Funk as Puck!
A Countercultural Study of the Philosophy, Methodology and Politics of Punk 

by Colin Boyd & Elizabeth Bishop

“Thirty-two years had not taught me what I learned that night: when you’re pushed, push back; when a shove negates your existence, negate the shove.”- Greil Marcus

Boredom is a killer. Ask anyone who’s ever been isolated for an extended period of time--or anyone who’s worked retail--and they will most likely agree the hardest part about their situation is the total, mind-numbing boredom. Boredom kills creativity and can completely destroy one’s intellect or coherence of the mind if left unresolved. Everyone who has the means is actively finding ways to combat boredom, either through leisure or work (and a lucky few have found a way to combine the two). To some, those options have not been enough to escape what they view as the monotony of day-to-day life, and have thus had to find alternative ways to not psychologically perish due to lack of stimulation. These are our artists, our musicians, our writers, our teachers, our Romantics, our theorists, out philosophers and conformity’s natural enemy: punks.

“Fuck this, fuck that, fuck it all”[1]

“I have never come to terms with the idea that I am ‘part of society’ and should construct my actions to suit the prevailing mood of conformity, acceptance and achievement. Closed by the rigorous mind training of school and media, the mass mentality of Western culture revolves around upholding the past to attempt to secure the future, whilst suffering the present as beyond its control, ‘safe’ in the hands of government who feed the present to the masses as a product of technological/material/industrial progress.”

-Dick Lucas (O’Hara 1999 30)

Punk takes countless forms, the most recognizable being the music that helped spread and evolve the movement into the expansive and often commercialized culture it is now. The quintessential aesthetic of punk rock that many think of when discussing the genre is the loud, fast and simple permutation of Rock and Roll. With heavily distorted guitars that use simple chord progressions and vocals that are not so much melodic as shouted or growled, there was plenty of opportunity for the raw emotion and power that punk sought to communicate to assault the ear. Jon Savage addresses the inception of this ideology in his comprehensive book on the early UK scene, England’s Dreaming (2002). The simplicity and rawness of many of the early punk bands was a calculated effort to upset and incite. Punk musicians did not use music as anything other than a way to enhance their message and virtuosity was deemed extraneous. The “formula” for punk was developed not out of laziness but out of total dedication to communication - why waste time learning to play when that could be time spent creating? Since much of early punk was not focused on harmony, writing with the same three chords and simple song structure was acceptable. The music was not poorly written or performed, it was minimalist and intense, designed to draw attention and to repulse. The simplicity was practical, not indeliberate. Punk music is unapologetic and impassioned, and as a result many of the early punk artists did not adhere to this basic structure and incorporated influences from artists all across the spectrum of pre-existing music and art. Many, especially in the UK, were heavily influenced by Reggae; others, such as the US writer and performer Patti Smith, incorporated many aspects of folk, psychedelia and even spoken word into their work; others still, such as Blondie, produced a more pop-oriented sound. Now decades later, punk is constantly being infused with other genres and perspectives, offering more and more people the opportunity to immerse themselves in punk ideology and redefine punk through their own creation.

 A constant presence in punk’s culture, as Greil Marcus outlines very early into his assessment of 20th century pop culture Lipstick Traces (2009), is the relationship between expression and reception that the artists and consumers must enter in punk Rock. The musicians act with passion and intensity to “articulate ideals and ethics” and develop a product that stirs a response out of the listener. Yet, since punk is so cryptically simple and abrasive, the response itself is totally dictated by the listener (Rashidi 2012 81). From fear to anger to inspiration to confusion, the point is not the specific emotion itself as long as the listener feels something. What is often mistaken for anti-intellectualism in the punk scene is truly the hedonism that so much of the youth embraced at the time of its inception. The entire movement of punk in the U.S. started with a group of young intellectuals hanging out around Andy Warhol while making art, having sex and doing drugs. Impassioned creators were trying to reject any social restraint or self-consciousness in favor of authenticity and abnormality. These people acted as their own performers and audience, a perpetual and constantly expanding dialogue of creativity the same way music creates a dialogue between the artist and the listener that is never finished, just constantly evolving. Marcus identifies that “[n]ihilism can find a voice in art, but never satisfaction” (2009 8). The total rejection of normalcy or tradition some punk bands embrace is not a static entity but instead an organism that adjusts and evolves over time, progressing the music as it does so.[2]


To start with, I’ll tell you what I think punk isn’t--it isn’t a fashion, a certain style of dress, a passing ‘phase’ of knee-jerk rebellion against your parents, the latest ‘cool’ trend or even a particular form of style or music, really--it is an idea that guides and motivates your life. The punk community that exists, exists to support and realize that idea through music, art, fanzines and other expressions of personal creativity. And what is this idea? Think for yourself, be yourself, don’t just take what society gives you, create your own rules, live your own life.”

