Friday, 25 May 2012

My Essay "Sub-genres and cultures of punk; what defines punk music?"

Here's my research dissertaion for college, around 4500 words, it needs marking so I can make some changes but yeah :')


“Punk is not just the sound, the music. Punk is a life-style. There are a lot of bands around who claim to be punk and they only play the music, they have no clue what it's all about. It's a life-style.” -  (Armstrong)

Since the start of the punk rock movement in the 70s, punk has developed into many sub-genres and managed to always stay quite successful, despite it starting out as a rebellion against ‘the norm’. Punk music has mixed with Reggae to create Ska, with Metal in bands such as Avenged sevenfold and My Chemical Romance, and then of course there is ‘pop-punk’; which is basically completely contradictory genres, or at least they were at some point. Everyone seems to have a different opinion on what defines punk music, if it’s the quick power-chord riffs and simple / angry vocals, then how do bands like Fall Out Boy, Green Day or even The Clash fit in with the genre? And if it’s the rebellious attitude that makes punk music, then people like Eminem and Lady Gaga could easily be classed as punk artists. In this dissertation I will be looking at the History of punk rock, the ways in which it has expanded and also what defines punk rock, or maybe no music genres can really be defined?

The beginning of Punk Music

“Well, I don’t give a f*** what the general public think”. – Sid Vicious.

The beginning of punk rock can’t really be expressed as fact, as people can never really agree on what defines punk or even really how punk music came about. “’Punk Rock’ was originally used to describe the garage musicians of the '60's. Bands like the Sonics were starting up and playing out with no musical or vocal instruction, and often limited skill. Because they didn't know the rules of music, they were able to break the rules.” - (Cooper) So at the roots of punk rock, it seemed to be defined by the ‘rule breaking’, the limited talent and limited knowledge of music, maybe by the rebellion in youth... but now that is definitely not the case, with musicians like Billie Joe Armstrong, who’s first vocal recording was at the age of five with ‘look for love’ (a much more Motown feeling song than the music he makes with his band Green Day).

Getting into the late 60s a few more bands seemed to be into the rebellious and ‘raw’ feel, speaking out for their opinions in a new way that the public weren’t used to, and often the lyrics were quite political. This was opening people’s eyes to a new movement. The punk rock scene really started to become noticed around the mid 70s in New York (with bands like The Ramones and Blondie) and across the pond in London. England’s punk movement was a bit more political, because around this time the un-employment rates were worse than ever. “England's youth were angry, rebellious and out of work. They had strong opinions and a lot of free time.” -  (Cooper)

Most people would agree that one of the first bands in the punk scene, to really shape ‘punk rock’ and also one of the most memorable rock bands, are the ‘Sex Pistols’. On a visit to New York, Malcolm McLaren saw what was happening and returned to London with a vision; start a Punk band (the Sex Pistols), and the rest is history.” -  (Vale, 2006) The Sex Pistols took a while to fully form and find the right name, in 1975 Steve Jones met Johnny Rotten in ‘SEX boutique’, “he looked different, he had green hair and even though he hadn’t sang before he was asked to join the band.” - (Shiveley, 2007). This shows that in the beginning, you wouldn’t really need any skill whatsoever as long as you had the rebellious style and outspoken attitude to get yourself heard, or at least in this case. They were looking for something to grasp an audience. The same thing happened with Sid Vicious, he couldn’t play the bass but his look fit in well. I think at first one of the main points of punk rock was the unique style, the bright hair colours and ripped up clothes. Back when the Sex Pistols were recording their first and only album, punk rock was new, the way punk rock will always be remembered; ‘raw’. Little talent and a lot to say, sporting the Union Jack, bright colours and a nice amount of aggression, which ironically was often aimed at their country. “The Punk Rock Cultural Revolution was really a full-on, comprehensive rebellion against illegitimate authority in the domains of culture, politics, and society.” -  (Vale, 2006)

How has punk music evolved and stayed successful?

