“A guy walks up to me and asks ‘What’s ‘punk’?’ So I kick over a garbage can and say, “That’s punk!” So he kicks over the garbage can and says, “That’s punk!”
A “punk,”, as you probably know, is a young troublemaker. If your elderly neighbor thinks of you as a young “punk,” he either thinks all kids are bad — or you did something that really disturbed him. In the 17th Century “punk” meant “prostitute.” The most likely root of ‘punk’ is ‘ponk’ an Algonquin word which originally described rotten wood used to start fires.
“Punk” describes a subculture that emerged in 1976. In general, punks are working class, scruffy, earthy, dirty in clothing and language. Their interests are at odds with mainstream society. Today’s punk culture started with music in the mid-1970s, as a rebellion against rock music of the time. To play punk all you needed was, as Sid Vicious said, “just pick a chord, go twang, and you’ve got music.”
The music genre of punk first arose in New York City in the 1970s. It turned political in London toward the 1980s. As Dick Hebdige, British media theorist and sociologist, notes in his book on punk style, “Subculture: The Meaning of Style” (1979), the dress (leather, spikes, safety pins), symbols (skulls, graffiti), and punk language that deliberately provoked their elders – “things to whiten mother’s hair with,” in the phrase of the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, along with names of groups like The Misfits, The Rejects, The Unwanted, The Worst.
Punk is political. The politics of punk grew from a combination of punk music with the anger and despair of working-class young people in Margaret Thatcher’s England. Features included a distrust of authority, which encouraged people to separate themselves creatively, economically, and socially from the mainstream. Says linguist Elyse Graham, “As a classics professor once told me, Diogenes [ancient Greek cynic:] was the original punk.”
Punk subculture melds ideologies, fashions, and nearly all forms of expression, including visual arts, dance, literature and film. Cyberpunk came along in the 1980s to describe works of art that brought punk to the world of computing. In 1989, the Whole Earth Review made the same observation about cyberpunk novels; the most famous punk novel – “1984” by George Orwell.
Wikipedia lists the entire line of Marvel’s 2099 collection as an example of the cyberpunk genre in comics, especially “Ghost Rider 2099” and “Spider-Man 2099.” And then sub-cultures took off after cyberpunk: Steampunk, Dieselpunk, Decopunk, a subset of Dieselpunk, and a gizzilion more.
In the last analysis, punk defies description. A punk writer, musician, painter, wanna-be or whatever would likely accept only that punks are creative individuals who defy imitation. Every generation has had its own world-disturbing youthful sub-culture. Punk is in fashion. Join the ‘belle monde.’ Pair your cashmere sweater or camel sport coat with a pair of distressed jeans with ragged holes. And don’t forget to color your hair.
JACK SMITH is a retired Shenango Valley high school and college English teacher.