-Mark Andersen (O’Hara 1999 36)

In defining punk, a major point of contention is the timeline of the movement. Savage, as well as many other “punkademic” researchers, identifies that “true” punk lived and died with its UK forefathers. Early into the introduction of England’s Dreaming, he acknowledges that the turn of the 20th century marked twenty-five years “after punk” (ix), implying that it is no longer an active form in the present. The way Savage declares it, with the death of the Sex Pistols showing that punk was not an invincible or immortal entity, every other punk band at the time had started delving into its own new direction. For some, like the Clash, that meant stepping onto the path to Rock and Roll stardom. Some bands began to expand on the already spreading Post-punk movement, while others still began to find success with more pop-oriented or psychedelic styles. These are just some of the strands and sub-cultures that developed at the time, and in the same way as their roots of punk did, these cultures began to expand and branch out into new (and old) territories which are continually being touched upon today. So after four decades of evolution we are left with this entire amalgamation of sub-genres, cultures and attitudes which all somewhat fall under the title of “punk.” While the case can certainly be made that this is no longer punk, that punk died in the late 70s, it could also be argued that punk did not die so much as metamorphosize: it began as a single, simple being and then under the constant pressure of commercial attention was able to become something different that will never be able to revert back to its original state, but is equally as alive as it used to be.

In his memoir Crate Digger, professional and lifelong punk Bob Suren claims that it was often the abrasiveness, the assault on the ears that punk so often tried to emulate that sparked his lifelong obsession with punk and Hardcore culture (2015 8). While initially difficult to listen to, there is something beautiful about the auditory challenge one must face when listening to punk. The complete rejection of outside influence to maximize the level of self-expression one can achieve is what attracts so many. Punk rock is like a drug, and over time a tolerance can be built up, requiring the listener to either find a higher dosage of the aspects of punk that they enjoy, or branch out into neighboring genres to try and achieve a new sensation entirely. In the case of Suren, like so many other poor teenage souls, one album would act as a gateway into the bottomless pit that is punk.[3]


“I belong to the blank generation”[4]

In establishing some semblance of a definition of punk, it is essential to go backward in time and analyze its history. The influences and contexts that led punks to create the works that they did are as important as the works themselves. While the forefathers of American punk were hanging out with Andy Warhol and William Burroughs, in conjunction with the use of hard and diverse drugs and a sense of immortality in youth, the flow of creativity was of top priority. The careless, even dangerous lives these people were living acted as perfect canvases for the development of the alternative and underground music and culture that was about to break out into the world. In the decade preceding punk’s introduction to mainstream media, an evident force of discontent in youth began to form. Kids both in the US and UK were running away from home, trying to develop and understand their intellectual and sexual identities, feeling isolated and oppressed in traditional schooling and were generally just trying to find a way not to become their parents but instead found another way to live.[EB5]  As these kids started acting on their desires and arriving on the site of this new countercultural revolution, they were met with the support and direction of a decade’s worth of development by those who were acting and creating punk a decade before it was even established (McNeil 1996).

While many found solace and community in punk, from the outside the movement was fuel for the nightmares of many. In the introduction to Lipstick Traces, Marcus focuses on the fear that punk invoked when it came to light. Fear is an interesting thing to associate with the punk movement because it is not scary in the traditional sense of the word, especially not in the context of music in the 1970s. To gain an understanding of the gravity of Marcus’ claim, by the time The Sex Pistols started performing and provoking the media, metal and psychedelic rock bands had already been performing for a decade. These bands were encouraging drug use and hedonism, and, in the case of some, writing about incredibly dark and taboo topics such as Witchcraft and Theistic Satanism. Shortly after the Sex Pistols, the living cartoon of GG Allin started performing and taking the stage antics and audience antagonism of Iggy Pop or Johnny Rotten to a completely new level. Regardless, the punks of the mid-to-late-70s are identified as forces of true terror. That title reveals so much about social priority and the true things humans fear: rather than worrying about health or[5] wellness or literal evil, any obstruction to traditional structure is fuel for total social calamity. The thing that scared so many about punk was that it called bullshit on a bunch of things that people took for granted, such as corruption in power, dishonesty with the self or others, monotonous and traditional social roles and consumerism.

The early stages of American punk seem to contrast greatly from that of the UK. The biggest difference being that the American punk movement started with actual established musicians and artists who were trying to create something new and powerful due to unhappiness with the current scene. The early US punk scene, especially when New York comes into fruition, is consistently identified as more “authentic” than England’s scene, and its early years already support that case (Savage 2002 235). US punk seems to have emerged as a result of innate passion that materialized organically into music, while the UK scene was much more strategically developed and had more of an economically and sociologically oriented beginning. Regardless of origins, the effects the budding New York and England scenes had on the public appear to be quite parallel with one another. The rawness and intensity had a way of attracting people consistently, drawing exponentially-growing crowds to witness these unique and powerful performances unlike anything that preceded them (McNeil 1996 20).

