Post-millennial Punk Identities

Individualism in consumer society

Candidate number: 03022331 Supervisor: Paul Chambers Word count- 10, 500



Page number Prologue Literature review and theory Introduction…………………………………..…………………………..5 Origins and subcultures……………………..…………………...………5 Identity and the “closing days of the modern era”...................................8 Bodies of Consumerism………………………………………….……....9 Punk’s dead?.............................................................................................11 Embodiment versus Consumerism...........................................................12 Punk and Sociology at the Millenium......................................................14 Methodology 18 3 4

“Theoretical Confession” and Ontology…................................................19 Who’s punk?…...........................................................................................20 Interview and Analysis Methodology .......................................................23 Analysis 25

Introduction……………………………………………………………...26 Competing Definitions..............................................................................26 Learning to be “Punk” ..............................................................................28 Alternative Media......................................................................................30 Dress and Difference.................................................................................32 Individuality versus “the Scene”...............................................................38 Punk in Context- Conclusion....................................................................40 Epilogue....................................................................................................46 Bibliography 47



“Don't try and tell me Green Day are punk. They're not, they're plonk and they're bandwagoning on something they didn't come up with themselves. I think they are phony…”

“…The government's against you, the police are on you. So there we are fending off all that and it pisses me off that years later a wank outfit like Green Day hop in and nick all that and attach it to themselves.”

John Lydon, former lead singer of the Sex Pistols (in 2006).


Literature Review



My project is on contemporary interpretations of “punk”. My aim is not to find an essentialist typology of punk, as this may exclude individuals whose interpretation and experience of punk differs from other discourses. The aim will be to examine differing experiences of punk for young Britains around the turn of the century and to research the micro and macro social events which have shaped these interpretations.

Origins and Subcultures

“Punk” as a musical/social phenomenon dates from the mid to late 70s. It’s followers draped themselves in anti-conformist and nihilistic rhetoric. Punk style was recognisable as a collage of offensive (to the dominant discourse) images, leather patched jackets and spiked haircuts, it was a spectacular style, which led to it being oft analysed, most influentially by Hebdige (1979) and the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS).

The CCCS approach was influenced by Marxist and semiotic approaches. Albert Cohen’s (1955 in Widdicombe and Wooffitt 1995:15) early work on delinquency being a response to problems imposed by structure is a useful starting point for the CCCS’s theories on punk. The essence is that culture is a response and solution (real or “magical”(S. Cohen, 1997[1980]:155)) to the larger and out of reach structures of society. Culture itself has a multiplicity of meanings, but culture is not just expressive meanings but institutions and “ordinary behaviour” (Williams: 1965:57). So culture


represents more than what is nominally called “art” and immediate aesthetics. Another early influence on the CCCS was Barthes’s (1972) study of semiotics in everyday life, stretching from theatre, to conversations, to dress, and how each of these aspects was part of an ideology. Althusser (1971 in Hebdige 1979:12) had already shown that ideology was a malleable, relativised form, which was present in structure and was unconscious. Hebdige (1979: 14) wrote that dominant ideology was unequal in distribution, i.e. the working class had less power and thus less influence in creating it. Also influential were Gramsci’s notes on hegemony (in Hebdige 1979:16), which like Althusser’s theory of ideology, noted that forms of ideological control even though virtually omnipresent, were not fixed and had to be (re)won and sustained. There is thus the possibility of rival discourses which, to paraphrase Hebdige (1979: 16), can “prise open” the interplay between ideology and social order. Barthes’s (1971) notion of polysemy, which means that objects or actions can change their meanings, is important here, as polysemy enables resistance even in a society where a dominant ideology may be virtually omnipresent in structures. Thus Hebdige and the CCCS devoted much of their study to the idea that style could be mobilized as resistance by the members of subcultures.

To the CCCS, the punk style was seen as being a response to the specific historical and structural factors of the time in Britain, such as increasing joblessness and poverty. According to Hebdige (1979:87), punk’s response was so styled that although it involved new appropriations of objects and dress, it was able to be read for the most part as how it was written; a rebellion and a nuisance to established society. In this way polysemy was used as a tool of subversion (Hebdige 1979:3). This was important


to the rise and infamy of punk, as it was the subversion of the ideology of expression which caused the mainstream to react largely negatively to it (Hebdige 1979:91/2). Punk as an aesthetic style was a bricolage (items taken out of original discursive context, see Clarke, 1976) of various styles roughly cut and held together by objects such as safety pins, clothes pegs and bin liners which automatically became “punk fashion” when taken out of their original use value contexts (Hebdige 1979:107). Also perceived from the punk style was a knowing, sometime ironic signification; chains and straps represented bondage (Cashmore 1984 in Widdicombe and Woofitt 1995:11).

What about the music? Punk had a musical aesthetic that was fast, abrasive, snotty and even amateur in performance. Lyrics contained more social and political comment than the contemporary pop music did (Laing 1985:27 in Longhurst 1995:169). If we pause to consider punk in it’s contemporary form, whatever the subjectivities and values of those who are aligned with punk, the music is still of paramount importance and we can trace aesthetic lineages from ‘77 style to the present day, still operating ostensibly under “punk”. Willis (1990 [1978]) in his study of biker boys and hippies drew connections between the music of the subculture and the values and lifestyle, of the members. This implied that subcultures were in part, objectively structured. Punk was said to define itself by using knowledge of the structure of society (Grossberg 1990: 118). Hebdige took up this idea of a “homology” (lifestyle and style being interdependent) and saw punk’s sensibility as “…dislocated, ironic and self-aware.” (1979:123). To the CCCS theorists, the music of punk arose as expression of the rebellious sensibilities of the subculture.


Identity and the “closing days of the modern era”(Maffesoli 1996:1).

Identity forms a necessary part of the debate on subcultures. In the modern age, identity has been created relating to the context of society. For around thirty years, the notion of identity has been reworked to allow for the growing ascendancy of capitalist hegemony and globalizing influences, which have implications for everyday life on a micro scale (Giddens 1991:32). It has also been noted that since the birth of punk, there have been more changes to our society. The breakdown of grand narrative structures such as the cold war has led to a more global consensus on liberal capitalism and democracy and a discourse somewhat optimistically known as “the end of history” (Fukuyama 1992). Global consensus has also resulted in the shrinking of civil society, as actors are detached from the decision making process (Castells 1997:11). In Britain, the left (of which the punks traditionally represented the radical wing), failed to represent a credible alternative to the free market values of Thatcherism (Hirst 1989:11), thus resulting in schisms within the left. These global and local influences have resulted in political apathy with voting figures in the 2001 British elections the lowest for 80 years (cited in Franklin, 2004:13).

