Punk and Company: The Sound and the Commodity

I love it:

In fact, I loved it in Best Buy so much I decided to pick up the Sex Pistols collection.   What happened to punk?  That subgenre of music whose goal was to shake and break everything it could?  Commodity culture was a sworn enemy!  This brought a collective of young people together in the 1970s to  become ‘punk’ in their dress, speech, and lifestyles.

So, what is punk?  According to Dick Hebdige, the author of Subculture: The Meaning of Style, punk is many things.   Hebdige states, “[p]unk reproduced the entire sartorial history of post-war working-class youth cultures in ‘cut up’ form, combining elements which had originally belonged to completely different epochs . . . punk style contained a distorted reflection of all the major post-war subcultures” (Hebdige 26).  Hebdige places an emphasis on punk style as crucial to the subculture’s formation and popularity.  With their safety pins and leather jackets emblazoned with torn pieces of the Union Jack sewn loosely on the back, punks represented a lost Britain; an apocalyptic post-war image of a failed oligarchy.  Punks were rebels, radicals, and anarchists, who reveled in the shock value of their nihilistic aesthetic.  However, encoded within their style was a lineage that tracks back to other working-class Western subcultures, including the Beats and Mods.  Through their style, punks presented a critique on Western values, capitalism, and mass media.  Anti-materialist and anti-capitalist attitudes were running high after the war.  The 60s brought about protests and civil rights movements that were anti-authority to the core.  The 70s was like a hangover, or should I say a withdrawal period, of the 60s.  In Britain, joblessness and poverty were on the rise, promising to birth another ‘lost generation’ similar to the youth generation that was born from the chaos of the 20s, or post-WWI England.  Punk was this: a lost generation (one who has been found through commodity culture again and again).

Youth subcultures always seem to have a connection with war.  They are a response to the contradictions that the adult world presents.  The world is run by bad politics and lousy leaders.  Fear.  The world is run by fear.  Punk was a ‘screw you’ (and other expletives) to fear.  Punk’s challenge to the system was the main attraction of the subculture, along with the music and styles that expressed this.  Early glam-punk, such as the music of David Bowie, were examples of how diverse the punk could be — another attraction.  Punk culture allowed for experimentation (bricolage) and subversion.  Hebdige explains, that “Bowie-ites,” like other punk subcultures, “were attempting to negotiate a meaningful intermediate space somewhere between the parent culture and the dominant ideology: a space were alternative identity could be discovered and expressed” (Hebdige 88).  Similar to other youth cultures, Bowieites and glam punks were concerned with the creation of a new public by subverting ones in place, especially the hegemonic order in place (the dominant, mass culture).

And gender-bending?  Androgyny and gender-queering was part of the mix.   Gender conformity was another ‘requirement’ demanded by society.  In music and subcultural spaces, gender wasn’t so important, since no family structure was being upheld.  Punk subculture relied on the rhetoric and signifying practices of the youth that belonged to it.  Style is communication.  Music is communication.  Punks undermined relevant, and official, discourse, propriety, and morality.  The evolutionary stages of punk, from early punk to new wave and post punk, were connected by the subversion of official discourse; the de-masking of what is right and good and replacing it with corruption and collapse.

So, why did I hear the Sex Pistols in Best Buy?  Best Buy is a major corporate chain store that has been placed neatly in my suburban town — far, far away from 1970s Britain.  I think the answer is rather simple.  Punk music has outlasted the subculture.  Subcultures, like other publics, form and dismantle due to their reliance on certain contexts: the time, the place, the politics, and the people.  Listening to punk music on the radio became the ‘normal’ public’s easy access to the punk subculture, one that would allow them to enjoy punks without bothering to get dirty with them.

So, what happened to punk?  It’s likely playing somewhere at a local venue near you.  Underground, above-ground, in a pub, or as erratic background noise  in Wal-Mart.  Punk is still here.  Everywhere, actually.  Long live it.

I have mixed feelings about commodity culture.  It allows for fame, success, and longevity, yet it seems to squeeze out the authenticity of a product.  Commodity capitalism ‘standardizes,’ to use Adorno’s term, everything.  You see little babies with “Punk Rock This” or “Kid Vicious” t-shirts on.  Or tweens and Twihard fans wearing torn up Union Jack jackets and Team Edward shirts.  Admittedly, the heterogeneity and ‘messing up’ of style taps into the vein of punk and exemplifies what punks were predicting: a culture of anything goes.  Commodity culture, ironically, allows for anything to go, even if has already went.  It’s profit, not necessarily art.

What happened to punk?  Punk is still here.  Everywhere  Long live it.

I’ll end with one of the best (post) punk songs, simply because it should be on this blog:

About dontpanictrent

DON'T PANIC: A Trent Graduate Student Blog

One Response to “Punk and Company: The Sound and the Commodity”

  1. Yep. Punk is still here – it just changes and shifts to stay out of the mainstream. Some goes mainstream and others stay off the main grid. But it all challenges, to my mind.

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