The punk subculture has had a significant presence across countries, ethnicities, socio-economic classes, and generations. With this, I would like to narrow my focus on the punk subculture from the 1980s to the present, looking specifically to the bands that significantly influenced the subculture at that time such as Blink-182, Penny Wise, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers among others and their representation within media, both media that is self-produced and those produced by others. Considering the ways in which punks are portrayed in the media, both self-produced and not, coupled with the various analyses of the punk subculture and of documentary filmmaking, punks are represented as a subculture that matures with age, that outgrows the youthful carelessness and instead develops and transforms their identities and adapts to the adult lifestyle.
The punk subculture began as a community of punk rock music fans. The site of this beginning, however, is greatly disputed as some claim it to be in England in the 1970s, around the time that the Sex Pistols were thriving, and some attribute the subculture’s beginning to bands like the Ramones, that began in the United States around the same time (Cooper). In both parts of the world, punk culture was beginning to spread, and the subculture was creating an identity that they expressed through literature, fashion, and art amongst other modes of expression. Punks are determined to separate themselves from the masses, from the mainstream, and from anything that represents or comes from a normal society. With this, punks dress themselves in leather jackets found in trash cans or thrift stores, add spikes, studs and band patches to their ripped t-shirts, and spit and curse with any opportunity. Besides personal experiences, these notions of punk dress and punk attitude come from the various media representations that inform us about this fascinating and dynamic subculture.
In Subculture: The Meaning of Style by Dick Hebidge, we learn about the effects that the media has on our perceptions of different subcultures. In some cases, the media’s representation of a subculture may be a person’s only experience of that group of people. Having lived only in New York, Paris, and Los Angeles, it is often difficult to remember that not all cities in the United States and abroad have as diverse populations as the metropolitan cities I have lived in. This is a significant concept to remember when studying these very powerful and dangerously influential media. Hebidge’s article illuminates the media’s tendency to homogenize culture and construct images that classify and categorize the diverse and varying individuals that make up our society.
As the article implies, the categorizations and classifications that the media create and restore can be dangerous and can instill false notions of particular subcultures into the publics’ mind. Hebidge writes, “The media play a crucial role in defining our experience for us. They provide us with the most available categories for classifying our social world. It is primarily through the press, television, film etc. that experience is organized, interpreted, and made to cohere in contradiction as it were. It should hardly surprise us then, to discover that much of what finds itself encoded in subculture has already been subjected to a certain amount of prior handling by the media” (Hebdige 85). As Hebdige suggests, the media plays an extremely vital role in defining subcultures for the public viewer. This is an important concept to recognize considering the ironic way in which punks identify themselves. Much of the public’s perception of the punk subculture comes from documentaries that were created about the subculture rather than by the subculture. Hebidge’s article, then, prompts us to consider punk-produced media material.
Stephen Duncombe, in his article “Notes from the Underground”, explains this ironic self-identification. Duncombe explains that punks believe that, “…who you are is contingent upon who you are rebelling against” (47). The definition of the punk subculture, then, is dependent on dominant culture, as it works to be everything that mainstream is not. Duncombe discusses how punks were only meaningful because they were different from the mainstream. Therefore, without the mainstream and the normalness of society, they couldn’t prove themselves to be different. Their identity’s definition is dependent on the very thing they work to oppose (Duncombe 47). Duncombe’s observation of the punk subculture is referred to as negative identity.
With this in mind, it is important to consider the Chicago Tribume article, “Rock-Star Life is for Blink-182 Bassist” by Allison Stewart. This article discusses the effects of fame in the punk subculture, and how “the spotlight is more complicated” than you may think. This punk rocker’s disappointment in fame can be furthered, then, by Duncombe’s analysis of the subculture and of negative identity. Studying famous punk rockers can lead to complex analysis, as this very title is arguably paradoxical. To be punk is not consistent with being famous.
This ironic observation of negative identity and how it shapes the punk subculture is furthered considering raw concert footage and punk-produced music videos. An obvious resistance to mainstream is expressed by nudity in the Blink-182 music video, “What’s My Age Again”. Evidently, the title expresses an immaturity that matches the band’s chosen visuals. Tom Delonge sings, “Nobody likes you when you’re 23 and you still act like you’re in freshman year”. As this music video suggests, 23 year old punks should be jogging the streets with nothing but sneakers on, knocking water out of waiters’ hands, disrupting basketball games in the park, interrupting preppy couples kissing on a blanket, shocking older ladies with their nudity, and causing trouble with a careless spirit. Duncombe would suggest that these activities are carried out in an effort to distinguish themselves from the mainstream, and from the normalness of the rest of the world.