Giddens see a move to individual “life politics” (1991:214), which are the everyday decisions of action which relate to self-identity. This self identity can only be maintained if backed up by authenticating devices located within the individual as opposed to external objectivities (1991:215). We can see the original punk subcultures to be representative of life politics, as they largely revolved around creating alternative actions in music and aesthetics, as well as being partly backed up by more traditional “emancipatory politics” (Giddens 1991:215) of political discourse.


Susman (1979 in Ewen 1990:45) sees a change in our ways of perceiving others, there is a change from the “Character” which is intrinsic and relatively unchanging, to the “Personality” which is extrinsic and mouldable. This suggests that our identities do not have to stay fixed through our lifetimes, but are open to change. More and more we are able to challenge the weakened power of the state to (re)construct our identity (Castells 1997:243), the variety of subcultures itself being an example of the new self determination. Hall (1992 in Longhurst 1995:124) shows how the Postmodern view of identity differs from traditional sociological views. While sociology accepts that while identities change over time, they are still grounded in our relationships with others. Postmodernist views on identity is that is unfixed and dislocated. Willis (1990) has put forward that in late modernity, symbolic work (the work in which we produce identity, which shall be discussed later.) becomes “contested and unstable” (1990: 12).

Bodies of consumerism

Consumerism is one of the major factors identified as changing the way in which we construct our identities. According to Bauman (1998: 24), consumerism represents a shift in Western society from producing to consuming. Western society is thus reliant on the consumer traits of the individual, which differ from a pre industrial fear of the new and are more aligned to the spectacle and play of styles (Campbell 1987:39, Muggelton 1997:170).

The body has also become more and more a foundation for identity owing in part to the decline of religious institutions which constructed identity externally (Shilling 2003:2, Giddens 1991:218). We are more likely to use the relationship between


society and our possessions to create our own identities (Lury 1996:8). Dress is a fundamental part of style and identity and it can be seen to have reflected the macro social changes in production and consumerism. Our dress can become a visual metaphor for identity as well as our status and morality (Davis 1992:25 in Entwistle 2000:35, Finklestein 1991:128).

Bell (1976) has posited that there is a contradictory pair of ethos within modern capitalism, with a rational economy on one side and a hedonistic culture on the other. If these two live in a symbiotic relationship (Campbell 1987), the question of individualism must only be considered within a consumer context. Is there a connection between increasingly individuality and “fragmentation and inauthenticity” (Polhemus 1997)? Western economies have progressed to a stage where stylistic uniformity, created by the scientific management approach of Taylorism and Fordism has moved to stylistic niche markets. Post Fordist production means that there are now many more styles to choose from (Muggleton 1997:171). But even though we may participate in “mass but not homogenous” consumption (Tomlinson 1990:21), marketers have long attempted to market identity as part of the value of consumer products (Jenkins, 1996:7-8, Redhead 1990:78). What we see in adverts is less focus on the use value of the product and more emphasis on the means of selling it by the image which it projects (Featherstone 1991:178, Longhurst 1995:245). The possible implications are that identity may be sold rather than constructed.

Considering the growth of consumerism and projection of images we may be even more controlled than before. Entwistle (2000:21) argues that while we are not controlled in the Foucaldian sense, for example physically proscribed corsets, we are


still controlled in a qualitatively different way by the need to conform to social norms. An important way for subcultures such as punk to assess who is part of the group is through style of clothing (Entwistle 2000:138).

Punk’s dead?

With an increasingly consumerist and individualistic led society, many theorists believe they are observing a waning in homogenous subcultural groups such as punk as more people pick and choose from a variety of styles. Many now look back to the subcultural theories of Hebdige et al as being outdated. However Hebdige did note that subcultural expression could be incorporated by consumerism and ideologically normalised by institutions such as the media and the judiciary (1979:94). But there is no longer the same degree of commitment and “internal cohesion” to subcultural groups as there once was (Sweetman 2004:79). Being part of a subculture may be more about expressing individuality then dedication to the subcultures ideals (Sweetman 2004:84), thus the concept of homology cannot really fit tightly anymore (Redhead 1990). Stylistically, with increased individuality leading to bricolage being used by everyone (Clarke 1990:92), counter culture and mainstream styles have become blurred (Wilson 1990:222 [2]). Willis (1990:16) argues that the impact of the “spectacular” (i.e. aesthetically shocking) subcultures of the 50s and 60s are impossible to replicate now as all “styles and taste cultures” aim to express identity outside of work and it’s formal styles. There seems to be a paradox at the heart of style led consumerism: when fashions become blurred, it becomes less easy to use style as an identifier for a particular subculture. Arguably the political message of punk has also been largely weakened. It has been argued that “punk” could no longer


be a statement of rebellion as it had been incorporated into society. Once incorporated and commodified, it had “social exchange value” (McDonald, 1984 in Redhead 1990:43). Attalli (1985 cited in Best 1997:21) perhaps putting it in the most stark terms; “anticonformism creates a norm for replication…this is a mere detour on the road to ideological normalization”

Thus while “punk” once symbolised rebellion, now it has been said that the “dominant reading has been reversed” (Redhead 1990:32).

Embodiment versus Consumerism

Yet the study of subcultures, as part of a growing trend in sociological analysis has taken a move to a subjective and interpretative approach, with the individual and the body moving towards the centre of analysis (Shilling 2003:viii).

