Punks: Individuality For One and For All

“Punk was never about one particular clean cut imagery…it’s about many, many individuals coming very loosely together” – Johnny Rotten, Sex Pistols

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Reading Summaries:

“Subculture: The Meaning of Style” by Dick Hebidge

Within “Subculture: The Meaning of Style,” Dick Hebidge how style emerges, how it communicates, and how it functions within society. Stuart Hall argues that media produces an “ideological effect” that works to homogenize cultures and ideologies, constructing images that categorize and classify the diversity of society, and as a result, lay the foundation for the ways in which people make sense of the social world. For this reason, those who control the mass media harbor an enormous power that enables them to define culture in their terms, constantly working to re-appropriate stylistic features of counterculture movements to neutralize any threats to that power. Specifically, in regards to punk, Hebidge attributes the subculture’s success to its, “…ability to symptomatize a whole cluster of contemporary problems,” utilizing existing forms of rhetoric and dress to create a punk metaphor and a punk style (87). Emerging in Great Britain during the late 1970s, a time characterized by unemployment and violence, punks stylized their appearance and behavior to reflect feelings of aggression, frustration, and anxiety. They adopted a do-it-yourself philosophy that challenged the conventional and encouraged the oppositional, creating their own media so that they could act as producers of meaning, not simply as consumers.

“Notes from the Underground” by Stephen Duncombe

As succinctly stated by Duncombe in his book “Notes from Underground,” the paradox of negative identity is that, “…who you are is contingent upon who you are rebelling against” (47). By defining itself in opposition of the dominant culture, the punk identity becomes a negative identity, remaining meaningful insofar as it remains linked to what it is not. Duncombe argues that zines (fanzines) function as an integral part of the punk culture because of their ability to define reality in their own terms rather than those of the dominant culture. As the subculture’s primary form of communication, zines provide a space for punks to openly express themselves and cultivate their identities free from the pressures of mainstream society. By creating their own media, punks resist the conforming forces of the dominant culture, acting as producers rather than merely consumers, and encouraging others to do the same. One problem that emerges within the subculture is the mixing of “authentic individuality” and “communal solidarity” (68). As Duncombe puts it, “being a punk means you define yourself against society as an individual, but it also means that you define yourself as being part of a group, adhering to community standards” (68). Differing views within the punk community about “what it means to be punk” creates instability and presents a contradiction that may never really be solved. However, it is this contradiction that allows zines to remain meaningful and representative of the punk culture. In contrast to zines, dominant media often negatively portrays punks, presenting them as violent individuals, and in the process, creating negative stereotypes. By adopting a DIY philosophy, punks take their representation into their own hands, aware that while they may not be able to influence the way the dominant media portrays them, at least they will take action themselves to voice individualistic views.

“The Philosophy of Punk” by Craig O’Hara

O’Hara discusses the communicative function of zines amongst punks, viewing them as media compellations that unify various elements of the subculture and convey its essence. Emerging in the mid-70s, zines defied the rules followed by traditional magazines, taking a more grass-roots approach to publishing both through style and content. Linked to the punk DIY philosophy, zines were created and sold on affordable terms, discussing a variety of topics from a variety of views, and circulating within the subculture as a reminder that, “anyone could and should do it themselves” (65). While the aim of zines is to encourage a multiplicity of views through a variety of publications, more popular zines like MRR raise suspicion within the subculture as members worry about the power of these publications to influence younger punks. By gaining larger followings, zines face the pressures of conforming to more professional standards that link them to mainstream media, and as a result negate their efforts as a counter-cultural movement. However, despite the criticism of certain publications, the goals of zines remain the same across the board, focusing on the communication of ideas that define the punk culture and philosophy (69).

