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Punk Movement Versus Popular Culture: Background and Development Essay

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Updated: Oct 26th, 2021


The Punk movement of the 1970’s is often regarded as a British working class movement, born out of the frustration of the politics that ruled the time and the influx of popular culture most of which was heavily back by America. American popular music has made its impact globally and has and will always be listened to all over the world; along with this, fashions and attitudes that are associated with it have also made their mark. This dispersion of American influences whether cultural, political or economic is often referred to as Americanisation. Many scholars argue that the masses are passive in their consumption of popular culture tend to resemble a zombie mob which follows and enjoys whatever commodities are dished out to them. In comparison to high culture, popular culture is often seen as a dumbed down material as opposed to the apparent highbrow elements in elitist high culture. It is often argued that a lot of what is deemed as mass culture braches out from the United States, which in turn is relative to Americanisation. ‘The fears and anxieties expressed by critics of mass culture have been equally directed at the threat of Americanisation’ (Strinati, 2004, pg 19) the British punk movement could been seen as a conscious alternative to just that, though in order to understand this argument we must first understand where and what punk came from.

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During the early 1960s, the Americanisation of Britain was in full swing; with the war days out of sight the American way of life had become increasingly popular. The big Hollywood blockbusters, luxury items, commercial advertising, and glossy high life magazines had whetted the public’s appetites. ‘American society had the most developed mass culture, and thus represented the future towards which other comparable societies, such as Britain, were heading’ (ibid, pg 22). The Americans had seduced both Britain and the world with its self-promotion but at what price? On the other hand, too many the American way of life offered opportunities that Britain could only have dreamed of, the hope of a bigger, better more entertaining way of living, and the hope for a more prosperous future.

The music industry of the early 1960s was very much alike in both countries, with little or no distinction in terms of variety as ‘the excitement of rock ‘n’ roll is replaced by standardized music industry products such as Fabian in the United States and Cliff Richard in Britain’ (Longhurst, 2007, pg 107). In 1963 the beginnings of Beatle mania had manifested itself; the Beatles were Britain’s answer to the cries of the hungry youth of the day, who had grown tired of Cliff’s rigid summer holiday and Lonnie Donegan’s skiffle. Although for Britain the Beatles were exciting and fresh ‘in many respects the Beatles were partly located within more conventional forms and packaged in a show business sort of way’ (ibid, pg 107). The Beatles were as impressive as they were popular, although many argue that the Beatles sound was merely a collaborative reincarnation of earlier rock and roll just in the form of a boy band. The Beatles themselves were an Americanisation; although they were British born and bred, there was no hiding from the fact that there music was inspired by rhythm and blues artists and rock ‘n’ roll both of which were of black American origin. It is undeniable though that the Beatles did start a musical eruption and the ‘space for the development of rock music’ (ibid, pg 107) encouraging artists and bands to experiment and shake away the cobwebs of standardisation. Following the creative eruption of the 1960s, came the 1970s weakened in creative comparison to its sixties sibling, and along with it glam rock and Bowie but perhaps the most iconic of all the punk movement.

Punk started out primarily as a subculture, a small group of like-minded individuals opposing the dominance of society and the predominantly popular values that influence mass culture. Within a subculture like punk are a group of individuals who share the same conventions and attitudes. Hebdige identifies this as ‘the symbolic fit between the values and lifestyles of a group, its subjective experience and the musical forms it uses to express or reinforce its focal concerns’ (Hebdige, 2002, pg 113) and a refusal to just slot in without question. Punk’s constituency was primarily white, working class and British; the movement itself erupted in 1975 and ended in 1978. However brief its impact, its message was one that turned society on its head, and questioned the governing frameworks of Britain. The 1970s bore Thatcherism, soaring unemployment figures, which were the highest since World War Two, and a crumbling economy encouraging the people of England to spend well beyond their means. Post-war social-democratic consensus which existed from 1945 to 1975 and ended with Margaret Thatcher and her Conservative government was characterized by mass consumption and bureaucratic organization as well as comparative job security and growing labour market; it resulted in structural changes at political, cultural, economic and ideological levels. The development of two political ideologies, post-war social-democratic consensus and Thatcherism saw the young and old of the British lower middle classes living in near poverty leaving the country in a state of recession. Punk historian and journalist Jon Savage writes that ‘within one year of conservative government, the unemployment figures doubled: worst hit were the nineteen to twenty-four age group, the classic ‘teenage’ constituency’. (Savage, 2007, pg 355) Punk rock appealed to the youth of Britain as it was related to them.