Embodiment is crucial to understanding the ways in which sociological discourse has evolved to take into account micro social phenomena and the increasingly individuality in society in relation to wider social and sociological discourse. While theorists have posited that identity is created by our purchases (see above), Bourdieu’s theory of “habitus” (1984), allows for the individual experiences to account for consumer habits. Bourdieu offers that our tastes are developed by our social position, for example class and education. Thus, Polhemus’s “supermarket of style” (1997), can be seen to offer a vision of unlimited choice for everyone while ignoring the realities of social differentiation along lines such as gender, class, and location (Entwistle


2000:39). Csordas (1993, 1996 in Entwistle 2000:27) explains the “paradigm of embodiment” as being an analytical shift towards a phenomenological approach, examining the meanings and location of the actors. Embodiment is about the context and the location of the individual and is equally or more concerned with what the body does rather than what is being done to it (Crossley 1995b:43 in Entwistle 2000:27

An interesting parallel can be drawn with subjective theories of nationalism. If we accept that the embodied individual experiences punk in relation to his/her time and space, then we also have to accept that their view of the whole of punk and the individuals who are a part of it, is not objective but specific to the individual punk fan. Thus as a whole, punk is an “imagined community” (Anderson 1991), present only in the minds of individual punk fans. As with nations, despite being nominally homogenous, there exist wide opinions and variations within the group of what exactly constitutes the nation (Kymlicka 1995:867). Thornton’s (1997:202/3) concept of “Subcultural Capital” developed from Bourdieu’s “Capital” is a study in the ways which youth make their identity in the imagined mould of the subculture. While the capital is objectified as consumer images in clothes, haircuts and record collections, it is also embodied in aspects like slang/argot, and dancing. Nationalist identities too, require culture to define and justify the group (Arnason 1990: 217).

Willis (1990) also takes an embodied approach to consumerism. He argues that while stylistically it is now hard to make a statement, we put our own meanings into consumption. The ways in which we make ourselves individual are through what Willis calls “symbolic work” which are the meanings invested in language, the body


and drama, the settings for communication (1990:11). While Willis acknowledges that symbolism is unstable and can be contested (15), he does not reduce consumers to passive tools of consumerism, but rather located (or embodied) individuals who use “grounded aesthetics” as a way of putting meaning and personalized perceptions of culture into a consumer bought culture. There are parallels to be drawn with Bourdieu’s (1984) and Williams (1965) holistic approaches to culture and consumption. Bourdieu argues that aesthetics is a question of taste, which exists not just in art but also in lived culture, and we participate in aesthetics by asserting “forms over function” (1984:5) in our consumer and lived habits. While the structure frames the choices of identity, it does not determine it, as each person consumes within a context (O’Byrne 2001:154). Giddens’s “life politics” of self identity also recognises the importance of the consumer bought signs. While abstract, they are defined by the knowledge we bring to them (Giddens 1991:224). Theories of media have grown to reject deterministic theories and see media as allowing individuals to contrast themselves with media personalities to help create self identity (Blumler and Katz 1974 in Franklin, 2004:213). We can see here that consumerism and the media do not merely represent a change in economic activities but changes in everyday life at the level of identity and, as we will see below relationships (Lunt and Livingstone 1992:24).

Punk and Sociology at the Millenium “the nagging sense is that the lives, selves and identities don’t always stand for what they are supposed to.” (Cohen 1997[1980]:160)


The increase of qualitative and interpretivist sociological theory and research has led to more developed arguments against the CCCS approach. One of the earliest critics was Clarke (1990[1981]) who put forward that the subcultural theory of Hebdige was essentialist and was only concerned with analysing “original” members of groups. For Clarke, this is too objective when analysing style as it raises the question of just who decides what is real or not (1990:87). The problem with Hebdige’s account of subcultures is that because it has a semiotic approach to the discipline it automatically assumed that the style worn was a reaction to structure, while being sparse on individual perceptions (Widdicombe and Woofitt 1995:25).

Sociological study of subcultures has thus moved to a place where the contradictions of individual fluidity versus homogenous subcultures (Hodkinson 2004: 144) can be tackled by a subjective approach, which puts the meanings and perceptions of subjects at “the first, privileged level of analysis” (Muggleton 1997:183). Thus the distinction is made between the nominal identity, which exists as a name, and the virtual identity, which is created from lived experience (Jenkins 2001: 24). A similar distinction is made by Touraine (1995: 167), who sees the “self” as produced by society’s normalising structures, while the “I” is constituted through resistance. Giddens (1984) has noted that our understanding of social activities are more founded in practical consciousness than discursive (26). We can see a shift away from a purely textual analysis of stylistic objects and ways of behaviour and a look at how modes of subcultural behaviour construct rather than just express (Sweetman 2001:185). For example, similar aesthetics can help groups recognise each other and feel common (Maffesoli 1996: 77). They can also act as differentiators, and fulfil a function of legitimating social differences, even if just on the surface (Ewen 1990: 42, Bourdieu


1984:7), as consumerism educates individuals in reading signs (Featherstone 1985:9 in Tomlinson 1990:21). By examining consumption of live music from the perspectives of individuals we can see that the crowd itself interacts not just through consuming the music but with each other (Fonarow 1997:364).

According to Bourdieu (1984:7), our systems of classifying, are what classify us and thus consumption is a way of “legitimating social difference”. Culture can be viewed as not just an attempt at symbolism or expression of a marketed identity, but as a way to differentiate the self. This can take an individual approach (Willis 1990:89), which can explain the increased blurring of styles and bricolage. However it can also take a collective approach, with a perceived distinction in clothes or musical tastes elevating the collective above or below the mainstream (Frith 1983:208 in Longhurst 1995:216, Hodkinson 2004:144). Barth (1969:14 in Jenkins 1996:93) has written that the products of a common culture act more as boundary markers rather than defining the group. If we make a statement about ourselves with our dress, then relating to subcultures, it can help “police” boundaries of the group (Entwistle 2000:138).

If consumerism involves interpretation, then dress and style involve acts of decoding others and relating their style to “musical, political and social orientations” (Willis 1990:88). This can be summed in Fiske’s (1992 in Longhurst 1995:235) description of “semiotic productivity”. Semiotic productivity is the way in which meanings of social identity are created by the semiotic resources of the cultural commodities, but it does not mean that the cultural commodities are deterministic of meaning. But decoding styles of dress or musical taste is not as fundamental as the embodied affectual feelings we experience. Sweetman (2001:193/4) argues that the body is more


than a screen for discourse and that while we experience an embodied, corporeal affect, through the mediation of subcultural discourse, it is the experience which forms our subjectivities on the subculture rather than the discourse. These experiential and affective aspects are what give individuals their sense of belonging and identification with the group (Sweetman 2004:79). The “affect” is notoriously hard to describe but can be seen as pleasure which is above everyday gratification. Grossberg (1992:56) describes it as the “feeling of life”. Famously, Barthes (1990[1977]: 296) used the example of the “grain of the voice” which gave feelings “beyond (or before) words”.