“Subcultures: Cultural Histories and Social Practice” by Ken Gelder

Chapter 2 “The Chicago School and After: Sociology, Deviance, and Social Worlds”

The chapter focuses on the University of Chicago and its role in shaping sociological perspective on subculture studies. Robert E. Park was an integral player in defining culture as a global term and in naming Chicago as an immigrant destination (28). He describes metropolitan cities as full of “little worlds” that enable people to move through and be transformed by them (29).

Hobohemia, ganglands, and taxi dancers are described later in the chapter in accordance to ethnographic research:

Sociologist Nels Anderson conducted Hobohemia research and describes Hobohemia as a utopia where “different racial groups – in particular white Americans and African Americas –freely and comfortably cohabit without reproducing the racisms and social hierarchies found in mainstream society” (34).

Sociologist Frederic M. Thrasher explored gang life in Chicago, also through ethnographic research and field observations. He asserted that “gangs were a product of a modern city” and covered gang topics such as delinquency, relations to the local community, support networks and institutions, ethnicity, poverty, and involvement in organized crime” (35).

Sociologist Paul G. Cressey describes a taxi hall as its own social world with “its own ways of acting, talking, thinking…its own vocabulary, its own activities and interests, its own conception of what is significant in life, and – to a certain extent – its own scheme of life” (38).  The taxi hall subculture, in which commercial imperatives and romantic impulses collide, may result in a problematic tension between work and pleasure (39).

Through the above examples, the chapter outlines criminal activity as a social practice and phenomenon. Gelder writes, “This view of delinquency as a social outcome of nonconformity was very different to the prevailing view of nonconformity as a matter of alienation” (41). While the chapter doesn’t address punks directly, this idea of nonconformity and individuality can be applied to punk philosophy. Gelder goes on to explain how nonconformity is a product of social dissatisfaction, and as The Filth and the Fury documentary points out, punk subculture emerged in 1970s London due to a serious class divide. Because punks valued individuality, they were viewed as deviant for holding different values than the rest of society. Gelder describes this as the “labeling theory” in which when moral entrepreneurs (members of dominant society) judge and label others as deviant, they turn deviance into a “role that gets played out according to the label” (43).

Chapter 3 “Bar Scenes and Club Cultures: Sociality, Excess, Utopia”

Chapter 3 describes club life in London, specifically establishments like the Hell-Fire Clubs, Freemasonries, and queer discos. The chapter emphasizes bar scenes role in shaping social identifies from butch lesbians to drag king and queens. While the chapter doesn’t directly reference punks and their relationship to bar and club culture, it’s important to understand clubs’ potential to disrupt social norms. Whether a rave club or drag bar, these establishments housed various “subsubgenres and microscenes” (64). We would imagine that punks found a similar sense of intimacy with their underground culture as well.

Documentary Summary

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The Filth and the Fury is a British documentary released in 2000 about the punk rock band, The Sex Pistols. The documentary tells the story of the band’s rise and decline from the viewpoint of the band members themselves. Their accounts of the events, taken from interview footage, serve as the narration for the documentary. The film is set in 1976 London, a time when unemployment was the cause of great unease. The Sex Pistols claim to have created their band and their identities to combat these challenges and ideals. England was in a state of social upheaval and the punks, as director Julien Temple illustrates in this film, were a reaction to this concerning social state. The ways in which they differentiated themselves by fashion served as the starting point for the subcultures’ creation. In silhouetted interview footage, the members of the band reveal that they would cover themselves in trash in an effort to draw attention to the trash issue in England at the time. Julien Temple’s stylistic choice to hide the faces of those interviewed allows the viewer to immerse themselves in the world of punk rock in the 1970s in London, rather than be distracted by what the iconic punk rocker looks like now.

They wanted to stand out like peacocks, as one member expressed, so that they could feel different in a crowd of sameness. Everything that they did, in fact, from their choices in fashion to their lyrics, was to be against everything and anyone “normal”, or more accurately, what was considered mainstream.

