ArticlePDF Available


Philosophers should listen to punk rock. Though largely ignored in analytic aesthetics, punk can shed light on the nature, limits, and value of art. Here, I will begin with an overview of punk aesthetics and then extrapolate two lessons. First, punk intentionally violates widely held aesthetic norms, thus raising questions about the plasticity of taste. Second, punk music is associated with accompanying visual styles, fashion, and attitudes; this points to a relationship between art and identity. Together, these lessons suggest that art appreciation is not just about finding beauty or aesthetic worth but is also about constructing a self.
Philosophy Compass 9/9 (2014): 583593, 10.1111/phc3.12145
The Aesthetics of Punk Rock
Jesse Prinz*
City University of New York
Philosophers should listen to punk rock. Though largely ignored in analytic aesthetics, punk can shed
light on the nature, limits, and value of art. Here, I will begin with an overview of punk aesthetics and
then extrapolate two lessons. First, punk intentionally violates widely held aesthetic norms, thus raising
questions about the plasticity of taste. Second, punk music is associated with accompanying visual
styles, fashion, and attitudes; this points to a relationship between art and identity. Together, these
lessons suggest that art appreciation is not just about nding beauty or aesthetic worth but is also about
constructing a self.
1. Punk Aesthetics
The term aestheticis used in narrow and broader senses. Both will be important for this
discussion. In the narrow sense, aestheticrelates to sensory pleasure. We refer to visual art-
works as aesthetic when they are beautiful, graphic, or otherwise pleasurable to look at. In
music, aestheticcan be used to designate pleasing melodies or harmonies. There is a
broader use of aestheticthat encompasses narrow aesthetic features, such as beauty, along
with any other response-dependent features that contribute to art appreciation (e.g., being
moving, fascinating, inspiring, and so on). These response-dependent features are sometimes
contrasted with response-independent features, such as technical mastery, innovation, and
successful conformity to genre standards. The term aestheticis sometimes restricted to
response-dependent features (e.g., Sibley 1959), but there is an even broader use on which
the term covers any feature that counts toward evaluation of a work of art qua art.
This broadest notion of aestheticis what researchers have in mind when they attempt to
characterize the aesthetics of x,where xrefers to an art-making tradition. When codifying
an aesthetics of x,it is customary to list the features considered valuable within a commu-
nity of people who make or consume art. Art is made to be consumed by a certain public,
and the intentions of art-makers together with that public contribute to determining what
would count as aesthetic success. For example, the aesthetics of the Yoruba peoplemight
include the feature of being shiny, because luminous surfaces are valued by the Yoruba
(Thompson 1974). The aesthetics of expressionist lm,might include angular stage
settings, since this is a convention of that movement. Similarly, the aesthetics of punkmust
identify features that are valued by punk rockers.
Like most movements in art, punk is heterogeneous. It emerged from multiple sources and
has endured for decades. Debates rage about punks origins. In the United States, important
inuences begin in the 1960s with garage music, The Velvet Underground, and two
Michigan bands, The MC5, and The Stooges. In 1971, The New York Dolls appeared with
a raw and gritty ethos that proved seminal for punk. Two years later, the Dictators and
Television formed, followed by the Ramones and Patti Smith. These acts gravitated around
New Yorks CBGB club, echoed by other new acts around the country, such as Clevelands
Rocket from the Tombs. In Britain, the musical roots of punk included pub rock, mod, ska,
© 2014 The Author(s)
Philosophy Compass © 2014 John Wiley & Sons Ltd
and rockabilly. The Sex Pistols formed in 1975, assembled by Malcolm McLaren, who
briey managed the New York Dolls. Other seminal bands formed a year later, including
The Buzzcocks, The Clash, The Damned, The Fall, Generation X, The Rezillos, Siouxsie
and the Banshees, and The X-Ray Spex. Both the U.S. and the U.K. contributed to punk
fashion. The New York Dolls were visually extravagant in gaudy drag, and Televisions front
man, Richard Hell, wore ripped t-shirts with safety pins and sported short choppy hair. The
Ramones wore skinny jeans and motorcycle jackets, which were earlier worn by British rockers,
who were emulating American bikers. Outrageous hair also became emblematic, including the
use of unnatural hair colors, which had been popularized by glam rock acts. Mohawks also came
into vogue, though they were earlier adopted by American ghter pilots and by some performers
in the jazz scene, such as Sonny Rollins. The Sex Pistols hung out at Malcolm McLarens
bondage shop in Londons Chelsea and wore clothes designed by McLaren and Vivienne
Westwood. The BSDM elements completed the punk look, with dog collars, wristbands, along
with chains and spikes, which had been popular among British rockers.
The term punk rockwas initially used to refer to garage bands. In 1972, Lenny Kaye
(later the guitarist for Patti Smith) used the term in the liner notes for a garage compilation
called Nuggets:Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era,19651968. By the mid-
1970s, the term punkwas being used to refer to new acts with a specic sensibility. In a
1975 book on popular music, Serge Denisoff offers the following characterization:
A portion of the popular music of the 1960s can best be labeled punk-rock, sometimes termed
shock-rock. Its lyrics are not terribly profound or protest oriented. The music is simple and loud.
It is primarily a visual form. Punk-rock challenged the norms of social etiquette. Performers appear
to be championing those aspects of life which society considers perverse, deviant and grotesque.
Violence, homosexuality, transvestism and infanticide all may be props in the act. (p. 26f)
Denisoff cites Iggy Pop, front man of The Stooges, as a primary example, along with The
New York Dolls, but he also includes Alice Cooper and Black Sabbath, who are now more
associated with glam rock and heavy metal. He even classies glam icon, David Bowie, as a
purveyor of punk, describing him as A lesser-known veteran English rock artistwho, was
repackaged by RCA Victor as a bisexual,emulating Iggy Pop. The modern meaning of
punkcrystallized in 1976 with the publication of Punk Magazine a fanzine that
chronicled the CBGBs scene. The inaugural issue features an interview with Lou Reed,
who is described as a, street punk turned ne artist.
