Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

Punk Rock Philosophy #2: Nihilism or Activism?


I began this series of posts here, setting up the issues and summarizing Jesse Prinz’s main points in his groundbreaking “The Aesthetics of Punk Rock”. Readers of that post will recall that Prinz identifies three characteristics of punk rock that he thinks are central to the genre:

  1. Irreverence
  2. Nihilism
  3. Amateurism

Readers of that post will also recall that I have nothing at this point to say about irreverence (of course, there likely is much to say about the exact sort of irreverence that is at work in punk rock, but I’m not going to do that today). Thus, we’ll move on to the second topic in the list: nihilism.

Nihilism has various meanings – that life is meaningless, or that there are no objective values (moral or otherwise), or that individual actions or persons are insignificant, etc. Prinz does not offer a precise definition of nihilism, and neither will I. But his discussion suggests that what is at issue here is some form of political nihilism – that is, a rejection of most or all social and political values.

Prinz argues that the nihilism of punk rock is evidenced by the emphasis on themes of “decay, despair, suicide, and social collapse” (p. 585) in punk music. He lists numerous band names and song names as evidence. Now, setting aside suicide, which I don’t see being a central theme of punk rock at all, there is no doubt that punk, especially early punk, is marked by an emphasis on “decay, despair, … and social collapse”. These themes are often framed in terms of the failure of the traditional middle-class suburban worldview (punks’ parents’ culture) to deliver on its social, political, and economic promises. As a result, punk consciously and conspicuously rejected this mainstream culture (as well as a similarly rejecting the earlier hippy counterculture and its emphasis on peace and love). This was of course understandable — perhaps even predictable – given that late 1970s punk was spurred in part by an economic crisis in Britain and a feeling that the suburban “dream” lived by punks’ parents was no longer an option for punks themselves (and 1980s punk was propelled by similar economic woes in the US).

He goes on to state, however, that “Punks saw themselves as part of the ‘Blank Generation’, with no purpose in life and diminishing opportunities” (p. 585 – 586). Now, part of this second quotation is certainly right – that is, as we have already noted, punk is motivated (at least in part) by a disillusionment with certain middle class ideals and a belief that such ideals provide diminishing opportunities (of various kinds). But part of it is wrong: claiming that punk, and punks, embrace the idea that life is purposeless or meaningless deeply misunderstands punk.

And this is the point. The rejection of traditional, middle-class suburban social and political values only amounts to nihilism if those values are not replaced by an alternative set of positive political aspirations. And punk rock was, from beginning to end, intimately tied with political viewpoints and political activism. Hence, punk and punks do not reject all social and political values and norms – they just reject a traditional set of values and norms for an alternative set of their own devising.

Note: It is perhaps worth noting that, if one focused solely on the Sex Pistols as the ‘platonic form’ of punk – as, sadly, many scholars do (not Prinz, however) – then the claim that punk is nihilist would be somewhat more plausible.

Punk rock music itself reflected this political focus from the beginning. Consider the following example – one Prinz himself mentions – the 1977 Clash song “White Riot”. Although widely misinterpreted at the time (and to this day, e.g. in some skinhead circles) as a call for pro-white racial uprising, the song was instead intended to be a call for economic, class-based political action (on the part of both whites and people of color). The Clash (Joe Strummer in particular) thought such a class-based, youth-oriented political movement would provide politically apathetic white youth with a political purpose similar to the purpose given to black youth by the civil rights movement. Whatever one thinks about the song’s motivation (and its admittedly checkered history with regard to how it’s actually been understood), it’s hard to square the fact that this song is now a classic of the punk canon with a view that marks punk as nihilistic.

Another phenomenon hard to square with labelling punk nihilistic are punk ‘houses’. These collective, often primarily volunteer-run facilities – closely tied to the do-it-yourself (DIY) culture of punk (about which more in the next two posts) – hosted (often all-ages) punk shows, but they also functioned as central headquarters for the various activities that comprised the punk rock scene – in particular, various kinds of grassroots political organization. Notable examples include:

  • The 1 in 12 Club (Bradford, UK)
  • 924 Gilman St. (Berkeley CA)
  • ABC No Rio (New York City, NY)
  • The Ashtray (Oakland, CA)
  • Dial House (Essex, UK)
  • Dischord House (Washington, DC)
  • Phoenix House (Olympia, WA)
  • Positive Force House (Arlington, VA)

Dozens (if not hundreds) of less well-known examples exist or existed. The balance between punk music and punk politics – and the kind of punk politics involved (e.g. anarchist, straight-edge, vegan, etc.) – varied considerably from house to house (wikipedia has a nice list of the various political ideaologies that have been adopted by various punk scenes here – ranging from anarchism to Islam to Neo-nazism): there is no ‘recipe’ for what counts as a punk house. But the punk house phenomenon has it’s roots in Andy Warhol and The Factory, and can be traced back to the very beginnings of punk. Thus, it’s hard to square the actual history of punk with Prinz’s claim that “at its cheeriest moments, punk continues to shatter rose-colored lenses; it remains resolutely nihilistic” (p. 586)

Thus, there doesn’t seem to be any way to square the politically awareness and activism consistently tied to punk from the very beginning with Prinz’s nihilism label. So now we know what punk isn’t, politically. But this doesn’t answer what punk is, politically speaking.

At least part of the answer to the question is already given above: punk (of all sorts) involves a conscious rejection of:

  1. The mainstream, traditional values and dominant culture of suburban middle class life.
  2. The enlightenment-through-free-love-and-pharmacology-styled rejection of [1] espoused by the previous countercultural movement.

