Punk may be too abrasive, too noisy for the mainstream, and for that exact reason it appeals more and more to younger crowds. It speaks for people who feel disillusioned, angry, written off, or unheard. In doing research and conducting interviews, I found that for a lot of people, finding punk is a life-altering experience. It’s a sort of lightbulb moment for a confused, messed up kid, like they’ve finally found where they belong.
Punk becomes a lifestyle – even without the conformity of the punk “uniform” – which I don’t think can be said about every genre of music. Mainstream society doesn’t have a place for punk music, or the people who listen to it. Teenagers, especially the ones with piercings and unnatural colors in their hair, are looked at as “bad kids”. It’s thought that these kids are too wild, on drugs, and drinking too young. It’s almost worse for older people in the scene because society doesn’t understand why punk would be anything more than an embarrassing phase in your life.
Punk is all about nonconformity, but these teenagers who dress and look like punks are conforming, albeit to a scene that allows for more originality than the mainstream. It’s almost funny that a subculture that is about being yourself can sometimes exclude people for not looking the part. While society discriminates against punks, there is discrimination even within this supposedly all-inclusive scene. Girls have to be tougher than the guys to fit in, and being gay isn’t really something that “fits” into this macho, mostly male-dominated punk scene.
While I believe homophobia and gender exclusion is prevalent in all genres and music, and in society as a whole, it’s not something you would expect to find in a scene that is supposed to be all about being whoever you want to be, and laying your true colors out on canvas to wave as a flag of individuality. Background/Introduction “Punk gave a generation an ideology that was meaningfully their own, one that represented a counterculture to the counterculture” (Maddern). Punk rock has been around since the 1970’s, and started, like Maddern states, as a response to the free-love, hippie counterculture of the 1960’s.
Punk never sustained long-term mainstream popularity, instead mostly staying in the darkness of the underground where people can hide in the shadows and feel a part of something bigger than their everyday lives. Punk music is loud, it’s angry, it is opinionated and extremely outspoken, and it’s composed of people who, mostly, don’t feel like they fit in anywhere else. It provides a safe environment for speaking one’s mind and created an imperfect, “anyone can do it” musical style. When people hear the term punk rock, it conjures of images of bands like the Ramones, the Clash, the Misfits, and the Sex Pistols – all male bands.
Punk has gone through many reinventions, with both men and women gaining recognition – both underground praise and mainstream. It came along with a very in-your-face aesthetic – leather clothing, dyed hair, mohawks, piercings, tattoos, revealing outfits for the women. Some musicians even went as far as to mutilate themselves on stage. “Underground music culture has always been about more than the specificity of its sound,” Maria Raha says in her book Cinderella’s Big Score, and the truth of that statement is while punk is generally played louder, faster, and grittier than other rock music, it is more than just the music.
It’s about the anti-establishment, anti-mainstream, anti-unsatisfying home lives, anti-misogyny attitude. Men and women involved in the scene generally take a fighting stance for what they believe in. Punk became an attitude, a way of thinking and living. Not that punk was all political anger wrapped in noise. Bands like the Misfits created their own genre of “horror punk” with lyrical allusions to classic horror movies, and Vincent Price. Even the Ramones coined such lyrics as, “hey little girl, I wanna be your boyfriend. ” Still, punk was and continues to be a counterculture that rivals even other countercultures.
Methodology I conducted four interviews with people I know who are or have been involved in the punk scene – to varying degrees of actual immersion in the scene. These interviews took place in person, over the phone and through email. I had interview questions on hand, but generally let the interviews become a conversation, a sort of back and forth brainstorm, while still getting answers for my questions. I also had one impromptu interview at a record store on Saint Mark’s Place, which is where I spent a lot of time observing.
Located in the East Village, the block between 2nd and 3rd Avenue is a very popular spot for shopping. Shops like Trash and Vaudeville cater to people who dress in that distinctive punk style. There is more than one tattoo parlor on the block, and many street vendors sell body jewelry. While it’s never unusual to see someone who looks different than you in Manhattan, on St Mark’s Place looking different means wearing a business suit because the norm is facial piercings, tattoos, bleached or dyed hair and a Sid Vicious-like sneer.
I took note of people I saw on the bus, on campus at Queensborough, or hanging out at the high school, Cardozo, across the street from campus. Everywhere I went, though, the punk style and attitude didn’t seem to change very much. It was all variations on the same theme. I also did research in the school library’s virtual database, as well as outside research at home to find source material. Literature Review Punk rock has been a heavily debated topic, both within and outside of the scene.
