Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

Punk Rock Philosophy: Introduction


The following is the first post in a series on punk rock. Click here for entry #2.

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:

  1. Irreverance.
  2. Nihilism.
  3. Amateurism.

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:

  1. The early 1970s New York proto-punk scene (e.g. Blondie, The Dictators, The New York Dolls, The Ramones, The Talking Heads, Television);
  2. The late 1970s British punk scene (e.g. The Buzzcocks, The Clash, The Damned, Generation X, The Sex Pistols, and Siouxie and the Banshees);
  3. The early 1980s DC hardcore/straightedge scene (e.g. Bad Brains, Dag Nasty, Government Issue, Minor Threat, S.O.A, Youth Brigade);
  4. The late 1980s Orange County/LA hardcore/straightedge scene (e.g. Agent Orange, Black Flag, The Circle Jerks, NOFX, Pennywise, Social Distortion);
  5. The early 1990s Riot Grrrl Scene (e.g. Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, L7, Sleater-Kinney, Team Dresch, 7 Year Bitch);
  6. 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.

First, this is far from the first time AFB has addressed punk rock. For example, see here, and here.

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!

This is the first in a series on punk rock. Click here for entry #2.


Prinz, Jesse, (2014), “The Aesthetics of Punk Rock”, Philosophy Compass 9(9): 583 – 593.


  1. I’ve received some feedback in personal correspondence from Joel Hernandez, and thought I would respond here. He raises two worries (although I am sure he, and others, will have more):

    (1) I have obscured the role of the DIY aesthetic in punk rock.

    I don’t say a lot in the original post about DIY, treating that as merely falling under the amateurism heading (as does Prinz in the article). But there are some important aspects of the DIY aspect of punk that are orthogonal to mere amateurism.

    One is the intimate way that the DIY attitude and the political aspirations of the (especially American hardcore) punk scene intertwined – something I planned to address in the post on identity.

    Another, which Joel focused on, is a tendency for punk narratives (as constructed by punks themselves, not their chroniclers) to undercut themselves – in some sense, punk is about undermining whatever it is that punk is supposed to be about.

    This is a really nice observation, and given the amount of work I have done on meta-fiction (and meta-narratives, whether fictional or not) elsewhere (especially regarding comics), I’m kind of shocked I didn’t see the meta-narrative elements of punk rock (or, at least, I didn’t see them as essential to what punk is) until now. I was aware of particular instances of punk, in effect, commenting on, critiquing, or tearing apart particular conceptions of punk – including some instances Joel reminded me of – but I hadn’t made the move from thinking of those as particularly interesting individual incidents to a central aspect of punk itself. This is a really interesting idea, and something I’ll have to keep in mind when writing the later installments.

    (2) Joel (a Minnesota native) criticized my not including the Minneapolis punk scene.

    Of course, I can’t either list or attend closely to every band or every scene in a series of 1500 word posts about the aesthetics of punk. The list above consists of the five scenes that I think are some combination of (a) those scenes that are the most well-known (I am writing to a popular audience, and not specialists, after all), (b) those scenes that I know a good deal about, and (c) those scenes that I think are particularly interesting theoretically. But limiting the list to five leaves out a number of other important scenes, including Boston and various international scenes (e.g. the Saints and the Victims in Australia, Paris and Hamburg in the 1970s, punk in Mexico city, etc.) That’s okay, I think, since I am not trying to do some sort of exhaustive history, but instead I am attempting to get a philosophical conversation going about the central themes of punk.

    But this does raise an important issue. In being rather selective about the scenes we focusing on, we run the risk of mistaking features of the particular scenes we do look at for general features of punk as a whole. This is a real danger. I don’t see the exclusion of Minneapolis punk as particularly dangerous in this regard, however (certainly it’s no more dangerous than excluding, e.g., all of the non-UK international scenes!): while Minneapolis bands – in particular, Husker Du and The Replacements – are extremely important (and excellent) punk bands, I don’t see any huge differences between these bands and their scene and similar things going on in the DC or California scenes at the same time, at least with respect to the aspects of punk with which I am concerned. But I am also far from an expert on the Minneapolis scene, despite living in Minneapolis for a decade. So please let me know if you think I’m wrong about this.