Note: With regard to the first point, it’s perhaps worth remembering that the Bromley Contingent – a group of Sex Pistols fans that later went on to front their own punk bands, including Siouxsie Sioux, Billy Idol, Steven Severin, and Tony James – was named after the south London suburb where many of them lived.

In short, punk rock, politically, involves a rejection of mainstream culture as well as a rejection of the previously dominant countercultural rejection of that culture. The various kinds of positive political activism associated with various strands of punk then represent various ways of constructing a political sensibility from the perspective of that doubly-negative initial positioning.

Note: The straight-edge movement can be seen, in this light, not only as a rejection of the booze-and-drug-fueled punk scene that immediately preceded it in Washington DC and elsewhere, but also as a rejection of similar aspects of the earlier hippy movement.

Now that we understand a bit more about the politics of punk rock (although obviously much, much more needs to be said!), there is one final topic that needs to be addressed: The fact that punk rock is infamously extremely white, middle-class, and suburban. Despite the scene being characterized (if I am right) by a conscious rejection of middle-class suburban values (and an embrace of various sorts of alternatives – including political alternatives – to those values), the vast majority of punk musicians and fans are white, middle-class, and from the suburbs (there are of course exceptions – e.g. Death, Bad Brains, Poly Styrene, Suicidal Tendencies – but they are few and far between). Can we give any explanation for this fact?

Here’s one (very speculative) thought: Perhaps punk music, and the social and political scene that quickly grew around it, reflects a particular way of rejecting traditional middle-class social mores from within – that is, punk rock is characterized by a rejection of these values by those that have access to lives that allow them to embrace those values, and that lifestyle, if they so choose.

If this is right, then it provides an interesting idea about the difference between punk rock and hip-hop (beyond the obvious differences in style). Punk and hip-hop appeared at about the same time, and both scenes (in terms of the music, but also the values espoused by those in the respective scenes) are characterized by an explicit rejection of certain traditional middle class, white suburban values. But perhaps the way that they differ is this: Punk rock reflects a rejection of the dominant culture from the perspective of those who have access to that culture, while hip-hop reflects a resistant alternative to the dominant culture constructed by those who do not have access to that culture in the first place. In short, the separation from the mainstream culture, and the countercultural values adopted by punks as an alternative, are (for white fans and musicians, at least) freely chosen, while the (in some superficial ways) similar separation from mainstream white suburban culture embraced by black hip-hop musicians and fans is not chosen but imposed by that same mainstream culture.


  1. I think you’re spot on about the activism part. Have you read about the use of nonstandard linguistic features in punk? Since language, its use, and its cultural perceptions are intimately tied to race, class, gender, and many other factors, punk singers have used nonstandard language diachronically as a conscious part of their identity and music. Many early punk bands in the UK used the nonstandard, trilled /r/ (like in Spanish) instead the standard, prestigious pronunciation of English /r/as an approximate, such as when Poly Styrene employs the trilled /r/ heavily, as in the song “I can’t do anything” when she describes hitting back with her pet “rrrat”. Early UK punk bands also rejected the rhotic feature American English influenced language which mainstream British pop bands were using (see Trudgill, 1983), instead using their native phonology. HR of Bad Brains makes extensive use of AAVE phonolgy, such as breaking before nasal consonants, as evident in his pronunciation of “can’t” in the song “Banned in DC”. He also uses negative concord and “ain’t” as a general negative particle, a feature not only of AAVE, but many other less prestigious American dialects and sociolects. Kathleen Hanna maintains her Valley Girl accent in both her music and daily speech (see “The Punk Singer”) to problematize the notion that certain language varieties can only belong to/be used by a certain group of people (in this case geographic and class based language), be used in the appropriate context (i.e. formal vs. informal registers), and that language somehow correlates to intelligence. Since we use language to transmit our cultures from generation to generation, using nonstandard language fits right in with the activism aspect of punk that you describe. The choice of language in hip-hop closely parallels punk in that vocalists primarily use AAVE or AAVE inspired linguistic features instead of standard, more prestigious varieties of English, which in turn could point to a closer connection between the two, at least on linguistic grounds. We see this too in the German-speaking world where punk bands like Die Goldenen Zitronen use nonstandard Low German features and many rappers use Kiezdeutsch instead of Standard German.

  2. “given that late 1970s punk was spurred in part by an economic crisis in Britain and a feeling that the suburban “dream” lived by punks’ parents was no longer an option for punks themselves” No, it was largely a working class movement particularly in the northern towns and cities. This suburban “dream” is a foundation of American culture but it didn’t exist in the same way in Britain. Postwar Britain was nowhere near as affluent as America even if we did build a strong welfare state during that time, and it’s this that the young punks felt they were losing. Thatcher was taking a sledgehammer to industry and privatising everything but even before that these were communities that were poor, expected to know their place. This individualist, consumerist, American dream culture was something she tried to bring about but our class consciousness and resentment is just too deep rooted for us to ever worship wealth and success in the same way, on anything more than a surface level.

    • British punk NOW is gentrified and middle class as hell but at the time it absolutely wasn’t. It was working class. The post-war generation were the first generation of this class to have anything like a voice of their own, the 60s cultural and musical explosion was a result of this, but by the late 70s we were losing it thanks to Thatcher. Class is as much about culture as it is about income here, us “chavs” absolutely do not have access to dominant middle class culture via “whiteness” which is such an American, race-centric way of looking at it. PLEASE stop looking at our culture as nothing but a mirror of the US because it is not.

  3. After talking about nihilism in punk rock, the OP feels the need to address something about suburban whiteness in the scene.. None of that matters to a nihilist, especially a nihilist punk. Just a strange thing to put on a post about nihilism.

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