“Punk is musical freedom. It's saying, doing and playing what you want. In Webster's terms, 'nirvana' means freedom from pain, suffering and the external world, and that's pretty close to my definition of Punk Rock.” - (Cobain)

60’s – 80’s

Punk music can effect everyone in one way or another... in the 70s hip hop and punk rock were often played in the same places, both were looking for something new and edgy. On the outside they may have different looks, but both were unique. You don’t necessarily have to have the bright hair and ripped up clothes to feel the spirit of punk, you don’t even need to like punk rock music. This is why I feel punk music has stayed successful and also why so many punk bands use influences from genres with a more urban or ‘blues’ feel, in a way there are no rules. Along with the evolution of music technology, but in what ways has punk music evolved?

So as we know in the beginning punk rock seemed to be a rebellion and a style. Although as far as the musical characteristics go, it has more of a ‘mix and match’ feel, it’s hard to pin down what sounds punk and what doesn’t. “During the '60s, there were some bands that can definitely be connected to the influences of punk rockers. The Stooges, The Sonics, The who; all of these bands had elements in their music that contributed to the growth of punk.” -  ('MixtapeChick', 2012) Punk rock took a while to become a solidified genre, and will probably never be able to be described in one sentence, with all of the influences it takes from other genres and all of the subcultures. It would take someone forever to distinctly talk about all the influences on different punk bands throughout the years, so I’ll be choosing some of the most promenant.

Hip hop is probably one of the main genres that punk music has similarities with, and in a way both have also evolved in similar ways. Both used to be a rebellion and had alot to say about politics but have now been vastly watered down to most of what we would hear today. “The connection between punk music and hip-hop was that to somebody, the music meant something personal. It spoke to people, and it was also open to interpretation and experimentation for anyone. Basically, the music used to push boundaries not for nothing, but to further colour in your feelings.” -  (BlueSkye, 2011) Even to this day the main influence in punk I hear (besides Rock and Roll / Metal influences) is hip hop. Some bands seem to be a full 50/50 split between punk and hip hop. If you listen to bands like Rage against the machine, they have the political messages along with a rock feel and a rap/hip hop feel. If you listen to Eminem alot of his songs have distorted guitars and punk characteristics. There’s even rap in a Blondie song called “rapture”. “The Velvet Underground, Stooges and New York Dolls gave birth to a kicking, screaming dynasty where the Ramones did it fast, the Clash did it smart, The Misfits made it manic and Fugazi did it on their own terms. In the beginning, the same sentiment was applied in Hip Hop... And just like those seminal Punks, seminal Hip Hop artists did it their way. Kurtis Blow paved the way, Big Daddy Kane was decadent yet never made it who he was, Public Enemy spit fire, all the while telling you how it was, N.W.A gave a glimpse of the life and Run DMC? They only demolished every single barrier Hip Hop faced.” -  (An_Anvil_Tree, 2004) At a glance punk and hip hop, and the people who listen to punk and hip hop, may seem as opposite as possible, but that’s not the case. Punk music can be linked in with alot of genres, wether it be the sound or the lyrics.

Another quite obvious influence on punk rock (atleast in late 70’s / 80’s) is Reggae. Reggae – influences punk even has it’s own sub-genre; Ska-punk. Ska-punk is a successful genre that includes bands like The Stranglers and Reel Big Fish. Bob Marley even has an album named “Punky Reggae Party”, that may not be enough to say that punk and reggae are close genres, but enough to say they have a mutual respect for the most part. “Punk and reggae became further intertwined because of two of punks most influential figures, Mr Rotten and the boys in the Clash. Reggae was very much a part of their musical scene and growing up and each vied to say they loved it more than the other as an influence.” - (Letts, 2005). Reggae was more of a UK punk influence and Hip Hop was more of a USA punk influence. With The Clash and Sex Pistols came some reggae influences, and with bands like Blondie came hip hop influences. Bands like The Clash used reggae and dub sometimes (even dabbled in hip-hop influences on one of their last albums) themselves, Refused messed with electronica and jazz on their classic last album, and even Whole Wheat Bread rapped.” - (BlueSkye, 2011).