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By calling each other “cunts,” abusing drugs and alcohol, wearing clothes previously associated with fetish wear such as leather, and wrapping themselves in trash, early punks successfully distinguished themselves from everything “normal.” This carefully designed persona was not exclusive to their punk shows and concerts, but came into the public arena as well. For example, the band was featured on The Today Show, and their “performance” on the news show was similar to that of stage show. The band members insulted the talk show host with vulgar words and showed up having consumed a lot of alcohol, among other personality altering substances. The smoking, drinking and cussing they associated themselves with everywhere else did not cease when they were in the public eye.

The film effectively portrays punks’ “fuck you attitude” that punks around the world began to admire and call brave. Their attitude, as described in various interviews, came from a violence of the mind, not of the body. They were vulgar and rude, all in an effort to defy the man and the mainstream politeness of higher society. The film was stylized much like a fanzine with an amateur and raw look, and showed the concerts and punk events as freak shows, with fighting, drug use, excessive alcohol, urination, and words like “faggots” and “cunts” used onstage. Whether or not this was the director’s intention, the documentary seems scattered and disorganized, much like the culture of punks both in the 1970s in England and today.

In relation to the readings and the ideological connections between punks and dominant culture, it is important to recognize theories that Duncombe presents. Duncombe discusses how punks were only meaningful because they were different from the mainstream. Therefore, without the mainstream and the normalness of society, punks couldn’t prove themselves to be different. Their identity’s definition is dependent on the very thing they work to oppose. This ironic observation was made very evident in the screening. They continued, however, to resist this society in every way, and even went so far as to create their own media (DIY media) such as fanzines and rockumentaries much like The Filth and the Fury.

The Do-It-Yourself aspect of the culture is successfully portrayed in the film as well. DIY is a major component of their unique culture, as they felt you could not “buy” your way to acceptance. Simply wearing a leather jacket with band patches did not make someone a punk. As the documentary explains, the symbolic leather jacket must be unique and found at a thrift store, or somewhere authentic, and pasted with personal band patches. The same went for the creation of the ripped t-shirts with safety pins. A punk would have ripped their own t-shirt, and hooked the holes with safety pins themselves. They would not, then, have gone to stores like those that we have today such as Hot Topic, and purchase the “punk look” without any added effort on their part. To the real, original, and authentic punks featured in The Filth and the Fury, this is a key distinguishing factor between poser and real.

Class Discussion Summary

The class agreed that the documentary The Filth and the Fury differed both formally and stylistically from Jesus Camp and Trekkies. Unlike Jesus Camp and Trekkies, the footage in The Filth and the Fury is archival and focuses on capturing a specific moment in time – what it means to be punk today is vastly different than what it meant in the 1970s. The Filth and the Fury includes more negative highlights about punk subculture than the Evangelical Christians and Star Trek fans did. As a result, viewers see how punks functioned in the world and how the world perceived them. Having that outside perspective is valuable and something that Trekkies and Jesus Camp lacked. Unlike other documentaries from this semester, the filmmaker, Julien Temple, rarely included outside interviews, rather he included media footage from other outlets. The class believes this is because he wanted to capture a very specific, authentic point of view from a specific time period because as the class pointed out, London punk culture emerged from an alienating class system, whereas New York City punk culture was in response to hippies.

In The Filth and the Fury, the juxtaposition between music and visuals, specifically in scenes where songs like “God Save the Queen,” plays over images of guards and obedience and provides for the viewer a visible contrast of the punk culture and the dominant culture of that time. The narrative is led by punks and supplemented with both supportive and contradicting images. The rash scene changes and overwhelming archival footage causes the viewer anxiety. It is chaotic and raw, a style that effectively portrays the attitudes and foundation of the punk rock culture outside of filmic representations. The filmmaker’s decision to portray this tension is aligned with values and goals of punk culture. The idea of homology, where style reflects philosophy, was brought up and the class agreed that the stylistic decisions made by the filmmaker properly reflect punk philosophy.  Also, during interviews, only the silhouette was captured and the class talked about how this was an attempt for viewers to focus on content and not representation.

