What Do I Get? Punk Rock, Authenticity and Cultural Capital.

By Brian Cogan

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After years of alternately being declared either dead, irrelevant, or simply too outrageous to be accepted into the fabric of American culture, and almost thirty years after it first reared it's mohawk'd head in public, the musical genre known as "punk rock" has finally been accepted as part of mainstream American culture. This is, unfortunately, not the result of changing musical tastes or a growing acceptance of subversive subcultures on the part of the American audience, but rather, is due to a single factor loathed by most participants in (the wide and diverse variety of) insular punk communities, the increasing ubiquity of the music itself in television commercials.

While using popular music identified with the counter-culture in advertising is nothing new (the controversial use of the Beatles "Revolution" in Nike commercials is a notorious example), still the use of a genre as universally identified as being against the values and political identity of mainstream America is a new, and some would say, a disturbing trend. The use of songs by punk stalwarts such as the Buzzcocks, Iggy Pop and the Stooges, Black Flag and The Minutemen, bands who were closely associated with the DIY movement (literally "Do It Yourself"- a term applied to the creation of production and distribution networks within the community and outside the influence of major labels and distributors), as well as "alternative" bands such as The Cult and The Smiths, and even the use of club and dance identified music by Air, Dimitri from Paris and others, could be seen as simply the inevitable commodification of subcultures by the mainstream. But, perhaps there are more positive connotations to this phenomenon to examine. In this essay I will discuss the most recent co-opting of underground music and analyze the negative, and surprisingly positive, implications of "punk rock" advertisements.

Punk Rock and Style

In recent years, there has been a renewed academic interest in the cultural implications of punk rock as a social movement. Most authors take Dick Hebdige's seminal work Subculture: The Meaning of Style as their template for examinations of punk rock. According to Hebdige, musical-based subcultures in general, and punk in particular, are engaged in a constant struggle for identity with mainstream culture where meaning is constantly negotiated and renegotiated. Subcultures such as punk try and create an identity set in resistance to the dominant culture and the dominant culture in turn tries to reintegrate the aberrant subculture, or at least place it within the dominant framework of meanings. As Hebdige notes, British punk in particular adopted symbols and forms of musical expression from other outcast cultures (such as the reggae music of Rastifarians and the suspenders and boots of post-World War II working class culture) and synthesized it into something uniquely their own. At the same time this process is taking place, the dominant culture tries to make sense of subcultures though various means, including news reports and articles in the mainstream mass media that identify the new subculture within a historical context, and by taking aspects of the culture such as fashion and commodifing them. (An example of this was the "safety-pin chic" promoted by designers such as Betsy Johnson.) According to Hebdige, commodification is the inevitable end result of this process of negotiation. Safety pins, leather jackets and ripped jeans are taken out of the context of rebellion and translated into runway fashion, selling for thousands of dollars at ritzy boutiques.

The most recent works of scholarship that analyze punk rock as a subculture, most notably the volume edited by Roger Sabin Punk Rock; So What?, try to reevaluate punk rock within the parameters of cultural studies. In an article by Frank Cartledge, "Distress to Impress: Local Punk Fashion and Commodity Exchange," punk rock can not be seen so much as a resistance to mainstream culture, but as a sort of virus whose "success" can be measured in terms of "introducing new forms of dress and behavior." In this construct, punk rock functions as an active agent, or in the words of Douglas Rushkoff, a "Media Virus," that infects society almost subliminally with aspects of its worldview. I believe that while Cartledge's view is much more realistic and optimistic than the usual dissections of punk's legacy, it fails to break with the usual British cultural studies' identification of punk rock as a uniquely British phenomenon based on British class structure. While it certainly is true that the British version of punk rock was intimately based along class lines, this simplistic version fails not only to recognize that punk rock is primarily an American creation, but also is distinctly American in its relationships with both taste and the generation of cultural capital.

Even a cursory look at the formations of punk, as demonstrated by recent works such as Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain's Please Kill Me, and Clinton Heylin's From the Velvets to the Voidoids, reveals that the origins of punk rock clearly lie not only in the late 1960's aggressive rock of the Stooges and the MC5, but also in the self-consciously artistic Velvet Underground, who's alliance with Andy Warhol and debt to Delmore Schwartz and Lamonte Young reveals punk rock to be a creation of the well-educated and art-school trained upper classes. Thus, the American version of punk rock can be seen not simply as a reaction against the decaying economic system of Great Britain, but also as a self-conscious pose to identify one as outside the mainstream of "normal'" rock and roll. As punk pioneer (and well regarded poet and novelist) Richard Hell famously said, "punk made it possible to completely reinvent yourself."

The punk look in America became a recognizable set of signifiers that was used to set oneself apart from the mainstream. Stuart Ewen noted in his book All Consuming Images that punk itself became a form of conspicuous consumption, one where those who chose to identify themselves as punk could adapt mainstream commodities to create a sense of identity not based on the British punk "uniform" but by using (at least during the early days) disparate styles to self-identify as punk. The baggy overcoats of Pere Ubu were as punk as the leather jackets of The Ramones, and as punk as the flightsuits and goggles of Devo. However, this applied not merely to fashion, which was one of, but not the most important signifier of punk. In fact, the most important signifier of American punk rock was also the most ephemeral of all concepts, taste.

In America, taste, or liking the correct bands in the punk canon, became the dominant signifier of punk rock. American punk was far too geographically diverse to form the closed communities of style that marked most European punk. If there was no set dress code, the only way to identify fellow punks (especially in the days when school dress codes were more rigid in most of the country) was by wearing the correct button, scrawling the correct band names on a notebook, or wearing the right band patch provided passwords and codes that only the initiated understood. As American punk positioned itself intentionally outside of the mainstream of American music, and even increasingly outside of the major label dominated music industry, having the correct taste in bands became a sort of cultural capital, or form of "musical currency" that legitimized those in possession of the necessary knowledge. (An example of this, although based on a British book, is the movie High Fidelity, where record store employees obsess about music and define a proper customer by their breadth of knowledge and musical taste.) Thus, becoming a punk involved learning a canon of "acceptable" music, and in a very real sense, becoming not just a purist, but also a musical elitist.

American punk rock really was always about taste, about defining oneself as outside the mainstream, not through economic situation or a mythologized class consciousness, but through a secret society of musical taste where ones' identity was validated through what one accepted and rejected as legitimate forms of musical expression. In many ways, this is no different than other forms of musical fanaticism, but punk rock's canon of authenticity was by no means a static one. The canon was always capable of revision as endless debates of what was and was not "punk" began to dominate the 'zines and public discussions about punk rock. In a way, punk rock became similar to dance culture and club culture where the music is also seen as having a canon, but capable of (and in need of) constant evolution and adaptation, although it is doubtful that dance culture has become as relentlessly doctrinaire as modern punk culture. Punk bands that have achieved a modicum of mainstream success such as Green Day were seen as derivative of the original canon and also as "selling out" by a community that tries to avoid major record labels and access to widespread audiences as a conscious decision. Variations in musical style were not overt considerations in whether a band was considered authentic or not, rather a dedication to the ephemeral "principles" of punk rock were the main criteria. Maximum Rock and Roll, a 'zine often considered the "bible" and chief validator of authenticity for punk rock once tried to sum up the punk aesthetic simply as "honest music, not money making." Likewise, the recent plethora of advertisements using punk rock seems on the surface a direct challenge to the closely guarded authenticity of punk rock, and another inevitable step towards the commodification of a subculture. However, this time the danger comes not from without, but from within.

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