Articles and books have been written about punk’s start – sometimes with differing opinions on where punk started and who and what started the craze in the 1970’s. I read three articles on the punk movement, an article on youth culture, Maria Raha’s ode to women in the punk underground, and, well, most of Lipstick Traces by Greil Marcus. That covers the smallest fraction of literature and media on this culture. Perry Grossman, in an article simply titled “Punk”, talks about the rise of punk in the 1970’s, starting in New York and gaining more popularity on the West Coast and, most notably, in United Kingdom.
He describes punk attire – wild haircuts and clothing. He also discusses how society looked at those sartorial choices and possibly led to the more minimalist style of the hardcore punk scene. “For both fans and musicians, punk amounted to a kind of lifestyle,” Grossman says, when talking about the philosophies of punk rock. Those philosophies seem to boil down to play louder, faster, and meaner than anyone else, fight any and all constraining factors in life – society, authority, conventional anything, and to be whoever you wanted to be, without apology.
That attitude was and still is both in spite of and, of course, directly because of society’s views on punk fashion and music. Like Grossman’s article, Frank Cartledge – in his article, also titled “Punk” – discusses the rise of punk culture in the 1970’s. Unlike Grossman, Cartledge takes a more direct approach to discussing punk fashion. He makes an interesting point when he says that punk style cannot be discussed without looking at the music behind the trend. The fans emulated the artists, and the artists tossed new outlandish fashion and war cries into the crowd every night at shows.
Stacy Warner Maddern wrote a short, but powerful essay titled “Punk Movement”. It was used in the International Encyclopedia of Revolution and Protest, which I believe shows that she focuses on the protest, political and philosophical aspects of punk – and how fitting to have an article about punk in an encyclopedia of revolutions. Maddern’s opening sentence states that punk is no flash in the pan. It’s something that has grown since its start in the 1970’s and has picked up countless followers through the decades.
This article discusses the chaotic element of anarchy at punk’s roots. Whether or not a fifteen-year-old boy or girl gets into punk for actual political reasons, they want to introduce some chaos to their world where they feel emotionally, or physically, beaten down, held back, or insignificant. The anarchy, the chaos became the voice of millions. In Joe Austin’s article “Youth Culture”, he describes this ever-changing culture from pre-modern to post-1970’s time. He describes the punk subculture, quite aptly, as an attack on hippie ideals and culture.
Here he describes this, to quote Stacy Warner Maddern again, “counterculture to the counterculture”: “Recognizing that the most rebellious of youth cultures of the 1960s had been commodified by entrepreneurs and later by mundane retail outlets, some youth cultures searched for identities that could either not be quickly coopted or that embraced consumer culture for its own ends. ” In the eyes of society, punks were the worst of the worst, yet there had been outcries about the hippies before these punks came along and tore the flowers out of everyone’s hair and stomped out free-love like a cigarette on the pavement.
Cinderella’s Big Score, written by the brilliant Maria Raha, is the inspiring, infuriating, tragic, and downright heroic tale of women in the punk and indie underground. She starts with the legendary Patti Smith and going through a list of beacons of female empowerment and punk – from Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex in the 1970’s to Courtney Love, down through the underappreciated, incredibly talented, horribly misunderstood riot grrrl phenomenon of the 1990’s. Raha describes, sometimes in excruciating detail, the trials of being a girl in a scene in which “women can only be so transgressive” (15).
The idea of being queer, being transgendered, or just being a girl in punk rock is still something that needs to be fought for, as if it hasn’t already been earned through the female voices of the Raincoats, the one of a kind, iconic Debbie Harry, or the queer influence of bands like the Butchies. Punks are intolerant of anything other than the fiercely male, like Glenn Danzig of the Misfits with his deep, guttural vocals and muscular frame, or they have the “she’s with the band” mentality of most rock music.
It’s hard to believe, especially for people in the scene, that this kind of homophobia and gender exclusion exists in a culture of nonconformity, and is supposed to be a place for all the misfits of the world. Raha describes it perfectly: “Whether female; a person of color; a trans, gay, lesbian, or bi individual; a drug addict or drunk; a good artist; a bad writer; a weekend warrior; a former Catholic school girl; a frat boy; a suburbanite; a ‘zine editor (or one whose music is bemoaned by ‘zine ditors); an activist; a vegan; a pacifist; poor; rich; or a hardcore music nerd, each of us has felt constrained by indie rock’s boundaries and obstacles, machismo or homophobia, self-righteousness or apathy, yet there is something about this community and the culture it has produced that still makes us feel free” (10). What Raha means is that even with discrimination within the punk scene, there is still a level of freedom. You might have to work harder than others, but being a woman or being gay in the scene is not unheard of. Research findings/Interviews
At twelve, which is the same year I started Catholic school, I got into punk rock. I never spent time trying to fit in with other punks, or dress the part, but over the years I have met people who are just as into the music as I am. I asked, and a few of them agreed, to be interviewed anonymously for this project. These interviews are proof that not all punks can be as easily identified as a kid with a blue mohawk. My first interview is Cass, who looks like the complete antithesis of punk style, with her floral-print dress and general Taylor Swift-like feminine demeanor.
