Punk Rock Socioeconomics
A defiant political and social outlook has always driven punk rock. But as the genre has been recast into grunge and other styles over the decades, issues have emerged for which the “correct” rebellious response is less obvious. What happens if you make it big despite your best efforts not to sell out? What happens when punk becomes enshrined in high culture? This map tackles punk outrage—and aesthetics—from its origins to the present.
From the antiauthoritarian rhetoric of the classic 1976 Sex Pistols song “Anarchy in the U.K.” to Chumbawamba’s scathing In Memoriam: Margaret Thatcher EP, released after the former prime minister’s death (featuring repeated samples of “Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead” and issued with the band’s deepest sympathies to the “families of all Margaret Thatcher’s victims”), it’s no secret that British punks reviled Thatcher, the conservative policies she championed and the government she represented. Thatcher’s approach to reviving Britain’s economy combined widespread austerity measures with hostility toward British labor organizations, which effectively widened socioeconomic disparity and increased poverty throughout the country. Working-class youths such as the Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious became politically conscious in the mid- to late 1970s during Thatcher’s tenure as leader of the Conservative Party. They witnessed the grisly strikes of gravediggers and garbage collectors, among other public unions, during the so-called Winter of Discontent (1978–1979), and the Labour government’s seemingly clueless response to the mounting chaos largely ensured Thatcher’s election as prime minister in 1979. British punks had a lot to be righteously angry about and were extremely vocal about their outrage, resulting in one of the 20th century’s most vital cultural movements.
Not only did they both inspire seminal punk rock anthems, but Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were also close political allies who led their countries during the same era and enacted similar policies; their efforts resulted in very different outcomes, however, and their legacies are disparate. Her critics often describe Thatcher as villainous, and her death caused fevered celebration throughout the U.K., particularly among trade unionists who lost their jobs during her tenure 30 years earlier—and in many cases never worked again. Although his detractors likewise found Reagan unsympathetic, most mainstream commentators praise him as the progenitor of a renewed United States conservatism and one of the nation’s more successful presidents. Key features shared by Thatcherism and Reaganomics include deregulation of industry, privatization of government contracts, supply-side economics and antiunionism in the domestic sphere, and both were staunchly anticommunist. But the relatively robust economy that held sway during the Reagan administration lent a golden glow to the president’s years in office, whereas Thatcher is associated with the hellishness of widespread poverty, hunger, riots, strikes and other erosions of the U.K. standard of living during her premiership.
“Say what you will about Reagan,” read a 2013 Jaded Punk blog post marking the Gipper’s birthday, “but at least we got some real punk out of that era.” Indeed, Reagan inspired some of the most vitriolic songs of the early-1980s American hardcore movement, from the Dead Kennedys’ “Bleed for Me,” which describes Reagan as a grotesque human-rights-deriding cowboy, to the band name chosen by New York scene staple Reagan Youth, in a nod to the Nazis’ Hitler Youth. Nearly everything about the 40th president’s reign—including the conservative brand of family values he extolled and the human rights abuses of the Iran-Contra affair—incited exacting scrutiny and harsh criticism from the U.S. punk community. And the outrage was often simply more general: As the Dead Kennedys sing on “Moral Majority,” “Blow it out your ass, Ronald Reagan. / What’s wrong with a mind of my own?” Thanks to the abundance of blistering musical commentary on the administration in power for most of the 1980s, Ronnie may be gone, but punk fans certainly won’t forget him anytime soon.