Later in 1976, a British fanzine called SnifnGlue (after a Ramones song) appeared,
with a similar aesthetic and a frontline perspective on Londonsemergingscene.Manyother
fanzines followed, along with hundreds of bands. Within a couple of years, punk scenes
could be found transnationally in places such as Australia, Canada, France, Sweden,
Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Yugoslavia, and Japan. The punk sound also began
to evolve, and many sub-genres and offshoots emerged. These included art punk,
pop-punk, noise rock, no wave, new wave, new romantic, gothic rock, oi!, hardcore,
and various styles termed post-punk.A decade later, riot grrrl and grunge appeared
in the PacicNorthwest.
Given this diversity, there is no way to give an inclusive aesthetics of punk. There are,
however, themes that are sufciently pervasive to provide a prototype. I propose three core
ideals, which unite many of punks varied forms. The rst ideal is irreverence. As indicated in
the Denisoff quote, punk aims to challenge prevailing social norms. The canonical facial
expression of punk is the unilateral lip curl, an expression of contempt. This sentiment is
quaintly captured in a 1978 lyric by a Vancouver band called The Stiffs: You tell your
584 Punk Music Aesthetics Identity Taste
© 2014 The Author(s) Philosophy Compass 9/9 (2014): 583593, 10.1111/phc3.12145
Philosophy Compass © 2014 John Wiley & Sons Ltd
friends that were really sick / Just short-haired fags on a commie trip / We dont care
what you say / Fuck you!
Punk irreverence manifests itself in many ways. Musically, punks adopt vocal styles that
can sound like angry protests or sneering insults. Punks also make frequent use of obscene
language; The Sex PistolsJohn Lydon and Siouxsie Sioux, frontwoman of the Banshees
shocked audience by swearing on television. Irreverence is also pervasive in the thematic
content of lyrics. Some songs attack the prevailing political order. Punk is associated with
anarchy, though the brand of anarchy presented usually has more to do with chaos and
anti-authoritarianism, than with any specic political philosophy; thus, we nd the Sex Pistols
Anarchy in the UKproclaiming, Iamananarchist/dont know what I want, but I know
how to get it/I want to destroy the passerby.Some bands, like Crass, were more politically
astute about anarchism. Others, like the white-power skinhead bands, went in for radical
right-wing politics instead. It is sometimes disputed whether skinheads qualify as punks, since
they had a separate look, separate music, and sometimes violently attacked people for being
punk rock (OHara 1999), but the boundaries were uid, and in many places, left-wing
skinheads greatly outnumbered the right.
Punk irreverence also targets religion, sexual norms, consumerism, and celebrity. Song
titles include Jesus Entering From the Rear,”“No God,”“Glad to be Gay,”“Germfree
Adolescents,”“John Wayne was a Nazi,and Sit on My Face Stevie Nix.Equally irrever-
ent was the wide-spread theme, reminiscent of Jean Genet, of venerating criminals and
killers. The Sex Pistols mention Myra Hindley in a song called No One Is Innocent,
and they befriended the great train robber, Ronnie Biggs. Other examples include the Dils
Gary Gilmores Eyes,The Dead Boys’“Son of Sam,and songs about the Hillside
Strangers by the Hollywood Squares and the Child Molesters. Notably, all these songs are
sung from the point of view of the murderer. Other bands wrote songs about Hitler and
Idi Amin. More generally, punk rock often takes aim at political correctness. The Sex Pistols
wrote a song about a postcard from a concentration camp and another apposing abortion.
The Stooges, and later Sid Vicious, wore swastikas. These efforts were generally intended
to shock, not to proselytize. Shock is not always linked to irreverence (consider a shocking
love confession), but punk uses it to this effect, targeting entrenched standards of political
acceptability. Consider some band names: The Dead Kennedys, The Rapists, The Wife
Beaters, The Child Molesters, The Cripples, and female fronted groups called Penetration,
The Dishrags, and The Slits. It should be added that while misogyny, homophobia, and
other forms of hate speech have been common in punk, the movement itself also initially
had many more openly gay and female performers than mainstream rock, paving the way
for greater tolerance in music. Political incorrectness is used to mock bigotry and indict what
is perceived as the hypocrisy of the prevailing social order.
Let me turn now to the second ideal. In addition to being irreverent, punk also tends to be
nihilistic. Common themes include decay, despair, suicide, and societal collapse. As we already
say with the Sex Pistols’“Anarchy in the UK,politically themed songs in punk rock tend to
emphasize destruction. Many songs deal with impending warfare or violent social unrest: Lets
Have a War,”“White Riot,”“
Class War,and We Got the Neutron Bomb.Such songs
contrast with political themes in hippy music in that punks tend not to advocate pacism or en-
vision utopias, but rather express a dire outlook: No future,chant the Sex Pistols. Punks had a
special contempt for hippies. In 1977, the songwriter of a newly-formed band, Wire, was
quoted as saying, Were not giving people a message like Joan Baez,and punk pioneer Judy
Nylon commented, I hate love and all it stands for(Blystone 1977: 9).
By the 1970s, hippies were more of fashion statement than a political movement, and their
musical idols were living in mansions and riding on private jets. Punks saw themselves as part
Punk Music Aesthetics Identity Taste 585
© 2014 The Author(s) Philosophy Compass 9/9 (2014): 583593, 10.1111/phc3.12145
Philosophy Compass © 2014 John Wiley & Sons Ltd
of the Blank Generation,with no purpose in life and diminishing opportunities. Many
songs emphasize the hopelessness of disaffected youth. The Stooges speak about the monot-
ony of life in 1969,The Adverts produced a track called Bored Teenagers,The Nixe
gripe about life in a Boring City,and Sham 69 sing about go-nowhere jobs in Who Gives
a Damn.There are also countless songs glorifying drugs as an escape: titles include Pills,
Chinese Rocks,”“Now I Want to Sniff Some Glue,and Take a Quaalude Now.
