarily as ‘youth rebellion’ and ‘artistic statement’ rather than ‘musical genre” (Savage, Sabin, qtd in Phillipov, p.383-4). But there is no reason why punk cannot have a sense of internal co-existence of the aesthetic, audio, and political ideals. The early punk movement had a strong political message, especially during the Thatcher era of Britain. “During the late sixties, it is possible to detect a broad shift in the British counter-culture, the rhetoric of ‘peace’ and ‘flower power’ being displaced by that of street-fighting and political protests as the 1967 ‘ Summer of Love’ gave way to 1968, the year of revolts” (Osgerby, 97). Punk rock was a firm resistance to mainstream culture, the commercialization of the music, and the government dealings in both England and the USA, “manifested in an upsurge of student militancy and agitation against the increasingly unpopular war in Vietnam” (Osgerby, 98). There were a number of sit-ins at universities, stand-offs between the students and the administration. “During the fifties and sixties there had already been a succession of moral panics in which the cultural forms and practices of working-class youth were presented as indicative of a general breakdown in the traditional order and its values” (Osgerby, 98).
Counter-cultural expressions of identity are often seen as ‘deviant’ to the norm, which can be seen clearly in the history of punk rock. The media portrayed and labeled punks as dangerous, repugnant, uncontrollable, undesirable, criminal, and violent (Hebdige) and the public responded to punk subculture with derision and moral panics (Cohen). Cohen recognizes the mass media as an important element for producing moral panics within the public and agents of social control. He states that the information received by dominant society regarding the deviant behaviour of ‘folk devils’ is key; for example, if the news media begins reporting thug gangs performing vandalism and describes them as wearing leather jackets with studs, combat boots, and brightly dyed mohawks, the public is going to begin to associate this image with criminality. “The media play on the normative concerns of the public and by thrusting certain moral directives into the universe of discourse, can create social problems suddenly and dramatically” (Cohen, 8). It is important to understand the role mass media and the public play in developing moral panics and even creating deviants. These “social groups create deviance by making the rules whose infraction constitutes deviance and by applying those rules to particular persons and labeling them as outsiders … a consequence of the application by others of rules and sanctions to an ‘offender’” (Becker, 9). Described simply, the initial act of deviancy or divergence from the norm such as appearance is responded to adversely and labeled as a social problem. The group or individual is isolated and alienated from dominant society due to this, and therefore seeks others of similar persuasion, which only begins the cycle again. “The emergence of a spectacular subculture is invariably accompanied by a wave of hysteria in the press” (Hebdige, 122).
Slowly, as the media and public become more familiar with it, the sensationalism dies down and eventually, the subculture can be merged into the dominant framework of meaning instead of being labeled as an outsider (Hall; Hebdige; Becker). As we have seen throughout media history, capitalism eventually absorbs and re-appropriates the visual signifiers of subcultures and translating them into commodities. “Youth cultural styles may begin by issuing symbolic challenges, but they must inevitably end by establishing new sets of conventions; by creating new commodities, new industries, or rejuvenating old ones (think of the boost punk must have given haberdashery!). This occurs irrespective of the subculture’s political orientation … irrespective of the startling content of the style” (Hebdige, 123). Cultural appropriation is evident even with more niché and compartmentalized identities.
Recent studies on advertising and marketing show that they draw upon pre-existing, external referent systems from the larger culture (or popularized subculture). Therefore, by commodifying the style of punk rock, commercial entities such as Hot Topic, Converse, and Dickies can market their products as symbols of a punk identity. Klein argues that in the 1990s we clearly saw the process of commercial co-optation and youth culture commodification (65) that would have been unheard of in the 1960s and 70s and have thus experienced a hollowing out of meaning. As Judith Williamson states, our identity is constructed through the products we purchase; we differentiate ourselves through what we buy. “But the more subtle level on which the advertisement works is that of ‘alreadyness’ … you do not simply buy the product in order to become a part of the group it represents; you must feel that you already, naturally, belong to that group and therefore you will buy it” (Williamson, 47).
Goshert states that the most important point of punk is “resistance to working within the usual terms of commercial success and visibility” (qtd in Perry, 4). Interpreting Goshert and Klein, when punk becomes part of the dominant culture it actually ceases to be ‘punk’. By this definition, punk has been dead for more than 20 years. However, Clark argues—and I agree—that the “first generation of punk may long be gone, but that does not mean punk has died in the people on the streets” (qtd in Perry, 4). Not only does a subculture change from generation to generation, but it also changes based on location. The punk sentiments of USA and Britain were certainly related, but they each had specific cultural variants unique to their geographic locale. One could even examine the punk movement in California compared to New York and they will observe both similarities and differences in musical sound, fashion style, and political views. “Punk is not one type of subculture in a particular country” states Perry (6), in the same way that punk music is not the same from one generation to the next. Each band of each time period addresses what is important to them and their generation: The Clash protested against monarchy and aristocracy and later Thatcherism; the Sex Pistols expressed a general pessimism of society with the lyrics “no future” in “God Save the Queen”; the Ramones rallied against boredom and the unfulfilled American Dream; members of Rancid who grew up in San Francisco were influenced by the economic downturn in post-Reagan years; and in the 2000s many contemporary punk bands criticized the Bush administration, such as NOFX with the song “Franco UnAmerican” and Green Day with “American Idiot”. While the social commentary and political sentiments vary based on each band, period of time, and location, it is clear that to be punk is to be political.
Punk bands of the 21st century have managed to negotiate between their political beliefs and the financial requirements of contemporary society, the music industry, and the media. Describing the opinion of O’Connor, Perry states that “punk bands within any particular scene must work at collectively negotiating between themselves and other collectives outside the culture” (6). Therefore O’Connor and others prefer to call punk a ‘scene’ as opposed to a ‘subculture’, stating that “a scene is something that takes work to create” (O’Connor, qtd in Perry, 7) which can operate within the commercialized framework of society without ‘selling out’. Regardless of the definitions sociologists, scholars, and experts label punk with—subculture, counter-culture, scene, or sell-out—we see that it hasn’t died in the digital age. Punk, like many other identities, niches, and subcultures, has simply evolved from their original roots and adapted. Within the demands of society, the media, and the public, punk is still offering an outlet of expression and form of identity for many youth.