Poignantly Punk

Marissa McConnell
9/11/98
ENG 105
The teen years are when you question your identity and as a reflex action you rebel against authority. You can rebel as a rapper, a heavy metal headbanger, a punk, a surfer – the usual menu of approved teen rebellions most often explored. It is within these years that the world seems turned against you and you need to find some way to react and cope with all the confusion; to try to find a way to make sense of all the craziness. I guess I identified with the punk perspective, if you could call it that, and found my own little place within the subculture, although not as extreme as others, still a place. Yet now, looking back, I remember a time when I enjoyed being angry at the world, because at least I knew I felt something; something I thought I could define. And I reacted, by doing what I wanted to do.
You start out slow, go to a few shows, feel as though you belong to the elite little community. Eventually your hair turns blue (or at least mine did), then it gets cut to about two inch spikes, and eventually a hole gets poked through your tongue to make room for a 14 gauge barbell. Life is short, so do the things you want to do while you still can. Be irresponsible before society really makes you conform to its rules. All of these things went through my mind. Then my hair turns black (everyone has to get a job eventually), it slowly starts to grow out, but the barbell stays. When you pay good money for something, it is hard to part with. Looking back I don’t regret any part of it. I had fun, and I still do. Some of the attitudes I still identify with, and the music is still my favorite, but I don’t consider it as much of a lifestyle. I haven’t changed much since then, and I’d love to be able to pierce whatever I want with no worries; self-expression fueled by the latest fads. Conforming to individualism….it sounds so pointless, but why is it so popular? Some say that punk is dead. Yet an impact on society has definitely been made, lives changed, ideals affected, fashion trends set, and an entire subculture formed.


Most punks agree that Punk is an expression of rebellion, and has been around for well over 25 years now. Yet still nobody can agree on what it is. Is it a style of music? An attitude? A frame of reference, political system, or spiritual philosophy, or just a trendy way to dress and act. Punk could very well be one, some, or all of the above. That is what makes it indescribable. Punk is defined by each person as they experience it. And no one can define punk beyond their own interpretation, because punk, like art really is whatever you think it is. One question though, is what attracts people to punk?
One person who feels he knows what that may be is Richard Mauro. Richard designs “punk furniture” using recycled materials; creating pieces he hopes people will take notice of. One of these pieces is a chaise made out of an old army blanket covered with one thousand number three safety pins. Mr. Mauro believes that, “people are bored with themselves, with the news, and everything feels bland and redundant. That’s one reason: We need something to get us going. And the other’s that there’s been this duality for so long which the kids are seeing through, because they are fed us with it. The duality between public politeness and the kinds of rude profanities you use in private, for example. Let me bring all that violence out instead of hiding it. That’s the kind of things the kids are saying to themselves, and the press is helping them to bring it out because it needs sensationalism. So punk is a way of attacking hypocrisy, really…” (Selzer 72). From another point of view, John Rockwell of the New York Times feels that punk is, “a symbol of the restless energies of a youthful subculture that found industrialized bourgeois society hypocritical and stale” (Selzer 110). They agree, in speaking out against hypocrisy, but how innovative is that? Yet why would hypocrisy be condoned by any social group?
There is something else about punk music that defines it, and brings kids together. An attitude and an ideal. More than a fashion statement or a hole in your face are the ideas behind them. From its start, “seventies punk was about nihilism and anarchy and self-destruction; it raised a firm middle finger at everyone and everything” (Szabo 57). This attitude is still present today within the angry teens still looking for something to fight and something to be. “Punk is about personal involvement. Yeah, fuck the system — because the system is everything outside of you. Punk is about raging individualism, it’s about doing something for yourself” (Arnold 66).

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The do-it-yourself attitude (D.I.Y.) recognized as a part of the history within the punk subculture embodies the belief that there was little hope for the future. The motivation is “emailprotected*k You!” I can’t be in your clique or your club, or whatever, I’ll just start my own! Which seems to be the initial feel to it. Kids and people are always going to feel that way. If you want something, you better find some way to get it for yourself because the system is against you. As punk arose in England during 1976 in the midst of a recession that appeared to most English youth amidst the failure of the British socio-economic system found a voice filled with angst that seemed to understand. “There’s no future,’ the Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten sang in early 1976. Many who called themselves ‘punk’ saw no hope in the future as they reacted against the perceived failures of their elders and pessimistically viewed the future. The Pistols sparked the punk movement, but their quick demise enabled another English band to become a leader of the fragmented movement and move punk ideology beyond the Pistols’ anarchic rage and despair to one that hoped ‘the future is unwritten” (Bindas 69). Economic failure provided the fuel for punk, because many came from the, “working class, scornful of the scant material rewards of welfare-capitalism” (Bindas 70).