Suicide is alsoa theme (and the name of a pioneering band). Songs titles include Richard Hung
Himself(D.I.), Depression(Black Flag), and Never Ad Nothing(Angelic Upstarts),
which centers on the refrain: Im gonna go up in a puff of smoke / I wanna go up in a puff
of smoke.Sadly, punk lost numerous performers to suicide or accidental drug overdoses:
Johnny Thunders, Dee Dee Ramone, Darby Crash, and Wendy O Williams, among others.
Punk nihilism is expressed in band names, which tend to emphasize the darker sides of life.
A common formula is to have names of the form The _____,where the blank was lled in
by a negatively valanced word, in ironic homage to the cheerful, often bird-themed, names
popular 1950s. Examples include, The Clash, The Damned, The Exploited, The Flys, The
Germs, The Killjoys, The Lurkers, The Mists, The Nihilstics, The Offs, The Panics, The
Rotters, The Ruts, The Scabs, The Spits, The Stains, The Stranglers, The Subhumans,
The Users, The Weirdoes, and The Zeros. Other bands dropped the denite article and opted
for a solitary unsettling word: Anorexia, Crime, Death, Fear, and Menace are examples. These
one-word names contrast with bands that had achieved success in mainstream music: Journey,
Genesis, Love, and Yes. Punk is almost absurdly cynical in contrast. This is not to say punk is
always pessimistic. There are countless love songs, songs about recreation, and songs about
ghting for social change. But punks positivity characteristically involves a demystication of
cherished ideals: The Voidoids subvert romantic clichés in Love Comes in Spurts,The
Dictators lampoon American teen obsessions in (I Live for) Girls and Cars,and 999 comment
on the arbitrariness of rebellion their classic Emergency:Heard it on the news / Rebels get
accused / Fighting for another cause / But why and where and whose?At its cheeriest
moments, punk continues to shatter rose-colored lenses; it remains resolutely nihilistic.
Lets turn now to the third punk ideal: amateurism. Punk amateurism is evident in at least
three ways. First, like nouvelle vague lm makers of 1960s Europe, punks rejected slick pro-
duction values. Punk rockers abandoned the pristine recording styles that had come into
vogue (think of records made at Sun Studios, or the crisp layers of sound in George Martins
recordings of the Beatles). Many punk records are recorded in non-professional studios, and
punks criticize mainstream pop music as overproduced. Second, punk bands often play in
ways that imply a lack of prociency with their instruments or lack of vocal training. Punk
eschews ostentatious displays of talentthat had become mainstays of 70s rock (e.g.,
complex guitar solos and operatic vocals). Many punk performers are actually skilled musicians,
but the prevailing ethos says: we just picked up some instruments and started playing in our
basement. The Adverts celebrate this stripped down aesthetic in their song, One Chord
Wonders.The idea was that anyone can start a band and that doing so would rescue music
from commercial interests and return in to the fans. Third, many punk acts are stridently dishar-
monious. Instrumentally, they make use of distortion, deviant tunings, and stress-inducing
tempos. Vocally, they often shout or speak rather than sing, and they use make no effort to
conceal working class or negatively regarded regional accents. In a word, punks embrace noise.
This may sound incoherent, since noise is traditionally dened as unwanted sound,but one
can retain the denition by noting that punk rockers embrace sounds that they deem to be
unwanted by others. Band names include The Screamers, Chaotic Discord, and The Viletones.
AsongbyTheMaddeantly declares, I hate music / I love noise,and a song by The
Buzzcocks delights in the fact that Noise Annoys.
586 Punk Music Aesthetics Identity Taste
© 2014 The Author(s) Philosophy Compass 9/9 (2014): 583593, 10.1111/phc3.12145
Philosophy Compass © 2014 John Wiley & Sons Ltd
Punk was not the rst movement to embrace noise. Modern composers deployed disso-
nance, early rockers used fuzzboxes, Garage bands screamed, jazz soloists screeched, and acid
rockers grooved on feedback (on the latter, see Swanson 2006). Typically, however, noise is
tempered by melody (Gracyk 1996: chap. 4). This is certainly true for many punk songs,
which aim for hooky riffs and catchy choruses, just like classic rock nroll. But unlike, say,
acid rock or free jazz, the noisy bits are not just accents or ecstatic crescendos. Rather, punk
songs tend to maintain a steady level of discord. Where some earlier forms of music use noise
to let looseor freak outat key moments, punk denies listeners the contrastive moments
of serenity. At the same time, punk noisiness is rarely complete cacophony. It is a kind
anti-veneer that keeps every surface rough.
The celebration of low production values contrasted starkly at punks inception with the
aesthetic values of amphitheater rock bands and disco. In the late 70s, many punks wore
disco suckst-shirts, which were usually hand-scrawled. This practice of making your
own clothing was just one manifestation of a broader do-it-yourself (or DIY) ethic. Many
records are self-produced and independently released with limited pressings, especially
outside Great Britain. Album art and concert yers often consist of black and white photo-
copies. Photocopying is also used to create fanzines fan made magazines which use hand-
cropped photos, cluttered layouts, and haphazard typography. Glossy magazines are viewed
with scorn, as are mainstream retail outlets that sell punk-inspired clothing. Bands are accused
of selling out when they sign with major labels.
The three ideals that I have been describing are conceptually separable but, in practice,
often merge together to produce familiar features of punk. For example, I have not yet
explicitly mentioned that punk songs tend to be loud, fast, and short, but these features may
map onto these ideals that have been adduced. Loudness embodies the in-your-face attitude
of punk irreverence, speed provides a kind or desperate urgency that captures the cataclysmic
spirit of punk nihilism, and brevity exemplies the makeshift immediacy of punk amateurism.
These three ideals factor into punks visual styles. Dyed hair, torn clothes, tattoos, and piercings
often violate social norms, express fatalistic sentiments, and result from homespun efforts.
I have been presenting an aesthetics of punk, focusing on three ideals: irreverence,
nihilism, and amateurism. These ideals may not apply in every case, and others could be
added, but I hope to have captured the most dominant themes in punk music and visual
styles. These features of punk raise questions for the philosophy of art. For example, punk
raises the possibility that the expression and arousal of emotions may not always be dissociable
(cf. Robison, 1994); punk songs often intensify their messages by sonically exciting the
autonomic nervous system. Punk also raises questions about musical ontology: Is a punk cover
song a token or a transformation of the original type? Are punk songs primarily recordings
rather than performances, as has been claimed about rock songs (Gracyk, 1996), if they eschew
the kinds of studio enhancements associated with more commercial music? Here, I will focus on
two other questions: one concerns the plasticity of taste and the other concerns the relationship
between art and identity.