There are also changes in the approach to musical analysis. Kristeva (cited in Barthes 1990:296) draws a disctinction between the “phenosong” which can be analysed through language, text and genre, and the “geno song” which is the embodied performance. While the music industry may rationalize music in line with capitalist and bureaucratic discourse (Goodwin 1992 in Longhurst 1995), Frith (1988 cited in Longhurst 1995:172/3) has argued that not all aspects of music can be rationalised, such as the “private” feelings, which can be interpreted from the music. It would be oversimplistic to read emotion and meanings simply from lyrics (Redhead 1990:51).

On one hand we have the consumer society of marketed identities and weakened ideology. On the other we have the embodied approach which takes into account the un-sellable meanings that individuals place into the objects they consume. Any approach to punk, will have to take into account the apparent contradictions of these sociological theories.




“Theoretical Confession” and Ontology

In my review of the literature it became clear that the study of styles, taken here to mean dress and consumption habits, has significantly moved to a more qualitative and interpretative analysis which puts individual meanings and perceptions at the first level of analysis (Muggleton 1987:183). While still accepting the wider factors of society, qualitative research, such as social interactionism studies how the social world is interpreted and produced by individuals and treats the social context as flexible (Mason 2002:3). The new style of analysis advocated is part of a movement in sociological theory towards a more interpretivist or way of looking at the world. Broadly, these frameworks aim for the study of human experience and the meanings, interpretations, activities and interaction which constitute it (Blumer 1969: 2, Prus 1996:9). Thus interaction forms meanings in “it’s own right” rather than a medium for determining factors (Blumer 1969:52). The arguments for the use of qualitative research grounded in individual meanings for the study of (sub) cultures is covered in the literature review. It can be summed in that the meanings of cultural objects of subcultures can only be understood by examining the ways in which individuals reflexively use them to form meaning. I believe this approach which argues that personal meaning is the most valid data, to be an accurate and acceptable form of research which reflects modern sociological discourse. Thus my ontological perspective, from which my research and analysis will be drawn from, is one which reflects this discourse.

However it is not just the written theory that has shaped my theoretical outlook but my own lived experience. While one assumes that the goal of qualitative research is to


arrive at an utmost subjectivity, many have accepted that a social interactionist stance must also accept that the researchers own meanings will play a part. Willis (1997) suggests we make a “theoretical confession”, which need not be specific. My interest in the subject matter is because of my own experiences of the plurality of punk music and style. Willis puts forward that to gain enhanced subjectivity we must treat our subject’s (as opposed to object) opinions as as valid as our own (1997:249). There is a fine line in participant research between knowledge and bias, but by primarily examining the individual perceptions I hope to have overcome this.

Who’s punk,?

A lot of the theory in the literature review attempted to bring in recent developments to society, such as unfettered capitalism and consumer identities as backdrops to the creation of (post) modern subcultural identities. There is also the notion that changes in lifestyle can be reflexively made by individuals. I decided to concentrate my study on young punk fans aged around 20-25 who were not even born when punk blew up in 1976, so I could put their meanings into a more general context. This criteria also put me at an advantage as it is my age, and on occasion, I was able to converse more freely with the interviewees as I had experienced much the same as they had. I also used aliases for the purpose of the analysis, to ensure confidentiality and to prevent character judgement from the article.

Relating to punk, the only prerequisite was that in the life of the subjects (past or present), they were enthusiastic listeners of music which they have nominally denoted as “punk”. From herein the subjects will be referred to as “punk fans”, rather than the


more objective term “punk” which, used to describe individuals, usually comes to mean squatters and politicised vagrants outside the mainstream economy. Although the plurality of meanings was evident as one punk fan did call himself a “punk”. Because of the variety of meanings associated with the word punk I also refrained from using it in the interviews apart from to describe the music, something which although itself has differing meanings, only differs on abstract aesthetics rather than a lifestyle or ideology. As one of the key concepts of late modernism is the notion that lifestyles are not fixed throughout time, I also chose to study those who were once into punk as well as those who are still mainly punk fans. This gave me the opportunity to examine the reasons behind why people moved on from punk.

Because of resource and temporal constraints, it was be hard to gain access to those who were once into punk through random sampling. I was not be able to recognise them through their aesthetic style and advertising for them seemed an unlikely solution as I believed they would be unlikely to respond, especially given the small resources I have access to, if they felt punk was no longer a major part of their identity. Fortunately I had immediate access through mutual friends to subjects who have consumed punk at a stage in their life with more commitment than they do now.

I used a snowballing method to gain interviewees. I had tried to advertise for interviewees using a flyer, but this had no response. But I was able to meet people through mutual friends. For people who I suspected might be punk fans, I asked them if were into punk music, if they said they were I would ask them if they would like to be an interview, but although I had already decided I wanted to interview them I would ask them only after we had chatted about what punk bands we liked. I felt this


was necessary as I wanted to build a rapport with the individual first before asking them to commit to an interview.

Because my sampling method was snowballing, this means that the sample relied on my social activity and cannot be said to be representational of society. However, because my theoretical standpoint holds that the idea of punk is highly subjective through its individual embodiment, it must be accepted that it is impossible to gain all perceptions. Thus using a snowballing method to gain interviewees does not contradict my ontology. I justify this by subjective theories of embodiment covered in the literature review. If individual embodiment is to be the foremost level of analysis, then it will not matter if the selection of individuals is highly arbitrary, as I believe that everyone’s perceptions will be equally valid.

Another problem with this method is that although I was primarily studying individual’s “virtual identities” (Jenkins 1996), in some cases I had to use their “cultural capital” (Thornton 1997) (e.g. bands, clothing) in order to assess them as potential interviewees. While the onus was on the potential interviewee to define themselves as a punk fan, for those I did not know personally it was up to me to decide whether to approach them. This involved using my own subjective ideas of what punk is. Having been a punk fan myself for around five years, I believe that I am educated in reading signs. I am influenced here by the theories of Hodkinson and Thornton, who took an approach which blending individuality and semi-objective collectivity in their respective ideas of “Cultural Substance” and “Cultural Capital”. So it was still possible for me to recognise someone into punk music, regardless of their embodied individual meanings.


