Why won’t people say they are punks?

I never got this on the old board.

There were people who listened to lots of punk music, went to punk shows, and had lots of punk political views and talked about punk all the time. But they’d deny they were punks, or, even say that the whole idea of ‘real punk’ was somehow stupid and say there were no actual punks posting on the board.

I think there were two definitions of punk involved:

1 – some kind of ultimate working class young super-tramp anarchist fully DIY crazy character who lives totally outside the system (yet is kinda famous somehow)

2 – a normal person within society, but who likes punk stuff and goes to shows, has fun, has generally progressive political views, participates in the culture, etc.

Even though people denied that they even believed in ideal 1, they still weren’t prepared to say they were punks, because somehow they thought they might look like poseurs. Better to say “I never was one.”

But honestly, if you listen to punk music and you think punk / DIY / alternative culture is generally interesting and it empowers you to try and live your life the way you want it, and try to fight through the bullshit of mainstream culture, then: you are a punk.

I’ve been a punk, on and off, since I was thirteen.

Maybe everyone would like to be a little more like ideal #1 sometimes, but that doesn’t mean we have to totally dis-identify with something really important to us, because we don’t get close to the ideal.

I think mainstream culture has probably facilitated this development of real punk as an unattainable ideal but I am not sure how it has done it.

This post was partly prompted by the fact that I met some people in Malaysia recently who were happy to say they were punks, and they were pretty middle class and had normal jobs, and were very much constrained by that society in what they could do. One guy hadn’t even been allowed to move out of home til he was thirty, and was now in his late forties, and he was happy to identify as a punk and to spread the word about punk bands and punk culture to other Malaysians.

And, he was awesome, a positive person, and not jaded and embarrassed by the fact that he obviously was not living up to some ideal. Malaysian society is really oppressive and he said it took him years to fight off the expectations of others. Punk was empowering for him, even in his thirties and forties.

Seems like for a lot of people in the west in their twenties, it has actually become dis-empowering, almost embarrassing.

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About sjmckenzie

Writer. Celticist. Banjo picker. Family Man.
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7 Responses to Why won’t people say they are punks?

  1. k- says:

    It’s not punk to be a punk. Or perhaps more appropriately it is punk to say you’re not punk.

    I haven’t experienced a huge number of people who I would identify as punks who claim that aren’t, but it does happen. I think there might be three factors driving that. First, there is a view that to be punk is to not belong, to be an outsider, to be a rebel. So it is almost a contradiction to claim insider status in a group. Once you claim to belong to a group, then you are no longer an outsider, a rebel. Therefore claiming not to be punk is the purest expression of being a punk. I’ve met a few people who think along those lines. Second, (and I’ll speak from personal experience here) when I identify as a punk, I am often asked to speak for the entire global subculture; to explain what ‘punks’ do or think about a certain issue; or to answer for what other ‘punks’ have already done (eg why do you punks wear swastikas? why do you punks take speed? etc.). I’ve known some punks who, given the context they find themselves in, decline to be identified as punks just to avoid those types of situations. And the third factor is what you already mentioned: fear of being labeled a poseur. In all subcultures (punk is not unique here) there are some who maintain strict boundaries between insider/outsider. For many, like me, there is nothing more taxing and tiring then having to engage in these ‘punk credibility checks.’ So it can be easier to say, ‘fuck it, I was never a punk, can we move on now?’ The few times I saw people on the old boards demure on self-identifying as a punk, I read it as being driven mostly by that third factor.

    Me, I think I have always self-identified as being a punk since the age of 13 or so as well. Of course, when I do so now (as I did to a group of 20 year olds yesterday) they assume I only listen to music from 1977-79 and they have no idea abut the vibrant global DIY punk communities of today.

  2. sjmckenzie says:

    “Once you claim to belong to a group, then you are no longer an outsider, a rebel. Therefore claiming not to be punk is the purest expression of being a punk.”

    That’s just silly. Like, who is keeping score, anyway? I’m not saying this to you personally, but to people who think like this.

    “Second, (and I’ll speak from personal experience here) when I identify as a punk, I am often asked to speak for the entire global subculture.”