2. Learning from Punk
One of the most striking things about the punk aesthetic is that, to many ears and eyes, it is
agrantly anti-aesthetic in the narrow meaning of the term. Punk is an assault on prevailing
canons of beauty. Punk songs are often out of tune, off key, incompetently played, and
poorly recorded. Punk fashion can be shabby (a tattered shirt) or grotesque (a safety pin in
Punk Music Aesthetics Identity Taste 587
© 2014 The Author(s) Philosophy Compass 9/9 (2014): 583593, 10.1111/phc3.12145
Philosophy Compass © 2014 John Wiley & Sons Ltd
the cheek). Punk is a celebration of ugliness and discord. Punk rockers regard these features as
good precisely because others regard them as bad. But how can norms be inverted? There is a
long-standing tradition that seeks to identify universal aesthetic norms, based in human na-
ture and amenable to objective characterization (e.g., Hutcheson 1738; Ramachandran
and Hirstein 1999). Punk puts pressure on such theories.
The anti-aesthetic aesthetic of punk has been compared to other movements in the history
of art. Most notably, it has been compared to dada (Marcus 1989). Like punk, dada rejected
prevailing norms and denounced beauty. Dada photomontage anticipates punk album art,
and dada periodicals anticipate punk fanzines. Members of the dada movement also wore
outrageous clothing: Hugo Ball built robot-like costumes, Sophie Tauber-Arp assembled
multi-colored asymmetrical outts, Marcel Duchamp was a cross-dresser, and he even
donned an inverted Mohawk for a photo shoot with Man Ray. Some seminal punk rockers
may have known this history (Patti Smith lived with an artist who revered Duchamp,
Richard Hell read dada poetry, and Joe Stummer and Mick Jones of The Clash went to
art school). John Lydon has denied any link to dada, but the Sex Pistolsearly managers,
Malcolm McLaren and Bernie Rhodes, who introduced Lydon to the band, were dada
enthusiasts (Savage 1992). From an aesthetics perspective, the parallel between dada and
punk is interesting, because both movements have been described as radical breaks from
prevailing aesthetic norms.
Dada is said to challenge theories of aesthetic judgments that are based on narrow aesthetic
properties or human universals. But it is not a decisive counter-example, since many dada
works turn out to be conventionally attractive, and dada ofcially aimed to be anti-art rather
than art. Punk may be a more interesting case, because it brazenly violates narrow aesthetic
norms, yet is still regarded as good music by its fans. The standards used in evaluating punk songs
overlap, admittedly, with other forms of rock nroll, but punk also ushers in some evaluative
inversions. Aesthetic defects can become desirable.
To see this, consider some common terms of praise that can be found in punk rock record
reviews: edgy, obnoxious, snotty, raw, and brutal. Prior to punk, its hard to imagine that any
of these terms could have been viewed in a positive light. Yet, for punk, these aws become
merits. One can commend a song by describing it as a sloppy thrasheror a sonic assault.
Punk also introduced an obsession with speed. Fast playing had hitherto been regarded as a
merit only when it exemplied a musicians technical skill, as when Charlie Parker crammed
an impossible number of notes into a solo. With punk, speed becomes a virtue even when it
does not evidence virtuosity. When my older brother and I heard the debut Bad Brains
single, Pay to Cum,it was the speed, not the musicianship, that induced a reverent stupor.
Or consider the Germs, who dazzled us with blazing bar cords and lead vocals that are almost
indecipherable. The pressing plant appended a label to their rst single warning, This record
causes ear cancer.
From one perspective, it should be no surprise that distinct musical forms have different
norms. Musical forms are dened by their characteristic features, and, like genre conventions,
what is good for one form might be bad for another. To take a theatrical example, too much
comedy could detract from a melodrama. Likewise, one should not expect to nd the same
rules when determining what makes a good punk song and, say, a good disco song. From
another perspective, the challenge of punk runs deeper. When punk rst appeared, it met
with considerable resistance. It was designed to be displeasing to mainstream tastes. Punk
music is still cacophonous to many, and early listeners balked at its stripped down aesthetic.
In 1977, a writer for Englands biggest rock magazine, Melody Maker, described punk as,
boring, three-chord music without melody dingy vocals and one-line statements. It cant
last past Christmas(quoted in Boyer 1977). Punk rockers also displeased conventional music
588 Punk Music Aesthetics Identity Taste
© 2014 The Author(s) Philosophy Compass 9/9 (2014): 583593, 10.1111/phc3.12145
Philosophy Compass © 2014 John Wiley & Sons Ltd
enthusiasts because of the violent and vile nature of their performances; band members spit
on the audience, ung insults, vomited on stage, cut themselves, and provoked ghts. Thus,
punk introduced norms that were not just new, but also repellent to the uninitiated.
Punk is theoretically interesting because it draws attention to the plasticity of taste. It is
important to realize, however, that punk is not unique in this respect. Indeed, the history
of music can be characterized as a series of transformations that initially shock the mainstream.
This was certainly true of modern jazz, rock, and rap, not to mention atonal music, minimal
composition, and various other revolutions in the classical tradition. Even commercial pop tends
to violate extant norms, as when Madonna or Britney Spears produced overtly sexual videos.
This pattern is true in art more generally. A 1980 BBC series about modern art was aptly
called The Shock of the New.Impressionists were derided as vulgar by academic painters,
cubists were mocked, and abstract expressionists were written off as talentless publicity hunters.
First-wave fans of these art forms had to adopt new value systems. Clement Greenberg famously
remarked that Jackson Pollock, is not afraid to look uglyall profoundly original art looks
ugly at rst(from a 1945 review reprinted in Greenberg 1986: 17). Punk resoundingly
conrms this insight.