Interview and Analysis Methodology As my ontology was centred on individual meaning, I chose interviews as the best approach to gathering the data that I needed. This would give individuals the chance to talk more at length. Although the subjects already knew I was a punk fan, in the setting up of the interviews I had remained neutral about my opinions of punk, apart from mentioning a few bands that I liked. I also decided to conduct the interviews as a researcher rather than a fellow punk fan, and made the interviews individual, so as gain more individually based information from the punk fans. I asked questions relating to how people became punk fans, the activities they associate with punk, and what the significance (if any) of punk is to them. I tried to keep my own biases out of the interviews by not giving examples of what punk may mean. I asked the questions at more abstract levels such as “does punk mean anything more than music?”, or “do you associate it with politics?”, rather than “do you think punk politics are generally left wing?” or “what do you think of the anti-conformism within punk?”. The idea of dress or punk fashion will also played a big part in the interviews. The literature has varying concepts of dress, from conscious meaning put into self made clothes, to marketed identities, and also the constructive meanings of dress in group life. Because I did not wish to judge the participants based on my experience of punk, I generally studied dress in abstract. Specific details of style and fashion and their relation to punk as a whole were only looked at after the meanings of dress for the punk fans were established. However, I had to attempt to analyse punk beyond the level of individuals and to place the views, meanings and experiences within wider contexts. Following the


paradigm of embodiment, there is paramount importance placed on context. So the analysis was an attempt to examine the context of the punk fan’s life in wider scope and to see how the macro changes to society form the frame in which identity is created. Giddens’ (1984) synthetic notion of “Structuration” helped influence the style of the analysis. For Giddens, a system, which could be punk subculture, is defined as the relationship between actors which become organised as regular activities (1984:25). Structuration is the study of how individuals use rules and resources of social systems (structure) actively, to reproduce the system (1984:25). Giddens shows that structure (in most cases) is not a solid, objective form but is actually created and maintained by interaction and the social knowledge of individuals. So the “gateway” to analysing wider concepts was the study of the rules and resources of the life of the individuals. These are the structures which they must negotiate. Of particular interest were their perceptions of the rules and resources of punk and of life as a young white male in a consumer society. Yet the interviews had to go deeper as these “rules and resources” were not always consciously apparent to the punk fans. In this scenario, It was necessary to examine the reasons why they did not perceive any rules in a self reproducing culture such as punk. Firstly this related to their individual embodiment and then to wider reasons. The analysis and methodology hope to examine individuals and how their identity is constructed by them in the context of their embodiment in society. From my methodological and epistemological perspective, it can only offer the possibilities of punk, but can also provide an insight into the lives of young punk fans in Britain and how punk is reproduced and consumed.





The punk fans that I interviewed were from around the UK rather than all being located in one place. They were all white males aged around 21 -23 and had first experienced punk when they were in the mid to late teens and had become punk fans subsequently. They first experienced punk at around the turn of the century at least twenty years since the beginning. This shows that at the least “Punk” has been reproduced throughout time, although apart from the music it seems almost unrecognisable from “original” punk as we shall see.

Competing Definitions

What can we learn about the contemporary incarnation of punk from these interviewees? They all saw punk as primarily a musical form, as this was the first thing most said when asked about punk.

“Was it more than just liking bands and the music?” Dave-“For me, it’s purely about the music,…I love the music, still do.”

I was trying to examine if the punk fans perceived any kind of ideology or underpinning philosophy outside of the music. Gary, Dave, Will and Richard associated punk with certain left politics, anti conformism and equality.


Will-“it’s kinda almost got a secondary meaning, to be a rebel. And to just rebel against… authority figures. Punk’s definitely anti racist. At gigs I’ve been to, it’s definitely not racist, or ageist or sexist or…”

Gary-“well I think punk has definitely got a message of anti conformism and like also anti establishment, you know bands like Bad Religion and…you can just tell from the lyrics.”

Richard-“you’ve got like the urm, like anti conformism kinda view. A lot of bands I like are political too… generally like good views, anti racism, anti sexism, anti homophobia…”

But these views remained secondary to the music and the subjects found it hard to fully articulate a specific underlying philosophy as it was the experience of listening to the music and seeing bands live rather than the discourse which helped sustain the interest in punk. I believe this validates the notion of the affect which is formed by embodied experience (Sweetman 2004:79).

There was great importance attached to friends who were also punk fans as all of the interviewees shared their love of punk with their friends. And all had, at one time, been almost exclusively friends with punk or alternative rock fans. For most it was their friends who got them into punk and also helped sustain an interest in the music. They all associated their best memories or feelings of punk when at gigs with their friends.


Kevin- “A lot of the music I listened came directly from friends who might have made me a mixtape or cd of recommended bands.”

Will- “since school I guess, what my friends, listened to a type of music, and I didn’t know what it was. Kept going on about it. so I borrowed a Green Day album… I liked it. then started buying allsorts, going to shows and stuff”

Dave- “yeah most of my mates [are into punk] it’s like a big crew of us, that’s what we used to do really. Drink and...listen to music really play a bit of guitar.”

Learning to be “Punk”

So if we are treat music as a taste, then the idea of habitus (Bourdieu 1984) makes sense here. As the individuals were embodied in a situation where they were exposed and socialised to like punk music, they unconsciously developed a taste for the music and the clothing so they did not perceive themselves to be conforming.

However, being into punk was more complex than simply developing a taste for the music. The idea of being different from the perceived norm was common to all of the interviewees, regardless of their specific ideas of punk. There was a conscious awareness that their social group was different from the other social groups of teenage life.

Dave-“We felt like we were not like everyone else.”


Kevin-“I felt proud to be different, you know?, it did feel like we were “better” or more real than all the rest and everyone else was missing out”

Gary-“ I think when I first found other people that liked what I felt it did sorta feel like we were the rebels, even though that sounds a bit crap now!”

Richard-“I think I felt that because punk was underground and I liked punk than that made me a bit of a rebel and different, but different in a good way.”

So why was a taste for punk seen as different and against the mainstream? Much of the literature on punk has written about how it has been commoditised and has lost much of it’s original rebellious qualities and is ideologically weakened. While the research did certainly show that for the interviewees, punk was more about music than politics there was still the feeling that punk was still rebellious. Part of this could be due the historical lineage of punk. The interviewees were all aware of the foundations of punk, albeit at different levels of understanding and knowledge. Identity politics are required to be historically situated (Zaretsky 1994 in Castells 1997:10). Thus even if we accept that most of the revolutionary aspect of punk has been lost, the knowledge of the musical lineage of punk and the founder member’s rhetoric is still partially present in the minds of new punk fans. It could be said that it is the commoditisation of punk which has enabled this. Key to our understanding here is the nominal identity of punk. As we have seen above, the virtual identity (the individual experiences) varies widely, yet it could be said that the social exchange value (McDonald, 1984 in Redhead 1990:43) of punk in mainstream media is associated


with rebellion. So even someone with no lived experience of punk would still associate it with counter culture due to punk’s incorporation as a sign.