It should come as no surprise that the roots of punk do not come from a traditionally pleasant place. What would evolve into the UK scene started out with almost solely off-putting, drawn out and passive-aggressive drama incited by the “protagonists” of punk history. Not particularly likeable, nor traditionally relatable, the cast of people involved with the foundation of the UK punk scene, namely Malcolm McLaren (future Sex Pistols manager), Vivienne Westwood and their various associates (none of whom were musicians) fit the mold of anti-heroes almost too well. The entire early punk movement is based on abrasiveness and pungent stimulation to stir some form of emotion or reaction within the audience. Even this early into the movement, history has already begun to repeat itself and the brazen punk mentality has already begun to take the form that it seems to have retained throughout the past decades since its inception. It takes a few years for the original permutation of the Sex Pistols to form, and even then the infamous Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious had not been involved. When the future faces of the Sex Pistols and punk in general, finally arrived, the taboo and scandal associated with Sex and McLaren were no longer the driving force. This fight for control would last for years even after the Sex Pistols breakup (Savage 2002). The impulsive, unapologetic and unforgiving attitude required to keep up with the continued growth of the punk scene became clear very quickly, and the people who could not maintain this mentality got left behind without a second thought.

Though different from the UK scene, the early American punk scene fronted by bands like MC5 and Iggy Pop seemed to share at least loosely the same mentalities as their UK peers. Especially in the case of Iggy Pop, there is a clear lack of concern for the self or others, which paired well with the constant influx of sexual manipulation and hard drug use in which Iggy and his peers often immersed themselves (McNeil 1996). The initial introduction of the Ramones, and transitively all New York punk, to England is described as a much less serious affair than one would anticipate considering the brutish reputations of both cultures. But instead of fighting or insulting each other, it seemed UK bands were impressed by the Ramones before they had even arrived, and were trying to appeal to them by acting how they assumed US punks acted. No one was hostile, the Ramones were even encouraging the UK punks to play and giving them tips as to how to start to gain some traction as a band (McNeil 1996 231). Moments like these, despite how casual they felt at the time, must be included when trying to chronicle punk’s development. Under all the fighting and drama that occurred, and still occurs within punk, punk is more than anything else a community. Even in its early days the kindness and support that so many punks try to give off was already present under the surface.[6]

 It took less than two years into punk’s “official” reign for the scene to begin falling apart and a new era of punk was already starting as 1977 began. After the Sex Pistols’ disastrous network television debut, the pedestal they were once held upon crumbled and new bands and new values arose in the punk scene. The Clash, once treated as the more sensible little brothers to the Sex Pistols, were now close to becoming the alpha group, destroying the solidarity that UK punk enforced until just a few months prior. Success and big business were coming into play drastically, as each major label tried to cash in on punk joining Rock and Roll in the mainstream. New venues, new bands and new attitudes developed formulaically, taking away from the passion and rawness that was part of the appeal of punk to begin with (Savage 2002 279).

 My shock at how vastly the punk scene has changed in the last four decades started to fade after understanding how much punk evolved just over the course of a few years. Evidently punk acts as an organism that seems to mutate in response to contextual conflicts and demands. Though social progression of the last 40 years is not nearly what it could have been, it is still evident that society did progress. Starting off by facing near universal antagonism from the media, it makes sense that the most abrasive and honest artists would be the ones to get the most attention. As punk became less taboo, the more accessible or conscious bands would then have the opportunity to gain some exposure and have their music appraised by the masses as well. Punk’s music and aesthetic evolved to coincide with the society that was perceiving it.

 “In spite of its expansion, elements of the 1970s DIY punk ethic proved to be weak in the face of the music industry and many punk bands did sign to record labels with the accompanying peer accusations of selling out. Toward 1980, with the rise of the independent labels and ‘post-punk’ music, punk itself was proclaimed (by the music and popular presses) as ‘dead’” (Gordon 2012 110).

 After a few years of the English scene being propelled by the antics of the Sex Pistols, 1978 marked the beginning of the aforementioned new era (to some a new genre) of punk music. As the Sex Pistols finally met their demise and went their completely separate ways, punk itself seemed to have started anew with the death of its forefathers. For the first time both punks and society as a whole were exposed to the impermanence punk was liable to have, something no one was sure of prior to this point. With the more accessible and approachable Clash as the official new forerunners of UK punk, the left took its opportunity to try to bring punk into its domain (Savage 2002 482). This was a move that, while initially rejected by a deliberately politically incorrect culture, would eventually develop into one of the priorities of punk philosophy.

The sound of punk was also changing at this point. Having been around for a few years, with groups constantly forming and lineups constantly changing, in conjunction with the US and UK scenes having had plenty of time to interact with and learn from each other, there were so many different perspectives being had on the music that it was evolving very quickly in many directions. Post-punk was already beginning to take shape, and members of the original punk scene, including John Lydon (Johnny Rotten) himself, took to it very quickly and enthusiastically (Savage 2002 487). In general, the nihilism that punks tend to embrace took over, and in the process of not caring how others responded to the music, perpetual innovation resulted.