In the very early 1990’s, Grunge was the big alternative scene, if you’d ask me, I’d say Grunge and Punk were pretty close stylistically and bands like Nirvana practically paved the way for a punk revival, and took punk influences themselves.

The ‘rebirth of punk’ and also the real beginning of pop punk / modern punk was in 1994, when Green Day released the album “Dookie” which was hugely successful. Green Day originally began forming around 1984 when soon-to-be bassist Mike Dirnt met Billie Joe Armstrong at their high school and instantly clicked over their mutual love of punk rock, but it took until 1990 for Green Day (originally named: “Sweet Children”) to get signed. “The modern-day classic not only launched the Bay Area punk trio into the mainstream, it opened the door to a mid-'90s wave of popped-up punk and provided a launching pad for the current crop of melodic pop-punkers.” –  (D'Angelo, 2004) Green Day still had/have allot of similarities to the older punk bands, political messages, bright coloured hair, a bit of rebellion and attitude, but they had allot more than that. Yes some of their songs were fast paced and quite heavy with almost shouting vocals, but they also had allot of music that could be seen as pop music, with allot of love songs even since the first album when they were signed to indie label “lookout! Records”. You could certainly here the blues influences passed down from Billie Joe’s father, (a blues musician who began teaching Billie instruments at the age of 4). It’s this contrast that really sparked a new movement of pop-punk bands. The list of successful pop punk bands is endless: Blink 182, All Time Low, Fall Out Boy, Paramore, Good Charlotte, Blink 182, etc. All of which have created a new craze themselves, by adding their own unique twist to pop punk, making the subgenre equally as big or maybe bigger than punk rock. I found a lot of examples of very successful pop punk musicians inspired by Green Day, these are just a couple. “"Dookie changed my life," confessed Good Charlotte's Joel Madden. “It made me want to start Good Charlotte. ... Right after that record came out, we were like, 'we have to start a band in our garage right now and play shows ... like Green Day."” -  (D'Angelo, 2004) “"I was about 14 when Dookie came out," echoed Sum 41's Deryck Whibley."I remember seeing the video for 'Basket Case' for the first time. I had never heard of Green Day, and then this video came on TV one day. I was so blown away by it.” - (D'Angelo, 2004)

Green Day of course weren’t the only band that brought back punk in the early 90s. The Offspring and Blink 182 were also building their fan base around the same couple of years. Some would argue that The Offspring or Blink 182 were even more influential than Green Day. Blink 182 formed in 1992 and had their real big break in 1998 with an album named “enema of the estate”, where as The Offspring were first signed to an indie label in 1989 (even before Green Day). “In 1994, the Offspring proved they were not only one of the best punk bands around at the time, but they were sure as hell born in the right generation. As alternative music became popular again, punk music was due for a comeback, and with fellow Green Day releasing 'Dookie' to critical acclaim, the Offspring joined in the fun with their smash hit 1994 album 'Smash.'” -  (Rankles, 2005) You can hear some reggae influences in The Offspring’s music also. All three of these bands added a nice amount of humour to punk rock that may not have been used before, they still had messages in their music and sometimes politics, but the older punk bands around in the 70s didn’t have music videos to really concentrate on, so when The Offspring and Blink 182 could make videos like “Pretty fly for a white guy” and “All The Small Things” they could attract a bigger audience.

00’s +

The old ways of punk seeming hard-hitting mostly faded away. There will always be some “real punk bands” around underground, but I can’t imagine any having the success of earlier punk bands like The Ramones and the Sex Pistols. Over the past 10/15 years pop punk has become a solidified genre and maybe the most successful sub-genre within rock and roll.

