Who Killed Punk? The Origin and Decline of Punk Culture

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Punk rock is probably the most recognized of all the branches of rock music, both in terms of its musical style visual appearance, and in terms of its widely circulated villainous spirit in every sense of the word.

Even if you’re not a rock and roll fan, you’ll probably come across it in catchphrases like “punk is good for you.” At the same time, punk, as a subculture, is probably one of the genres that doesn’t lend itself well to a purely musical analysis – after all, they don’t even care about musicality.

Therefore, in this article, I will use one part of the article to briefly introduce the origin and development of punk music, and the other part of the article I will use punk music as a window to explore the relationship between subculture and mainstream culture.

The Origins of Punk Music & Punk Culture

American punk

First of all, let’s start with music. The origins of punk can probably be traced back to the 60’s in the USA, a golden age for rock and roll, when some of the most important musicians and bands such as Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who and The Beach Boys were active, or were themselves active, at the same time as a group of people who created a new genre.

At the same time, there was a group of people who started a new genre that became known to critics as garage rock. Just like the origins of rock ‘n’ roll, there was no concept of garage rock in the ’60s when it first appeared, and these musicians, who were called garage rock, didn’t have a unified idea amongst themselves at the time to create garage rock.

And the musicians who called it garage rock didn’t have a unified idea of what garage rock should be. The name was a throwback to the ’70s when music critics were looking back. Garage rock was also known as punk or garage punk at the time, before punk officially took shape.

But if you really listen to them, you’ll realize that their connection to what we think of as punk today is really only in the sense of a deliberately rough listen. Relatively more relevant is the emergence of proto-punk at the tail end of the garage rock era, which was a much looser camp, and while they didn’t have any stronger ties to each other either, if you take out specific musicians, a lot of them were important in the history of rock music.

There is a special case to be made here for Partti Smith, who is regarded by many fans as the mother of punk, but whose relationship with punk is largely attributed to her 1975 album “Horses”, the author suggests.

But for her, punk is not a label that accurately describes her, either musically or in terms of her work and her ideology. In fact, she stated in a later interview that she was not a punk, and her band was never a punk band.

While all of the preliminaries took place in the United States, the band that truly represented and created the punk subculture was born in London, England.

England Punk

McLaren returned to London from New York in 1975 after a brief stint with the New York Dollrs, and he and his fashion designer girlfriend, Vivienne Westwood, had a clothing store on the King’s Road that had always had a subcultural theme. It was in this clothing store that Vivienne Westwood created all the visual aesthetics envisioned at the birth of punk music culture.

McLaren, on the other hand, unearthed the purest form of punk, the Sex Pistols, who in 1977, on the 50th anniversary of Elizabeth II’s accession to the throne, proclaimed their anger at the British establishment to the world with a song that bore the same name as the British national anthem. Immediately after the release of the song, they were shut down by the official British press. Even so, he took the #1 and #2 spots on the UK’s song charts NWE and the UK’s more well-known Official Charts. But their popularity wasn’t a proper name for punk per se.

The true heart of punk is to be found in the lyrics. For example, the lyrics of “God Save the Queen” describe the Queen, who symbolizes the British system, as a fascist regime of ignorance. The band shouts “Don’t be told what you want, there’s no future in England’s dreaming,” and on another song on the album, “Anarchy in the UK,” the band’s lyrics are a bit of a joke. Anarchy in the UK”, they outright declare their embrace of anarchy.

Angry expressions of political advocacy are actually not uncommon in rock music, but behind the anger, the nihilism of despair and the countercultural attributes of only brokenness are the main kernels of consciousness that set punk apart from other genres.

By this point, the author would like to extend the argument that when we talk about the terms rock ‘n’ roll and punk music, what exactly do they refer to? Why do we in various subcultural circles of authenticity will always become a hot topic, exploring this language problem from the musical characteristics alone or that other appearances actually can not be distinguished.

We have to go back to the subcultural perspective to examine this issue.

Punk subculture

What is subculture?

The so-called subculture is a non-mainstream culture that exists relative to the main culture. It has a different value system and cultural symbol system from the main culture.

In fact, at about the same time as punk music, there existed a variety of subcultures in the UK, including rogue youths who cosplayed the aristocracy, mods who mimicked the romance of the 1950s and 1960s, and skinheads, an extreme right-wing organization that identified with the working class of the previous generation.