“We could see it coming because we’d done everything. We’d had a top-to hit, we’d gotten rock & roll to its next incarnation, we’d lived out our dreams, and the only thing left would have been to make money out of it, and what more rock & roll thing can you do than not make money out of it ha ha ha”-Lenny Kaye of Patti Smith Group (McNeil 1996 370-71)

 Punk history is not only relevant for offering insight into [7]the culture. In many ways, punk is still the same as it was when it was unanimously declared alive. For instance, the actual act of playing in a DIY band has been pretty consistent since the Sex Pistols and the CBGB scene. Touring starts out essentially a nightmare, traveling, basically living, in pretty unsafe and expensive-to-maintain vehicles with people that start out as considering themselves friends playing any venue that would have them. As the extended time on the road takes its toll, tourmates begin to fight, everyone gets sick, no one sleeps or eats well and money starts to run short all while the band must be actively promoting itself and its shows and music to as many people as possible to justify the tour to begin with. In my experience, the actual act of playing shows every night was all that made touring worth it, and for some bands even that is a nightmare. The Sex Pistols breaking up immediately after one tour is not a far-out concept considering the contexts in which they existed at the time. They were already experiencing so much tension as a group that the test of patience and stamina that is touring very easily could have been enough to totally drive them apart. Even though they weren’t exactly a DIY band, the arc the Sex Pistols underwent certain acts as the ultimate model for one.

It is perplexing to understand the Sex Pistols as the pioneers of DIY music, considering the massive influence they have had since, but like any creation story, everyone has to start somewhere. In their own twisted way, the Sex Pistols acted quite professionally in the process of building a fan base. They delivered every night and gave their all during their performances; they reacted to what efforts of theirs succeeded and what did not. Of course, getting banned from venues and inciting acts of violence would not be traditionally good PR for a touring band, but they found a way to take these issues in stride and spin them into assets

 “Anger can be power”[8]

“We are the inheritors of the white supremacists, patriarchal, capitalist world order. A prime position as defenders of the capital of the ruling class and the over-seers of the underclass has been set aside for us by our parents, our upbringing, our culture, our history, and yet we have the moral gumption to reject it. As punks we reject our inherited race and class positions because we know they are bullshit.”

 - Profane Existence (O’Hara 1999 40)

One huge contrast between the two burgeoning US and UK scenes [9]was their respective views of gender, race and orientation. Much of the US scene at this point was incredibly misogynistic, maintaining the idea that women were meant to keep quiet and service their male partners, to whom their only value was domestic and sexual (McNeil 1996 53). The UK often incorporated women in the forefront of the scene and certainly viewed them as being far more important to the movement than the US did, but are still criticized for leaving many important female figures out of their history. Such a contrast is surprising considering how the UK scene was so anti-progressive at the time as evidence by how its early days were filled with homophobia, racism and anti-semitism.

The inherent homophobia and misogyny that arose as punk was being established was the source of great tension from the beginning. As a nonconformist platform for the obstruction of the norm, punk would appear a perfect fit for members of the LGBTQ+ community who were facing constant discrimination and harassment. Instead, many met further insult and scrutiny by members of the punk community, while others still tried to show solidarity and support. This was one of the early moral inconsistencies within punk rock--behind the scenes so many people were sleeping with so many others without any regard for gender or sexual orientation, and yet those who were more public about their orientations could still be subject to attack. These altercations were often resolved when the humanity that so many punks embrace was invoked, and the conflicts were then quickly dealt with by members of the scene banding together to show solidarity with or act in the name of the oppressed or threatened (McNeil 1996 275). While much of the conflict in this faction of punk has come to a close as people decided to truly accept others for who they were, outliers in punk continue to express issue with others based off of their gender or orientation, or otherwise abuse privilege or make a mockery of a serious issue. As soon as these notions are made public these people face instant backlash and their career is usually ruined. Despite the reactionary behavior of members of the scene, the frequency with which these problems still arise continues to be one of the greatest issues in the scene today. 

In conjunction with sexual discrimination of the time, racial discrimination was also a serious issue. So much of what allowed punk’s flagrant disregard for racial tolerance comes from the same mentality that inspired the lifestyle. Fear of attachment or sentimentality or the act of being respectful triggered so many to publicly not care about race, and a number more to actively discriminate against certain races or spew slurs in very loud and public manners (Bangs 1979). It all comes from the aesthetic benefits of the actions, but embracing any ideology ironically can quickly develop into belief. The confusing aspect of the ignorance in punk is that, as Daniel S. Traber identifies in Punkademics, punks choose, or at least embrace, the social ostracism they experience by dawning that title; they find a home in the ragtag band of misfits who embody the culture and, in a way, choose to become a minority (2012 160). From this position it makes no sense to then spread hatred and make others feel unsafe within the community. To some of those who choose to subject themselves to squalor as part of their punk identity, a sense of “martyrdom”, as modern DIY godfather Evan Weiss puts it, develops. To these people, anyone who succeeds or sleeps in a clean bed or has a “real job” is a sellout and cannot be considered truly punk because they are experiencing a more comfortable living condition than other people in the community.

 In different ways, Miner and Torrez in their punkademics article (2012) and John Roderik’s punk Rock is Bullshit (2013) anti-manifesto manage to acknowledge that a lot of what these martyrs profess as ingenuity or expression could also be construed as propaganda or misinformation. Many of the things that punk stands for or against, such as DIY or hard luck and disadvantage certainly offer the opportunity to be deconstructed as simply illusion or iconography for the sake of aesthetic. More than once punk has been criticized for making things deliberately difficult for itself and trying to maintain some strict code of ethics dictated by some non-existent council of punks. This has much to do with the privilege that a vast majority of punks are born into and the near complete lack of diversity in the scene. Both legitimate criticisms and serious problems with punk, they assist in the disillusion that many people experience at some point in their relationship with the culture.