Around the mid 00’s pop punk span into a huge genre, meaning that some pop punk bands sounded almost classic rock, where as some would sound a bit more soulful or urban, some even started taking a more hardcore or metal root, still remaining to be ‘pop punk’ but sounding heavier than traditional punk rock bands. “During the mid 2000s, the lines that defined pop-punk genre began to become more and more obscured due to the rise of many new bands with a unique blend of sound. Bands such as The Used, Taking Back Sunday, and My Chemical Romance began to take the scene by storm, showing many pop-punk characteristics but spouting a darker and more depressing tone.” -  ('TheMagician', 2010) My Chemical Romance  in specific had a great mixture of musical influences, the rhythmn guitarist mainly playing in a punk style influences by bands such as Black Flag and The misfits, the singer and bassist massively inspired by Iron Maiden and Morrisey, all in all taking in inspiration by lots of different genres, ending up with a kind of mix between pop punk and metal.

Fall out boy were a large part in how recent pop punk seems to have adopted styles from so many genres, I’m not saying all these bands are inspired by Fall out boy, but Fall out boy definately sparked something off and brought back some earlier sounds. Fall Out Boy started in 2001, and on their first couple of albums they sound like a more hardcore pop punk band, with ‘breakdowns’ and screaming on some songs. “On paper, it didn’t look like it should work. But somehow the combined powers of a lyric-writing bassist obsessed with the Smiths, a singer who cherished classic Motown songs more than punk rock, a politically minded hardcore drummer and a guitarist that’s true to metal made Fall Out Boy one of the biggest success stories in American emo-punk.” -  (AltPress, 2012) Where as their 3rd album sounded more hip hop influenced, with a song featuring Jay Z, and their 4th album was almost jazz / swing on some songs. If you were to put all four albums on shuffle it would seem to swap around between punk, hardcore, jazz, hip hop and blues. Even though in my eyes this shows talent and stops people from getting bored, a lot of people despise when a punk band strays into different genres or breaks out a little. “At least one reviewer pouted that the band's addictive new album Folie a Deux, is too ambitious. Oh, please. Does anyone say that about Radiohead or Animal Collective, or any of the sanctified indie saints? Ambition is good.” - (Marino, 2009). It’s a good thing that bands like Fall out boy had the ambition to try out different things (along with many bands before and after themselves) because punk and pop punk certainly aren’t narrow genres that can be specified easily. The hardcore side of things will have helped pave the way for bands like A day to remember, Sleeping with sirens and Four year strong to become so successful. (Although there were some older punk bands that sounded hardcore around long ago, such as Black Flag) the hardcore pop punk wasn’t really mainstream untill around 2005, which I believe was largely because of Fall out boy being one of the most successful rock bands of the time. “Fall Out Boy reached the top 10 of the pop singles chart with a hard-edged punk pop sound that sometimes teeters on the edge of hardcore.” -  (Lamb, 2012)

The hip hop inspiration you can see and hear in Fall out boy can also strongly be seen in some more recent pop punk bands such as All time low and Breathe Carolina. Breathe Carolina only started making music together in 2006/2007 mainly using Garageband, and they’re pretty much an even mixture between hardcore, pop punk and techno/dance, they’ve even included some acoustic rock songs and a dubstep track on their latest album, but if most people would ask what genre they are, they’d probably say “pop punk” because it’s such a vast genre. Breathe Carolina are one of the best examples of the evolution of pop punk. They’ve been featured on the mix CD ‘Pop goes punk’ that Fearless records release yearly, although this mixtape always will have bands that some would say sound more techno, dance or hardcore, they all fit under the ‘pop punk’ umbrella nicely. The same could be said for Panic at the disco, who are also classed as pop punk although you can hear strong characteristics of dance music and classic rock, especially through the powerful vocals of Brendon Urie. “Punk pop bands continue to emerge and gain commercial success. Among those that have recently made a significant impact on pop charts are Simple Plan, All-American Rejects, and Fall Out Boy.” -  (Lamb, 2012)