Bands like the Clash and the Sex Pistols emerged at the very birth of punk music. “A NIGHT OF TREASON, promised a poster for a concert by the Clash in London in 1976, and that might have summed it up: a new music, called ‘punk’ for lack of anything better, as treason against superstar music you were supposed to love but which you could only view from a distance; against the future society had planned for you; against your own impulse to say yes, to buy whatever others had put on the market, never wondering why what you really wanted was not on sale at all” (Marcus 2). Punk was a new music, a new social critique, but most of all it was a new kind of free speech. There was an absolute denial of self-censorship in the Sex Pistols’ songs that gave people who heard them permission to speak as freely. “If an ugly, hunched-over twenty-year-old could stand up, name himself an antichrist, and make you wonder if it wasn’t true, then anything was possible” (Marcus 3).
By the time the mainstream had declared the death of punk in 1979, or 1980, or then again in 1981, etc., the influence of punk along with the do-it-yourself ethic had spread all over the world. Independent labels were created by the dozens throughout Europe, North America, Australia, and a few countries in Africa. Especially around urban areas, independent fanzines could be found with music critique of all the newly formed bands and their demos, interviews, comics, Xerox art, poetry, fiction, news, investigative reporting, political agendas and more. It was a renaissance for those who were stranded from or chose to avoid the elitist upper-class artists and intellectuals who communicated only with their peers in art and academic journals, and the commercial culture targeted for everyone else who presumably did not deserve to have a voice.

Many people are ignorant of the many post-punk subcultures because they are not as easily defined as the simple days of the Sex Pistols. The perpetual process of sharing cultural ideas and developing new hybrids of music blur the distinctions between one style and the next. Punk is probably one of the only forms of music that shuns the descriptive labels which characterize these different styles. Why is calling a band ’77, Rockabilly, Ska, Mod, Emo-Core, Hardcore, Speed Metal, or anything else such an insult?
A major issue amongst the punk culture is the issue of “selling out”; giving in to the very same corporate ideals which oppress the people and limit ideas. When bands do not remain true to the ideals their fans impose, they lose a lot of their loyal following. I have to admit, when I first saw Blink-182’s video on MTV, at first I was excited, then disappointed. A big fan of their first CD, Cheshire Cat, and a repeat member of the audience at their shows I felt that they had lost something, or maybe I had lost something. The entire subject of the elitist attitude comes into play in this situation. I had loved them when they weren’t as popular. Now that they were on MTV the entire world was exposed to their music and I wasn’t as special anymore for knowing about their talent. Fat Mike from NOFX says, “Yeah, MTV sells records, but it destroys bands, and we want to avoid becoming a product. We’re a band, not just a song” (About NOFX). One song on their second CD brings in the cash and loses the loyalty; the conflict between commerce and art. “The distance between what a rock musician or band ‘stands for’ and what they ‘are’ generates a tension to grasp rock as a form of musical expression. Given the premise that the true artist must genuinely mean whatever is said, and that anything else is commercial manipulation, the charge of sellout has been the most damning one that can be brought against a rock musician” (Gracyk 180). There is opposition to this viewpoint. Bon Jovi once said, “I never understood musicians who say you’re a sellout if you’re commercially successful. Didn’t you write that song because you wanted people to like it?” (Gracyk 185). Yet there are still those bands, such as NOFX who don’t make videos, have radio play, or do interviews. The singer Fat Mike sums up their position in saying, “It’s my job to keep punk rock elite” (Nelson1). Countering this issue is the belief that good punk is nowadays a hard thing to find. Who cares if a band sells a million copies of their brain-dead album or not. Who cares if they’re on this label and that, that makes means nothing. True punk music and its ethics should not be about spirit, attitude and the “me vs. you” mentality. It’s about waving a big finger before anybody or anything that oppresses you, and still remaining true to your own individuality.