 By necessity, punk has a very strict and unforgiving nature. Many gravitate toward punk because they do not feel safe in any other environment. It is the responsibility of members of the community to keep punk safe in all settings, and if someone goes against that, the community does not react at all kindly. On both local and international levels, I have seen reputations destroyed and careers ended because an artist, someone who others look up to and model themselves after, was outed as an abuser or racists/sexist/homophobic/transphobic; the frequency with which these events occur is upsetting enough and certainly a blemish on punk’s reputation today, but a majority of the scene is still capable of uniting when a problem arises.[10]

Over the past few years, several notable scandals in the punk community have developed. The quintessential story of the last few years broke in 2014. It was revealed that Jake McElfresh, also known as the solo acoustic act Front Porch Step, was sexually harassing underaged girls who would come to his shows, often verbally abusing them and pressuring them into sexual acts over the phone. In the months after these allegations came to light, 13,000 people signed a petition for him to be kicked off of the coming Warped Tour (he was), his label dropped him and he made an enemy of nearly every band in the punk scene at the time. His career has not[11] and will never recover despite his efforts to move forward. Even more recently, a member of the two-piece alternative band and indie rock superstars PWR BTTM was outed as a sexual predator and was associated with some anti-semitic activity. They were utterly destroyed as an artist, their brand new album was immediately taken off of their label’s website, they were dropped by their label, any upcoming shows were cancelled, and people across the scene were instantly repulsed by the band.

 Cases such as that of PWR BTTM indicate how much punk has changed in the past four decades. The iconic images of punk clothing often come from a world of taboo, such as the leather and chains associated with fetishwear or the Nazi-affiliated imagery that many brandished not necessarily in support of the Nazis so much as to embrace the repulsive and politically incorrect or as a criticism of the corruption in the music industry. Even nodding the head at this legacy now is grounds to ruin a career. Once acting as a platform to communicate ideology, punk fashion has since become policed into variation on the same few staples, turning crowds into monotonous masses that all look identical in their attempts to look different.[12]

“[‘Belsen as a Gas’] was a musical version of the punk swastika, a motif first popularized, in his pre-Pistols days, by Sid Vicious” (Marcus 2009 109).

 The unabashed embrace of truth and impulse by punk also makes it appear as if it were immature or thoughtless. Punks were constantly themselves, and valued honesty with the self and others above consequence or social response. For this reason punks once did get away with casual anti-semitism, the Sex Pistols did swear on live television and Patti Smith read her poetry onstage to clubs full of kids who were absolutely not there to hear it. To the early punks, censorship was pointless, they would rather get their point across in whatever way they saw just and face the consequences than alter anything about themselves or their art. While seemingly obnoxious or overzealous, this attitude was necessary to help punk persevere through its mass scrutiny. If punks conceded to what labels, media, or the masses wanted, the movement would no longer have been what it was intended to be, and would instead be slave to the Pop market that would take it over shortly after its inception anyway.

Since punk attracts such diverse personalities and has become a commercialized, even tokenized, community, there aren’t a lot of rules in the DIY scene. For the most part, everyone seems to get along from the hipsters to the dads to the suburban kids from middle-class homes to the broke twenty-somethings who turn their houses into communes. It doesn’t matter where somebody comes from as long as they share the same passion for music and humanity that the others in the community do. The only unwritten code I have seen enforced over and over again is the following: don’t be a dick. No one is entitled to anything and no one owes anyone anything else, just be nice to the community and the community will be nice back. As O’Hara acknowledges in Philosophy of punk, there is no point in trying to compete with other bands because everyone is in this together and wants to see everyone else succeed (O’Hara 1999 147).

These alternative rock stars are bands or members of bands who at one time had a message similar to punk or were punks themselves. Their crime is usually jumping from a smaller, independent label to a larger corporate label (CBS, EMI, Epic, etc.) to gain more money or fans. Many of these bands think that the end (reaching a larger audience) justifies the means (becoming part of a major label). This idea is often rejected and condemned.” (O’Hara 1999 154)

 “He who fucks nuns will later join the church”[13]

In the multi-decade-spanning memoir of someone who lives and breathes punk rock, Bob Suren (2015) acknowledges punk’s imperfections, of which there are many, and the downsides that arise from being part of the community. Suren admits his obsession with the community was the greatest cause of his divorce, near-bankruptcy and suicidal depression, while simultaneously what saved him from all three.