Alternative media

While a discourse analysis of punk lyrics and of it’s mainstream sign value would no doubt conclude that it contains a discourse of rebellion, this cannot provide us with all the answers. A discourse analysis would have also concluded that because punk itself is now a part of the capitalist system of trade it simultaneously lacks this rebellious quality. But most of the interviewees found it hard to fully conceptualise a punk ideology which may have been read from punk lyrics, or instead saw it as a musical and lyrical culture which was more “real” or even “better”. It is also worth noting that none of the interviewees were political activists, even those who did acknowledge punk’s articulacy of political issues. This suggests that the rebellious qualities must have been formed mostly from outside political discourse and more from lived experience.

Thus we must examine the context in which they received punk, as this transcends the objective discourses present in the product itself regardless of whether they had a discourse of rebellion or not. For the interviewees, a lot of their exposure to punk was through sharing music with friends and from this they went on to explore alternative media such as the internet or punk record labels. But it is not just punk fans who share music between themselves. One of the key themes arising from the interviews was that of the perceived “underground” quality of punk music. The interviewees saw


punk as being qualitatively different from the mainstream media. It was noted that punk music was not really popular and thus it had little mainstream exposure (in its contemporary forms at least).

Richard- “Used to share a lot of music with friends and listen with them cause it wasn’t so much hard to get hold of the music, but you didn’t hear it on the radio or anything.”

Kevin-“It wasn’t about major labels” “I guess it was cool because a few of the bands I was into were really obscure, unknown bands.”

Will-“there’s lots of bands there which I listen to and no one had even heard of and I know them…sorta made me feel cool cause it was like I was err different and the bands were real good.”

Gary-“You didn’t really see a lot of punk in the media apart from stuff like Kerrang and that.”

So when acquiring a habitus of punk as “good music”, the punk fans also simultaneously internalised their perceptions of the mainstream media and it’s portrayal of punk. As what they listened to was not part of what they saw as the mainstream, this difference became part of their identity, and part of the identity of their friendship group, as they saw themselves as liking and being part of an alternative culture. This also explains why Gary and Kevin noted that their social


groups were comprised of fans of punk and metal music, as metal music was also largely absent from the mainstream media.

Kevin- “I liked punk, but it wasn’t exclusive, cause we all liked a bit of nu metal back then as well, and it sorta seemed that being a “greb” wasn’t about just being into punk or just metal, but like, errr kinda mix of the two styles.”

Gary-“…at that time it was like the kids who were into metal and the kids who were into punk sorta hung around together”

Dress and Difference

While the music was the most important aspect of being a punk fan, all of the interviewees did note that their style in some way was similar to other punk fans. A criticism levelled at contemporary punk is that its dress styles have become commoditised as fashion rather than individualistic expression. However, while acknowledging that their styles were representative of the particular punk fashions of the time, Gary, and Dave wanted to distance themselves from the idea of fashion. Dave, Will, John and Gary said that they wore the clothes they did because they liked them rather than conforming.

Dave-“I just dress the same all the time, I just wore what I wanted to be honest with you, I’ve always been a bit alternative.”

Will-“ …gradually I bought clothes that I liked.”


John-“You want to fit in with the crowd you want to be in, so yeah it probably did influence what I was wearing…. I think personally it was more because I liked the style of clothing rather than actually like copying a trend”

Gary-“I don’t think that my style of clothing changed much, at least not consciously. Yeah I wore band t shirts and stuff like that of course.”

We can contrast this with the original punk styles, which were created and given meaning by the wearer who appropriated everyday items to purposely give them new meanings. Thus because the contemporary punk fans were not creating their own clothing, they consciously did not give it personal meaning. Kevin and Richard also expressed similar views to the others, but while still primarily concerned with the music, consciously put meaning into their clothes.

Kevin-“…to dress like we did, it was a bit like a badge of honour, I felt proud to be different” “…when you’re walking down the street, it’s like you’re showing off your clothes in a way, cause not many others are dressing like that.”

Richard-“Well I wanted to stand out and for people to see me as different. So yeah I think that my clothes did mean a lot to me.”

Kevin and Richard, perhaps due to their embodied socialisation, thought more about fashion. For those that were not concerned that much with fashion, a simple solution


would be that the reason for the group similarity was down to the learned habitus simply by interaction with friends. But outside of “fashion”, dress had constructive properties within the friendship group and the larger “imagined community. It served as a practical way for individuals who shared a musical interest to identify each other as fans of the music.

Dave-“…If I dress like that, the people would know what I’m actually into as well.”

Gary-“… I think at gigs you could wear whatever, but I guess you didn’t want to look like a townie.”

Gary’s comment about not wanting to look like a “townie” at a gig seemingly hints at pressures coming from within the imagined community of punk. But Gary, John, Dave and Will did not perceive any pressures to dress in a certain way. In an attempt to discover if there was any pressure from the scene I asked Dave if he would feel comfortable going to a gig in mainstream clothing. His answer was that he didn’t know because he wouldn’t wear that. What we can see is that because of the acquired habitus of the clothing, for these punk fans they did not consciously feel pressure from their imagined community of punk, as they wore what they liked which had been internalised from friends, bands and other alternative media. It also shows that not wanting to look like a “townie” was more about defining the boundary of the group than defining the occupants (see Barth (1969:14 in Jenkins 1996:93)). However we must be wary of placing too much emphasis on habitus, even though it serves as a useful concept for the above punk fans perception of (lack of) dress “rules”. In some cases it could be seen as too deterministic of socialisation without taking into account


the individual. Kevin and Richard, who had both had put the most conscious meaning into their clothes, sometimes perceived pressures from within the punk scene.

Kevin-“sometimes I guess, you might feel, umm a little out of place if you were like in a place with loads of like…I dunno. I think sometimes like it would be what t shirt shall I wear tonight, like depending on what band you were going to see you know?”

