Throughout my Master’s program I would regularly receive a quizzical look from professors and colleagues alike for one simple sentence: “I’m researching and writing about punk rock.” As a lifelong musician, audiophile, and concert-goer it just made sense to marry my love of punk music with my passion for historical analysis, which was furthered by the hidden complexity and relevance of the subject matter. Unlike what many people think, punk rock is much more than militant left-wing politics, abrasive aesthetics, and simplistic musical compositions. Through my research, as well as my personal experiences, I began to realize that a proper contextualization of punk (and its related sub-genre, hardcore) would demonstrate that the subculture’s actions should not simply be disregarded as meaningless or disingenuous.
By focusing on the actions, rhetoric, and lived experiences of those within the punk community (commonly referred to as the punk ‘scene’) I have always found a plethora of complex, and often divergent, understanding of various social and political issues, not the least of which includes ongoing discussions surrounding issues related to war and the military.
The standard recounting of punk’s relationship with war has been, somewhat justifiably, portrayed in terms of strict opposition and resistance. Groups like the Dead Kennedys, Millions of Dead Cops (MDC), 7 Seconds, and others repeatedly condemned the American military interventions of the 1980s, the Military Industrial Complex, and underlying hegemonic assumptions that were passed off as ‘common sense’ to justify a variety of military interventions throughout Latin America and the Middle East during the Regan administration’s tenure in office.
This harsh critique of Western military intervention and the cultural veneration of a fetishized and glorified portrayal of war continued even after the seminal punk bands of the 1980s had broken up and their musical scenes had been largely dismantled. As someone who came of age during mid-to-late 1990s, it was this new crop of political musicians that I related in a variety of ways. Groups like Propagandhi, Pennywise, Bad Religion (who came out of the now-defunct hardcore punk scene of the 1980s), and Refused furthered punk’s legacy of providing insightful and meaningful critiques of the horrors of war.
While anti-militaristic messages within punk music remained strong, a closer inspection of the language and aesthetics of this music scene reveals that pro-peace agendas were far from universal. This divergence can be seen in many facets of the community, beginning with a brief analysis of the changing aesthetics of punk and hardcore. Starting in the early 1980s, but gaining serious momentum throughout the 1990s and into the new millennium, the stereotypical multi-coloured Mohawk haircuts, bondage pants, and safety pin piercings were replaced with camouflage clothing, military-style crew cuts, and clothing that idealized weaponry and violence.
Speaking from personal experience, this shift became epitomized for me with the widespread emergence of a t-shirt created by the band Most Precious Blood that had a picture of an AK-47 assault rifle, and the words “DEFEND HARDCORE” written below.
As with the aesthetic component of the punk and hardcore community, the language of punk and hardcore has always had a certain militaristic element to it. While the 1980s punk scene saw albums titles like Black Flag’s “My War” or Cro-Mags “The Age of Quarrel”, the use of war and violence related band names, album titles, and song lyrics has become increasingly common within these music scenes. Throughout the last fifteen years bands like All Out War, Blood for Blood, First Blood, Warzone, Strife, and Death Before Dishonor, have chosen band names that conjure up images of war, conflict, violence, and death. While an interest in the macabre is nothing new to the punk and hardcore community, a much more militaristic tone has grown to dominate language of these scenes.
Now that the ground work has been laid, what does this actually say about the hardcore and punk community? Speaking from personal experience, there appear to be several causes. First, there is a pervasive opposition to numerous elements of mainstream culture that individuals that associate with punk and hardcore maintain as part of their personal identities. This ‘us vs. them’ mentality lends itself well to the establishment of a militaristic worldview, whereby one is constantly ‘at war’ with society and its influences. Secondly, aggressive and caustic music has lent itself well to the expression of aggressive and violent emotions. From aggressive dance-styles (moshing and hardcore dancing), to the vocal techniques used by many bands (screaming and shouting), punk and hardcore has always been seen as a way to release feelings of alienation, hostility, and aggression: feelings and emotions that have been culturally associated with war and the military.
So, why investigate punk’s use of militarily-relevant language and aesthetics? Well, this cultural phenomenon, which has largely been relegated to academic obscurity as ‘low culture’ and socially irrelevant, has quietly been gaining cultural capital and widespread acceptance. As a result, understanding the modes of expression within the punk community can help illuminate the motivations of an increasingly mainstream, but largely unanalyzed, cultural group.
Luke Henderson is a Curriculum Specialist in Toronto and a Research Associate of the LCMSDS