Arguably, punk even succeeds in becoming aesthetic in the narrow sense. Those who
come to like it nd beauty in it. They take sensory pleasure in sounds that the previous
generation might have compared to ngernails on a blackboard. Again, this is not a distinctive
feature of punk. But punk makes standard-shifting salient by zealously attacking prior norms.
We tend to lose sight of shifting standards because new styles of art quickly enter the canon. This
has been happening with punk as well, but the initial shock is central to its legacy.
The aesthetic plasticity italicized by punk has important implications. Most obviously,
punk threatens theories of aesthetic judgment that posit universal rules of taste. It also poses
a threat to ideal observer theories, which posit critics who can move nimbly between differ-
ent aesthetic styles. As Kieren (2008: 284) argues, becoming a punk enthusiast can diminish
ones tolerance for other genres, making them seem overproduced, tame, or vapid. Moreover,
the idea of omnivorous connoisseurship makes little sense if norms can shift in an open-ended
way. In coming to like punk, we dont discover a dormant affection for noise; we acquire it.
Philosophical theories of judgment must accommodate this.
Punk also raises questions about how new norms get introduced. Kant (1790: sec. 46)
denes ne art as works created by people of genius, where a genius is someone who introduces
a new rule. But Kant is quick to add that these rules cannot be nonsense(Unsinn), but must
rather be exemplary, meaning they could be recognized as good by idea critics. Punk displeased
many established critics upon its debut, and inspired a new generation of critics, such as Lester
Bangs. This may seem to twithDantos (Danto 1964) suggestion that artistic innovations
introduce new predicates,which become acceptable dimensions of evaluation when
presented to the artworld. With punk, however, it is not clear that an artwold plays any role,
since new norms are taken up by young fans who are disenfranchised from and dismissed by
institutionalized standard setters.
In sum, punk underscores the plasticity of taste and puts pressure on prevailing theories of
how new norms are introduced. It seems we need a new account of how aesthetic norms
change. This brings us to the second philosophical issue that I would like to discuss.
Punk, we have seen, is not just a kind of music. It is also an approach to visual art and fashion.
There are even punk performance styles, touched on above, and punk dances. Thus, punk
can be regarded as an encompassing aesthetic system. More than that, punk is an ethos.
Punk Music Aesthetics Identity Taste 589
© 2014 The Author(s) Philosophy Compass 9/9 (2014): 583593, 10.1111/phc3.12145
Philosophy Compass © 2014 John Wiley & Sons Ltd
The three cornerstones of punk aesthetics irreverence, nihilism, and amateurism can be
applied to persons as well to works of art. The term punkitself is used to designate music
as well as individuals. Punks are a human kind. Someone who identies as a member of this
kind will, to some degree, have predictable tastes and attitudes. Punk is a form of life.
This fact is central to punk, and impossible to miss. By wearing certain clothing, people
indicate that they are punk. This is akin to wearing regalia that indicate membership in a
social group, such as a club, an orthodox religion, or a tribe. Punk rockers often form closely
knit communities. They revolve around scenes,which consist of local bands, clubs, and
personalities. These communities are also exclusionary. The off-putting character of punk
aesthetics serves as a lter, attracting those who feel marginalized and deterring those who
wish to be conventional. Punks sometimes enforce membership restrictions dogmatically.
They cast aspersions on other groups, like hippies, and they dictate musical preferences and
arbitrate authenticity. One of the cardinal insults in punk vocabulary is poser,often applied
to people whose interest in punk seems suspiciously recent, untutored, supercial, or overly
commercial. Though, with the punk air for turning insults into insignias of pride, there is a
punk clothing store called Posers of Hollywood, and the X-Ray Spex have a song that
boasts, I am a poseur and I dont care / I like to make people stare.
It might seem ironic that punk emphasizes authenticity and individuality while also being
highly prescriptive about acceptable tastes. Punks are sometimes ridiculed for exalting indi-
vidualism and anarchy, while cultivating conformity. This, however, can be understood
more charitably if we recognize that individual identity is normally social in nature. When
we recount who we are, we conjure up various afliations: religion, political party, profes-
sion, ethnicity, national heritage, and class. Personal identity has individual components, such
as autobiography, personality, and projects, but it is equally a matter of what group member-
ship cards we carry. The demand for authenticity is not a demand for uniqueness, but rather a
demand for identication. Identifying with a social group often entails internalizing its
customs and values. There is a difference between liking punk and being punk, and for those
who guard community membership, this really matters.
Given its afliative nature, punk is a prime example of what sociologists call subcultures.
During the rst half of the 20th century, that term began to designate social groups whose
norms put them at odds with the dominant values in the overarching society. Important stud-
ies were done on paid nightclub dancers (Cressey 1932), delinquents (Cohen 1955), pot smokers,
and jazz musicians (Becker 1963). Following this tradition, sociologists have analyzed punk as a
subculture (Hebridge, 1979; Laing 1986; see also Pitts-Tayor, 2003, on cyberpunks and riot
grrrls). Indeed, punk shares much with these other groups. Writing decades before the dawn of
punk, Cohen (1955) tells us that each subculture, represents a new status system by sanctioning
behavior tabooed or frowned upon by the larger societyCertain kinds of conduct, that is,
become reputable precisely because they are disreputable in the eyes of the out-group.’”
The term subcultureis conspicuously absent in analytic philosophy of art. This is an
unfortunate oversight. Subcultures draw attention to the link between taste and identity.
Identity, I submit, is important for understanding the nature of art.
To see this, lets return to a question posed in the last section: Why is taste so variable? We
can now discern an answer. Taste may vary because of its connection to identity. Identity, I
have suggested, has social dimensions, and these push in two directions. On the one hand, we
seek to afliate with a social group. On the other hand, we seek to distinguish ourselves from
other groups, especially those from whom we seek independence (e.g., parents, members of
other communities, or mainstream culture, if we feel dissatised or disenfranchised). Identi-
fying with a musical movement can achieve these ends. Such movements dene in-groups
and out-groups, prescribe values, and come with visual styles to help advertise group
590 Punk Music Aesthetics Identity Taste
© 2014 The Author(s) Philosophy Compass 9/9 (2014): 583593, 10.1111/phc3.12145
Philosophy Compass © 2014 John Wiley & Sons Ltd
membership. Far from peripheral, these features may be central to the role that music plays in
our lives. The variability of musical taste may stem from the fact that music contributes to
identity, and we are all motivated to nd identities that distinguish us from others, including
those in previous generations.
