The Punk and Hardcore Youth Subcultures in the USA Since the 1980s

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2005

20 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1. Introduction

2.1. Theory of Subcultures
2.1.1. Theory in Punk Rock
2.1.2. Theory in Hardcore
2.2. Punk and the Reagan Administration/ Conservative Politics
2.3. From Punk to Hardcore
2.4. Straight Edge
2.5.1 Emo/ Emocore
2.5.2. Online Interview with Andy Greenwald, Author of Nothing Feels Good

3. Conclusion

4. Bibliography

1. Introduction

This paper works with the underlying assumptions of Dick Hebdige’s study of subculteres. Here, the word subculture is used synonymously to youth culture, which is a contrast to Stefanie Grimm’s Die Repräsentation von Männlichkeit im Punk und Rap, where she defines subculture as a necessary step for groups that are rejected by the mainstream and thus have to find their semi-invisible niche. She specifically names the gay culture. Youth cultures, Grimm writes, are at the border of subcultures and popular culture.[1] But since youth cultures are as much a mystery to mainstream society as for example the gay culture, I choose not to make a difference between the words.

After a short introduction to the theory of subcultures and especially theory in punk and hardcore, this paper aims to discuss the youth cultures’ similarities and differences, the reasons for changes and continuity in the scene, and the relation to politics. Sources cited will include academic texts, popular texts like Andy Greenwald’s book Nothing Feels Good. Punk Rock, Teenagers, and Emo, as well as original voices from the scene, for example collected in interviews by Beth Lahicky for her book All Ages. Reflections on Straight Edge. As music is the starting point of all discussed youth cultures, there will also be comment on exemplary lyrics.

Most of the last chapter on the latest form of punk rock, emo, will be in interview style. To date there is one book written on emo. The author Andy Greenwald offers his readers an online messageboard to discuss his work, emo and everything related to it. He actively participates in the discussion and was so kind to answer my questions.

2.1. Theory of Subcultures

When it comes to the theory of subcultures, and especially the punk scene, the two authors frequently quoted are Greil Marcus, author of Lipstick Traces. A Secret History of the 20th Century; and Dick Hebdige, author of Subculture: The meaning of Style. In Take Three Chords…Punkrock und die Entwicklung zum American Hardcore, Dirk Budde included a chapter “Roundtable Punkrock” and a chapter “Roundtable Hardcore.” In the roundtable chapters Budde quotes the authors that have written extensive works about punk or hardcore as scholars, journalists and/ or fans. Budde leaves the statements uncommented at this point, criticism and comment follow in his general analysis of the music and the movements. The quotes deliver a concise overview of the respective author’s major arguments and give an insight in the current theories on music and subcultures.

2.1.1. Theory in Punk Rock

Marcus focuses on the aesthetic and semiotics of punk. It is the appearance that counts, meaning is inferior to style. Marcus’ assumptions on punk as well as his own writing style are based on 1920s dadaism and link coherences disregarding time or place in history, which makes Lipstick Traces rather hard to follow. It is important to note that he rejects punk as a musical genre: “If what is interesting about punk is something other than its function as a musical genre, there is no point in treating it as one.”[2] In One Chord Wonders. Power and Meaning of Punk Rock, David Laing argues against this by saying that the punk community only started with the music, which is a contrast to earlier youth subcultures. He specifically names the British teddy boys, mods and skinheads.

Hebdige’s analysis is focused on British punk of the 1970s with its working class character. Class consciousness and punk as a perceived threat to the upper classes is of course a British phenomenon that cannot easily be transferred to the American context of punk. However, Hebdige’s ideas on social roles and identities as an antithesis to the mainstream culture offer an approach independent from regional differences and have been taken up by scholars researching not only punk, but all kinds of different youth subcultures, e.g. rap in the USA or rave in Germany. Subculture: The Meaning of Style was written in 1978 and 1979 when punk was already declared dead in Britain, but just starting to come to the surface in the United States, which means the author witnessed his theory become reality in a different society only a short time after it was first written. The home page of 2004 Punk Congress in Kassel, Germany summarized Hebdige’s observations as follows: Hebdige “examined a process in punk, where objects become symbols, have an appalling effect on society and society reacts by commercializing those objects to reestablish a so called normal condition.”[3]

2.1.2. Theory in Hardcore

Theoretical writings about hardcore analyzing it in the same or a similar way like punk are simply not existing. The development of hardcore music has been documented in numerous regional fanzines and in interviews with central members of the scene. In Take Three Chords, Budde’s “Roundtable Hardcore” shows how little concensus there was and still is about the nature and meaning of hardcore. German weekly Der Spiegel called it a mix of punk and heavy metal in 1994, German scene zine ZAP saw no links to heavy metal and argued that the more melodic band projects in the scene were closer to pop. The one common ground scene members seem to have is that hardcore is not a fashion or musical style but linked to a certain attitude. The nature of this attitude is unclear and differs regionally from a simple “We want to have fun”[4] to political activism or the ascetic straight edge lifestyle.

2.2. Punk and the Reagan Administration/ Conservative Politics

Punk subculture opposed the “sheer celebration of wealth,”[5] military spending and cuts in social spending during the Reagan years. Independent shows were shut down by the police, in return punk magazines were filled with anti-Reagan symbols. “Many members of this youth subculture connected Reagan’s politics to the corporate culture of the 1980s against which they rebelled.”[6] This also led to young people looking for information out of the corporate mass media. This trend would continue into the 1990s when George Bush was President.

