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Punk Studies and the Persistence of Politics

Punk Studies and the Persistence of Politics

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Haunted by the Spirit of ’77: PunkStudies and the Persistence of Politics
Michelle Phillipov
The contemporary punk scene(s) are today comprised of an enormous spectrum of musical, subcultural, institutional and political practices, many of them onltangentially linked to one another by historical and geographical antecedents. Yetdespite some attempts to acknowledge and explore this musical and subculturaldiversity, academic accounts of the movement have remained largely unchanged sincethe advent of punk scholarship in the late 1970s. While frequently structured as arejection of earlier approaches, punk scholars since the 1980s have continued toreiterate many of the same assumptions which characterized the initial work in thefield: assumptions about resistance, subversion and political radicalism.Punk, remarks Roger Sabin (1999, p. 2) in a recent anthology on the movement, is a‘notoriously amorphous concept’ to define. Acknowledging the unresolvedness of certain debates about punk—whether it originated in the United Kingdom or theUnited States, for example, or whether it ‘died’ in 1979 or continues to live on in avariety of current musical trajectories—he ultimately settles on the following workingdefinition:
At a very basic level, we can say that punk was/is a subculture best characterized aspart youth rebellion, part artistic statement. It had its high point from 1976 to 1979,and was most visible in Britain and America. It had its primary manifestation inmusic—and specifically in the disaffected rock and roll bands like the Sex Pistols andthe Clash. (Sabin, 1999, p. 2)
Interestingly, although punk may have its primary manifestation in music, Sabindefines it primarily as ‘youth rebellion’ and ‘artistic statement’ rather than ‘musicalgenre’. That is, while punk remains a clearly identifiable musical style—onecharacterized by high energy, three-chord compositions featuring ‘stiff rhythmsections, overamplified guitar and harsh, almost characterless vocals’ (Savage, 1991,p. 295)—Sabin’s anthology approaches it more as a social and cultural movement thana musical one. In fact, the essays in the volume frequently sidestep the question of music altogether in favour of explorations of punk’s influence on film, literature,comics, and everyday behaviour.
Punk Rock: So What? 
is conceived as a radical
ISSN 1030-4312 (print)/ISSN 1469-3666 (online)/06/030383-11
q
2006 Taylor & FrancisDOI: 10.1080/10304310600814326
Michelle Phillipov is a PhD candidate in the discipline of English at the University of Adelaide, Australia.Correspondence to: Michelle Phillipov, English DP105, School of Humanities, University of Adelaide, AdelaideSA 5005, Australia. E-mail: michelle.phillipov@adelaide.edu.au
Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural StudiesVol. 20, No. 3, September 2006, pp. 383–393
 
departure from ‘orthodox’ punk scholarship (which focuses primarily on music andfashion) towards a more comprehensive location of punk in cultural history. The widevariety of media explored in the one volume is certainly uncommon to punk scholarship, but an approach which situates punk primarily as a cultural movementrather than as a musical genre has more in common with existing orthodoxies thanSabin and others acknowledge. In fact, their focus on the cultural and political ‘impact’(Sabin, 1999, p. 5) of the movement rather than on the textures of punk 
as music 
hasbeen the characteristic approach of most punk scholars, especially those workingbroadly under the banner of cultural studies. In much of this work, punk’s musicalconventions are firmly anchored to questions of politics: that is, punk is oftenapproached principally as an expression of youth rebellion and disenfranchisement,rather than as music per se (cf. Savage, 1991, p. xvii). However, understanding punk primarily in cultural or political terms rather than in musical ones means thatquestions of musical pleasure often tend to be treated as merely subsidiary to widerpolitical investments—and, in some cases, effaced altogether.For the purposes of thispaper, Iamnot concernedwith delineatingthe nuancesof thevarious punk scenes or ‘moments’ in terms of era, subgenre, or geographical location.While such differences clearly do exist—American punk, for example, had a moresuburbanfocusandincorporatedamoreself-consciously‘pop’sensibilitythanitsBritishcounterpart (see Osgerby, 1999)—and despite a profusion of punk subgenres and ‘post-punk’ trajectories (including hardcore, grunge, riot grrrl and Oi, among others), I amgenerally less interested indemarcatingwhat might ‘really’ count aspunk than I amwithwhatthescholarlyliteraturehascountedaspunk,and,inturn,withwhattheplacementof these generic parameters reveals about the assumptions of this body of scholarship.Much of the early literature on British punk focused explicitly on the politicaldimensionsofworking-classyouthculture.Priortopunk,popularmusichadrarelybeena matterof theoretical concern, but within a few months of its public emergence in 1977virtuallyeveryradicalcommentatorinBritainagreedthatpunkwasaGoodThing(Frith,1980/1997).Punk was awatershedof sortsinthatitseemed totransformpopularmusic,raising new questions about audience, commodity production and musical meaning: itseemedtobedifferentfrompreviousmassmusicsintermsof‘howitwasmade
and 
howitwas used
and 
how it meant’ [emphaisis in original] (Frith, 1980/1997, p. 167). Punk’smusicalamateurismseemedtopromoteanegalitarian,non-hierarchicalsocialstructure.Itwasaccessmusic:actsliketheSexPistolsmayhavebeenheadlinematerial,buttherewasnodistancebetweenthemandthepeoplewhoregularlysupportedthem—youcouldevenstandnexttoJohnnyRottenintheurinal!(Marsh,1982).Moreover,punk’sdo-it-yourself approachtomusicalproductionwasseenasasubversionofthecapitalistcontrolofmusicpractice, while its musical sounds and lyrical themes appeared to express a kind of class-based political resistance to the economic decline of 1970s Britain.Punk found particular compatibility with the broadly Marxist principles fundamentalto the development of cultural studies, values which, to a certain extent, continue toremain central to the discipline. Rejecting the implicit functionalism of previousapproaches to youth culture, early cultural studies scholarship positively re-evaluated
384
M. Phillipov 
 