Where do subcultures come from?

So where did all these subcultures come from? And what actually gives birth to subcultures? Academics are divided into two schools of thought on this question:

Age-based generational interpretation

One school of thought is the age-based generational interpretation, which is based on the idea that subcultures arise from the collective reaction of the adolescent generation to social forms. Once formed, this reaction is detached from the subjective culture constructed by the collective consciousness of the previous generation, and is thus formed by the collective culture constructed by the current generation.

However, this explanation has an obvious shortcoming, that is, it regards the same generation as an undifferentiated whole and ignores the cultural differences between the same generations. Especially after the era of traditional media, people’s preferences and cultural identities have become more and more diverse.

Structural explanation

The other school of thought is known as the structural explanation, which basically rejects the idea that the emergence of subcultures is only attributable to generational age differences. They focus on the positional association of adolescents with social class, and explain the differences between subcultures and the dominant culture, as well as the antagonistic relationship, in terms of the structural relationship of this association.

Let’s stick with punk as an example; punk music was born on the eve of the collapse of the post-war consensus in Britain, which meant that the British government was shifting from a governing philosophy that favored an extensive social welfare system to Thatcherism, which embraced a free economy and cut back on social benefits. This dramatic shift brought with it a dramatic increase in unemployment and inflation. It was the working class, which had been dependent on state capital, that was hardest hit during this period, and it was in this context that punk music was born.

It is against this background that we can understand where the anger, the anti-establishment, the anti-mainstream character of the punks came from. What is it that they mean when they say “there is no future in the British dream”?

Why is today’s punk subculture so different from the 70s?

By today more people know punk as the music of bands like Green Day and Sam 41 for example. If you look specifically at the text of their music videos and lyrics, you will see that it is very different from the Cockney music that emerged in 1977. Aside from the fact that they still retained their simple musicality, they looked nothing like pop.

So how is it that in less than 30 years punk’s mainstream has gone from rebellious nihilist brats to a sweet, sweet, mainstream artist all of a sudden? And this phenomenon isn’t just with punk, even the broader culture of rock and roll, hip-hop, and vaporwave, which were also labeled as rebellious, critical, and independent in those terms, have become pro-mainstream and well-behaved today.

Mainstream culture’s suppression and cooptation of Punk subcultures

Almost all subcultures encounter the problem of being suppressed and reorganized by the dominant culture. In this process, there are two main forms, one is that the dominant culture will characterize the subculture group by labeling it. For example, at that time, mods and hippies were defined as synonymous with drugs and moral degradation. Some dominant cultures use this labeling to define certain subcultural groups as troublesome.

One problem here, however, is that this simplistic and crude characterization is the result of the dominant culture ignoring the reasons for the emergence of these problematic subcultures and simply scapegoating them directly for the problems of the times themselves.

On the other hand, the dominant culture represented by business plays an equally important role.

In contrast to the dominant culture’s grandiose attempts to throw dirt and divert contradictions, commerce symbolizes and extracts the various representations of subcultures, deconstructs them, carefully packages them commercially, and turns them into harmless commodities. It can be said that this process can also be regarded as the alienation of consumerism. What is even more paradoxical is that the process itself is often not led by any one person who says that he or she wants to eliminate a certain subculture, but simply by the fact that because of the independence of capital, it is the most economical choice to converge on the values of a larger number of people.

Therefore, in the process of commercialization, the so-called heresy of subculture has been harmlessly disposed of. These are the reasons why subcultures such as punk, rock, and hip-hop have become far from what they were at the beginning of their existence.

For mainstream culture, subcultures are the other, the alternative style that defies norms and is difficult to define. The xenophobia and anger they show in the subculture circle when they see what they love and identify with being misinterpreted, misappropriated and transformed is precisely to defend the subculture’s otherness. At the same time, the process of subculture being incorporated by mainstream culture will inevitably lead to the generalization of its symbols.


With that being said you should also be able to understand how punk music went from being an angry nihilist to a bunch of harmless people.

It’s safe to say that while there is still a musical classification of punk today, the punk we popularize today is completely different from the punk that the Sex Pistols and the punks of the time perceived and defined. Even labels like rebel and anti-authority exist today as a kind of kleptocracy in popular culture. And punk, as a supposedly destructive and dangerous subculture, hasn’t really changed much even in the era in which it flourished.

There is no future here, as he himself predicted.



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