    And, of course, similar comments apply to many other scenes I am not going to address directly. So if you think there is something unique or important going on that I am missing as a result of my attending only to a particular sub-set of punk, let me know!

  2. Interesting. One thing that this focus obscures is some differences in the militancy/violence of various scenes. The 80s and 90s Boston and NYC punk and hardcore scenes were notoriously more violent than DC; the East Coast in general more violent and aggressive than CA. This comes out in particular in the comparison between early Boston/NYC and DC straightedge bands like SSD/DYS/Slapshot/Youth of Today/Judge with Minor Treat/Government Issue/and co.

    Can’t cover everything though! Looking forward to reading this.

  3. (sorry; there’s a further question of why that’s relevant of course. I was thinking it’s relevant because it underscores a certain ”outward” directed conservative anger in the Northeast scenes that also characterized a lot of the music.)

    • Jack – this is a good point about the political differences of the various geographically (and to some extent temporally) separated US scenes. I was planning on taking bit about politics in both the post on amateurism (as it relates to the DIY approach to political issues) and with regard to identity. I’ll try to keep an eye on the differences you mention in mind.

  4. I’m just one guy (now in my late 50s), a philosopher, with opinions about punk, for what that’s worth.

    I’m puzzled by the claim Prinz makes that nihilism is a central theme of punk. Are any of the bands in the scenes you choose to focus on “nihilistic,” in your view? What is this “nihilism”? What is supposed to be nihilistic, the artists or their work?

    Extreme irreverence in punk may seem nihilistic. Prinz is correct that these are not the same. Irreverence and irony, often taken to the point of confrontation, are dominant aspects of punk, as I understand it. Yet the examples listed by Prinz as nihilistic strike me all as confrontational, directed toward bad parts of life, and bringing conflict into the music. It might be recalled that the development of punk occurred in the social context that produced Thatcher and Reagan, and reacted against it, as well as against the problems of life that musicians experienced.

    It seems to me that nearly all punk, including the styles and scenes you list, upholds some sort of positive value, variously: authenticity of style or life, rebellion or revolution, or aesthetic accomplishment of some kind, often primitivist, but sometimes transcendent (Patti Smith, Television, much of goth, etc.), among other aesthetic directions in punk. Possibly the Sex Pistols might qualify as nihilistic. I’m uncertain what “nihilism” means in this context, so I don’t know. But consider the Ramones (not in your chosen scenes, but exemplary nonetheless). They were so devoted to their primitivist or minimalist aesthetics that to fulfill its demands they turned themselves into something like cartoons.

  5. Death (protopunk) ought to be mentioned

  6. Wonderful idea for a series, glad I am not to late (although late) to this post. An interesting place missing in your history is the connection between late 70’s – early 80’s punk (specifically the New York punk scene) and seminal early hip-hop like Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash, and Fab 5 Freddy. There was a lot of cross-cultural sharing in punk rock venues in NYC during this time (“Rapture” by Blondie is a testament to this, not to mention the founding of Def Jam by Russell Simmons and Rick Ruben) which very likely had influence on future punk acts/artists. I know this is potentially tangential to the point of this series, but much like the influence of Minneapolis punk this is another place and time where influences on the style of punk could be located. I am by no means an expert on hip-hop history since my personal engagement with hip-hop is very much the late 90’s and early 00’s Minneapolis groups, but even there the cross-cultural influence can be seen in artists like P.O.S..

    Of course, your comments concerning the Minneapolis punk scene and not being to cover everything ring very true, but this will be an interesting thread to explore going forward (at least for me)!

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