This year, it has been decided, marks the 40th anniversary of the birth of punk. It burst onto the scene in a noisy, visceral, unpalatable, ideological frenzy. Its influence runs so deep that the reverberations can still be felt now by the disenfranchised, the outsiders, the revolutionists and… the establishment.
For a subculture founded upon values of anti-authoritarianism, it’s been bizarrely welcomed by the very establishment and ruling classes it openly railed against. From Anna Wintour’s spectacularly tame ‘Punk’ Met Gala in 2013 to this year’s Punk London event supported by none other than Boris Johnson, punk is fast becoming a shrine.
On the subject of the anniversary celebrations supposedly being supported by the Queen, Joe Corré, son of Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren, said: “The Queen giving 2016, the year of punk, her official blessing is the most frightening thing I’ve ever heard. Talk about alternative and punk culture being appropriated by the mainstream. Rather than a movement for change, punk has become like a fucking museum piece or a tribute act.”
To that end, the British Library is celebrating the anniversary with an exhibition that launches on 13th May, ‘showcasing a range of fanzines, flyers, recording and records sleeves…it celebrates the enduring influence of punk as a radical, musical, artistic and political movement’. But just how radical can something be when it’s been reduced to nothing more than a costume by those for whom it was never intended? Who wants to pledge allegiance to a culture which Miley Cyrus thinks she can nail with a fishnet dress and a tub of hair gel? Punk was sweaty, vulgar, obscene, hectic and unpolished but now you can get in on the act with a pair of £150 gold plated safety pin earrings.
Some argue that punk is a spirit more than it is an aesthetic but the two are inextricably linked and, as the latter is bundled up and churned out for mass consumption, the former inevitably becomes diluted. It’s hard to rage against a machine that has deftly silenced you by co-opting your uniform for its own profit.
Despite badges, patches and posters stating the contrary, punk may well be dead. But at least it got the chance to thrive before it burned out.
Ask most people what they class as the last true subculture and they’ll likely say emo. It bolstered the hairspray and eyeliner industries in the early to late 2000s and defines those early days of Myspace (remember the claw hands and overhead angles before selfies were called selfies?).
If I were to generalise, gravity-defying side swept fringes, snakebite lip piercings and inches of eyeliner were the defining markers and My Chemical Romance, Hawthorne Heights and Bring Me The Horizon constituted the soundtrack.
By the time I left my hometown of York to head to university in 2008, the local emo scene had mostly burned out but it was alive and well in my new city of Birmingham where straightener-ravaged hair peppered the city centre parks for a good two years thereafter.
But, as with most modern things, the internet went and ruined it for everyone. Whilst emo undeniably grew on Myspace, those were the early days of social networking and it was still mostly ‘social’. Now that social media is all about marketing, creating content and instant gratification, everything happens at fast-forward pace.
Subcultures can’t grow organically as they used to. They don’t simmer under the surface for a few years until a savvy fashion editor spots a group of cool kids on the corner and decides to find out more about it. Now, they barely have time to form before they’re picked up and re-grammed the world over, subsequently dying in the arms of the mainstream media.
Take Seapunk or Health Goth. They bubbled up and fizzled out before most people had even heard of them. By the time Marie Claire was running a health goth feature, it was a bona fide trend and therefore over for the originators. The lifecycle of a subculture can be as little as a matter of months, before the people at its core are forced to create something new to once again distinguish themselves from the pack.
With time to market now at lightning speed, the latest Instagram-worthy look can be on the shop floor in two weeks, undermining the creative, DIY ethos that is at the heart of so many subcultures and stripping away the sense of ownership and identity that comes with them.
We’re no longer afforded the luxury of revelling in our differences, of belonging to something other, of embodying our respective social tribes. It’s become too easy to buy into something without understanding its roots. It’s truly style without substance.
Fully developed, established subcultures have given way to tiny, niche microcosms of counter-culture, which are swiftly mined for all their worth and left barren as we look for the next one. And for as long as they’re not given the time to breathe and evolve, subcultures as we know them will remain a thing of the past.