With the notion of negative identity in mind, we can recognize deviant acts as a way to distinguish himself or herself from the mainstream, and from what is normal. Public nudity in music videos and on stage, something that is clearly frowned upon in traditional society, serves as a prime example of this deviance. Going against big business, however, is another way in which punks differentiate themselves from the average citizen, and from the other famous rock bands. The Blink-182 music video “The Rock Show”, begins with a title page that says “On May 2nd and 3rd, Blink-182 was given money by a production company to shoot their new music video. This is what they did with the money”. The music video follows with a low-budget video of the band “cash[ing] the check and hav[ing] some fun”. The band and their entourage then buy a homeless man a haircut and new clothes, buy a classic car, smash TVs, set birds free from a pet store, smash guitars, buy a car and wreck it, and of course go to a strip club. This music video was released in 2001, while the lead singer was still in his 20s and the band still lived with no regrets, no shame, and no consequences. The careless spirit still in tact, the band members in these videos uphold many stereotypes of the punk subculture. They are reckless, deviant and careless in their youth.
In the same vein, Red Hot Chili Peppers uphold the same style in their video “By the Way”. The video excites the viewer with Flea, a member of the band that has blue hair during the making of the music video, recklessly driving in a car chase. Stuart Hall’s analysis of representation in Work of Representation allows us to delve into these music videos a little bit deeper. Hall distinguishes three different theories to approach representations of a subculture with: the reflexive, the intentional and the constructionist. Because influencers of the subculture created these videos, I feel that these representations should be analyzed as intentional approaches to representation about the punk subculture. Considering these music videos, we can recognize that punk youth are represented as careless, reckless, and deviant in the media. The fact that these media in particular were not only endorsed by the punks themselves, but also created, filmed and distributed by them as well, only furthers the analysis.
O’Hara’s article furthers the discussion with the topic of fanzines. Because I am considering music videos as a prominent media representation of punks in the 80s, 90s, and today, I think it is important to compare this expression with that of fanzines. As O’Hara explains, zines were significant to the subculture in the mid 1970s because they defied the rules that governed traditional magazine production, style, content, and distribution (O’Hara 62-69). Zines were cheaply made; they were often black and white pages printed at a low quality on generic copy paper. Zines were not and still are not created and distributed by the massive publishing companies that produce lucrative magazines and newspapers. Instead, zines were created by punks, for punks. This is a very unique opportunity, one that mirrors that of music video production as seen by Blink-182, most specifically in the “The Rock Show” video that I analyzed previously.
O’Hara also highlights the DIY aspect of the punk subculture, a very significant attribute of the subculture that emphasizes the significance they place on individuality. The premise of the “The Rock Show” video, taking the money that a production company would traditionally use to write, shoot, and produce the music video, and creating a low budget music video that they had complete control over is a prime example of the modern day zine that O’Hara discusses. An important draw to zines was that “Anyone could and should do it themselves” (O’Hara 65). Zines gave the opportunity for punks to express themselves and combat the representations made for them. Although the music video was still aired on networks owned by large corporations and was studied by the many punks and punk rock fans around the world, I feel it is an authentic parallel to the zines O’Hara discusses.
Margo DeMello, however, with her analysis of the tattoo community in Bodies of Inscription, might argue that this video is instead an attempt to reach punks of a different hierarchy within the punk subculture. DeMello argues that media with different styles and defining characteristics can appeal to different subdivisions within a subculture. Much like the lowbrow magazines, versus the highbrow magazines, a DIY feel could appeal to the real punks that value such an aesthetic. Regardless, the video is unique in that it allows the punks a chance to characterize and represent themselves in the media. I find this aspect of media very significant. With this, I would like to look at a prominent representation of punks that was not produced by them, and instead was financed by a production company called Rare Birds Films.
The Other F Word is the second media I would like to analyze. This documentary welcomes the viewer into the homes and personal lives of punk rockers in bands such as Red Hot Chili Peppers, Blink 182, and Penny Wise. We are exposed not only to raw concert footage, but also the personal adult lives of these punks. Unlike documentaries like The Filth and the Fury, we observe these punks as caring fathers and thoughtful parents. In Bill Nichols’ Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary, we can recognize that The Other F Word is an observational documentary under Nicols’ definition. Nichols writes, “The observational mode stresses the nonintervention of the filmmaker” (Nichols 38). With this, the filmmaker has no control over the events that unfold. Evidently, this allows for a more realistic perspective on the events. Nichols continues, “Rather than constructing a temporal framework, or rhythm, from the process of editing…observational films rely on editing to enhance the impression of lived or real time. In its purest form, voice-over commentary, music external to the observed scene, intertitles, reenactments, and even interviews are completely eschewed” (Nichols 38). This mode of documentary filmmaking allows the viewer to recognize the daily life of those being represented. It is important to remember, however, that editing is a strong tool used in observational filmmaking; a point that Nicols touches on but I think is extremely significant and worth more consideration. In The Other F Word, the filmmaker is trusted with the responsibility to shed truthful light on the punks, as they get older and mature into caring fathers and role models for their children and all of the viewers, punk or not, that are watching the documentary. Editing the footage to show this, then, is a massive social responsibility. This documentary in particular shows a range of relationships, activities and behaviors. While some scenes show a father helping to pick out an outfit for his daughter, some scenes show the fathers cursing. In the same vein, the raw concert footage, obviously highlighting typical punk behavior, is coupled with observational scenes of family life, thus balancing out the subculture’s reputation as represented by the documentary filmmaker.