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Ideas of re-appropriation and commodification were also central themes in the class discussion. The relationship between punk and commercial culture fueled commentary about DIY projects, mainstream values, and what it means to be a part of an “underground” subculture. Hebidge argues that the relationship between subcultures and the mainstream enables the processes of appropriation and re-appropriation. In order for punks to communicate their resistance, they are required to agree, to a certain extent, with the dominant definitions of the dominant culture. This partial agreement is what enables them to appropriate meaning from the dominant culture and introduce new meaning for their rebellion in tangible terms. “For punk to be dismissed as chaos,” Hebidge comments, “it had first to ‘make sense’ as noise” (88). Therefore, punks construct an alternative identity by communicating, through language and style, their opposition to perceived notions of “normal”, “traditional”, and “appropriate”, standing out by their apparent “otherness” that threatens ordered society. However, the relationship between subcultures and mainstream culture that allows for appropriation also allows for re-appropriation, allowing the dominant culture to neutralize the threat of punk by re-appropriating the stylistic traits of punk dress so that they appear as a mainstream trend.

Professor P-S gave a helpful example for distinguishing the difference between appropriation and re-appropriation:

Safety pins for diapers à (appropriation) Punks use safety pins for DIY fashion projects à   (re-appropriation) Forever 21 makes safety pin earrings

This sparked a discussion about trendy retail stores, like Forever 21 and H&M re-appropriating punk fashion and profiting from the ideals of punk culture. Today, people can easily buy a Ramones t-shirt and be a “punk poser.” No doubt that The Sex Pistols would cringe at this sentiment. The progression of the safety pin example above serves as a prime example of the re-appropriation referenced in the film. The product began as a tool used for diapers, but it is evident that punks took this tool and recreated its meaning to fit their culture’s language. The dominant culture took this meaning and recreated it once more. Realizing that they could profit off the mass production of the punk look, safety pins, ripped jeans, leather jackets, spikes, and band patches can be found in a variety of stores where “real punks” would most definitely not shop.

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The class also discussed theories from authors we’ve read this semester and how they apply to the documentary. First, Jenkin’s idea of textual poaching is expressed within the film as members of The Sex Pistols discuss the ways that they appropriated lyrics from popular songs. This instance of textual poaching may be seen as an act of resistance by the band, incorporating lyrics that already have meaning within dominant culture, and interpreting it on their own terms so that they may create new meaning. Those listening to their music are then confronted by a duality of meaning, both that of the dominant culture, and that of the subculture, allowing them a greater freedom in choice of how to interpret the lyrics. This textual poaching once again reveals how subcultures are connected to the dominant culture they rebel against, exemplifying how punks encourage people to act not only as consumers, but also as producers.

The class tried to alleviate the tension between “selling out” and remaining true to the individualistic values that punks proudly represent. The class wanted to know, how is it that The Sex Pistols can be so against the mainstream, yet have a record deal with a prominent label and use the money made from their concerts to support their lifestyle? Did The Sex Pistols sell out?

Lastly, the Met exhibit “From Punk to Couture” also came up in discussion about punk turning mainstream. Someone tweeted a link to an article that quoted celebrities talking about “punk” at the Met Gala that kicked off the rebellious exhibit:

“I did not [have a punk phase]. That’s why I think my version of punk for me is not probably the mohawk, typical punk that you’d sort of envision. A little bit more like ‘romantic punk.’”
—Kim Kardashian

“I feel very elegant but kinda punk rock because it’s leather.”
—Jessica Alba

“I don’t think I fully understood the theme.”
—Kate Upton

“My dog ate a safety pin during the fitting, which is punk.”
—Lena Dunham

The class agreed that music, fashion, and culture inevitably intertwine and influence each other, making it nearly impossible for subcultures to escape what is mainstream.