American high lifestyles and the commodities that went in hand with it were predominantly popular within Britain. It could be suggested that people were spending more than they could afford due to the circulation of American products and lifestyles. This, with the promotion of mass culture and the early vast spread of Americanisation, had seduced the people of Britain and perpetuated a pipedream of bigger better lifestyles and fashions which were unaffordable to most ‘Winning the war had left Britain with a fearful cost…war had twisted the balance of power from its previous axis so that Britain was no longer a world power. It was merely a small island held in thrall by the USA, both strategically and economically’ (ibid, pg 108). Britain was left downtrodden for some there were no jobs prospects for those who were no longer in education or could no longer afford to carry on with further education, they felt displaced and ignored. As Savage states in his book England’s Dreaming ‘the only thing stirring within the nation’s youth appeared to be a desire for order and power’ (Ibid, pg 113). With little encouragement, and full of frustration with the governing state of the world and the mass offerings of the commercial music industry, punk was born. Cultural ideologue Theodor Adorno explores in one of his theories that ‘The fantasies and happiness, the resolutions and reconciliations, offered by popular music and film make people realise how much their real lives lack these qualities and thus how much they remain unfulfilled and unsatisfied’ (Strinati, 2004, pg 61) Such fantasies were and still are displayed in forms of popular culture; people turned to punk because it disagreed with the status quo of Britain and the falsities it was seen as representing.

It could be suggested that early Mass culture theorist Hoggart had already witnessed the beginnings of an Americanised state in his earlier work where he observed an ‘influence exercised over the working-class community, most especially over its more vulnerable younger members’ (Ibid, pg 25). Punk opposed this new way of life and the ‘debasement of working-class life and the gradual wearing down of the traditional working-class community’ (Ibid, pg 25) therefore resisting Americanisation and offering a British alternative.

The origins of punk are a little shaky, as many countries claim to have created it. As far as the origin of British punk rock goes, it is believed that it originated as a reaction to the progressive rock of the 1970s, as previously mentioned music in the 1970s prior to the spark of punk was rigid, its genres dissatisfying to some. It is also believed that punk rock in Britain was preceded by pub rock. Even though punk rock lacked musical intricacies, they were lyrically rich with political and social messages. They frequently dealt with taboo subjects. These political issues were generally those, which were being debated in society at large, and were mostly connected with issues related to the post-war social-democratic consensus and the nation’s state in the late seventies. The matter is that punk rock emerged in 1976 which is right between two political conjunctures of Britain in the post-war period and served as an expression of the youth’s dissatisfaction with the vestiges of the post-war social-democratic consensus such as, for instance, racial tension in the United Kingdom or women’s oppression along with some other gender issues and environmental concern. Punk movement can also be characterized by anarchism which the movement reflected in face of ideas of individualism and rejection of the power of the State. A few of the famous songs in the British scene were The Sex Pistol’s songs like God Save the Queen and Anarchy in the UK. God Save the Queen was written and released in defiance of the British national anthem and the English monarchy, Sex Pistols frontman John Lydon reflects ‘There are not many songs – written over baked beans at the breakfast table – that went onto divide a nation and force a change in popular culture. No one had ever dared question the Monarchy so publicly’ (Lydon, JohnLydon.com). The track caused such contention that it ended up getting censored from being number one in the British charts and banned form certain radio play. But the intent of the song was misunderstood if anything the Pistols’ message was one of preservation of British social traditions and the rejection of Americanisation and the media circus that surrounded the monarchy and their infamy throughout the globe. People knew Britain for the crown jewels and the Queen not for its culture or achievements ‘You don’t write ‘God Save The Queen’ because you hate the English race, you write a song like that because you love them; you’re fed up with them being mistreated’ (Lydon, 2000, The Filth and Fury). Thus, punk rock explicitly took on political issues.

John Savage describes the Sex Pistols as appearing on the scene ‘with all the force of a hand grenade tossed into an arrangement of gladioli’. (Savage, 2001, pg 352) This statement reflects the impact that punk had on Britain. Never before had anyone dare to musically challenge a cultural hierarchy making the punk movement as original as it was phenomenal. American punk rock bands like Television, Suicide and The Ramones had to play many concerts and release their records away from the mainstream media limelight, which resulted in American punk rock growing at a steady rate. On the contrary, the British punk bands from their very initiation received national infamy. The world was slowly Americanizing with the increasing adaptation of the young and the old. This is seen through a very small example of adoption of John Fiske’s work concerning jeans as a wear for all. The punks took an Americanised fashion like the wearing of jeans, and wore them torn or with badges and pins holding them together. This comes back to the ‘do it your self’ facet of punk rock and their rebellion against popular American cultural items like jeans. ‘Torn jeans signify both a set of dominant American values and a degree of resistance to them’ (Fiske, 1991, pg 5). Punk’s constituency was anti-institution born out of the pressure of feeling that the institution subjugated through the Americanization of the society.

