An essay for Media Convergence & Culture, Spring 2016
According to Phil Cohen’s definition of subculture, quoted in “The Function of Subculture” (Hebdige, 1979), it is a response, reaction, or opposition to certain social conditions; in other words, a compromised solution between two contradictory needs. Every subculture declares itself as a symbolic form of resistance to authority and hegemony by contesting existing social values and establishing a highly-structured group identity through recognizable external markings and value system. Outsiders see them as “the others” or “the outlaws,” yet they themselves are revolutionists who desire to break free from button-down social order and voice their own individuality in a conformist society.
In Britain, the Punk subculture grew out of ‘a sense of boredom’ as a response to the “gloomy, apocalyptic ambience of the late 1970s with massive unemployment and ominous violence of the Notting Hill Carnival, Grunwick, Lewisham and Ladywood” (Hebdidge, 1979), as well as “the ass-licking monarchy”—there was no job and no future; the young generation was locked out, especially those in the suburbs, who were discontented by the current condition of “boring Brit,” and desired to stand out among the seemingly “worst bureaucrats from the 1950s” (Punk Britannia, 2012). The Punk subculture centered around punk rock: loud, fast, aggressive music played by underground individual bands that involves a lot of physical expressions from both the performers and the audience, such as jumping or whipping hair. The punk distinguished themselves from the rest of the formal-looking British by creating their different and challenging external markings: emo, strong makeup with thick, black eyeliners, funky hair color, spikey or greasy hairstyle, body decorations like tattoos and piercings, and accessories like pointy necklace and black bracelets. In 1977, the punk set themselves in opposition to traditional social and cultural values in any way possible. Their fashion was indeed that of young rebels: leather jacket, ripped jeans, and combat shoes—everything was edgy enough for them to be viewed by the normal citizens as “the outlaws.”
The masses were intimidated by them, especially with the effect of media who shaped the public perspective on this subculture. Newspapers and magazines represented the punk as “the filth and furry,” while “The Today Show” broadcast one member of the punk bank “Sex Pistols” swearing on television, turning punk from a corner-London movement to a nation-wide sensation. They were banned from the local government and protested against by furious locals who did not want “these freaks” to have a bad influence on their children.
Punk was more than a type of music or fashion trend, but a collection of hidden transcripts of the powerless to the face of the powerful, a form of resistance. Yet different from the subtle hidden transcript like folk culture, this subculture made itself more outspoken. They publicized their rebellion against society, yet protected itself from the repression of the opponent force by maintaining their value system and creation of style. In its context, punk was the result of the clash between conformity and individualism, the novel and the traditional, capitalism and liberalism, childhood and maturity. Their ideologies included nihilism, anarchy, anti-Semitism, anti-racism, anti-sexism—in short, anything that helped blow away some cobwebs of the society and rallied against the status quo. Punk was more than a symbolic movement; it was an authentic renunciation of genuine aggression, frustration, and anxiety prevalent in the current condition of Great Britain. Just like hip hop in the ’70s, punk not only responded to but dramatized the emptiness of life and existing social issues. As Hebdige said in his essay, subculture challenged at a symbolic level the inevitability and naturalness of class and gender stereotypes (450). Within punk itself there was also a division of class: while Sex Pistols represented the white middle class, The Clash served the working-class audience. This division transformed punk into a miniscule society instead of just a movement that satired the system.
At some point, punk had to decide whether to market/sell itself to media companies like CBS for the fact that once media turned their message, values, and image into a set of clichés, such as the ‘you go do whatever you want’ ethos, it lost its power as a transformational yet exclusive club. This situation is similar to the Japanese subculture Harajuku in the ’90s, adopted by teens and young adults to experience the crazy and unexpected in a conformist post-war society, which lost its significance after being copied vastly thanks to media networks, as well as other modern subcultures. The moment subculture is everywhere, it dies.