This sociological truism, neglected in analytic aesthetics, is crucial for understanding the
role of music in human life. Punk, jazz, country, hip hop, indie, classical, opera, and avant
garde these are all social groups in addition to being musical styles. One can have multiple
group memberships, but each says something about the self. This may extend to art more
generally. Aesthetic taste conveys a lot about identity. Some tastes are conservative, others
progressive, some urban, others rural, some trendy, others old-fashioned, some high brow,
others low brow. Being into artor part of the artworldis itself a subculture, and art
enthusiasts who form rm tastes (e.g., for performance over pop art or mannerism over
minimalism) convey much about themselves.
The link between art and identity, which punk brings out, has philosophical implications.
For example, if the artword is just one subculture among many (or perhaps a family of
subcultures), then we should abandon the idea that new aesthetic norms come into existence
solely by being peddled to the artworld public. Instead, norms may take hold when they
acquire a fan base, where those fans often have a steak in seeing themselves as isolated from
the establishment. New art may overlap with whats come before, but it often tries to break
rules in ways that spawn new social-cum-aesthetic groups, rather than appealing to those
whose tastes are entrenched in what came before. The identity-theoretic account of aesthetic
innovation and dissemination may shed light on why art evolved (or why it was invented),
and on why it is important. It also suggests that aesthetic judgment is social in nature, and that
far from being universal, aesthetic norms play a crucial role in distinguishing people.
3. Conclusion: A Punk Perspective on Art
Lets imagine what theories of art would look like if they used punk as a paradigm example.
They would not emphasize narrowly aesthetic qualities. They would not posit a sharp form/
content distinction, since the ethos of punk is embodied in its form. They would not
quarantine moral messages from aesthetic import, but neither would they assume that moral
vulgarity is an aesthetic vice. And nally, they would not suppose that aesthetic norms are
universal. A philosophy of art based on punk would focus instead on the artsafliative
nature, and the link between art and identity. It would emphasize that, for many kinds of
art, there are corresponding kinds of people. If punk is a good model, developing aesthetic
taste is a process of socially mediated self-construction.
This discussion is based on a life of listening to punk, and I have my older brother, Tommy
Dog, to thank for that. An early member of the New York scene, he taught me much about
punk music and values, and, through example, about the idea that punk is a way of being in
the world. I also want to that Anne Eaton and an anonymous referee for fantastic comments,
informed by their rich knowledge of both aesthetics and punk rock.
Short Biography
Jesse Prinz is a distinguished professor of Philosophy and Director of Interdisciplinary Science
Studies at the City University of New York, Graduate Center. His research focuses on the per-
ceptual, emotional, and cultural foundations of human psychology. He is author of over 100
Punk Music Aesthetics Identity Taste 591
© 2014 The Author(s) Philosophy Compass 9/9 (2014): 583593, 10.1111/phc3.12145
Philosophy Compass © 2014 John Wiley & Sons Ltd
articles and several books: Furnishing the Mind (MIT, 2002), Gut Reactions (Oxford, 2004), The
Emotional Construction of Morals (Oxford, 2007), Beyond Human Nature (Norton, 2012), The
Conscious Brain (Oxford, 2012), and Works of Wonder:ATheoryofArt(Oxford, forthcoming).
Two other books, on the self and on ontology, are in progress.
*Correspondence: City University of New York. E-mail:
Works Cited
Becker, H. Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance. New York, NY: Free Press, 1963.
Blystone, R. Punk Rock: Britains New Sound.The Free Lance - Star 93 (1977): 9.
Boyer, P.J. Headaches: Punk Rock Music Causing Problems.Kentucky New Era 89 (1977): 90.
Cohen, A. Delinquent Boys: The Culture of the Gang. New York, NY: Free Press, 1955.
Cressey, P.G. The Taxi-Dance Hall. New York: Greenwood Press, 1932.
Danto, A. The Artworld.Journal of Philosophy 61 (1964): 571584.
Denisoff, R.S. Solid Gold: The Popular Record Industry. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1975.
Gracyk, T. Rhythm and Noise: An Aesthetics of Rock. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996.
Greenberg, C. The Collected Essays and Criticism, Volume 2: Arrogant Purpose, 1945-1949. Ed. J OBrian. Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1986.
Hebdige, D. Subculture: The Meaning of Style. London: Methuen, 1979.
Hutcheson, F. An Inquiry Concerning Beauty, Order, Harmony, Design.Philosophical Writings. London: J.M. Dent
(1738/1994): 744.
Kant, I. Critique of the Power of Judgment. Ed. Trans. P. Guyer and E. Matthews. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1790/2000.
Kieran, M. Why Ideal Critics Are Not Ideal.British Journal of Aesthetics 48 (2008): 278294.
Laing, D. One Chord Wonders. London: Open University, 1986.
Marcus, G. Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989.
OHara, C. The Philosophy of Punk. San Francisco: AK Press, 1999.
Pitts-Taylor, V. In the Flesh: The Cultural Politics of Body Modication. New York: Macmillan, 2003.
Ramachandran, VS and W. Hirstein. The Science of Art: A Neurological Theory of Aesthetic Experience.Journal of
Consciousness Studies 6 (1999): 1551.
Robinson, J. The Expression and Arousal of Emotion in Music.The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 52 (1994): 1322.
Savage, J. Englands Dreaming, Revised Edition: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock, and Beyond. New York: St. Martins, 1992.
Sibley, F. Aesthetic Concepts.Philosophical Review 68 (1959): 421450.
Thompson, R.F. Yoruba Artistic Criticism.The Traditional Artist in African Societies. Ed. W.L. dAzevedo. Bloomington:
Indiana University Press, 1974. 1861.