It is these responsibilities among others that prompted Nichols to disclose something unique to observational filmmaking. Nichols writes, “Observational filmmaking gives a particular inflection to ethical considerations. Since the mode hinges on the ability of the filmmaker to be unobtrusive, the issue of intrusion surfaces over and over within the institutional discourse. Has the filmmaker intruded upon people’s lives in ways that will irrevocably alter them, perhaps for the worse, in order to make a film? Has his or her need to make a film and build a career out of the observation of others led to representations about the nature of the project and its probable effects on participants in disingenuous forms?…” (Nichols 39). These questions, among others that Nichols highlights, are extremely relevant and significant to consider while studying observational documentaries. Editing, then, becomes even more important.
I would like to focus on some of the band members’ quotes from the interview portion of the documentary in order to analyze the way these punks are framed and therefore are represented and perceived. Although I have expresses how significant editing is, I feel that direct quotes are often a truthful insight into something real about the subculture or subject being presented in a documentary. Although they can be taken out of context or edited in a way that sways one way or the other, I do not consider misrepresentation to be a fault of The Other F Word; I will get into the faults I believe the film to have, however, later on.
Jim Lindberg from the band Pennywise says, “When we were younger, we were all nihilistic, didn’t care, live for today, live fast. I thought we were gonna change the world” (The Other F Word). This lifestyle is one that coincides with the typical punk subculture that we are shown through media and through the self-representation of the music videos mentioned previously. Another adult punk interviewee says, “I think the trouble making is what attracted me” (The Other F Word). Like the previous quote, we are shown the punk roots that these men have, their youthful lust for the punk lifestyle. The documentary furthers these statements, however, and supports my argument that punks are represented as having grown out of the punk lifestyle in some way, by allowing some very atypical quotes to make the final cut of the film. One significant one is this: “Maybe punk rock was never supposed to grow up, but it did” (The Other F Word). Flea, a member of the Red Hot Chili Peppers expresses, “The classic parent attitude with their kids is like ‘I brought you into their world, I gave you life’, it’s like, I just think the complete opposite, ‘My kids gave me life, they gave me a reason’” (The Other F Word). This touching sentiment allows us to see a side of Flea that you can’t see in a music video or in concert footage. This is the reason why documentary filmmaking is so important, but only if it adds to the discussion by exposing new perspectives of a subculture, or whatever the subject may be.
This documentary, however, would differ from the one I am creating as it aims to make more of a statement about the music industry overall and the effects of pirating music. Making the majority of their money from touring with the decline of record sales, many bands, this documentary focusing on punk bands, had to sacrifice their personal lives to tour more. With this, the documentary focuses on making more of a political statement about the music industry and the effects it has had on the band members we all love as they have grown up. From the trailer, we are inclined to think that the documentary will showcase the lives of the adult punks as fathers as opposed to as children, or as the teenage punk rock stars that they once were. Although the documentary does show us a lot about their daily lives by the use of observational modes of documentary filmmaking, I feel that the political message about the industry overall hinders the message from coming in loud and clear. In my documentary, I will focus less on the “f” word, fatherhood, that this documentary focuses on.
As I mentioned earlier, The Other F Word focuses on the maturation of the punk bands it presents through the lens of fatherhood and family. I think that this is a very significant example of the development and maturation I discuss in relation to the course readings cited, but that it omits any focus on the music itself. Although The Other F Word focuses on issues within the music industry, the changes in punk music are not explored. As a subculture with such strong roots in music and music culture, I think it is important to note that as punks and punk bands got older, their music and mentality about the music industry changed. In my documentary, I would like to focus on the change that has occurred in the music industry because of the maturation that is expressed in these other media representations and among authors that I have explored in this discussion. I will interview punk music industry professionals, punk rockers, and authors for publications like the New York Times and Rolling Stone, among other magazines that are either dedicated to music news or have influential sections that are.
