So, the second (third? umpteenth?) installment of my foray into punk is getting slightly sidelined by a desire to play a bit with the theories rhyte turned me on to. Apologies for being tardy with this entry–I’ll do better (I hope) without Memorial Day distracting me.
I had read some of these pieces in graduate school, but, well, let’s just say that in my particular comparative literature department, cultural studies was frowned upon. Didn’t, as it turns out, prevent me from doing cultural studies, I just lacked the theoretical constructs that might have saved me a bit of sanity in the process. But, no one ever claimed that doctoral work was for the sane. In fact, I think nearly everyone believes exactly otherwise.
So, rhyte mentioned Stuart Hall and co. as essentials for the work I’m digging around in, and I started digging. Good stuff, I might add.
The majority of what I have encountered so far deals with Brit punk, so I’ll hash out a brief summary and then see what we can do with American punk, too, which has a slightly different set of concerns associated with it. The thrust of the arguments is fairly straightforward, claiming that punk is one of several postwar subcultures born inside the British working class, which, of course, is accurate. I will say that it took me some time to work through the use of “sub”culture, as it is a term I have largely rejected in my own writing, in large measure because it assumes privilege. Primarily, I’ve rejected describing various American regionalisms as “subcultures” (as one will occasionally see them labeled), because such usage assumes not only dominance of a particular culture over the “subs,” but a certain superiority. I know precisely where my resistance comes from–>I hold Dr. Ronnie Hopkins and my class on Black English Vernacular entirely responsible, so I struggled with the terminology a bit, until I hit upon the following remark, which made the usage not only perfectly apt in this case, but it reset my thinking on the use of the term: “but just as different groups and classes are unequally ranked in relation to one another, in terms of their productive relations, wealth and power, so cultures are differently ranked, and stand in opposition to one another, in relations of domination and subordination, along the scale of ‘cultural power'” (Hall & Jefferson 11). The term highlights the way such cultural groupings are treated within a dominant culture; the use of the term does not necessarily invalidate the cultural group or reduce them, but it does posit the relationship of cultures to one another in a given society; that is, once “sub”cultures ascend to dominance on the spectrum, they simply become the dominant culture–or absorbed into the dominant culture, at any rate.
The contentions here are pretty straightforward too. About punk Dick Hebdige suggests that (and his first point has been made time and again by all manner of folk, including Duff): “[t]he punk aesthetic, formulated in the widening gap between audience and artist, can be read as an attempt to expose glam rock’s* implicit contradictions. For example, the ‘working classness’, the scruffiness and earthiness of punk ran directly counter to the arrogance, elegance, and verbosity of glam rock superstars”; Hebdige further posits punk as parody of glam rock, speaking for the white working-class through a “rendering of working-classness,” describing itself in “bondage through an assortment of darkly comic signifiers–straps and chains, strait jackets, and rigid postures. Despite it’s proletarian accents, punk’s rhetoric was steeped in irony” (63).
Two pieces exist to pick apart here: the “look” (style) of punk and the rhetoric, both of which, Hebdige claims, are ironic positions. The image of punk, especially Brit punk (American punk will have its own peculiarities), is replete with color, attitude, and safety pins galore. Hebdige and others argue that the style is itself a language–it communicates to the “reader” a level of connection or disjuncture, depending on the position of the reader to the subculture; thus, image is, indeed, everything here. To illustrate his point, we need only look at the following clips from two Sex Pistols shows, one at the rise of punk and one at the height (well, for the Pistols, anyway). Look carefully at the difference in image between the initial ascent to television (the mainstream) and the concert footage from ’77:
Example one (in which Glen Matlock** appears on bass):
Note that in the first example, the Pistols look more “glam” than punk–at least if we consider the later manifestations of those terms. Note, though, Rotten’s earrings, which would appear to be, like his brilliantly pink jacket, a bit glam frou frou; they are, however, far more mundane–mere paperclips. Hair is messy; eyes are properly insane (though nothing like the 1977 footage); studded leather wristband visible. He’s a Ted (in his vaguely Edwardian, brilliant pink), but he’s a Teddy boy gone wild (sorry–I know that was awful) in his destruction of the jacket–note that the right shoulder is pieced together with safety pins, pieces of the trappings of punk that we will come to know and love. And Rotten owns up to this, at least partially, when in his autobiography, he outlines his distaste for the 70s variation of Teddy boy: “…there was a Rock-n-roll revivalist movement going on that I found loathesome. Here were sixteen-year-old kids into Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley….You shouldn’t be propping up somebody’s grandad as a hero. They weren’t making a life of their own. They were living in someone else’s fucking nightmare” (63). Cookie, as always, looks like, well, Cookie, in his drummer finery (dressed as a drummer SHOULD. I’m looking at you, Mr. Studded Thong Lee.***). I’ve little to say about Matlock, but…Jonesy. The Man. Steve Jones in his finest pink. Sort of a nod to glam, a nod to, what? mod, maybe?, and then a sublime little kick at the piece of equipment and the notoriously fabulous hip swing.
Really, is there more to say about Jones? I’m far too entranced to comment.
So, we move from the 1976 BBC debut to 1977, after Sid joins. A few things to watch for here: first, watch Sid’s face between :25 and :31–it’s the sneer. A practiced and well-considered sneer (of course, I know no one who does anything similar). Also, watch for the glam send-ups–>especially from Steve and Sid.