The punk scene has conflict, there are awful people with a lot of power who utilize their audiences to promote and justify unacceptable things, there’s drama and backstabbing (literally, in some cases) like any other industry. Music is competitive, music is as much of a financial industry as it is art. Pair that with the hedonistic and personal focus of punk rock and the product is argument, sometimes even violence, and lots of personal attack in a community where sinners are crucified for their misgivings and news spreads fast and effectively. In order to keep all members safe, the punk rock community is unforgiving, which has resulted in several disputes sparking division and ostracization. Such moral intensity is important though; at least today punk is supposed to be a safe space for anyone, and if there’s a toxic force influencing a lot of people in the scene it is important to band together and remove that force as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, more and more issues and people are coming out as negative influences, showing that the attempts to prevent and educate on these problems are not as effective as one would hope. There is a major issue with reception and consciousness in the scene today, and it is the root of much conflict that should not be present.[14]

“[W]hen in 1980 two born-again Christian rock critics (one of whom later took to the Christian airwaves to denounce rock ‘n’ roll as the devil’s music) asked him if he suffered remorse for his blasphemies, Lydon said he did and disavowed nothing.” (Marcus 2009 87)

Almost without fail, every band, or even member of every punk community that I have met, develops some level of a sense of entitlement and superiority because of their refusal to conform. Listening to loud music and subscribing to the culture around punk seems to give people self-assurance and confidence that they then attempt to radiate onto those around them, even if they refuse to admit it or do not even realize it is there in the first place. Especially now that punks and Hipsters have coalesced into a near-circular venn diagram of counterculture and their individual attitudes have combined into a sense of social ostracization and even oppression, a mentality that is completely unjustified considering the overwhelming majority of this community consists of middle class white kids who just happen to have some understanding that people who aren’t middle class and white are also human beings. Even in the 70s, even the earliest stages of punk, members of the community viewed themselves as morally superior to their non-punk counterparts and actively excluded specific groups of people for the sake of aesthetic. Of course, being a straight, white, cis, middle class male who identifies as an active member of the punk scene, my observations are in a perfect position to be scrutinized and invalidated by people who are probably way more punk than I am. These criticisms I could probably not justly deny, but in a meta sort of way help illustrate the elitism that I am trying to depict.

 The toxic self-assurance that many members of the Scene radiate results in lots of internal strife and presumption. The punk subculture is still a culture, and is not exempt from many of the black marks on Western society today. The way some present it, the Scene seems to be actively looking for any form of segregation not only from society but from itself as well. The following two quotes are by Craig O’Hara in The Philosophy of punk (1999), one of the premier texts on punk culture. Even his work, some of the most well-respected and widely-spread is plagued by the intellectual over-confidence that only white male privilege can incite:[15]

“Straight edgers look more like high school athletic stars than the traditional stereotypes punk. Many Straight edgers have rejected punk because of its negative image and now have their own subculture within the counterculture. What started out as a way to improve punk and escape peer pressure has turned into a scene of self-righteousness and sheep mentality.” (147)

 “Punk women are not very fond of ignorant women who so willingly go along with the mainstream, striving to fit the stereotypes created by society. Women who not only act and dress a certain way for men, but who do it to raise their own self-esteem by being accepted are often blamed along with men.”(109)

It is almost impossible not to be reminded of the archetypal “nice guy” that has plagued social media the past few years, and probably longer than that, by reading comments like these. It seems pretty clear that O’Hara has had some negative experiences with each of the groups to whom he refers to in these quotes and would sooner generalize these experiences to reflect upon the populations as a whole rather than consider any other factors of the contexts of these interactions. Even the punk cannon is not safe from mansplanation or toxic ideology.

In a subculture that is so focused on non-conformity, self-acceptance and projection, a shocking number of people were already being ostracized by community members very early on. It seems as if there was an unwritten mold that one must fit into the culture that so constantly advertised itself as non-mold-fitting. This idea of not being “punk enough” is a problem that has existed and still exists in the scene today and results in persistent hypocrisy throughout. While punk has evolved, especially in the present day, to act as a politically correct safe space where to be ostracized by the community one must project some unjustifiable form of hatred or violence, the issue of pettiness or jealousy between members of the culture is still rampant.

The fact that punk seems to have evolved so much since its birth, yet some of the most menial issues in the punk scene have continued to plague it throughout its existence is indicative of how a counterculture can act as such a strong representation of humanity as a whole. In the same way the patriarchy, pennies, oppression of the LGBTQ+ community and the veal industry have all overstayed their welcome in culture, so too have the fatal flaws of punk. Despite all the progressive evolution punk has undergone, there are still some serious issues that act as detriment on the culture as a whole.

Mass movements are always so un-hip. That’s what was great about punk. It was an antimovement, because there was knowledge there from the very beginning that with mass appeal comes all those tedious folks who need to be told what to think. Hip can never be a mass movement. And culturally, the gay liberation movement and all the rest of the movements were the beginning of political correctness, which was just fascism to us. Real fascism. More rules . . . What was great about the scene was that people’s curiousity seemed stronger than their fear. The time was rife with genuine exploration, but not in a trendy mass-movement way. And I was always fascinated by how anyone made it through the day, what they really did when the lights were out, to keep their sanity, or lose it

-Legs McNeil (McNeil 1996 275).

To deliberately ostracize oneself, to try to experience some form of social oppression the way punks intend is such an innately non-punk thing to do. There is little less authentic than refusing to acknowledge or appreciate privilege and then completely revoking it for some romanticized idea of what it’s like to be cast aside by society. Common in early punk culture, punks deliberately set themselves apart but in the process managed not to become the tortured souls they intended but instead act like spoiled, impulsive children and mocking others who face actual struggle that understand the world for what it is (Roderick 2013).

