This is a paper I wrote for my culture class that I thought was interesting enough to share...
What is a subculture? The Macquarie dictionary defines it as “a network of behaviour, beliefs and attitudes existing within and different from a larger culture”. From my experience subcultures are largely based around music – you have your punks, emos, gangsters, indie kids, Goths…the list goes on. This week’s readings focus around two main musical trends and their theoretical associations – punk and hip-hop, two infinitely different trends with different ideologies but very similar construction, with heavy emphasis on concepts such as homology, semiotics and subcultural style.
The important thing to understand about the styles associated with subcultures is that, to quote Barthes, “the signification of the image is certainly intentional” – that is, the rebellion is fabricated so as to be able to make a radical point. The concept of bricolage is closely linked to this phenomenon – that is, the rearrangement of socially “normal” symbols into different contexts, ultimately altering their meanings, or as John Clarke puts it, constituting a new discourse and conveying an altogether different message. There are a couple of examples of this in the punk movement, such as The Clash
’s album London Calling
, the cover of which shows bassist Paul Simonon
smashing his guitar against the stage in a pose similar to that of trade workers – this juxtaposition of images, or indeed what Breton referred to as “collage aesthetic”, allowed the cover to successfully convey the Clash’s purpose – the need for social uprising. Another example is the Sex Pistols
’ portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II, who became the centre of the Pistols’ social revolt when the single God Save the Queen
was released in 1977, with its lead image being one of a heavily edited and dehumanised Queen. The song, a direct play on the British national anthem, featured anarchic lyrics labelling the monarchy as a “fascist regime”, referring to the Queen as “no human being” and the song’s refrain, “no future”, became somewhat of a punk rock mantra, representing the crux of the movement’s purpose – the idea that society was at a dead end.
Shock value was one of the defining features of the punk movement. Characterisation was often achieved through dressing alternatively, with designers such as Vivien Westwood taking everyday objects such as safety pins and Union Jacks and, again through the process of bricolage, altering their context and meaning to fit their anti-establishmentarian agendas. Though superficial, this serves to prove that the punk movement was largely one of resistance to the mainstream – as quoted in the reading, “the rule would seem to be, if the cap doesn’t fit, wear it”.
Social disdain was also expressed through music, not marked by skill but rather the rawness of which allowed these bands to give the proverbial finger to authority. Sex Pistols frontman Johnny Rotten
is quoted as saying “we’re into chaos, not music”, signifying that in most cases, punk’s main purpose was simply to revert authority and cause mayhem. However, social change was also born from punk music – famously, Minor Threat
frontman Ian MacKaye
spawned great social change with the song Straight Edge
, from which sprung an entire new subculture of the same name, participants of which made a positive lifestyle change by choosing to refrain from illicit substance consumption. Punk musician J Robbins
told Spin magazine that Mackaye’s song caused people to “rethink their politics”; in the book Nothing Feels Good: Punk Rock, Teenagers and Emo, author Andy Greenwald states that “after the rage dissipates, the possibility for real change begins” – and indeed, Minor Threat influenced jaded teenagers such as Guy Picciotto
, frontman of hardcore band Rites of Spring
, to take action and create their own change in the world – and this is what subcultures do at best. Through engaging with similarly-minded people, whether it be at our own level or, in Picciotto’s case, our idols, we are able to find our niche within a certain subculture – the concept of homology is evident here – and we read the signs in a personal way and create our own meaning out of it, which is a prime example of the power of polysemy – symbols, or in this case, music, can be interpreted in a myriad of ways and it is ultimately up to the user to decide what it signifies.
Semiotics and homology are so closely linked in subcultural style – the objects chosen to represent punk were those, as Hall stated, “in which members could see their central values held and reflected”. My past examples somewhat reflect this and further, through the dress code of punks – tartan, safety pins, chains,= and obnoxiously coloured hair – we can see through these examples, as well as Hebdige’s deconstruction of the punk subculture, that the feeling of social unrest and need for uprising is communicated through clothing and that homology is achieved through the feeling of unity that is made operational through the process. In this way, the movement allowed youths to express their social unrest through their clothing and music and, as quoted in the reading, “restate their opposition to dominant values and institutions”. However the punk movement was somewhat decadent when the meaning of certain items is closely examined, such as the swastika – originally a symbol of racism, the reading states that in punk usage the symbol lost its “natural” meaning and was used merely as an item of shock value and thus its meaning, in the punk context, was that it meant nothing. Hebdige describes it as the evaporation of meaning, and that the central value communicated in such symbols is that there was an absence of value. Herein lies the flaw of the punk movement – that emphasis is sometimes so heavily put on shock that instead of pushing meaning, an empty nihilistic view is instead adopted.
As a “version of reality”, it is impossible to pin the meaning of the punk movement to an exact definition, and hence it is important to look at it from a polysemic perspective. The reading suggests that there is no distinction between the form and content of a “work of art”, should we choose to view the punk movement as such a commodity, and that the important practice is to recognise the way in which things are said. By viewing the punk movement from a number of different angles, and by studying the process of the construction of meaning rather than the outcome itself, we are able to better understand the subculture and its purpose.
Females were not heavily prominent in the punk movement with the exception of Siouxsie Sioux
and, in the new wave punk revival of the 80s, Debbie Harry
. It was often regarded as a “sexist” movement. In the early 90s however, females became more dominant in the emergence of such movements as “riot grrrl” – its most famous member, Bikini Kill
singer Kathleen Hanna
, said “I feel completely left out of the realm of everything that is so important to me. And I know that this is partly because punk rock is for and by boys mostly”, and took this as her opportunity to promote third wave feminist ideals through her music. Sleater-Kinney
singer Corin Tucker
describes her music as feminism rewritten for the 21st century, and both of these examples serve to show that within music, least of all within the world of subcultures, there do exist female-charged cultures, which, like punk, promote their own ideals through symbols and music.
These same theories still manifest themselves within modern offshoots of punk, such as emo and indie. However the original rebellion is nowhere to be found in the present, as it seems that the commercialisation of the original movement has cancelled out the initial sense of wrongdoing that injected the spark into punk rock, but the semiotic side of things – the dress code, although more universally accepted, still exists, and the prophets – the modern day Ian Mackayes, such as internet idol Chris Gutierrez
– still spread the word on straight edge and on original punk rock ethics, and that’s what subculture is all about – finding our own personal place in society and finding sense in what is presented to us.