Cass is nineteen years old. We met at a cafe in Queens to talk punk rock theory. Our discussion brought up some really interesting things about punk – some obvious to me from being a part of the scene and an avid people-watcher. We talked about posturing and aging within the scene, among other topics. I had interview questions set up, but I didn’t want it to feel awkward for us to talk as just two friends, so I started with a simple question to get it going. Me: What does punk rock mean to you, personally?
Cass: Punk is the music I turn to when I have excess emotions that I don’t know how to deal with. I feel like it touches a side of human nature that is relatable to everyone, but not many people are willing to get in touch with that angry side. A lot of punk music speaks to the disenchantment of recent generations… Punk is a way to stand up to the way we’re told to live. Me: What attracted you to punk rock in the first place? Cass: Actually, this is a funny story.
I wasn’t allowed to listen to non-classical music until I was about twelve, so my musical education was sadly lacking until I hit high school. It wasn’t anything particular thing, a boy I dated introduced me to bands like Bad Religion and Green Day and I’ve dug deeper into the genre on my own. Me: As someone who isn’t in the scene in a big way, do you think there are any misconceptions about the scene from the outside world? Cass: I feel like a lot of people view it as misguided anger, teenagers who angst about nothing at all, who just act out…
I think that people don’t understand that punk can be fun. Yes, there are the anti-establishment leanings of a lot of punk lyrics, but there are also songs like the Velvet Underground’s “I’m Sticking With You” that are kind of silly. Me: Do you think the punk scene has gone through any changes in recent years? Good change or bad? Cass: Times change and people grow. The generation that was heavily into punk rock in the 1990’s are now mature adults who are trying to come to terms with the fact that they work for the “man” they fought against in adolescence.
Mohawks just don’t look as good on a 45-year-old man as they did when that same man was 18. I think punk is a young scene, and it doesn’t age well. I think unless you’re in the scene, playing music and making a living off of it, you grow out of the look. Me: So, you think punk is this rebellious middle finger to the world as a whole and that attitude has to die out as you get older? I think it’s really interesting that you said it doesn’t “age well”. Cass: Yeah, it’s a rallying cry for anyone who has ever been really f-ing pissed about their lives, the community they live in, anything.
This scene is about finding connection and realizing you do fit somewhere. I think it’s great if someone wants to keep that form of self-expression going – if you’re doing it for the right reasons and it’s the lifestyle you choose, but it’s been proven that it’s harder to get hired for “serious” jobs with visible tattoos and piercings. Me: Do you think there is such a thing as getting into the scene for the wrong reasons? Cass: I think punk gets a bad wrap and teenagers mistake the scene for drugs and alcohol, which is probably missing the point.
But for all the posturing that teenagers get wrapped up in, you can’t really say it’s wrong for someone to try to find out who they are, nevermind all the elitism and people think they’re more justified to be a punk because of whatever life experience. Punk is a personal thing, really, whether or not it sticks to you past high school is pivotal, but you’re going to have a lot of fun while in the scene, that’s for sure. My interview with Denzig was done through email. She is twenty-one and wears her hair bleached blonde, think Courtney Love, and looks like the definition of a punk woman.
Her story was different from Cass’ in many ways, but pointed out a few of the same themes. She described punk to me as something that she felt empowered by, and being in a family with older sisters who were also heavily into punk rock. Den spoke of the misconception that punk is violent, immoral influence on young people. The changes she noticed in the scene – in the eleven years she’s been in it – are not just aesthetic, but she believes the philosophies of punk have become watered down over the years.
I had a similar interview with Kat via email. She’s eighteen and, like Cass, doesn’t “dress the part”. She told me a story about being told that these kids who listen to punk rock being the scum of society, screaming about things that at the time were pretty scandalous. She remembers that as the first she thought, “Oh man, I need to listen to punk. ” Kat describes punk as cocky and kind of dangerous and thinks that leads to the misconception that it can’t possibly be sending any good messages to the kids in the scene.