The politics of punk have always been a mess of contradiction. From is very roots lies a hypocritical and confusing code of ethics that are inconsistently enforced. In England, punk did not begin with music or art or activism, but with an entrepreneurial endeavor. The early chapters of England’s Dreaming consist of a description of the development of the storefront that would eventually become the iconic SEX so constantly associated with UK punk. Savage’s decision to identify the beginning of punk with such a consumerist motive is indicative of the moral conflicts punk has faced and continues to face today. In a movement that was so anti-establishment, anti-tradition and anti-commercial, such a boring economic mindset as the one Malcolm McLaren applied is not what one would imagine to be the foundation for an entire culture that claims to reject such positions.[16]

The politics of the New York punk scene were also completely unregulated. No one was really liberal or conservative, and no one was deliberately racist or homophobic (though certainly the views of many were not at all progressive) so much as subscribed to the nihilism that many of their peers were adopting at the time. As Punk magazine founder John Holmstrom puts it, no one was really concerned about who slept with whom or believed in a particular racial or gender bias (McNeil 1996 277). Of course, there is much evidence building up to this moment that proves how misogynistic much of the scene was, and there was certainly no active welcoming of people of color (an issue much of the punk scene still faces due to its predominantly middle class white audience). Simultaneously, though, the sense of community that had already accumulated around punk had such a great influence even early on that many could be incited into action if it meant a friend was being attacked.

“The people who put out records, fanzines, form activist groups, and try to make changes are the creators. Those who participate merely by going to see the bands play music, are the consumers and are for the most part not represented in this book. It is true, though, that consumers can become creators and may bring with them traditional mainstream values. Because of this it is much easier to find punks who are homophobic than those who are openly racist or sexist. While this moronic ignorance is not a new occurrence, it was not an original part of punk.”(O’Hara 1999 118-119)

“I don’t want to grow up, there’s too much contradiction.”[17]

To begin his chronicling of UK punk Rock, Savage chooses not to start at the beginning. Rather, he frames it not unlike a thriller by opening with a non-chronological description of a brazen and shameless act of defiance by UK punks in the year 2000, a quarter decade after the identified “start” of punk (2002 vii). In this allegorical filmic depiction, punk takes the role of the martyred anti-hero the same way a loose cannon cop or Dexter would by utilizing nontraditional, even arguably evil or socially-repulsive methods to achieve their ultimatum. The goal in punk’s case, as Savage describes it, is to uncover and publicize “the truth” (2002 x). What the truth is can vary greatly, but it seems some of its focuses include the uglier aspects of eras that history chooses to leave behind or sweep under the rug, or the corruption within a movement or monolithic corporations to which the masses become unknowing slaves. Savage views the uncovering of the truth by punks as a sacrificial act. They worked hard to deliver their message for a very brief amount of time, and were rewarded with unhappiness, disgust and, arguably, destruction.[18]

Punk acts as a vessel for far more than one would assume at first glance. Rather than being an anarchist of left wing platform with which kids were able to go against the grain in a community of art, music and fashion, punk is the umbrella term for an entire intellectual revolution. More than any specific politics or art style or cultural standard, punk was a movement against boredom--something that groups much older than the Warhol gang and much younger than the Sex Pistols have tried to combat. Dada, the Beatniks, the postmodernists, the Romantics and Tumblr are all punk at their core, and any decision or movement has the potential to be. The kid who majors in history or anthropology because it interests them is a punk, the one democrat in a rural conservative town is a punk, the cool English teacher is a punk, Miley Cyrus is a punk (“Andrew” 2014). All of these people had the same basic issue with the world: it was too monotonous and they felt like they weren’t using their voices enough. So they did something about it. Punk did not pioneer DIY (Roderick 2013), but DIY is sure as shit what constantly propels punk. Anyone who realizes they have the power to change their world is a punk, and the traditional idea of punk is simply a tool to inspire those people.

The facade that some might criticize punk as having adopted for a majority of its presence is irrelevant in the grand cultural scheme. Whether the movement that calls itself punk is the same thing as the original punk is irrelevant. “Punks” today have a culture they can feel safe in, and a large group of people and infinitely accessible resources to utilize in order to get their voices heard. Every day more and more kids are being made aware that they have just as much power and potential as anyone else and utilizing that power to improve their lives and the lives of those around them in whatever format they can. In spite of the ever-developing conflicts within the scene, the bottom line for so many is solidarity, and over and over again the scene has proven it is capable of maintaining that.

“All the young dudes, I want to hear you!”[19]

In one sentence Marcus manages to call into question the legitimacy, or at least the direction, of this entire project: “Research makes time march forward, it makes time march backward, and it also makes time stand still” (Marcus 2009 18). This is a valid point, and does raise the question as to what the point of this project, or any scholarship on punk, or really any scholarship, is. We’re burying ourselves with literature about the same 4 year period in two cities in predominantly white cultures about a culture of kids who liked to cause trouble and upset strangers. What justifies our attempts to study it? Is there even anything to study? Simultaneously, though, it is also worth arguing that by taking the frozen present and past that research develops, the researcher can then create a line from those sources and evolve them into the future of the field. If no one made efforts to look at past and present records then nothing would change and there would be no need for research. Research acts simultaneously as the catalyst and the documentation of social development.[20]


Scholars can argue about the nuances of punk as long as they want, the last four decades have proven that. The question of punk’s lifespan, legitimacy or authenticity now or at any point in 

history will always be a fair one to ask, but it is pointless. There will never be a determining factor that decides whether punk is or isn’t punk anymore, and if it ever was to begin with. No one has the power to make that judgement, and no one is ever going to. We can fight over the theoretical significance of a Crass lyric or the philosophical relevance of Marquee Moon for months but who will it help? The academic dissection of punk acts as a vessel for people who won’t make the musical investment to still do something creative and pat themselves on the back at the end of the day for being the only person in the immediate vicinity doing it.