Most rock fans expect musicians to represent the audience, not to think for themselves. For all its claims to antibourgeois politics, punk was significantly concerned with expressing the sentiments of young rock fans. Expressing the classic punk disdain for older, established rock stars, Brian James of the Damned said, “It must be really difficult, after you’ve been playing for ten years and you’re used to like lush limousines and anything you want at the click or your fingers, to keep your mind back on the streets…We’re talking for the kids you know. We’re playing to the kids — that’s what rock’n’roll’s all about” (Gracyk 188).
Influencing other things besides attitude and ideals, punk music has played a rather unexpected role in fashion since its start. Influencing lines such as Versace, Anna Sui, and Chanel, designers describe the styles as, “an idealized sense of punk, somewhere between chic and shock” (Szabo 57). Gianni Versace caused quite a stir when his models cruised the runway in strappy bondage dresses, prototypical of punk fetish gear. New fabrics were used including Astroturf. Karl Lagerfeld accessorized his fall 1993 collection for Chanel with hefty, slightly nasty-looking chains and padlocks fashioned into belts and chokers. The Chanel models were once again the center of attention as, “cherry-popsicle pink and swimming pool blue wigs,” adorned their heads thanks to stylist Julien d’Y (Siroto 257). Punk in the ’90s though, is more an indescribable attitude than a prescribed way to dress.

“The punks fashion sensibilities reflected their belief that modern society had evolved to the point where ‘no one gives a shit about you” (Bindas 77). The music performance, audience reaction, and fashion came to symbolize their rejection to what they perceived as 1960s rock sensibilities — make it all so repulsive it could never be marketed at the local J.C. Penney or exploited by Dick Clark. Their hair fashions followed this logic, as the punks chose unstyled, cropped short hair, or the mohawk, colored, glued, spiked, or simply skinhead style, all of which could be done by oneself or by an untrained friend. Makeup was worn by both sexes and was smeared on to accessorize their dog chains, razor blades, dog tags, and of course, the punk icon, the safety pin” (Bindas 77). “The punks rejected contemporary formal wear, they wore skinny ties, skinny lapels, straight-legged pants, tennis shoes, leather jackets, army fatigues, biker boots, and ripped tee shirts” (Bindas 76). Today the fashion of punk has changed from what is was twenty years ago, but the influence is still apparent. Most wear baggy pants, but then again so do most guys these days. The safety pin is still a major fashion accessory in the skinhead clans, and short hair, especially spikes is popular among both sexes.

The common look, a feeling of belonging, can be attributed to the appeal of punk. We live in very violent times where many kids feel the need to be a part of something. Mick Jones of the Clash said, “Young people are ‘Lost in the Supermarket’ of life, which alienates them from one another as they fight for their artificial personality. The desire for this supermarket lifestyle dehumanizes to the point where many feel ‘I wasn’t born, so as much as I fell out, nobody seems to notice me.’ While the daily bustle of life continues, ‘the silence makes me lonely” (Bindas 77). From a sociological point of view, music can be comforting. Some, after experiencing certain circumstances, feel that peace could come to an end at anytime, and search for something to fill the silence. The substitute for loneliness and silence, the fear in everyday life is welcomed with the least possible effort. Another pattern is the search for human company. “People want to know that they mean something to others” (Silbermann 189).

Music, reaching a wide spread audience can have rather unexpected effects. Robert Prechter is the author of The Elliot Wave Theorist, a newsletter that claims the market reflects mass psychology and that moods go from good to bad in waves. “Prechter’s fame grew in the 1970s when he recommended buying stocks, partly because of an anguished song by the punk-rock group the Sex Pistols. He reasoned that the song’s gloom indicated a low point in the public mood and meant an emotional and market improvement would follow. A few months later the market lifted…” (Marcus 1). You have to wonder just what Sex Pistols song it was that ultimately led to the erasure of the ninety points off the Dow Jones average — or that, after biding its time for a decade or more, finally wreaked its revenge on the paper boom of the go-go 80s. Was it the Sex Pistols’ first single, the November 1076 “Anarchy in the U.K.,” where Johnny Rotten led off with the strange announcement, “I am an antichrist,” and for a few minutes made it seem as if the rage issuing from his mouth could level London? Was it their next record, the May 1977 “God Save the Queen,” with its sneering final chant of “NO FUTURE – NO FUTURE – NO FUTURE”? Or did one fan hear, from inside the storm of that song, the Sex Pistols’ hardest prophecy of the end of the world, and take it as a sign that nothing worse would be forthcoming, form anywhere? (Marcus 2).

