How Has Punk Evolved Over The Years Cultural Studies Essay


The word ‘Punk’ in its modern form is a term used to describe aggressive, anti-political underground music as well as the sub culture that goes hand in hand with it and forms part of its primary core. This essay takes a brief look in to how Punk has evolved over the years and how it has and still manages to influence popular culture.

Styles similar to that of Punk had been evolving in America and England for hundreds of years, all undergoing drastic changes and developments along with the meaning of the word punk itself from century to century. The earliest records show that in 1618 the term was in use by Indians to describe a bizarre kind of overcooked corn.

A couple of centuries later, Punk had become a word for the slow-burning stick used in fireworks, by 1889 it was a slang term for a cigarette.

The first modern day definition of Punk, being that of a small-time hoodlum, developed in the World Wars; and in the late 1970s Punk came to designate bizarre clothing and body decorations associated with loud and aggressive rock music linked to the sub culture’s political ideals and messages.

In other words, unless you print them on a T-shirt, political messages don’t sell and Punk found a way to sell it. History has an interesting way of repeating itself. As other ideologies had previously spread through uniformity; who would have known that the first "Perfecto" leather jacket donned on unemployed youths with unexpressed fury in the 1980s would find its way to the backs of top models on the world’s most prestigious runways?


The Punk Rock scene as we know it today is a combination of various events, first in the mid '70s in New York. Bands like The Ramones, Wayne County, Blondie and the Talking Heads were playing regularly in the main cities. The bands were unified by their location, company and they also shared musical influences which further united them. However, while the New York scene was reaching its prime, Punk was undergoing a separate creation story in London.

The economy in the United Kingdom at the time was in poor shape, as a result unemployment rates were at an all-time high. As many of the youth in England were unemployed; this resulted in England's youth becoming very outraged and rebellious. They had strong opinions and a lot of free time.

This is where the beginnings of punk fashion as we know it emerged, and they centred out of one shop. The shop was simply called ‘SEX’, and it was owned by Malcolm McClaren, a very influential figure in the Punk sub-culture, his shop allowed the punk fashion to have a definition. His next project would become the Sex Pistols, of which the height of their efforts would soon quickly become a British icon.

Interestingly, on May the 28th of 2012, Universal reissued "God Save the Queen" as a 7-inch record to celebrate the song’s anniversary and cash in on Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee. Fans’ attempts to push it up the charts failed, though the refrain — "No future, no future, no future for you!" — This feels as relevant as ever, thanks to the global economic crisis and widespread unemployment. It had seemed like history was once again repeating itself.


Punk was born out of the rebellion. Against the Government’s seen to be responsible for struggling economies and also against the music scene that was established at the time of Punk’s birth. Artists such as the Ramones and the Sex Pistols resented the fact that bands such as Simon and Garfunkel were even considered to be Rock n Roll. In the eyes of the Punk bands; these popular "rock n roll" bands were tame and didn’t represent anything that the original rock n roll did which is where a lot of Punk bands drew their inspiration from.

Tommy Ramone of the Ramone’s describes how Rock n Roll "In its initial form, a lot of [1960s] stuff was innovative and exciting." Continuing to describe what happened to it as "Unfortunately, what happens is that people who could not hold a candle to the likes of Hendrix started noodling away. Soon you had endless solos that went nowhere." And mentioning the initial thoughts that leaded to Punk’s confinement as "I knew that what was needed was some pure, stripped down, no bullshit rock 'n' roll."

Another well-known example is that of Mick Jones of the Clash who had a very extensive collection of Rock n Roll music and memorabilia, so extensive that he even refers to it as his "Aladdin’s Cave". He often cites Rock n Roll as one of his very early childhood influences.

Punk bands also refused to disconnect themselves from their fans and sign with major record labels. The result… Punk’s raw un-produced sound that spawned a new generation.

A lot of early punk was influenced by 60's garage-rock bands. Also a lot of punk bands grew up listening to bands like the stooges and the mc5 who were early forms of punk rock.

When the Ramones released their first album; they laid many of the foundations for future bands. Many punk musicians taught themselves to play by listening to the Ramones, this gave a lot of punk bands their fast paced loud sound.