However British punk did start out as an advocate of non-conformist anti-institution culture that never believed in accepting what was taken on face value by the society. Punk rocker and frontman of many punk bands Dick Lucas once said ‘I have never come to terms with the idea that I am ‘part of society’ and should construct my actions to suit the prevailing moods of conformity, acceptance and achievement. Closed by the rigorous mind training of school and media, the mass mentality of Western culture [America] revolves around upholding the past to attempt to secure the future, whilst suffering the present as beyond its control, ‘safe’ in the hands of government who feed the present to the masses as a product of technological/material/industrial progress’ (O’Hara, pg 30).

Thus British punk showed a distinct contempt for Americanization, globalization and mass culture. They were nonconformists of the institution as the growing inclination of the institution with its allegiance to America and everything American. As has been depicted by Savage punk rock in Britain is one such popular culture that had its roots in the subaltern rather than an elitist origin. Although Punk never officially declared a manifesto, if it did it would be one of anti-popular culture, and anti-American as it appeared at a time when Britain’s relationship with America had become strained. During the time of the British punk movement the influx of American culture exports had slowed down, as America was not primarily concerned with saturating other countries with its hegemonic American exportations, and by doing so enabled other countries to culturally flourish, developing and exporting there own definitive sounds and products, punk being one of them. Punk did not shake America in the same way it did Britain nor did it cause a media punk hunt as it did in England, grabbing constant headlines and a tabloid following, it even got discussed in the Houses of Parliament, it represented those who were neither right or left, it was for the in between and the dissatisfied, a political manifesto for those who had slipped down the cracks and society had forgotten.

Through the interference of mass culture and media a genre is able to gain a more popular status, meaning that even though punk rejected mainstream media and culture, it needed it and relied on it heavily. If the sex pistols jubilee stint hadn’t got the media circulation that it attained perhaps punk has become as powerful and successful as it did. People used the punk movement as a political statement. Brit punk as a type of ‘dole queue rock’ (Sabin, 1999, pg 155) demonstrated the social and economic upheaval the English lower classes were going through during this time. Punk’s sound was one of an anarchist viewpoint, one that believed in speaking out regardless of whether it was aloud or acceptable to do so. This directly opposed and questioned American mass culture and English politics as ‘American popular culture is seen to embody all that is wrong with mass culture’ (Savage, 2001, pg 19). The Punks felt like they were outcasts and so segregated themselves’ they dressed in defiance of the popular trends, disregard social and financial frameworks, and listened to music that was nihilist in its view of the current western demographics. However, punk as a non-conformist sub-group was occasionally hypocritical of its self take the godfathers of punk the sex pistols for example they were managed by designer and husband to major fashion designer Vivianne Westwood, Malcom Maclaren. Who dressed and incorporated the Sex Pistols style into a line of clothing that was then made available to the public in his trendy Kings Road shop entitled SEX. Even the tabloid press who had originally encouraged a vendetta against all things punk began to embrace punk, publishing punk looks, do’s and don’ts and recognising popular punk bands. Punk had begun to turn in on itself in light of what it had begun as; punk had become somewhat hypocritical of its self. Moreover, it could be argued that if punk’s constituency was one that did promote rebellious anti-American undertones why did British punk bands like The Sex Pistols seek promotion and recognition in the states.


According to Savage, British punk assumed the form of a pop culture that gained tremendous media exposure due to both popularity and infamy. Thus, through their music and non-conformist attitude these punk rockers rebelled against mass culture, Americanization, and globalization. With its ‘DIY’ ethos, and have ago attitude British punk rock disregarded professionalism and the status quo of polished standardized music. However in its vanity British punk did eventually assume the form of pop culture which ended up in it gaining tremendous media exposure, which was also due to both its popularity and infamy, as Savage points out in his book England’s Dreaming. Thus, through their music and non-conformist attitude the British punk rock can be interpreted and still seen today as a rebellion against mass culture, Americanization, and globalization.

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