In the article “’Punk’ after the Pistols: American Music, Economics, and Politics in the 1980s and 1990s” John Charles Goshart gives two examples of the cultural mixing of punk music and political information. In 1991 Dischord records released antiwar and antidraft records as the Gulf war approached. One split EP by Maximum Rock and Roll’s Noam Chomsky and Bad Religion was called New World Order: War #1. Another one by former Dead Kennedy’s singer Jello Biafra Die For Oil Sucker. What was so special about these records is that they came with foldout posters not only advertising other records but also covering the war and the history of US–Middle East relations. Both records also included information on draft dodging and war resistance, topics that, due to the corporate media blackout during the war, would not come to people’s homes any other way.

In Nevada a group called Positive Force arranged cooperations with established non-profit organizations to educate themselves. The issues they were most interested in in the 1980s included the threat of a nuclear war and intervention in Central America. Positive Force still exists in 2005; it is now based in Washington, D.C. This is how the organization is introduces itself on their home page

Positive Force arose from the punk underground, we are about farmore than just “alternative” music. We promote active, questioning,responsible, alternative lifestyles. In the end, it is what each of usdoes, and not what we say, that really counts. Our lives can be the mostpowerful protest imaginable. if we refuse to be trapped by the lies,poisons and escapes of our society, if we refuse to become stagnant,complacent and uncaring, we have a chance to make a real difference, achance, even, to radically change our world as we change ourselves. (sic!)[7]

This statement with its focus on action, doing something instead of talking, protest against stagnation and overcoming the “lies and poisons” of the mainsteam in society, clearly carries the ideas of 1980s punk into the present of 2005.

In the 1980s people from the punk subculture in large cities would also become politically involved with the New Left and the Nuclear Freeze Movement. Yet, punk had its own forms of protest that manifested themselves in spontaneous actions, for example street theater or political graffiti – something Mattson calls lifestyle politics. These actions were often directly linked to the political leadership and President Reagan himself. In “’Punk’ after the Pistols” John Charles Goshert writes:

Additionally, the end of the Reagan years in the United States marked the lack, or at least the waning, of a clearly identifiable national enemy against whom the punks could position themselves. Reagan was seen by many as the national avatar of what the skinheads represented on the local level, and while the policies of the Reagan administration did not disappear with the Bush administration [...], the process of normalization that such economic and social policies underwent made them increasingly difficult to address in an oppositional manner.[8]

Goshert’s argument is that American political punk rock lost its momentum when the Reagan administration ended. For a certain part the, however swiftly, changing innerpolitical climate may have contributed to the decline of the strongly political aspects of the subculture. Other factors include the end of the cold war and with it no longer the immediate threat of nuclear war.

However, probably the crucial point in the history of punk was the growing commercialization of the punk image by corporations who saw an attractive market opening up to which they responded by designing fashion especially for the youth subculture. By mainstreaming punk culture, it became attractive as a fashion and an image for apolitical teenagers who were never part of the Do-It-Yourself and protest culture. The crucial element of shocking people solely by what someone was wearing was almost completely lost. In Die Repräsentation von Männlichkeit in Punk und Rap, Stefanie Grimm writes: “Selbstdarstellung durch die äußere Erscheinung spielte im Punk eine zentrale Rolle. Besonders die Frisuren und die Art, sich zu kleiden, dienten dazu, gesellschaftliche Tabus zu brechen.”[9] People who were originally part of the DIY punk scene largely turned their backs on what they perceived was no longer their culture and moved on to form the new hardcore subculture that had its roots in Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles.


[1] Stefanie Grimm. Die Repräsentation von Männlichkeit im Punk und Rap. (Tübingen: Stauffenburg), 1998, p. 24f.

[2] Greil Marcus quoted in: Dirk Budde. Take Three Chords... Punkrock und die Entwicklung zum American Hardcore. (Karben: Coda), 1997, p. 41.

[3] „Teilnehmer – Dick Hebdige.“PUNK! 2004 Kongress – 22. – 26.9.2004 in Kassel. 10/15/05. <>.

[4] Members of the bands Cro Mags and Agnostic Front quoted in: Dirk Budde. p. 142

[5] Kevin Mattson. “Did Punk Matter?” In: American Studies, Spring 2001, Vol. 42, Issue 1, p. 78.

[6] Ibid. p. 80.

[7] “About Positive Force DC.” Postive Force DC. 10/19/2005. <>.

[8] John Charles Goshert. “ "Punk" after the Pistols: American Music, Economics, and Politics in the 1980s and 1990s.” In: Popular Music and Society. Spring 2000, p. 97.

[9] Stefanie Grimm. p. 91.

Excerpt out of 20 pages


The Punk and Hardcore Youth Subcultures in the USA Since the 1980s
Dresden Technical University
The Reagan 80s and the Clinton 90s
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
546 KB
This paper focuses on the history and characteristics of punk, hardcore, straight edge, and emo youth subcultures in the USA. Includes interview with Andy Greenwald, writer for Spin magazine and author of Nothing Feels Good. Punk Rock, Teeanagers, and Emo.
Punk, Hardcore, Youth, Subcultures, Reagan, Clinton
Quote paper
Beate Gansauge (Author), 2005, The Punk and Hardcore Youth Subcultures in the USA Since the 1980s, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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