    I do know what you mean. I think this is part of the process of making punk into a ridiculous ideal – by asking it to “make sense.” People who are into country and western music don’t have to answer to that kind of shit because their stuff is seen as safer. My response is basically to say I can do what I want and people who wear swastikas are just dickheads who have nothing to do with me.

    “For many, like me, there is nothing more taxing and tiring then having to engage in these ‘punk credibility checks.’ So it can be easier to say, ‘fuck it, I was never a punk, can we move on now?’ The few times I saw people on the old boards demure on self-identifying as a punk, I read it as being driven mostly by that third factor.”

    I saw the dynamic on the old board as being more like, everyone thinking that everyone else was going to judge them, but no one actually giving a shit. I mean, if someone came on and tried to argue that Simple Plan were a “real punk band”, they’d get a hard time, because everyone would see what a lame attempt to get credibility that was. But if someone said they were into RPGs and listened to Kate Bush, no one gave a crap. So, was anyone really testing anyone’s credibility, except as a joke?

    Basically I don’t see being a punk as something that you can get credibility for. You just are one. No shame in it, but no big deal either.

  3. jollyseitan says:

    You ain’t no punk, you punk. You wanna talk about the real junk?

    No, but in all sincerity…for me, I think it was always about feeling easily embarrassed and about not living up to some imagined ideal.

    Even though I have self-identified as a punk since I was about 13 (that must be the magic punk age), when I was first discovering the music and the ideals, I always felt that, in my own sheltered existence, I couldn’t live up to ideal #1 per above. Back then, I guess I still felt like a mere kid whom no one would take seriously. Punks were older kids, maybe tougher kids, probably not as nerdy as I was.

    Then for a few years I didn’t know what I would be called, honestly. Musically, once I made it past my heavy metal phase, I guess I started discovering everything all at once…reggae, psychedelia, hip hop, progressive rock, crossover, indie rock…and I liked all of them but couldn’t say exactly where I “fit.”

    A couple of years later, one of my then-best-friends said once that he couldn’t relate to me as much because I “listen to that punk shit.” So then I decided, “Well, I must be a punk.” But I was sure that the other kids that I thought were punk were convinced I couldn’t know anything about punk. So then I decided that I must not know “how” to be punk.

    Then for years I would say that I was “into” punk and hardcore, but I think I still refrained from calling myself punk. Now that you mention it, I don’t know where the line would be between being “into” the music and the ideals and the subculture and actually being the thing itself, “punk.”

    By the time I was in my mid-20s, it started to seem silly to even try to refer to myself and being “punk” in the same sentence, because punks are kids, and I’m not a kid anymore. I’m not saying this is a legitimate mindset, but it was my mindset for a long time.

    Now I just think I’m punk by default. After a while, you just start to feel like you’ve got nothing left to prove. And those of you on the younger side of 30 will discover with each passing year (if you haven’t already) that 99.9% of your peers have no clue about anything outside of a very tiny, very narrow sphere of knowledge. They barely know anything about even mainstream things and don’t even bother to discover anything new or even halfway current. So just to resist becoming a boring and stultified person is punk enough.

    And that’s what punk rock’s all about, Charlie Brown.

  4. sjmckenzie says:

    “So just to resist becoming a boring and stultified person is punk enough.”

    I think that was what was inspiring about these Malaysian guys.
    They weren’t tying to claim punkness for street cred value.

    They were saying that it had helped them fight off oppressive stuff. Even if they still seemed fairly straight, they were still better off than they would have been.

    Maybe people don’t like to admit that the west can still be oppressive, and we still find it hard to fight off crappy social norms.

  5. Steevo says:

    I don’t understand this whole notion of “phases” of music listening. Seriously. I don’t get it.

    I never gave two shits about “flying the ‘punk’ flag”- it was, has always been, and will always be the punk “ethos” (or at least my interpretation of it) that appeals to me. If someone asked me- “are you punk?”, I’d say, hell yeah. I do a lot of things that keep the punk notion alive- or at least somewhat alive.

  6. sjmckenzie says:

    really? you look and write like a bimbo.

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