Anarchism is an ideology very quickly associated with Punks, good examples of this include the Sex pistols whose song lyrics very often cover the topic of anarchy for example their song "anarchy in the UK" has the lyrics "'Cause I wanna be anarchy, It's the only way to be" and many Punk Bands such as Crass and Aus-Rotten also went as far as to embrace this ideology as a discipline.

This was part of the main ideology of Punk culture which was to rebel and was seen as a rebellion against the current Government which at the time when Punk became most popular was Margret Thatcher’s Conservative Party, seen at the time by many as a Government made up of business people in suits. This was in contrast to most Punks who were themselves mostly working class, they were rebelling against a political party who was apparently against them when Thatcher’s Government began to close down Britain’s mines and remove power from the workers unions. This could be why Socialism is very much associated with Punk Culture.

However as mentioned earlier Punk culture is one that is very varied and many Punk bands such as the Ramones and the Dictators claimed to be Apolitical. That is having no political affiliation, choosing to focus more on the music. Johnny Ramone of the Ramones’ political connection was thought to be completely unknown due the bands decision to remain apolitical until he died and his widow revealed him to be a republican voter. She then went on to support John McCain’s presidency bid, however Johnny’s political attachment was argued by his Brother and fellow band mate Mickey Leigh who was quoted as saying "as for Joey Ramone, the only Ramones song he would sing at a Republican campaign event would be Glad To See You Go." However it is widely accepted that Johnny was a Republican because he himself was quoted as saying "I think Ronald Reagan was the best President of my lifetime." In 2002.

A small number of Punks are known to be conservative or right-libertarian. Against mayhem, liberalism, communism and it’s preceding state of socialism. Instead choosing to believe in free market capitalism, minimal government and an individual’s right to own property. This includes those such as Bobby Steele and as mentioned above it was eventually found out that this list included Johnny Ramone.

There are even Christian Punk Bands with notable inclusions being TheCrucified and MxPx. These are all very good examples of how the Ideology of Punk Culture is very diverse compared to the well-known anarchy, socialist loving image of Punks.

Punk Art

Art was also a very visual part of the Punk culture. It was found in Punk Flyers, Album Art, Punk Magazines and Punk Graffiti. The art was designed to visualise the cultures belief in rebellion and purposely went against what at the time was considered artistic norms. An example of this is the inclusion of scribbled letters and drawing figures with sharp points in order to be jarring and shocking.

Punk Art also uses a lot of cut outs to further add shock value because at the time doing this was populated they were associated with ransom notes.

Los Angeles artist Mark Vallen describes it as "a unique and complex aesthetic. It was steeped in shock value and revered what was considered ugly. The whole look of punk was designed to disturb and disrupt the happy complacency of the wider society. Outside of punk's torn and safety pinned anti-fashion statements, this impulse to outrage was never more apparent than on punk album covers."

Punk even continues its rebellious nature in the naming of its art forms. A great example of this were Punk’s magazines illustrations which were often referred by Punks and themselves as "Punk-Zines".


A Typical Punk’s wardrobe would be filled with clothes that reflect the punk style, such as denim, leather, leopard print, tartan and masks.

T-shirts printed with eccentric eye-catching logos and band memorabilia, ripped, studded and safety pinned form the typical Punk uniform. Trousers with many zippers or safety pins were also commonly worn.

Branded shoes were rejected by Punk’s culture; instead combat shoes were a must.

Most punk Women opted for pumps and cowboy boots, rather than going for men’s shoes.

Hairstyles were a part of the fashion statement and added to the overall appearance. The most popular hair styles included Spikes and Mohawks. They also went for vibrant colours. Some other variants include 80’s hair, big hair, shaved hair and devil locks.

Piercing and tattoos hold the key to the punk fashion style. Art defines the punk style and what better way to bring it to life than to have some tattoos and piercing done on the body.

Alliance is deep rooted in Punk Culture, along with sporting the look. It is at a Punk’s core to learn and love Punk Rock Music... They certainly don’t believe in half measures. As unified as Punks are, they still also believe in diversity and so various genres of punk style have appeared.