Another defining moment I can’t forget about punk music in the mid 2000’s is the American idiot album by Green Day. This added another personallity, in a way, to punk music equally as much as bands that infused hip hop and dance, because it was ambitious in a different way. This album stands out from the rest and was even more successful than the previously mentioned ‘Dookie’. ‘American idiot’ is a rock opera and an almost biographical journey. “Armstrong's lyrics come off as almost autobiographical at times, with the spitting of "Saint Jimmy / that's my name / and don't wear it out!" over a rip-roaring punk rock instrumental. It's almost as if he's writing this album about his own maturation over the band's 10-plus years under the public eye. "Are We The Waiting" may be the most anthemic song Armstrong's ever written, and "Give Me Novocaine" will probably win the title for the hardest-rocking-yet-vocally-introspective he's ever been.” - (Scott, 2004) American Idiot has now been turned into a successful broadway musical that’s currently touring, and has had guest appearances from Billie Joe.

It’s hard to sum up all the ways punk has evolved over 50/60 years, making it even harder to define punk music, I’ve mentioned a rock opera, dance music, hip hop, jazz, grunge etc, but there’s one last thing within punk and pop punk that I think deserves a paragraph or so; and it’s the involvement of females in pop punk. A lot of the women in modern punk and rock in general were influenced by Joan Jett. “It’s obvious that she [Joan Jett] has had a huge impact on many girl rockers out there, showing the world that a girl can indeed make it in a male-dominated music scene.” -  (Beaton, 2010) Joan Jett definately inspired plenty of girls in punk rock, such as Mercedes Arn-Horn, the singer and guitarist from Canadian Pop Punk band Courage my love was quoted saying “Some people think girls can’t play guitar as well as men... I’m really into Joan Jett and The Runaways, cause they were kind of the first real all girl rock band, she writes awesome songs... currently I really like Hayley Williams from Paramore and Sienna from Versa Emerge.” - (Arn-Horn, 2011). Although Joan Jett may have been the first, Hayley Williams is arguably more of an influence on girls in pop punk recently. The front woman from Paramore started the craze of female pop punk bands in the 21st century. Paramore officially formed in 2004 and shortly after released their hugely successful album “All we know is falling”; paving the way for plenty more female fronted bands within the last 7/8 years, such as Courage my love, Versa emerge, Hey Monday, Tonight Alive, We are the in crowd, and plenty more.

“Punk rock is not dead, it is just evolving. Just because it isn't screaming, yelling, moshing, etc doesn't mean it's not punk anymore.” -  ('MixtapeChick', 2012)

Brief History of Pop Punk

The pop side of punk rock has basically been around since punk first got its name, because there will always be a softer side of certain genres, but most people will have just called it punk rock because it was early on and people weren’t too specific about genres then. I wouldn’t say “pop punk” was really a used phrase until maybe the mid 90s. “Punk rock has pretty much been taken over by pop-punk today, but I don't find that much of a bad thing. A lot of it sounds the same, but there are also some gems among the masses. Subgenres upon subgenres are still emerging from the original punk rock sound. The evolution is still going.” -  ('MixtapeChick', 2012)

In the 70’s, the biggest bands in the pop or commercial side of punk were The Clash, The Buzzcocks and The Undertones. “Their [the Buzzcocks] style was fast and frantic, yet they have maintained a bit of pop influence as well. It's these pop overtones that lead them to be a primary influence of today's pop punk bands, most notably Green Day.” -  (Cooper, 2011) “By the late 1980's, a new form of punk began to emerge with a hard and fast guitar and drums base but powered by pop melodies like much of 70's punk rock. California-based independent record label Lookout! helped spearhead this development.” - (Lamb, 2012) Lookout! Records are also the first label that Green Day had signed to, before moving on to Reprise Records just before the release of Dookie.

Is punk a rebellion, a music genre or a fashion statement? Who are ‘posers’ and ‘sellouts’?

