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What does "Punk" mean?

John 'Johnny Rotten' Lydon, once a Sex Pistol, now a butter salesman

John 'Johnny Rotten' Lydon, once a Sex Pistol, now a butter salesman

Marc Bayard, in his introduction to Craig O’Hara’s ‘The Philosophy of Punk’, said

“The major problem with trying to explain punk is that it is not something that fits neatly into a box or categories. Not surprising as punk had made the explicit aim of trying to destroy all boxes and labels. With that as a major hurdle, any project that tries to define punk or explain it must do so with very broad brush strokes.”

Dave Laing also identified this problem, stating “the history of punk as a musical genre is complex and contradictory”.

Most academic writings on punk focus on the late 1970s, particularly the impact of The Sex Pistols in relation to youth culture in Britain. This is problematic because such an approach ignores over thirty years of activity within subcultures that continue to define themselves as ‘punk’ around the world. It also ignores the slow impact punk had on American culture.

Traditional academic approaches tend to state that punk ‘died’ in 1979, often citing the break up of The Sex Pistols in 1979 as the exact point of punk’s death. For example, the back cover of Roger Sabin’s ‘Punk Rock: So What?’ asserts that “despite the words of the Crass song, [punk] was dead by 1979”. This is open to criticism because, as Marc Bayard states, “punk as both music and as a movement did not end with them [The Sex Pistols] and then pop up again some thirteen years later in Seattle as some music historians would have the general public believe”.

Punk is still an active subculture, and since 1979 it has continued to thrive in various guises. At the moment there is a healthy underground punk scene in the UK, comprising of a network of ‘collectives’ and individuals who produce fanzines, organise shows, form bands and release records. This is the case in many western countries such as Italy and Germany, and countries influenced by western culture such as Japan and South Korea. In America punk remained underground until 1991, and until then was most visible in the ‘hardcore’ scenes of New York, Washington D.C. and Los Angeles.

The Clash

The Clash

Some late 70s-early 80s style punks

Some late 70s-early 80s style punks



The meanings of punk

The word ‘punk’ has a number of stereotypes and meanings attached to it. A popular stereotype would assume fast, loud, tuneless music listened to by young men with ripped clothes, bizarre haircuts and safety pins in their faces, spitting everywhere and scaring children. In more complex terms, punk can be seen as a musical genre, an ‘attitude’, a lifestyle choice, a political movement and a fashion. These ideas must be examined critically.

In Subculture: The Meaning of Style, Dick Hebdige (1979) attempts to define a number of youth subcultures by what they wear, and analyse what their choice of clothing says using semiotics. Much is made of the ‘bricolage’ of late 1970s punk fashion and its supposed representation of resistance, but this style is now outdated, a relic of punk’s early days. By trying to define punk in such narrow terms Hebdige ignored the wider implications of punk. According to Craig O’Hara, seeing punk as a youth trend is “the least accurate but the most popular image of Punk”.

As a musical genre the term ‘punk’ is applied liberally in the 21st century. Punk means The Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Damned and their contemporaries of the late 1970s. But punk also applies to the American acts of the mid 1990s, such as Green Day, The Offspring and Rancid, who bear only a passing musical resemblance to old punk. The label ‘punk’ has been applied to numerous bands, some with little or nothing in common with punk’s origins, as a means of marketing rebellion.

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Robbie Williams

Robbie Williams


As an attitude and a lifestyle choice, punk has retained considerable influence. O’Hara sees punk as “gut rebellion and change” as well as “a formidable voice of opposition.” Rebellion is a key theme within punk, although the type and extremity of rebellion varies greatly. Some young punks undoubtedly only wish to rebel against their parents by listening to loud offensive music and wearing outlandish clothes, while within the underground punk scene the targets are political and social injustices, sometimes involving rebellion via protest and direct action against corporate and governmental organisations.

The directionless ‘I don’t give a fuck’ attitude of some early punks makes its way into most youth subcultures, and is adapted by artists who may well use it as a marketing gimmick or short term publicity stunt. In the case of British singer Robbie Williams, he adopted a rebellious image, admitting drug use and swearing in interviews. This served as a way of casting off the ‘safe’ image he acquired as a member of the successful pop group Take That in order to market himself to an adolescent audience (he is now back in Take That, whose audience is now primarily in their late 20s and 30s).

However, punk ‘attitude’ is, according to O’Hara and John (Johnny Rotten) Lydon, largely a media construct. The media choose to show more marketable images of violence and spitting youths, rather than portray a creative youth movement or discuss the implications of anarchism.

"What does punk mean in the 21st century? Whatever the punks want it to mean."

Ian Mackaye (Fugazi and Minor Threat)

Punk today

Punk is an active underground movement or subculture which is concerned more with political and social issues rather than the semiotics of fashion or annoying parents, and what the music is saying rather than what the music sounds like.

Punk continues to exist as a network of record labels, fanzines, bands and fans within an underground scene, as well as appearing in part in the form of more commercial punk bands such as The Offspring and Green Day. Punk is ‘now’, not ‘then’.

Punk retains a variety of meanings, which depends on the individuals’ level of involvement with punk. These meanings must exist simultaneously, since the meaning is subjective to the individual.


Gaget Girl from UK on November 30, 2013:

great article! Just published one on the fashion itself and how the music ultimately defined a generation of youth, making a it more than just a music preference but a way of life. I love punks, I think this type of rebellion against society and their fight against the fascism is very interesting.

RubySoho from Queensbury, New York on April 23, 2012:

Excellent article. Very well written and thought out. Seldom seen in articles of this topic.

Lauren from Somewhere in Maryland on August 30, 2011:

I thought this was awesome. You truly pinpointed the complexity and diversity that comes with the term "Punk." Kudos man!

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