She thinks society disagrees with punk’s message that you can be whoever you want and says that is part of the reason punks have never fit in with the mainstream. I saved my good friend Mimi’s interview for last because she brought up topics that not one of my previous interviews touched, topics that are the reason I wanted to write this essay. We met up in Manhattan for this interview, and sat in Central Park to talk. She has her hair dyed a shocking red, but wears a simple dress – not at all “punk attire”. I started with my go-to starter question. Me: What does punk rock mean to you?
Mimi: Punk rock is an outlet. It never quite fit with the straight-up rock world, but the punk scene is a place for people to express their anger and frustration at a world that doesn’t really understand them. I think it’s also a means of self-expression and a way to connect with others who feel similarly. Me: What is it about punk rock that drew you to the scene? Mimi: When I was younger, I was really into musical theater, and then summer before I left for college, I started listening to a lot of pop-punk. Through that, I got into into “harder” bands. I just wanted music that matched my ood and punk rock fit the bill. Me: Do you think punk appeals more to people around your age? Mimi: I think it does tend to appeal to a younger crowd, given the tendency towards rebellion, but I know that I know that there are a lot of older fans. Me: Let’s talk misconceptions about the scene because I’ve heard a few different answers so far, and I’d like some more input.
Mimi: I consider myself to be on the fringes of the scene, but I imagine that those who don’t understand it, as with most music subcultures, see the scene as “kids who don’t have any real ideas about anything. Me: Do you think anything has changed over the years within the scene? Even just as an observer. Mimi: I think maybe the scene used to have more homophobia and thanks to certain bands now has less. Me: You are only person to mention homophobia within the scene, and I’ve done three interviews. What do you think it is about the punk scene that leads to homophobia or anything like gender exclusion? Mimi: First, like many music scenes, the punk rock scene is a very androcentric place. To add to that, it’s also pretty heterosexist. Bands are almost entirely male, as are the record labels, producers, etc.
As far as I know, most women in the scene are thought to be, a) fans, b) merch people, c) groupies/wives/girlfriends, or journalists. This dichotomy really hurts women in the scene, whether they be in those categories or they’re musicians or techs trying to make it on a skill/trade alone, leaving their appearance and sexuality out of it. Women are also included in the punk scene when they’re written about in songs and those songs undoubtedly put females on a pedestal or vilify them as heartbreakers, bitches, etc. The heterosexist model is also shown in that way.
Furthermore, the anger associated with the scene can exclude many who don’t identify as straight since hardcore fans aren’t always accepting and the intrinsic violence of punk rock fans isn’t something all fans are looking for. Aside from things like the queercore scene or any bands that preach acceptance, there doesn’t seem to be any set place for for the LGBTQ crowd. Me: How do you think that heterosexist attitude negatively affects all-female punk bands or any woman in a band? Mimi: I think that women in punk bands aren’t taken as seriously and have to work much harder to prove themselves. While in Sounds, a small record shop on St.
Mark’s Place, I struck up conversation with a teenage girl picking up an X-Ray Spex album. She was there with a group of boys her age. I ask her if she’s into punk bands with female vocals and she responds with an enthusiastic yes. We browse the albums and I point out other all-female, or female-fronted punk bands. I ask her if any the boys she’s with are into the same bands. “No,” she says. “They’re more into listening to other boys scream in their ears. ” She went on to talk about how she feels like she needs to be tougher than any guy she knows in the scene, and feels like being a girl somehow makes you less punk than a guy.
My conversation with her reminds me of a quote taken, again, from Cinderella’s Big Score: “The angry young boy thing was very romanticized. Angry young girls were a threat” (14). Conclusion/Analysis In Lipstick Traces, Marcus Greil states that, “what remains irreducible about this music is its desire to change the world” (5). Whether it’s Jonny Rotten famously growling about being the antichrist, or Courtney Love’s overt sexuality, people in punk have always been looking, not just to shock the world, but to leave an imprint behind and be the kind of change they were looking for in their own lives.
This reflects back to the young and who are always, always searching for something that tells them they belong. Even with homophobia, gender exclusion, elitism, or anything that leads to people feeling left out, punk rock is still as all-inclusive as you’re going to get. Bob Dylan said once about his own music – seen in the documentary “No Direction Home” – “these are all protest songs,” and they are, but punk rock opened the door – well, they kicked it down with their Doc Marten’s – for angrier protest songs, for chaotic musical performances.
Punk will probably always be an underground culture and, most likely, the people involved in this culture are more than happy with that fact. It’s a culture full of outsiders, “weirdos”, and misfits. While there is still discrimination within the scene, which may or may not change as years go on, from the interviews and research I’ve done, I can say that this culture still leaves more room for individuality and self-expression than any other. That is the reason punk has been a consistently strong underground culture and why it will ultimately live on.