Richard-“…like if I went to a gig I would definitely think about what I was gonna wear sometimes”

Thus while they had acquired a general habitus of style, they were more self conscious about how people saw them and wanted more to fit in. This is because they were already thinking more about the meanings of their clothes on a personal level. Habitus does not account for this as it is based more on taste, rather than reflexive decisions about dress. We must also consider that for the other punk fans, the process of learning to like certain styles of clothing was also informed by the perception of the boundaries of the wider group. So maybe this does suggest that there were certain rules. However for most, they were not what you could wear, but what you couldn’t.

However Gary, John and Dave seemed to be to be aware of a rebellious nature of what they were wearing even if they did not consciously put much meaning into their clothes. Gary-“sometimes I felt a bit like the odd one out in certain situations, cause of what I was wearing, but it wasn’t bad, I sorta liked it even.”


Dave-“It made me feel slightly rebellious, I suppose when I was 16…” “ … It’s quite cool getting abuse, walking through town. (laughs)”

Will- “just walking around, well obviously no one really dressed that way, sometimes people are like, when you dress differently to people, you feel the need to hurl abuse at them. “ Did you care about people heckling you? “No didn’t care really, it was sorta good, you know?”

John-“I wouldn’t say it was bad, but you were aware that you did look different and you did stand out…didn’t affect me.”

At first this appeared to be a contradiction, as they claimed not to care about dress, yet still put meanings into the punk style which they wore. But more careful analysis of the uniqueness of dress may help solve this.

Dress, as a self constructed body, is intrinsic to modern identity. It is more immediate than consumer habits such as music, as it is the first thing people will see. Thus is a consumer orientated society, dress becomes part of an identity (though on varying levels of consciousness). Because of the uniqueness of clothes as a consumer object, the other punk fans could almost not help associating their clothes with rebellion. It was created in a similar way to their perception of punk music, in that they were internalising their surroundings. They had developed a habitus for clothing which was visibly verified and then internalised as non mainstream. This accounts for the


apparent contradiction of simultaneously not caring about dress but still giving meaning to it.

Gary, Dave and John expressed feelings which indicated they were against people using clothing as a way to define themselves. Both Gary and Dave used the phrase “fashion parade” to describe some of the behaviour at gigs.

John- “there were a lot of people who were into say dance music or whatever who were starting to dress a bit more rock and listen to rock and punk. And maybe at the time it was kind of this isn’t the culture which they normally embrace, if that makes sense.”

Dave-“people could be like I’ll get a Mohawk, rip my jeans, just to look punk…when you see someone wearing a patch, patches of clash, ramones, and you have a conversation with them and they don’t actually know any songs. And that’s defeats the purpose of having those patches. Obviously it’s a branded thing.”

So whilst the clothes did have meaning, they could only gain this meaning through lived experience. Kevin and Richard were also critical of the scene, and felt people were trying to hard.

Kevin- “It felt like some people into punk were just trying too hard to be rebels and to fit in you know?”


In this case we can see a definer of group attitudes. Whilst not positing any specific ideology or way of living, the attitude towards “fakers” shows that it was believed that to be a punk fan was about lived experience and for some, not caring about fashion. Thus the identities were backed up by a certain notion of authenticity. Though it must be remembered that the punk fans who were seen as fake were embodied in different times and social space and so had developed a different habitus of punk.

Individuality versus the Scene

John, Richard, Gary and Kevin were the four interviewees who had changed the most (in style and music) and were not as fully into punk as they were, this was reflected in their current style of clothing and musical preferences. They were more likely to see punk as one of many types of music they liked and associated it with good memories, as did all the interviewees. Dave and Will still saw themselves as being primarily punk fans, but also broadened their musical tastes and wanted more to be individuals rather than just being a punk fan.

Will-“it was a big thing for a while. But now it’s just, I kinda feel that I’m punk, but I’ve got my own little, that I’ve got my own person…” Dave-“I would still call myself a punk, cause that is the majority of what I listen to, but erm, but I’ve just broadened my horizons to other music as well.”

Dave also noted that sometimes he would wear punk clothes and sometimes he would wear other clothes now.


Gary and Kevin spoke of how they perceived the punk scene to be growing in popularity. Gary attributed the “fakers” to punk’s more mainstream appeal now. He also felt that as it got more popular it was losing some of it’s political message. John, who had once put rebellious meaning into his clothes said he no longer felt it had the same message as more and more people wore what was once a minority fashion.

Kevin-“but either way I think I’m past that now anyway, I’d rather make a statement by myself you know?”

It was the plurality of punk meanings which meant it was impossible to be an individual or feel existentially secure by just defining yourself as a punk.

John was the punk fan who was the least articulate on any kind of punk ideology. His reasons for changing his tastes were that he saw himself as more open minded to different types of music and was not because he saw fault in the growing popularity of punk music. This makes sense as he was the most likely to see punk as just a type of music, and he grew up and made friends who weren’t into punk he learnt to like different types of music.

“It wasn’t conscious, it’s just something that happens overtime, through meeting other people, listening to other peoples music, going to festival, obviously you experience different types of music.”


All the interviewees felt more of an individual than they did when they were more “committed to punk”. They put their individuality ahead of remaining just a punk fan.

Richard-“At one time I was like all about the punk music, but that’s just silly really, how can you just listen to one kind of music?”

Punk in context- Conclusion

Can we draw any conclusions about punk from these interviews? Because of the wide variety of opinions and experiences it was hard to categorise the punk fans in objective terms of how “punk” they were or are. But this was not the objective of the research as I had realised before that the virtual identity of punk was pluralistic. However careful analysis may help us understand not just punk, but the nature of consumerism.

As a punk fan myself, I must resist from presenting punk in a wholly positive light and take into account the findings which may contradict my assumptions before I studied this area. I had expected the interviewees to be more articulate on punk ideology, but this was not the case.

There was differing opinion on what exactly punk meant apart from music. And it was not conceptualised into a holistic lifestyle, but was made up from either pieces of left wing ideology or was simply seen as more real or better. From this we can see that as an ideology in it’s own right, punk has been sufficiently weakened in the decades since it’s birth, and does not exist as a definite ideology. For the interviewees punk


was primarily a style of music which they had learnt to like through a shared habitus with their friends. The views on punk ideology of the interviewees can partly be explained by more relatively contemporary factors. Capitalist hegemony, the fracturing of the left and the increasing apathy towards mainstream politics represent the wider political context in which the punk fans first received punk. They were far from the politicized, class warriors of which Hebdige (1979) described as founding the punk scene, and were not consciously trying to change the structure of society. They were experiencing a music which had been created over twenty years before. In the context of their places in time, they were experiencing “punk” as a normalized object of consumerism, as a cd, tape or live gig, the main focus was always the music, which reflected their hedonistic impulses to experience the “affect”. We must also consider that many of the “original” punks experienced the subculture in this way, as the stylistic homology of 70’s punks reflected the normalisation of “punk”.