Example Two (with Sid occasionally playing bass between poses, bless his heart):
So, did you see the sneer? Consider how many times you have seen that face on one musician or another since 1977. Seriously, it is almost as ubiquitous as the “big bird” of earlier musings. The costumes have changed here, of course. One might argue that this is an effect of no longer being on prime time, as it were–that the demands of stage differ from the demands of TV, and there is some truth to that. One plays a different role according to one’s audience, most of the time. But, I think we’ve got other elements at play here. First, we have the ascent of punk into the media’s eye–and the “look” of punk, born, I would argue, out of a shared space between American and Brit punk (Sid’s look is nothing if not a play out of the Ramones, who reached London by 1976 with their leather-clad NYC punk; true, though, as Hebdige points out, the leather-look was the stuff of the 60’s Brit “rockers”–more well known in American as “greasers,” who were also, as Sam pointed out, beginning this whole venture, also known as “punks” in Southern America. Small world, ain’t it?). So, we have trenchcoat-clad Jones [which, as Hebdige suggests, plays on the classic sexual aggressor motif–which in turn fits Jones’ persona, as he describes himself as “a real pussy hound…constantly looking for anything to fuck” (Lydon 89).], the leather-clad, dog chain-wearing, sneering Vicious, the adorable Cook (properly dressed, again, I might add), and Rotten, looking properly nuts. All of this is well and good, what we come to expect in pre-hardcore punk revelry…and then start The Who moments: Steve’s hop (:23-ish), Johnny’s sort of Roger-Daltreyeque moments around 2:20, and the other shows which feature Sid doing the windmill, rather inexplicably–look for the Dallas performance of “Holiday in the Sun,” I’m pretty sure he does it there. An image shift ahs taken place. Even if we accept Rotten’s version of the world, where he simply felt drawn to the clothing of the “bum”: “forgetting the dirt, they looked so stylish to me” (71), it seems clear that the media vision of punk, picked up from various sources, including the Pistols, has in turn influences the image they present here. As Hebdige points out, by summer 1977, the flash of punk could be readily mail ordered (96).
So what are we to take of this in terms of the drunk punk? What does this add to the style in question?
Again, we have no less than two sets of problems to outline here: first, the celebration of excess, more aggressive than their equally drug-and-alcohol addled glam rockers and presages the excess of the 80s and, second, the eventual rejection of such a lifestyle, heralded primarily out of DC hardcore followers of Minor Threat. The birth of Straight Edge isn’t terribly surprising if one looks at the overall age of the punkers, many of whom were underage–>punk shows were often held outside of bars because 1) media influence convinced not just a few American bar owners that punks were dangerous to their establishments and 2) if you have a “youth-culture,” you tend to sell less alcohol in the bar (doesn’t mean consumption doesn’t happen, but it may not benefit the bar keep, you know?). What better way to announce your power over the inability to work within the established mode (playing in bars) than to denounce that central moneymaker–alcohol?
Hebdige suggests, rightly I think, that everything punk is an intentional obscenity, meant to disrupt and challenge. “Clothed in crisis,” he calls it (114). The music was frantic, the clothing meant to appall, and the consumption of alcohol and drugs seems to follow suit–deliberately aggressive. But, I think that to limit ourselves to a purely reactionary reading undermines the nihilism that drove some of the punkers, and, more over, the parody that drove others.
I think parody is going to be our next gambit. Too much of punk was too smart to ignore this bend. Perhaps we should begin with the parody of consumption…
One thought I would like to leave you with: I see scores of Benjaminian moments in here, in large measure because of the audience/artist conflation–many punk stories discuss the fans literally crossing the boundaries, and most of the videos, should you watch enough, herald the interaction between audience and artist–the audience is, more often than not, right there on stage, especially as we progress into American hardcore. But, I would suggest that punk can exist because of the collapse of the aura and the handing over of the process of artistic commodification over to the artists (the masses, and, initially at least, the working class punk). The DIY ethic is an excellent example of the ends to which Benjamin refers in his “Work of Art” essay, where the masses gain control over the technological reproduction of image and sound (the tape exchanges, the zines, and so forth). Moreover, punk quite literally exploits the collapse of the aura in the age of mechanical reproduction by bringing audience and artist together: hiring fans into the bands (Rollins into Black Flag, for instance) is but one example, more significant, I would argue, is the deliberate amateurism of early punk–quite literally, anyone could have a band. Now, the best of punk bands really weren’t as amateurish as we tend to discuss them having been, for, as Hebdige reminds us, it is helpful to know the language you are going to parody. Then again, the Germs didn’t get “good” in a technical sense until the last show.
Nevertheless, it seems to me that like YouTube, punk is a logical end to Benjamin’s call. And, better than YouTube, it began with a political sensibility that was more significant for some punkers than the technical aspects of the music. Perhaps we’ll begin there–music as parody in an age of technological reproduction.
Tune in next week.
*I tend to use “glam rock,” when talking about 80s hair rock, but that’s NOT what Hebdige is talking about. He means Bowie and Bolan and company–the original glam rockers.
**When researching, I found the Urban Dictionary entries for Sex Pistols. Glen Matlock‘s entry reads “bassist for the sex pistols, everyone thinks sid vicious was the bassist but he was basicly used cuz he was so hot.” Internetz writing style aside…wow, even I’m not that far gone.
**I shouldn’t poke fun. After all, Axl did have an untoward penchant for U.S. of A. print biker shorts. *shudder*
Hall, Stuart and Tony Jefferson. Resistance Through Rituals: Youth Subcultures in Post-war Britain. London: Hutchison & Co, 1975.
Hebdige, Dick. Subculture: The Meaning of Style. New York: Routledge, 1979.
Lydon, John. Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs. New York: Picador, 1994.