This aspect of my documentary was inspired by a New York Times article titled, “A Band Even Better Cooled Down” by Kelefa Sanneh. This New York Times article about the Red Hot Chili Peppers shows how their music has changed singe they began. The shift toward a more “cooled down” Red Hot Chili Peppers is something that was discussed in The Other F Word in terms of the band members personal lives and adult decisions, but was not delved into in terms of the music aspect of it. Sanneh writes, “When the Red Hot Chili Peppers first found mainstream success, in 1989, they were a funk-punk band driven by Anthony Kiedis’s exuberant rapping and Flea’s manic slap-bass. Over the last few years, they have changed their style by changing their emphasis. After a brief hiatus, the guitarist John Frusciante rejoined the group for its 1999 album ‘’Californication,’’ and his lucid, labyrinthine riffs helped the Red Hot Chili Peppers evolve into a mellow progressive-rock act” (Sanneh). This recognizable shift is something that highlights more than just a change in an industry. This analysis, coupled with the footage from The Other F Word, allows us to see how the change in the music industry in the punk rock category has to do with a change in the people of the subculture itself. This is what The Other F Word is missing, and this addition to the discussion is what prompted me to make a documentary that goes one step further. Sanneh writes that, “’By the Way’ might be the most laid-back album the band has ever made, but it’s also one of the most ambitious, and one of the best” (Sanneh). “By the Way” was released in July 9, 2002, which is later in the band’s career considering the year that the band gained substantial popularity. This article highlights that maturation doesn’t have to have a negative connotation. Although calmness is something that goes against pretty much everything youthful punks believe in, it is something that sparked one of their best pieces of music, according to this music critic. This change and transformation into a more mellow mentality and music is something I hope to convey in my documentary.
Music is a key expression in the punk subculture, and I think that a documentary that highlights such a significant change, while saying something about the subculture in general will add to the discussion of the punk subculture in a great way. I think that while The Other F Word is a very entertaining documentary that allows us into the homes of some fascinating individuals, the documentary is missing a key facet: the music industry itself and its special relationship with punks and punk rockers. Because of the social responsible that the media is given, I think that a well-rounded perspective on any given subculture is extremely important for social acceptance. These individuals, the famous punk rockers, represent for the world unfamiliar with the punk subculture, what they represent, what they believe, and how they act. They are influencers. This is a very important role, and I think that their stories, both as careless youth and as mature and responsible adults, are something that the world should have the opportunity to see.
I plan to use the observational mode of documentary filmmaking used in The Other F Word to present the reality and truth of the situation. Moving away from the observational style, I also plan to use a lot of interviews as well. I feel like interviewee’s answers are often skewed or taken out of context because the viewer never heard the question being asked of them. In my documentary, whenever a professional in the industry is being consulted, the question asked of them will be written below the talking head visual. I do not identify as a punk myself, but feel that a well-rounded perspective of any subculture is extremely significant in order for our society to become more understanding and accepting of people that diverge from the mainstream and its norm. From the media representations I chose to study in preparation for my own documentary, punks, as they are generally perceived (careless, reckless, spitting, cursing etc.), are seen as children that will eventually mature and grow up. The media representation that leads the viewer to this conclusion, The Other F Word, highlights the lives of a few more famous punks. This is important to consider as well, as these few may not make up the entire punk subculture. This maturation, however, adds another level to the punk subculture. Without this exposure, I think that punks are judged solely on their concert presence and their punk rock music videos. Although these are fair examples of self-representation, punks are not all punk rockers, and their identity and role at home is equally as important to their character as is their rock star presence. I would highlight this using interviews, raw footage, and observational documentary techniques.
Using these techniques, among others, I will be able to present for my audience a uniquely truthful and genuine capturing of the punk subculture as they age and mature, and what this maturation has done for the music industry that started it all. I have learned from what other documentarians have omitted, what to add and what to leave behind in an effort to create an honest representation of a fascinating subculture and their intriguing development into adulthood as seen through both their personal lives and their musical careers.
Cooper, Ryan. “The History of Punk Rock.” About.com Punk Music. About.com, n.d. Web. 30 Nov. 2013. <http://punkmusic.about.com/od/punk101/a/punkhistory2.htm>.
Duncombe, Steven. “Zines and the Politics of Alternative Culture.” Notes from the Underground (1997): n. pag. Print.
Hall, Stuart. “Work of Representation.” Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices (1997): n. pag. Print.
Hebidge, Dick. “Subculture: The Meaning of Style” (1979): n. pag. Print.
Nichols, Bill. “Issues and Concepts in Documentary”. Representing Reality. (1991). n. pag. Print.
O’Hara, Craig. “More Than Noise”. The Philosophy of Punk. (1999). n. pag. Print.
Sanneh, Kelefa. “A Band Even Better Cooled Down”. Music Spins. (2002). http://www.nytimes.com/2002/07/14/arts/music-spins-a-band-even-better-cooled-down.html
Stewart, Allison, “Rock Star Life is For Blink 182 Bassist.” Chicago Tribune. (2001). http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2001-08-30/features/0108300001_1_mark-hoppus-blink-182-tom-delonge
The Other F Word. Dir. Andrea Blaugrund Nevins. Rare Birds Films, 2011. DVD.