The relative stylistic homogeneity of the punk fashions and the fact they were store bought suggest that fashions had indeed become part of a “marketed identity”. But the punk fans (whether they consciously presented themselves or not), bought the clothes because they personally liked them. We could say that they had learnt through habitus to like the clothing and were buying into the marketed rebellion. We could also say the same thing about the marketing of the music and the feelings of difference felt from listening to it. But this would ignore the individual meanings put into the consumer objects, which itself is a vital part of identity in this society.

It was the context in which punk was consumed which created the feelings of rebellion. They were skilled in reading and internalising the signs of modern


consumption and media, and because punk music came to them through friends and the perceived “underground”, and was at the same time “different” to what they perceived as the mass media, they put meanings of rebellion into the consumer objects. And because simultaneously they were developing a taste for the music, these feelings of rebellion were internalised as part of their self identity and were authenticated by lived experience.

For the fashion, even though some declared they did not care about the way they looked, because of the nature of the body in modern consumerism they could not help giving meaning to their dress. Dress styles were used practically and helped define the group against outsiders, even if the dress styles were not so much a uniform as a looser, “anti-uniform” for some of the punk fans. The practically of dress though, could easily apply to any group in society. Because dress is highly visible, the punk fans internalised the whole of the society in which they lived and saw that their styles were different to the perceived norm. Thus their dress identity was not created by being specifically marketed as a normalised “rebellion”, but because it was perceived to be so through lived experience of rival culture, just as the music had gained this value.

The punk fans felt the most community at the level of friendship and shared the feelings of difference and rebellion with their group. They were sharing music and fashion directly with each other, rather than simply receiving it from more mainstream sources. And because of the perceived difference between punk and the mainstream, friends who were acting as alternative media were too, perceived to be rebellious and different to larger society. At the level of live gigs, crowd interaction also helped


create temporary feelings of larger community. Feelings of community came because at the level of friendship, the punk fans were both giving and receiving objects, so they felt as though they were a constitutive part of the group.

So at the level of personal identity, punk still had the power to act as lifestyle politics (Giddens 1991). But because of the context of both the resources of teenage life and the societal effects of consumerism and political apathy, the foundation of authenticity was based on lived experience of culture rather than what we might term traditional politics. It was a politics of culture and consumerism because every time the punk fans heard a punk song, bought an album, saw a live gig, or put on a band t shirt, they were experiencing affect but were also investing meanings of personal identity into each “normalised” setting of consumerism.

This was largely individually created, because the punk scene was not perceived to offer a change of lifestyle, apart from that based on the meanings put into objects of consumerism. Because punk was mostly perceived as a musical culture, the main identity it offered was that of a “punk music fan”. This helps explain the temporary nature of commitment to punk music of some of the fans. For John, who was the fan who was most likely to see punk as purely music, his change in direction was that of experiencing different music which he shared with new friends. The others, who did not feel as committed to punk as they were, also did not contradict themselves as their punk identities were always based on individual lived experience of culture, rather than being externally proscribed. All the interviewees were still fans of the music, but in the modern quest for individuality could no longer base their identities around punk. Will and Dave still defined themselves as mainly punk fans, as both still were


friends mainly with other punk fans. Thus for them, their punk identities were still largely formed by the sharing of music through the alternative media of their friends. The importance of friends even overrides Dave’s criticism of the “fakers” of the punk scene, as presumably, he did not perceive his friendship group to be fakers. For others, as their friends and them experienced other musical styles, they found the punk scene lacking, as it was either too popular or lacked the definition that they had once given to it or was seen as more concerned with image than substance. What we must remember is that in the battleground of culture, punk cannot claim exclusive rights to rebellion, the explosion of post-Fordist niche markets means that other cultures also at the periphery may give individuals feelings of difference and rebellion.

We can say that in contemporary times the “self” can be marketed, in this case, the punk fans were buying into a normalised, ideologically weakened “punk” which was part of a wider consumer culture. The clothes too, were bought rather than being self made. Analysing these punk fans in the manner of the original subcultural theorists would conclude as above and note the rejection of ideology in favour of culture. Yet by examining the “I”, which constitutes the virtual identity (Jenkins, 1996), we can see that culture itself is a battleground which through lived experience creates feelings of difference and rebellion.

I never went into this study with a view to finding out the “truth” of punk, with such widespread diffusion and differing opinions such a task is practically impossible. Yet the study has provided evidence and knowledge of the ways in which identity is constructed in context and offers possibilities of punk identity. While consumerism is a paradigm of how we live, it can only ever be a medium for identity and cannot sell


the un-sellable such as affect and lived experience. As embodiment and context are intrinsic to identity, it would be interesting to see the effect on identity of other punk fans living in the context of other societal identities such as gender, race or sexuality, something which I did not cover here. Changes to the way we construct our identity are also happening as we speak, as the internet becomes a new site of “virtual communities” (Castells 1996:22). This sort of community is still recent and none of the punk fans interviewed were major participants in online communities. Though undoubtedly, as punk continues to evolve, these global online communities will help form identity. With the new emphasis on modes of consumerism, we must also return to the “original” punks to look at the similarities between them and contemporary incarnations. If there was a similarity of dress styles, does this not indicate consumerism (albeit at a smaller level) rather than true individual expression? How many of the “originals” still live the punk lifestyle, or do they look back to it as a fun time full of great music, just as those of today too? However those that still cling to the ideals of the past may find themselves isolated, as all the discourse in the world cannot bring back 1976 and cannot relate to the embodied individuals who constantly reinterpret what it is to be “punk”.



John Lydon’s accusations against Green Day now seem trivial and misplaced. He argues that they didn’t experience working class life in 80s Britain like he did and are not punk. Yet this is precisely why Green Day are a different band with a different style to the “punk” of Lydon’s day. It is because they didn’t and couldn’t experience what Lydon did that their “punk” is different. Some look to punk as an objective, linear experience, but to individuals, “punk” is what they make it.





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