A lot of people would say the newer punk bands are “sellouts”, “too pop” or just not even punk at all, they would argue that these bands have no real punk characteristics; but it can be argued that possibly one of the most respected punk bands of all time was one of the least ‘punk’. The sex pistols were put together by someone else and signed to a major label, not through a mutual love of music or ‘hobbie’. Not only that, but the main reasion they were chosen was their style. “Sex Pistols were on a major label, and was put together by a fatcat of the music industry the same way *NSYNC was. They still get respect for making punk popular.” -(BlueSkye, 2011). Could real authenticity ever really be achieved? Even the more ‘underground’ punk bands that people would call authentic would probably sign to a bigger label if given the chance, and may still not really play for “the message”. A lot of people like to say that Green Day sold out when they signed to Reprise, a lot of people would say they don’t make punk music, and that punk is dead, because people who are called punk now are nothing like the older punk bands. On the other hand, some of us would say they’re just being true to themselves, which is a more ‘punk’ attitude than trying to replicate earlier bands who try to look punk, by buying leather jackets and jeans to rip them up. If you like the music, make it. But what matters is whether you believe in the music and all that it stands for. If there is no feeling, then the music could be nothing more than a retread of nostalgia some people haven't lived.” -  (BlueSkye, 2011)

The style may be part of the rebellion of punk, or at least it was at the beginning when people weren’t used to it. “Some bizarre, irregular hairdos began appearing (but no mohawks--that was an Eighties phenomenon), along with neon-bright shades of pink, blue, and green; the hair dye Krazy Kolor had recently been invented and was hard to find and expensive; however, a small supply found its way to the Bay Area. But the majority of early Punks were late adopters; their hair was on the long side. The first band to sport very short hair was the Avengers, who were students at the San Francisco Art Institute. They more consciously aped the British Punk look.” - (Vale, 2006) These days if we see someone with bright red spikey hair, it’s completely normal, it doesn’t have the same effect. Punk isn’t dead it’s just changed. People don’t usually try to shock people with the way they look to try and prove that they’re punk, and it’s for that reason that I think in a lot of ways, punk is more of an authentic music genre now than it ever was.

Fashion will always have a say in bands, wether they choose it or not. You may not dress to look a certain way, but once you influence people it will catch on. “Like any band capable of causing a pop-culture sea change, Green Day circa Dookie transcended their influence on music to have an impact on fashion. The Sex Pistols had their safety pins, the Ramones brought back the leather motorcycle jackets, and for Nirvana it was flannel shirts. Green Day's contribution to any teen rocker's wardrobe was the striped sweater. "The 'When I Come Around' video was the first time ever saw the trend of the striped sweater," recalled Something Corporate's Partington. "I remember like two weeks later, every kid in school was wearing a striped sweater, including me."” - (D'Angelo, 2004) Yes, some of the bands might straighton their hair and sometimes write about stuff less rebellious, but they’re doing what’s important to them personally, instead of doing what they’re told, e.g. “stay on an indipendant label or you’ll lose fans”. Punk started off as a rebellion that could be expressed through style and music. Now I think rebellion has slightly been pushed aside, because people can’t be shocked as easily. Punk can be a style and a music genre, but they won’t usually fit in together. Someone who plays punk music might dress more like they’re ready to go play football or go to a bar, because punk has evolved and expanded.

 “I think people are still curious about Punk because it produced a lot of interesting culture that, for whatever reasons, is still liberating, inspiring and against the status quo. And it always illustrates how easy it is to express rebellion in a creative, blackly-humorous way. Because truly, how much has the world really changed since Punk began?” - (Vale, 2006)


In conclusion to the question “what defines punk music?” the answer remains basically the same. Some people would say the old bright hair and ripped clothes with angry lyrics and sound is the real punk music, some would say it’s more about the music and that the style doesn’t come into it. Personally I’d say as time changes so does punk music, and it evolves as each person who plays punk music has taken on different influences. Punk music can’t really be defined in a way that everyone would agree with, no genre of music can.

-       Lizzie Tupman

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