Punk Today / Modern Punk

One could argue that today punk has become rather condemned. With popular culture that was once very visually dominated by Punk now being centred on People such as Rihanna or popular media such as The walking dead, you could argue that the Sex pistols refrain of "No future, no future For you" from God save the queen has actually become awfully self-serving.

In fact many People would have you believe that Punk is now something relegated from Western culture that has now been adopted by the more down trodden societies of the world with whom it now more appropriately represents. These being Societies such as Burma, Russia and Iraq, Myanmar and Indonesia.

However this is not the case as Punk is still very much alive in many areas of western societies too for example in the United States, San Francisco Bay area; Punk is still very a mainstream culture with their radio stations still playing a lot of Punk music. It is even still evolving in these areas with new versions of Punks including but not limited to Latin Ska-punks and the Pansy division of queer punks.

Although it is true; that in the other more down-trodden parts of the world Punk has become very popular compared to western society. Perhaps this is due to its messages and ideology that are very much in general against Government and promote fighting the establishment. As these same ideas that were once very appropriate in the West are now more appropriate in these other parts of the World.

Moshing is a type of dance where participants push or slam in to each other, it originated in the Los Angeles Punk culture in the 80s and quickly spread to the rest of the sub-culture. In recent times it has now spread outwards to many other sub-cultures with it now even being prevalent in modern Rave and Clubbing culture. Even relatively new sub-cultures such as the dub-step scene have embraced moshing. This is one example that shows just how some features of Punk Culture are still highly widespread throughout society.

In fact much of modern popular culture has been influenced by Punk, for example Green Day; who are a very popular band all over the world cite Punk as being one of their influences and even go as far as to call some of their music Punk Rock.

Likewise the Off-spring, another popular modern rock band have been greatly influenced by Punk Music so much so that their own fans debate whether or not they are Punk. The bands own Dexter Holland describes the band’s sound as being "We’re so Punk, we’re not Punk at all".

Even popular modern culture such as video games have been influenced by Punk. Bioshock the best Selling game of August 2007 has it’s visual style primarily based on steam-punk, a Genre of science fiction that borrows heavily from Punk art and mixes it with Victorian based industrial design such as steam engines and Victorian mechanical design.

Clearly, Punk culture is very deep-rooted in modern popular culture. Therefore, Punk is definitely not dead.


It is clear that Punk culture has changed over the years but this does not signify a dying culture. Punk has developed and changed with the times, each new generation fuelled by its growing following of young teenagers.

As a subculture, Punk bases itself around a fascinating, creative, idea of being an individual. It is a society of individuals, encouraging a person to think for their self, whilst at the same time being a group of characters who support each other. Punk today belongs more to Russia and Iraq, Myanmar and Indonesia, than it does to its birthplaces. This however does not signify it’s irrelevance in western societies; it is still deep rooted in modern popular culture if you look hard enough for the signs. It may not be as loud as it once was but it is still a huge part of modern society.

Punk blankets every aspect of its culture in these ideals, taking them to its fashion, its art and its music. As a means of not only unifying Punks but also to spread the message of what being a Punk is all about.

Like any movement submerged in conflict and individualism, punk’s moral force grows with government suppression. As authoritarian regimes crack down on rebel rockers, their efforts to censor subversive voices often backfire by attracting attention from international media and human rights activists.

Some of the major topics in this subculture at this time are politics, skateboarding, vegetarianism, alcohol, psychedelics, squatting, animal rights, feminism, anti-racism, and internationalism.

Punks may not be able to change the world, but they are determined not to go down with the sinking civilization without a protest.


O'Hara, Craig, The Philosophy of Punk, AK Press, 1999 ISBN 1-873176-16-3

Garofalo, Rebee, "Rockin' The Boat: Music and Mass Movements", South End Press, 1991 ISBN 0-89608-427-2

Sinker, Daniel, "We Owe You Nothing, Punk Planet: the collected interviews", Akashic Books, 2001 ISBN 1-888451-14-9

Taylor, Steven, "False Prophet: Fieldnotes from the Punk Underground", Wesleyan University Press, 2003 ISBN 0-8195-6667-5