subcultures as collective solutions to structurally imposed problems, and the terrain of music, style and argot was theorized as the sphere where the political battlegroundbetween classes was played out symbolically. Such were the terms in which British punk was typically studied during the late 1970s and early 1980s.Subsequent work on popular music identified several problems with this approach.With the primary function of subculture conceived as a ‘magical’ resolution of classcontradictions in the parent culture (Cohen, 1980, p. 82), early cultural studies theoristsoften seemed to treat all working-class subcultures as essentially equivalent. For laterscholarslikeGaryClarkethisoftenraisedmoreproblemsthanitsolved.Hequestions,forexample, the analytical leap needed from the desire for a solution to the adoption of aparticularsubculturalstyle.Thatis,howisitthatpunks,skins,teds
and 
modseachsoughtto ‘resolve’ the problem of class, but through different styles? (Clarke, 1981/1997).Moreover, while punk across both sides of the Atlantic may have been closely linkedvia shared musical influences and visual styles, the strict structural analyses of thisearly work were often inapplicable to North American punk, a movement that wascharacteristically more suburban and middle class than its British counterpart (Baron,1989). However, several scholars have nonetheless attempted to utilize traditionalclass-based approaches in the study of American punk. Susan Willis (1993), forexample, describes hardcore as an expression of the cultural and economiccontradictions faced by America’s ‘new working class’: young people working ‘dead-end jobs’ in the growing service sector. Echoing many of the sentiments of theBirmingham School nearly two decades earlier, she writes:
Daily life in late twentieth-century capitalism is a terrain of struggle, whose richoutpourings of cultural inventiveness marks the intensity of unresolvedcontradictions. The development of hardcore as a subculture is one way thatteens express the contradictions of a system that degrades them as workers andflaunts them as consumers. The problematic of hardcore is the problem of capitalism. (Willis, 1993, p. 381)
Another concern raised by post-Birmingham punk scholarship stemmed from thepremium placed on musical ‘realism’ in many of the early studies. The idea that punk music somehow ‘reflected’ the lives of its participants (cf. Marsh, 1982) had alwaysbeen considered problematic by some critics. As Simon Frith notes in an early articleon punk:
The pioneering punk rockers themselves were a self-conscious, artful lot with a goodunderstanding of both rock tradition and populist cliche´; the music no morereflected directly back onto the conditions of the dole-queue than it emergedspontaneously from them. (Frith, 1980/1997, p. 167)
However, Dave Laing’s (1985) book-length study helped to challenge more fully thedominance of early ‘reflectionist’ accounts. In
One Chord Wonders
, it is Laing’scontention that rather than mirroring the lives of its fans, even ‘realistmusicalconventions like ‘ordinaryworking-class accents had paradoxical effects whencommitted to music. For popular music in the 1970s, the ‘ordinary’ was actually the
Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies
385

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