Swanson, W. Beautiful noise.Contemporary Aesthetics 4 (2006): n. pag. Web. 3 March 2014.
Music Cited
999. Emergency.999. United Artists, 1978.
Angelic Upstarts. Never Ad Nothing.We Gotta Get out of This Place. Captain Oi!, 1980.
Bad Brains. Pay to Cum.Pay to Cum! Bad Brains Records, 1980.
Black Flag. Depression.Damaged. SST, 1981.
Buzzcocks. Noise Annoys.Love You More. United Artists, 1978.
DI. Richard Hung Himself.D.I. Revenge Records, 1983.
Eyes. Take a Quaalude Now.TAQN. Dangerhouse, 1978.
Fear. Lets Have a War.The Record. Slash Records, 1982.
New York Dolls. Pills.New York Dolls. Mercury, 1973.
Richard Hell & the Voidoids. Love Comes in Spurts.Blank Generation. Sire, 1977.
Sham 69. Who Gives a Damn.Thats Life. Polydor, 1978.
Stains. John Wayne was a Nazi.John Wayne Was A Nazi. R Radical Records, 1980.
The Adverts. Bored Teenagers.Crossing the Red Sea with The Adverts. Bright Records, 1978a.
The Adverts. Gary Gilmores Eyes.Gary Gilmores Eyes. Anchor, 1977.
The Adverts. One Chord Wonders.Crossing the Red Sea with The Adverts. Bright Records, 1978b.
The Clash. White Riot.The Clash. Columbia, 1977.
The Dead Boys. Son of Sam.We Have Come for Your Children. Sire, 1978.
592 Punk Music Aesthetics Identity Taste
© 2014 The Author(s) Philosophy Compass 9/9 (2014): 583593, 10.1111/phc3.12145
Philosophy Compass © 2014 John Wiley & Sons Ltd
The Dictators. (I Live for) Girls and Cars.Go Girl Crazy! Epic, 1975.
The Dils. Class War.Dils Dils Dils. Lost Records, 1978.
The Feederz. Jesus Entering from the Rear.Jesus. Anxiety Records, 1980.
The Germs. No God.(GI). Slash, 1979.
The Heartbreakers. Chinese Rocks.L.A.M.F. Track Records, 1977.
The Mad. I Hate Music.Eyeball. Disgusting Records, 1978.
The Nixe. Boring City.The Nixe. Rock Against Records, 1981.
The Ramones. Now I Want to Sniff Some Glue.Ramones. Sire/ABC, 1976.
The Rotters. Sit on My Face Stevie Nix.Sit On My Face Stevie Nicks. Rotten Records, 1978.
The Sex Pistols. Anarchy in the UK.Never Mind the Bullocks,Heres the Sex Pistols. Virgin, 1977.
The Sex Pistols. No One is Innocent.The Great Rock nRoll Swindle. Virgin, 1979.
The Stiffs. Fuck You.Last Call:Vancouver Independent Music 1977-1988. Zulu Records, 1991.
The Stooges. 1969.The Stooges. Elektra, 1969.
The Tom Robinson Band. Glad to be Gay.Rising Free. EMI, 1978.
The Weirdoes. We Got the Neutron Bomb.We Got the Neutron Bomb. Dangerhouse, 1978.
X-Ray Spex. Germfree Adolescents.Germfree Adolescents. EMI, 1978a.
X-Ray Spex. I am a Poseur.Germfree Adolescents. EMI, 1978b.
Punk Music Aesthetics Identity Taste 593
© 2014 The Author(s) Philosophy Compass 9/9 (2014): 583593, 10.1111/phc3.12145
Philosophy Compass © 2014 John Wiley & Sons Ltd
... Punk is associated with anarchy, though the brand of anarchy presented usually has more to do with chaos and anti-authoritarianism, than with any specific political philosophy; thus, we find the Sex Pistols' "Anarchy in the UK" proclaiming, "I am an anarchist/don't know what I want, but I know how to get it/I want to destroy the passerby." Some bands, like Crass, were more politically astute about anarchism (Prinz, 2014). ...
... Shock is not always linked to irreverence (consider a shocking love confession), but punk uses it to this effect, targeting entrenched standards of political acceptability. Consider some band names: The Dead Kennedys, The Rapists, The Wife Beaters, The Child Molesters, The Cripples, and female fronted groups called Penetration, The Dishrags, and The Slits (Prinz, 2014). ...
Full-text available
This research aimed to determine the meaning of the songs belonged to Marjinal band, a punk band whose songs contain critics to the government. The songs that the reasearchers analyzed were Hukum Rimba and Buruh Tani. The researchers used the data taken from various digital platforms and analyzed the lyrics using Semiotic Theory from Ferdinand De Saussure. Furthermore, the results of the research from Hukum Rimba and Buruh Tani song implied that people who had money and power would be spared by the law. Meanwhile, the poor would always be oppressed by the law.Keywords: critics, government, lyrics, money, power
... Hebdige (1979) argues that punk subculture in the 'West' reflected societal decline and is a symbolic form of cultural refusal, which is echoed by Selekā in their Tongan context. Punk is known for its irreverence towards religion and consumerism, which is another overlapping element with Selekā (Prinz 2014). The punk politics of a 'Do-It-Yourself [DIY] ethic … encompasses a general commitment to making things happen outside normal institutional channels', including radical art and music that push the boundaries of dominant cultures such as the Selekā art and kava collective (Haenfler 2015: 6). ...
Full-text available
The Seleka art and kava collective is found in the heart of the Kingdom of Tonga’s urban centre and capital. Seleka is a transformed nickname which is a play on the word kasele, meaning toilet or outhouse, an external othering and internal acceptance of divergence within Tongan society. Seleka is a site where urban Tongans paint and drink kava together while listening to rebellious music, incorporating some of the aesthetics and politics of these musical genres into their group. They have a broader musical playlist than most kava clubs in Tonga, which includes punk, rock and metal. This article explores the character of Seleka as a radical critique to Western introduced social constructs such as puritan respectability, which have become part of Tonga’s modern cultural norms. Seleka performs and generates mana (potency/prestige) through noa (profanity/neutralization) by desecrating the ‘sacred’ and recreating a new alternative. This act of rebellion is presented as a contemporary manifestation of an ancient Tongan practice where the ‘profane’ was used to identify and bring balance to the most tapu (‘sacred’/protected).