Jensen

morency

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7 thoughts on “Punks: Individuality For One and For All

  1. imaniribadeneyra

    In the class discussion section the juxtaposition displayed in The Filth and the Fury is highlighted, between music and visuals, specifically in scenes where punk music plays over images of obedient traditional guards. You note that the filmmaker’s decision to portray this tension aligns with the values and goals of punk, which I completely agree with. I also agree that the film’s stylistic decisions reflect punk, but I think that the filmmakers could have taken that juxtaposition a bit further to more vividly display punk. I don’t think the film style necessarily needed to reflect punk, but it could have highlighted its chaos and rebellion by contrasting it to a conservative and more traditional film style. In viewing punk through a chaotic and raw lens I think the audience loses some of the raw chaos of the punk movement. The film focuses on a very specific punk that grew out of contempt for the mainstream culture present in London at the time, so it seems quite obvious that punk would be seen through its tension with that mainstream culture. I wasn’t in class that day so I’m not sure if the discussion only praised the film’s stylistic choices or explored to other possibilities, but I believe this is an alternative that is worth addressing. I think we need to question when a documentary is more successful at vividly portraying subcultures; is it when the film’s style mirrors or contrasts the vibe and attitude of that subculture?

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  2. lizsmith1425

    In regards to the juxtaposition of visuals and music and the homology of what punks stood for and how the movie portrayed their surrounding environment, I especially favored the first cluster of images seen in the movie. Broadcast and radio media opinions and explanations of current events in London (displayed to a degree of normalcy) were playing as images of violence and civil unrest were shown. This really speaks to the control that media representations have over history and outside interpretation of reality. While many viewed this time in London as a normal experience, working-class individuals struggled through everyday life and the Sex Pistols were trying to make that known and understood. Since the government and the media did not seem to care for them, they did not care what anyone thought. They were making a statement about the circumstances many people shared at this time. And while it seems individuality was favored, having a joint force standing up against the mainstream would only benefit the subculture of London punks. Hebdige points out, “The typical members of a working-class youth culture in part contest and in part agree with the dominant definitions of who and what they are, and there is a substantial amount of shared ideology between not only them and the adult working-class culture (with its muted tradition of resistance) but also between them and the dominant culture (at least in its more ‘democratic,’ accessible forms)” (86). Punks’ views at some point had agreements with mainstream media and needed coverage to spread their message. The complex and often contentious relationship between subcultures and their media representations can be seen as punks dramatized Britain’s decline and mass media dramatized the British punks.

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  3. mcschwankee

    In the summary of the documentary The Filth and the Fury the blog post speaks about how the Punk culture rose out of a response to the social inequalities and contradictions within British society. For me this is one of the most interesting aspects of the Punk culture as in my eyes there seems to be a disconnect between this beginning of Punk and the moment at which they were at their “peak” of popularity. While, Johnny Rotten spoke of the poverty and inequality he and the other Sex Pistols faced in their youth as a source of initial inspiration for their culture against the mainstream it is strange to me that punk didn’t become more of a “social movement” as opposed to the subculture it was. Perhaps it can be argued that Punk was more of an outlet for frustration, anger and resentment against society than anything else and that changing society wasn’t their main focus. I found it surprising that one can be so clear sighted about the contradictions and injustice within the mainstream culture and yet not want to actively advocate for change. The subculture seemed more interested in escaping from the “real world” as opposed to changing it.

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  4. brittawelch

    The most ironic aspect of the punk subculture is the tension between being an individual while still conforming to a group, as this blog post discusses. Interestingly and accurately, they explain it as a “contradiction that may never really be solved.” To be a member of any subculture, one must take on the values, practices, and beliefs of a group, even if these are extremely different than those of mainstream society. Regardless of punks’ conformity to yet another group, the power of the punk subculture derived from how extreme their defiance of the mainstream was; the more shocking, the better. These people were unhappy about the social and economic situation of their time and felt compelled to create this, “negative identity” as Duncombe refers to it, which brought them a large amount of attention in the media. Even to this day, the idea of “punk” still resonates in society and has permeated mainstream fashion.