Despite being the U.K.’s first female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher is only by some accounts a feminist leader. Although her accomplishments serve as a shining example of perseverance against the odds—evidence of a brand of personal feminism in itself—her economic agenda did little to improve her countrywomen’s lives. The austerity policies she implemented arguably worsened conditions for British women. Conversely, the activist punk band Pussy Riot is nothing if not feminist. While its members’ secondary concerns range from garden-variety liberal domestic policy issues to radical anti-imperialism, the group’s uniting issue is feminism. Even within that, the bandmates espouse different feminist ideologies, including those of Kathleen Hanna, frontwoman of 1990s riot grrrl band Bikini Kill; 1980s antipornography activist Andrea Dworkin; and contemporary critical theorist Judith Butler, whose philosophy asserts that gender itself is a performance. In 2012 three Pussy Riot members were imprisoned in Russia for a protest against the Russian Orthodox Church and President Vladimir Putin’s government, for, among other things, their policies that discriminate against women; they implored the Virgin Mary in song to become a feminist. The group was noticeably absent from the seething international response to Thatcher’s death, even though Putin had praised Thatcher highly.
Both the impassioned activists of Pussy Riot and the minimally performative grunge bands exemplify the paradox of successful oppositional art: Whether you’re protesting an oppressive political regime or the corporate music industry, commercial viability becomes an ethical dilemma. Originating in late-1980s Seattle with the Sub Pop record label and such bands as Mudhoney and Soundgarden, grunge incorporates elements of both first-wave and hardcore punk and hard rock to create thematically apathetic music with a sludgy sound. Grunge achieved mainstream popularity in the early 1990s, much to the chagrin of some of its stars: Nirvana frontman and grunge poster child Kurt Cobain told the press, “Famous is the last thing I wanted to be.”
Similarly, following the tremendous outpouring of international support for Pussy Riot after the 2012 jailing of three of its members, the group responded rather unenthusiastically. Pussy Riot declined invitations to perform with such superstars as Madonna and Björk, stating that monetization of their work is antithetical to their philosophy. In 2014, however, some members did share the stage with Madonna to speak at an Amnesty International concert.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute took on a difficult task with its 2013 exhibition Punk: Chaos to Couture. The show consisted primarily of work by blue-chip designers who had been influenced by early punk symbolism and DIY accoutrements: safety pins, bondage gear, torn clothing, graffiti-stenciled fabrics, found objects as accessories. The Met also threw a punk-themed gala at which decidedly unpunk celebrities, from Kim Kardashian to Katie Couric, did their best to evoke the aesthetic in high-end eveningwear. Many critics considered the show a failure, arguing that it had missed the point of punk (rebellious music and politics) while celebrating tired design tropes that could easily be assigned to other subcultures, including hippies, Goths and metalheads. Attempts to canonize grunge style in high fashion have been met with similar incredulity. In the sloppy genre’s heyday, mainstream designers Marc Jacobs, Anna Sui and Calvin Klein appropriated its sartorial signatures, such as plaid flannel shirts, waffle-knit long johns and trashed baby-doll dresses. This cultural shift was also documented in a 2013 art show, NYC 1993, at New York’s New Museum. Alexander Wang and Saint Laurent’s Hedi Slimane have more recently co-opted the Seattle uniform in their collections.
Margaret Thatcher’s signature look was polished, conservative and consistent. It included a “power suit” by traditional British luxury clothier Aquascutum—typically in blue, the Conservative Party’s color—paired with a softly tied “pussy bow” blouse and accessorized with a handbag, a string of pearls and a lacquered bouffant hairstyle. Instantly recognizable, the look was famously pilloried in 1989 by Vivienne Westwood, star designer and an originator of British punk fashion, who sported it on the front of U.K. glossy Tatler. The cover line read, “This woman was once a punk.” (Thatcher was reportedly furious over the impersonation, which may have contributed to Tatler editor Emma Soames being fired a week after the issue debuted.) The irreverence that image demonstrates made Westwood an icon. As Punk: Chaos to Couture curator Andrew Bolton told The New Yorker, one idea that didn’t make it into the final exhibition was a monument in the form of a 40-foot-long statue of a reclining, nude Westwood, onto which the public could project graffiti. But the show’s re-creation of Westwood’s seminal boutique, Sex, and the distressed T-shirts it popularized, still placed her at the center of punk fashion.