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As Wicked as it May Seem

BriBell's picture

The impulse to find a place of belonging somewhere within in the vastly complex and diverse societies of the world, for me, appears as a subtle, yet constant tug on the outskirts of my consciousness.  This daunting sensation is one that seems to linger within the unconscious tendencies of individuals of all backgrounds and beliefs, for every culture develops an array of subcultures and countercultures, and sometimes even sub-subcultures and counter-countercultures. The punk rock scene is no exception to this pattern. It arose within a subculture, forming its own counterculture, which then spurred the creation of multiple subcultures that, in turn, gave rise to counter-countercultures. This elaborate web of expanding cultures in response to existing cultures can, in many ways, be attributed not only to the need to find a place to belong, but also in response the cultural disabilities which are, according to Ray McDermott and Hervé Vareene, inevitably inherent in any culture.  Subcultures arise from the tacit search for self-acceptance and the pursuit of personal truth.  The punk scene displays these characteristics in the social intricacies of its blatant response to debilitating features of the mainstream and the ways in which it too has morphed into ever evolving subcultures.

Punk as a musical genre emerged in the early seventies in a clash of rock’n’roll melodies and simple reggae style lyrics. It grew out of nook in the wall venues in New York City and spread quickly across seas to the U.K. and all throughout America.  Perhaps because of its modest upbringing in small venues on the fringes of the mainstream music scene, it drew crowds of youth who also found themselves deviating from conventional lifestyles and beliefs.  Soon, the punk scene became a place where unsatisfied youngsters gathered together and denounced the restricting standards of modern mainstream society and created a space where alternative, free thinking minds could express their anger and discontentment through fashion, dance, and, above all, musical expression.

                The punk culture is one that worked through a common interest in music to transform the restless, discontented, youth who felt the pressure of society as a debilitating burden into empowered young men and women. In this way, it is a prime example of both the tacit need to belong as well as the ways in which cultures create disabilities. As a young person myself, that relentless desire to be accepted by a community is a memory I recognize as one of the most pressing characteristics of growing up. Looking back, I see that the need to find a place where I fit in was something that I felt without consciously realizing it. It is a tacit urge in every child that only grows stronger in the awkward phases of adolescence. Perhaps it is for this reason that the punk culture was predominately composed of teens and young adults.  The tiny venues inflated with young people who were unable to find acceptance in the mainstream society because they did not identify with the same beliefs and values. They were unable, or unwilling, to function within the confinements of the dominating culture.

In attempt to find a community in which their own beliefs and values could be accepted, the rising punks took refuge in the anti-conformist disposition of the punk rock culture. Because of its aversion to conformity, the punk scene acquired an air of individuality and self-empowerment. Anarchy gained an association with punk and punk music. The wild instrumentals and chaos of the infamous mosh pits demonstrated anarchic tendencies of punk culture, and not without some legitimacy. However, the anarchic qualities are not as simple and foolish as one from the mainstream might first infer. Rebellion has always been an important element in the punk world, but not without cause.  The concept of anarchy grew out of the extreme emphasis on individuality, as it encouraged self-reliance and, thus, self-empowerment. The notion of anarchy is the most common political association observed by those on the outside, but the punk dynamics contain the potential for many other forms of empowerment. The complexities of the workings of punk rock empowerment are visible in several subtle aspects of their practices.

Take, for example, the seemingly insignificant experience of the notorious mosh pits found at a typical punk rock concert.  It is an occurrence which takes place under the guise of rebellious, angry teenagers thrashing about with no seeming rhyme or reason to their haphazard, energetic dancing.  However, I believe the mosh pit fits as an extremely symbolic ritual which portrays much of the nature of punk culture. The most obvious connection to the chaos of the mosh pit would be the common punk belief in anarchy. However, even in the mayhem of violent bodies crashing against one another to the fast pace beat of deafening music, it is evident that many deeply rooted laws have developed in the pit. From simple traditions like refusing to dance to the first band, to the comradeship based precautions of protecting one another from falling in the midst of the pandemonium, it cannot be denied that within this anarchic sea of dancing misfits, rules do exist.

 It is also interesting to note that many concerts are accompanied by different social and political messages, such as the Rock Against Bush tour in 2004, which had voter registration tables set up right along side the stage. Promotions such as this are not uncommon in the punk scene, for the punks’ determination to avoid conformity and create space for creative, alternative thinking also demands that young punks take a stand for what they believe in in any way they can. This simple observation brings forth an interesting paradox within the punk culture – the empowering qualities of democracy are utilized beside the self-reliant values of anarchy. This fervent emphasis on self-empowerment within the punk culture encourages youth to find their own voice amongst the masses whilst including themselves in a group in which they feel they belong. However, as in every culture, there is diversity in the beliefs of those involved. Both because of and despite the perceived nonconformist disposition of this complex counterculture, many subcultures and counter-countercultures have developed.

These subcultures and counter-counter cultures have developed within the structure of the punk realm partly due to the environment of open discussion that is created in the attempt to deviate from mainstream conformity. However, those who turn to the punk world often do so in order to find a place where they feel they belong, and though they may have found a certain level of acceptance in the general punk culture, there are so many views which circulate within this space of openness that some groups may feel debilitated again by other aspects of the punk world. These groups will often find each other and diverge from certain norms found in the punk culture.

For instance, as a response to the restricting qualities of mainstream culture, drugs have become a very prominent feature in the punk world. They go along well with the anarchic views of many punks. However, some people who largely agreed with most of the punk beliefs, felt that the use of drugs was becoming too much of a detrimental characteristic of punk culture. Thus, a new category of punks arose – the Straight Edge punks.  The concept of a drug-free life was certainly not unheard of in the punk world, but it was not until a hardcore punk band called Minor Threat used their musical influences to spread ideals of a substance free life, that the concept of drugs in the punk world was directly confronted. The Straight Edge culture exploded out of the punk world, developing their own set of values and cultural symbols (such as writing and X on the hand, as that was the symbol traditionally used to mark a person who was underage at a concert where alcohol could be purchased). 

Another example of sub-subcultures and counter-countercultures can be seen in the formation of the Skinheads. Skinheads did not fully originate on the punk scene, but they very quickly developed a strong presence, becoming a subculture of punk.  Skinheads were known to be racist, white-supremacists who identified with one another by shaving their heads. They used the rebellious attitude of punk to lash out on society with their beliefs. However, not long after the development of the skinhead culture, another breed of skinhead grew out of the punk rock scene. These new kids on the block also sported shaved heads, but their goal was quite contrary to that of the original skinheads – to them, anyone who shaved their head was a brother, no matter their race. They emphasized unity in the punk culture and went by the nickname Baldies. Thus, they created a sort of counter-counterculture to the original skinheads, who came to be known as Boneheads.

Though these are only a few examples of the continuum of cultural metamorphosis within the punk culture, they are clear illustrations of the continuous pattern of response to cultural disabilities that develop within society. Individuals in every area of the cultural spectrum are driven by the inner desire to find a place where they feel fully accepted. It is a relentless search, and pushes cultures, such as the punks, to constantly change, forming subcultures and counter-cultures to accommodate the ever diversifying interests, needs, and values of the individuals involved. The punk culture models these qualities well, is it has become a vast array of misfits, losers, baldies, boneheads, druggies, sXe kids, communists, anarchists, activist, and an ever growing, changing, and expanding following of cultural transformation.