The premise of this article is straightforward: cheap art as a method and movement, though often ignored in the aesthetics literature, is ideally suited for creative activism. To understand this claim, we must have a working definition of the term "cheap art", which I develop in the first section. In doing so, I focus on four features of cheap art, united by the core idea of anti-elitism, that make it well suited to support creative activism: (1) Cheap art is light, quick, sloppy, and easy to do. (2) Cheap art is made from cheap materials. (3) Cheap art rejects the idea of art as a business created for the artworld elite and aims instead to provide art of the people and for the people. (4) Cheap art challenges its audience members rather than seeking to placate or soothe them. After a brief defense of the claim that cheap art is in fact art, I discuss each aspect in detail, emphasizing its advantages for creative activism. I close with two suggestions for evaluating cheap art, which I argue can be extended to creative activism more broadly.
Punk political philosophy primarily revolves around the idea of anarchy. In modern parlance, anarchy is often equated with chaos. Another way to think of anarchy, though, is simply as the absence of central governing authority. The idea of self-governing social orders has a long history in political philosophy. Adam Ferguson, the 18th century Scottish Enlightenment philosopher, was the first modern thinker to posit the idea of civil society, understood as an association of free and responsible citizens regulating their personal, social, and economic affairs independent of government, and as mediated by various forms of voluntary association, such as family, friends, church, and other forms of community organization. In the 19th century, though, prominent political philosophers such as Hegel and Marx dismissed the idea of "bürgerliche Gesellschaft" (i.e. civil society) as merely a transitory phase of social and political organization situated between family and state, and thus destined to be eclipsed by the modern, bureaucratic nation-state. This chapter explores the various expressions of Punk political philosophy, focusing on deeds as well as words. This includes Bob Geldolf's work to provide relief for victims of the Ethiopian famine through Band Aid and Live Aid. It also examines the role that the influential proto-Punk band, the Velvet Underground, played in inspiring the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia. In this analysis, Punk political philosophy is revealed be a manifestation of the eternal process of destruction and recreation that is a reflection of life itself.
In the small but growing literature on the philosophy of country music, the question of how we ought to understand the genre’s notion of authenticity has emerged as one of the central questions. Many country music scholars argue that authenticity claims track attributions of cultural standing or artistic self-expression. However, careful attention to the history of the genre reveals that these claims are simply factually wrong. On the basis of this, we have grounds for dismissing these attributions. Here, I argue for an alternative model of authenticity in which we take claims about the relative authenticity of country music to be evidence of ‘country’ being a dual-character concept in the same way that it has been suggested of punk rock and hip-hop. Authentic country music is country music that embodies the core value commitments of the genre. These values form the basis of country artists’ and audiences’ practical identities. Part of country music’s aesthetic practice is that audiences reconnect with, reify, and revise this common practical identity through identification with artists and works that manifest these values. We should then think of authenticity discourse within country music as a kind of game within the genre’s practice of shaping and maintaining this practical identity.
Full-text available
Full-text available
In this article, I raise a simple but surprisingly vexing question: What makes heavy metal heavy? We commonly describe music as “heavy,” whether as criticism or praise. But what does “heavy” mean? How is it applied as an aesthetic term? Drawing on sociological and musicological studies of heavy metal, as well as recent work on the aesthetics of rock music, I discuss the relevant musical properties of heaviness. The modest aim of this article, however, is to show the difficulty, if not impossibility, of this seemingly straightforward task. I first address the difficulties of identifying the defining features, or “Gestalt,” of heavy metal that would allow us to treat heaviness as a genre concept. Next, I discuss both the merits and the limits of analyzing heaviness in terms of an aesthetics of “noise” in rock music developed in recent philosophy of music. In the remaining sections, I consider other nonaesthetic features relevant to aesthetic judgments of heaviness and show that the term ‘heavy’ is conceptually inarticulable, if not irreducible. This, I conclude, has partly to do with the radically different, sometimes incompatible, musical properties present in the perception of musical heaviness.
Full-text available
Country music has not gotten much attention in philosophy. I introduce two philosophical issues that country music raises. First, country music is simple. Some people might think that its simplicity makes country music worse; I argue that simplicity is aesthetically valuable. The second issue is country music’s ideal of authenticity; fans and performers think that country should be real or genuine in a particular way. But country music scholars have debunked the idea that country authenticity gets at anything real; widespread ideas about country authenticity are rooted in a racist and fabricated picture of country music. In discussing these two issues, I highlight the importance of community in country music.
The Critique of the Power of Judgment (a more accurate rendition of what has hitherto been translated as the Critique of Judgment) is the third of Kant's great critiques following the Critique of Pure Reason and the Critique of Practical Reason. This translation of Kant's masterpiece follows the principles and high standards of all other volumes in The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant. This volume, first published in 2000, includes: the indispensable first draft of Kant's introduction to the work; an English edition notes to the many differences between the first (1790) and second (1793) editions of the work; and relevant passages in Kant's anthropology lectures where he elaborated on his aesthetic views. All in all this edition offers the serious student of Kant a dramatically richer, more complete and more accurate translation.
Includes some of the most significant of Sibley’s published papers as well as five new essays previously unpublished. The point of the book is not a systematic introduction to aesthetics, but rather a theoretical discussion of some core topics. The first three papers study the difference and the relation between aesthetic and non-aesthetic properties. Papers 4–6 show how aesthetic properties depend on non-aesthetic ones. In papers 7–9 is discussed the difficulty in finding criteria of aesthetic merit. The distinction between attributive and predicative use of adjectives and its application to the cases of beautiful and ugly is considered in Chs 12–14. The nature of aesthetic and the relation between concepts of the aesthetic of art are the arguments of papers 10 and 15. Finally, papers 11 and 16 investigate the impossibility of isolating and defining a ‘purely music’ experience and illustrate the ontological status of works of visual art respectively.