Regardless of the inauthenticity or moral ambiguity that have been (ironically) labeled as punk’s trademark for a majority of its acknowledged existence, there is something to be said about punk’s ethic that can inspire almost anyone into action. If nothing else, punk shows that people who want something have the power to get it as long as they work hard enough. Keeping in line with the music, the DIY ethic is straight and to the point. Punk does not deliberate, it acts and continues to act and evolve-a quality that has the power to be brought into almost any scenario. A DIY mentality shows students that they have power and a voice that they can use; it defies any excuse involving external forces restricting someone’s drive. Self-reliance, questioning of authority, creating as much as possible with the resources available all have value in an academic setting. Punk ideology promotes intellectual freedom and consciousness and invites discussion of alternative political and social priority.

Academia and punk have been intertwined for decades. There is a reason so many musicians have PhD’s and bands have broken up so members could attend college. Punks are not unintelligent, in fact they value their intellect above most other character traits. People are attracted to the punk community because it promotes thought and the free flow of ideas. Punk is a platform to communicate values, grievances, pride and shame. There are still revolting high school kids out there who learn more from the Dead Kennedy’s than they do from a history class and there will always be someone vouching for the theoretical value of a Ramones lyric. From its inception punk has shown the legitimacy in going against the grain and that not everyone learns or acts the same way in the same setting. Punk shows people that there are other paths they can take to become who they want to be, that the traditional model of a human life does not have to be unanimous.

Even if punk continues to stand strong and brazen against attempts to dismantle it, it still has lots of room for further evolution. It is worth noting that in all of the time that I spent solely dedicated to doing research for this paper I barely came across anything relating to feminism, or really any social justice, and the things that I did were very quickly brushed over by the other content around it. There is something to be said about the fact that despite how many times the situations are dealt with sexual assault allegations against important musicians in the scene today continue to arise on far too often of a basis, making an increasing number of punks feel unsafe in the scene today. Despite its constant association with academia, punk does not seem to learn with the permanence that it needs to. The promotion of alternative culture and ideology cannot justify the devaluing of any human life. Punk is so academically dissected for a reason: it has the power to educate masses of passionate and thoughtful people. Unfortunately, it has yet to find the correct way to do so.

The absolutist and militant way in which punk resolves serious conflict is effective at solving the immediate problem but beyond that does nothing. If these efforts worked how they were supposed to then the prejudice and elitism rife throughout the scene would have stopped with the first people to attack Jayne County, but instead indie rock stars continue to be crucified today for ignorance or violence today. Constantly making examples out of people is clearly not having the desired effect. The problem is that too few are taking time to actively communicate the problems with the scene to the masses. While punk is about fun and excitement, it is also about expression and honesty and consciousness. Everyone has a voice and everyone has power, more people need to utilize them if anything is going to change.


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[1] “Bodies”  by The Sex Pistols (1977)

[2] John Lydon in promotion of Public Image Ltd. Taken from Stereogum.

[3] Hannah Hoch, Cut With the Dada Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany (1919)

[4] “Blank Generation” by Richard Hell and the Voidoids (1977)

[5] Iggy Pop in Los Angeles, October 30, 1973. Photo by Michael Ochs. Taken from Vogue.

[6] Cartoon from Sideburns (January 1977).

[7] Sex Pistols contract with a venue signed by Malcolm McLaren. Accessed from Kugelberg Archival Collection Box 28, Cornell University

[8] “Clampdown” by The Clash (1979)

[9] Jayne County. Photographer and date unknown. Taken from punk77.

[10] petition to remove Front Porch Step from Warped Tour

[11] PWR BTTM. Photo by Andrew Piccone. Taken from New Noise Magazine

[12] Sid Vicious wearing a swastika shirt. Photographer unknown. Taken from Complex.

[13] “Death or Glory” by The Clash (1979)

[14] Sex Pistols File by Ray Stevenson (1982). Accessed from Kugelberg Archival Collection Box 28, Cornell University.

[15] Jared Hunter of The Worthwhile Fight straitedge back piece. Self portrait.

[16] punk Magazine: A Tribute to CBGB (2007). Accessed from Kugelberg Archival Collection Box 5, Cornell University.

[17] “Friction” by Television (1977)

[18] Accessed from Kugelberg Archival Collection Box 28, Cornell University.

[19] Accessed from Kugelberg Archival Collection Box 28, Cornell University. Details of image unknown.

[20] Evan Weiss. Photographer and date unknown. Taken from Noisey.