From another economic standpoint, suddenly industry sees big possibilities for mass consumption of the bands who once thrived (or starved) in the underground subcultures. Yet most hesitate when bombarded by the big bucks, because they’re usually associated with big draw backs. Drawing from a Reel Big Fish song, “Radio plays what they want you to hear, tell me it’s cool, I just don’t believe it! Sell out with me oh yeah, sell out, with me tonight, the record company’s gonna give me lot’s of money and everything is gonna be all right!” (Reel Big Fish). Slightly ironic since they signed with Mojo records. Mojo is not that bad, at least it is not a huge company like MCA or A &M, yet usually punk and ska bands tend to start out on independent labels and most stay. Take Epitaph for example, a indie label started around 1998/1989, home to NOFX and many other successful punk bands. Even though NOFX has their own independent label, Fat Wreck Chords they still do one album deals with Epitaph. There is a certain loyalty between them. Also Nitro Records, the label trying to control the Vandals, started by the Offspring’s Brian Holland. Then the Vandal’s have their own label, Kung-Fu records, who started off Assorted Jelly Beans, the Ataris, and MFATGG (Me First and the Gimme Gimmes). Is a trend noticeable? Everyone seems to feel the need to start their own label once they become successful. It is now their turn to foster the new and upcoming punk bands and steer them clear of the corporate monsters. “The major labels have just become embarrassing. We have major labels calling us, begging us to put their shitty bands that they’re calling punk on the third slot on our shitty tours. That’s how desperate they’ve become,” says Escalante of the Vandals. “You see, The Vandals say ‘no’ – ‘no tank you,’ because we’re polite – ‘we appreciate the pathetic situation you’re in now that you think punk is going to make you money, but no thank you! Then where do you go? You go to the next better band, because they’re going to say ‘no’ too. You have to go to the next worse band, that’s what’s happening. They just don’t get it,’ says Fitzgerald” (Tones of Home 1).


It is obvious that punk is not for everyone, but it is too old to die young and there’s enough people around to support it. You don’t have to have a set of unique qualities to be punk. There is more to being punk than following the path of the gutterpunks and being continuously drunk and disorderly. “One of the great virtues of the musical experience is that it produces a mode of behavior in which every member of a collective audience is suddenly alone with whatever emotion it arouses in him” (Silbermann 190). Although most probably go unnoticed, the effects of punk music on our society are too widespread for it to disappear. From the fashion to the purely business aspects. Subcultures don’t go away, especially if they’re relevant. There were great bands that existed and more to come. As long as the records are made the rest will take care of itself. “Punk’s not dead, it’s just resting…hiding its light underneath a bushel, gathering strength in foreign climes. Its flames are still burning somewhere, despite anything anyone has to say. Punk rock is Phoenician, it will rise, like the soul, on the stepping-stones of its former self. The death of punk? What a crock of shit. Punk is like youth: it will always spring eternal…for life everlasting, amen” (Arnold 205).


Works Cited
Arnold, Gina. Kiss This: Punk in the Present Tense. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1997.

Bindas, Kenneth J. “The Future is Unwritten’: The Clash, Punk and America, 1977-1982.” American Studies 34 (Spring/Fall 1993) : 69-89.

Gracyk, Theodore. Rhythm and Noise: An Aesthetics of Rock. USA: Duke University Press, 1996
Green, Stuart. “Interview with… The Vandals.” Exclaim Magazine. http://www.vandals.com/zines/exclaim.html> (21 February 1998.)
Marcus, Greil. Ranters & Crowd Pleasers: Punk in Pop Music 1977-92. New York: Doubleday, 1993.

Nelson, Chris. “Music News of the World (Hi-Fi).” Addicted to Noise. http://www.addict.com/MNOTW/hifi/971105/971105_1739.shtml> (23 February 1998)
Reel Big Fish. “Turn the Radio Off.” LP. Moho Records, 1996.

Sajn, Gorazd. “About NOFX.” http://www.kiss.uni-lj.si/%7Ek4fe0443/nofx.1htm> (23 February 1998)
Selzer, Michael. Terrorist Chic: An Exploration of Violence in the Seventies. New York: Hawthorne Books, Inc., 1979.

Silbermann, Alphons. The Sociology of Music. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963.

Siroto, Janet. “Punk Rocks Again.” Vogue September. 1993: 257-258.

Szabo, Julia. “Think Punk.” Bazaar November. 1993: 57-58.