In a 2014 article in Philosophy Compass titled “The Aesthetics of Punk Rock” Jesse Prinz (who guest-blogged for AFB here!) presents an aesthetic analysis of punk rock aimed at both fostering a deeper understanding of the genre and at teasing out larger lessons for the philosophy of music (and the philosophy of art more generally).
His analysis comes in two stages. First, he provides a framework for understanding punk rock music (and the punk subculture within which it is produced and consumed) in terms of three central themes:
Prinz then uses this three-part story to draw two larger conclusions:
- Punk rock involves an explicit rejection of traditional aesthetic norms, illustrating the plasticity of taste (and as a result serious consideration of the genre recommends a rejection of global norms of “goodness” or “good taste”).
- Punk rock provides a fertile testing ground for the idea that art and identity are (often) irreversibly intertwined, and thus a full understanding of (at least some) musical genres is impossible without an accompanying story about social identity formation (including fashion, politics, and lifestyle) within the subculture.
Over the next few months, I will be posting a series of essays further exploring and complicating Prinz’s discussion of each of these ideas (in posts titled Punk Rock Philosophy), with the possible exception of “irreverence” (about which Prinz’s discussion seems straightforward to me, and pretty much exactly right). In this initial post I want to set up some of the requisite background, and outline the approach (and one or two controversial assumptions) I will be making in the posts to follow.
The first thing to note is that punk rock is not a single monolithic culture, scene, or musical form. In particular, punk rock evolved through a number of distinct stages, corresponding to different scenes at different times and different locales. Important amongst these are:
- The early 1970s New York proto-punk scene (e.g. Blondie, The Dictators, The New York Dolls, The Ramones, The Talking Heads, Television);
- The late 1970s British punk scene (e.g. The Buzzcocks, The Clash, The Damned, Generation X, The Sex Pistols, and Siouxie and the Banshees);
- The early 1980s DC hardcore/straightedge scene (e.g. Bad Brains, Dag Nasty, Government Issue, Minor Threat, S.O.A, Youth Brigade);
- The late 1980s Orange County/LA hardcore/straightedge scene (e.g. Agent Orange, Black Flag, The Circle Jerks, NOFX, Pennywise, Social Distortion);
- The early 1990s Riot Grrrl Scene (e.g. Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, L7, Sleater-Kinney, Team Dresch, 7 Year Bitch);
- The 1990s Berkeley/L.A. pop-punk scene (e.g. All, Bad Religion, Blink 182, Green Day, Rancid, Screeching Weasel).
Of course, any taxonomy of this sort is open to criticism, and I myself have a number of qualms about whether some of the categorizations above adequately characterize the role played by various bands in the history of punk. In addition, the relegation of pop-punk to the scene originating in California in the 1990s eliminates Billy Idol from this category, despite the rather unique role he played in bringing awareness of punk rock to the mainstream (and despite whether you think Billy Idol’s post-Generation X career actually has anything to do with punk rock). Fear not – Billy Idol will play a significant role in the analysis of punk rock that I will present over the next few months.
Nevertheless, much of the discussion in the series of posts to follow will focus on categories/scenes (2), (3), and (4) in the list above. The reasons for this are simple: First, these are the three chunks of the history of punk rock music and culture I am most familiar with, due to the huge amount of attention lavished onto the British punk scene (and the Sex Pistols and The Clash in particular) in the popular and academic press, and my own engagement with D.C. hardcore in the 1980s (and early 1990s as the scene was waning/evolving) and my fandom (without any direct exposure) for the (in some relevant respects, at least) similar scene ongoing in California at roughly the same time. In addition to my own knowledge, experience, and taste (yes, these are the bits of the larger history of punk rock that I tend to prefer over other bits), there are additional reasons for selecting these three scenes as the primary foci of my discussion.
First, there seem to me to be good reasons for leaving the 1970s New York scene out of the discussion. As Prinz notes (p. 583), debate rages over the origins of punk. Much of this debate centers on whether bands like the Blondie, MC5, the New York Dolls, and the Ramones (and many others) were the first punk bands, or were merely amongst the most important influences on the formation of punk in the late 1970s. Full disclosure: I prefer the latter reading of the history. But one need not accept that judgement to agree that excluding discussion of these early bands makes theoretical sense: if we are attempting to discern (amongst other things) what the aesthetically central features of punk rock are (and how these features might vary from scene to scene to scene while remaining central), then focusing on cases that are agreed by all to be instances of the genre seems like good methodology. And no one denies that the central bands of the late 70s London scene were paradigm instances of punk rock.
But then, why focus on the London scene of the 1970s and the DC and CA scenes of the 1980s at the expense of Riot Grrrl and pop-punk, besides my own interests and experience? The reason is simple: As I see the history, at least, the various American punk scenes of the 1980s and 1990s have a good deal more in common with each other in respects relevant to Prinz’s analysis than they have in common with the 1970s scene in London. Prinz himself seems to agree with this assessment, at least with regard to one of the central themes he discusses: When analyzing the amateurism and DIY aspects of punk culture, he writes that:
Many records are self-produced and independently released with limited pressings, especially outside Great Britain. (p. 587)
Of course, even if I am right about the difference between 1970s UK punk rock and later US punk, this only requires that my comparisons should be between (2) and one or more of of (3) through (6) above. But I like DC and CA hardcore, so those are the scenes upon which I’ll focus for the most part.
With history out of the way, it’s time for theory. As already noted, I will use the framework set up by Prinz in the posts to follow. In particular, there will be separate posts on (at least) (a) amateurism, (b) nihilism, (c) identity formation, and (d) the plasticity of aesthetics norms. The point of these posts is not necessarily to disagree with any significant points made by Prinz, but instead to develop further the analyses begun in “The Aesthetics of Punk” (although no doubt I will disagree with him on various minor points – we are both professional philosophers, after all!) In short, I agree with Prinz that:
Like most movements in art, punk is heterogeneous. It emerged from multiple sources and has endured for decades […] Given this diversity, there is no way to give an inclusive aesthetics of punk. (pp. 583 – 584)
There is no doubt in my mind that the features identified by Prinz are “sufficiently pervasive to provide a stereotype” (p. 584), and I think the stereotype constructed in Prinz’s paper is useful. But it’s now time to deconstruct this stereotype a bit, focusing on how different bands and scenes understood and instantiated these broad themes in different ways, finding the differences underlying the similarities. It’s a project I suspect Prinz would approve of.
That being said, I do plan for finish up the series with a post on a topic not addressed directly by Prinz’s article: punk and gender. This post will naturally focus quite a bit more on the Riot Grrrl movement of the 1990s (and related scenes such as Queercore).
Finally, let me note two things.
Second, although I suspect I know a lot more about punk rock than the typical tenured philosophy professor, I have no doubt that many of the readers of Aesthetics for Birds know a lot more about punk rock, or particular bands, or particular scenes, than I do. Thus, the posts that follow (and this one as well) are meant to provoke discussion, not teach a theory. If you think I’ve gotten something wrong (and at some point you most likely will), don’t hesitate to tell me why. Punk rock is extremely important – so it’s extremely important to get it right!
Prinz, Jesse, (2014), “The Aesthetics of Punk Rock”, Philosophy Compass 9(9): 583 – 593.