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  5. haydenanderson

    One thing that I kept thinking about after our discussion on punk was the idea that the Sex Pistols made a career out of pointing out the failures of their society but never offered any solutions or engaged in other forms of political action. When this was pointed out in class, it seemed to be a negative critique of the Sex Pistols’ career. Yet I think that the Sex Pistols played a very important roll in society, as did other punk bands and punk-influenced art of the time. Punk provided a wake-up call to England and the United States in the late seventies. While the sixties had seen the rise and pass of several large-scale social movements, the seventies gave way to an era of complacency, even in the face of economic hardship. By subverting societal norms in dress, behavior, and artistic forms, the punk movement forced society to re-examine its own culture and created a space for expression by individuals who felt neglected by the dominant culture (even though the punk sub-culture ended up developing its own norms, as we discussed in class). Art that uses shock solely with the intention to shock is often boring and shallow; but art that uses shock to express a society’s underlying frustrations and anxieties is an important first step towards social change. In this lies the Sex Pistols’ importance.

    Reply
    1. misharafalowski

      I agree with you, and I believe that the Sex Pistols are important due to their spreading of the punk philosophy. In a recent interview when asked about what he believed were the most common misinterpretations about punk, Johnny Rotten replied,

      “It was neither a manifesto nor a fashion. Punk is a state of mind open to new ideas, with a desire to constantly evolve, to find the next step, not only in music but also in the world around us. When I wrote songs for the Sex Pistols, I wasn’t talking about chaos for the love of chaos. I was saying that the government and the institutions were misleading us.”

      I believe this response links nicely to your belief that, “art that uses shock to express a society’s underlying frustrations and anxieties is an important first step towards social change.” The Sex Pistols created themselves on their own terms, rebelling against the norms of the dominant culture and breathing life into Duncombe’s words that, “you are who you create yourself to be” (Duncombe 45). While the members of the band were not explicitly involved in gathering people to create a social movement, they definitely contributed to society by questioning and critiquing mainstream culture, bringing attention to the punk philosophy of do-it-yourself and individualism, and as a result encouraging people to express themselves and live their lives on their own terms.

      Link to the interview: http://www.worldcrunch.com/culture-society/sex-pistols-039-johnny-rotten-on-the-real-meaning-of-punk/johnny-rotten-sex-pistols-punk-john-lydon-interview/c3s13773/#.Uop58mTwKnY

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  6. lindsaystrouse

    Perhaps the most striking part of the punk subculture as a whole is their characterization of being a group that holds a “negative identity…[one that states] who you are is contingent upon who you are rebelling against” (Duncombe 47). This was largely portrayed across both our readings and in the documentary “The Filth and the Fury.” Not one punk statement grew out of an internal need-state (e.g. “I am part of the punk culture because it fits my values”). Rather, every quote, every behavior was in reaction to something being done in the “mainstream.” Personally, I believe this provides preliminary evidence as to why many people often view “punks” as a phase, rather than a group for lifelong adherence. At some point, people making up the subculture may find parts of consumerism appealing, or may agree with changes in mainstream politics. Because there are minimal cues tying them to the core of the subculture, it is easy to break away and begin evolving outside the group. Many other subcultures we have studied—from Evangelical Christians to Feminists—demonstrate their strength by explicitly showing what their values are. Each of these values aligns with a potential belief system rather than simply opposing something in the mainstream. For example, feminists aren’t against the rights of male citizens (something that was quite mainstream when the Women’s Suffrage movement first began). Instead, they are for the rights of women. They have independent values that function both on an individual level (i.e. I, as a woman, deserve this right) and on a global level (i.e. All women deserve this right, and we will fight together to obtain it). As discussed in the above blog post and our readings, this balance is something that is severely lacking in the punk culture.

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