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Explore and discuss punk in America in its relation to the idea of “American exceptionalism.”

Read the assignment and write a 650-700 words essay. Do not include “I” unless you are the actual artist.


Explore and discuss punk in America in its relation to the idea of “American exceptionalism.” In many ways, punk is the antithesis to “American exceptionalism,” at least as a positive value. Where American exceptionalism put forth the idea that there was something in the American character that was different and offered the promise of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” punk rather loudly proclaimed the contradictory idea that there was “no future for you, no future for me.” What would account for punk becoming a dominant form of expression among young people in a country where the promise for advancement was available to all as a central guarantee of Constitution? More important, what would account for the persistence of punk in America over the more than thirty years that it has been a part of our musical landscape? The answers to these questions will likely have become murkier for some of you, and alternately much clearer than ever for others very recently. At a time when Americans are so severely divided, punk’s past, present and future can speak volumes about how we live now, and how we’ll choose to live. It is important that you consider the current social and political climate when crafting your response.It is, of course, advisable to cite outside sources for support and frame your argument in the form of a formal essay (Look over “Presenting Arguments,” “Tips On Writing Papers,” and “Critical Thinking” in the Syllabus).



When the music that would come to be known as “punk” first appeared in the U.S. and Great Britain, more than an ocean separated these two attacks on the musical sensibilities of their respective nations. The roots of American punk were decidedly “arty” and intellectual, while British punks took their lead from far less lofty influences. The Velvet Underground, Patti Smith, and Tom Miller of the Neon Boys took their inspiration from symbolist poets like Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, and Charles Baudelaire (when Miller formed Television he changed his name to Tom Verlaine after the poet). Art students at the Rhode Island School of Design formed Talking Heads. Lou Reed studied literature and poetry with American poet and short story writer Delmore Schwartz before forming the Velvet Underground with violist John Cale. Ed Sanders of the Fugs and Patti Smith were both poets and writers before turning to music. Adny ( Andy) Shernoff of the Dictators was a music journalist and Peter Laughner of Rocket from the Tombs and Pere Ubu was also a writer who wrote brilliant reviews for CREEM.

In contrast, the British punks were predominately working-class youths and dropouts with marginal educational backgrounds and interests. They took their influences from popular culture: films like A Clockwork Orange, “lads rockers” like The Faces and Gary Glitter, pub bands like Dr. Feelgood, and dystopian fiction like J.G. Ballard’s High Rise and The Atrocity Exhibition. Although some British punk musicians were not “working-class” and some were products of art schools, there was no attachment to being “artful” in the sense of the punk scene in New York. To the contrary, British punks were disdainful of even the appearance of “artiness”– or competence for that matter– and bands like The Clash were taken to task because they were serious musicians rather than inept adherents to the “pick a chord, go twang, and you’ve got music” anti-aesthetic of the Sex Pistols. Nonetheless, there was much that linked what happened in England and the United States in the 1970s and those linkages created the punk ethos and its musical expression on both sides of the Atlantic. In England and in the US, punk became the vehicle for a generation of young people to have their say and establish their own identity in opposition to the social and cultural norms of the mainstream majority. Both were defiant in their rejection of the music that dominated the popular mainstream and both embraced attitudes that challenged public norms and existing standards of acceptable behavior. Ultimately, that defiant rejection of mainstream culture and social norms becomes the thread that bound all things punk together regardless of nationality, racial and ethnic background, or musical style. However, unlike most other musical movements spurred by discontent and dissatisfaction, punks in general never took the logical “next step” to promote an agenda that suggested change or an alternative to the systemic problems they rebelled against. A few punk bands like the Clash did advance an articulate social and political stance, but they were the exception rather than the rule. Instead, punk was more typically grounded in willful rancor and unqualified defiance than the kind of angry idealism that characterized the 1960s. At its root, punk embraced anarchy as a pure idea rather than a social or political philosophy.

The rejection of prescribed authority and accepted behavior as a formal ideology dates back at least to the 3rd century BC and the philosophical school of the Cynics of ancient Greece. The word “cynic” means “dog-like” in Greek and the term was applied to the Cynics because they made “a cult of indifference and, like dogs, eat and make love in public, go barefoot, and sleep in tubs at crossroads… and they make a cult of shamelessness, not as being beneath modesty, but superior to it.” However, the philosophy of the Cynics was not necessarily perceived as negative because the Cynics “recognized as friends those who are suited to philosophy, and receive them kindly, while those unfitted they drove away, like dogs, by barking at them.” The Cynics rejected all conventional values of their society and took to the streets to rail against the evils of property, money, fame, power, and whatever they saw as a corruption of true moral authority.

The philosophy of the Cynics was influential on later Hellenist philosophies like Sophism, Skepticism, and especially Stoicism. Some historians have also noted similarities between the life and teachings of the Cynics and those of Jesus. Hellenist philosophies were common in Roman Judea and it is possible that the philosophies of the Stoics and Cynics had influence on early Christian values. Early Christian ideas about asceticism and ethics are similar to those of the Cynics and the idea of “preaching the gospels” is consistent with the rhetorical methods of the Cynics.

In many ways, the punk ethos could be seen as a modern version of ancient Greek Cynicism and punk rock an electrified version of the Cynics’ rhetoric. However, unlike the Greek Cynics, punks had little to offer in terms of a remedy for the evils of society. The Cynics held that a life of Areté– living to one’s full potential in mind and body– was central to their philosophy and their rage against the conventional values and mores of their society was based in the belief that it had become corrupted by excess and power. In contrast, the punks reveled in their anger, saw anarchy as an end in itself, and seemed content to dwell on their discontent.

It is normal in the process of maturation for young people to question the prevailing wisdom of their age, resist conformity, and attempt to break free from the constraints of adolescence. As a reflection of the culture of the young, rock and roll has challenged and frequently opposed the established beliefs and values of mainstream society and frequently been the voice of youthful discontent since its emergence in the 1950s. Punk, like any other “voice” in rock and roll, was a reaction against the conventions and circumstance of its time, although it was demonstrably louder and angrier than most. What was new and different– aside from its musical characteristics– was that punk was anarchic and nihilistic, something that had not been present in the past.

In England, the sense of being lost and abandoned was understandable given the circumstances that surrounded the emergence of punk in the 1970s. Unemployment for young men between the ages of 16 and 19 stood at more than 20 percent and was in the neighborhood of 30 percent among those from working class backgrounds. British industry was in decline and Britain held the highest rate of inflation among all industrial nations. The British pound dropped to its lowest value in history, and, to avoid total financial collapse, the country had to depend on foreign loans. Many teenagers went straight from school to the “dole,” the British equivalent of welfare, with little hope of becoming financially independent in the future, and class division— a pervasive component of English social structure— sharpened. In England, the presence of a pervasive nihilism and apathy among working-class young people could be seen as not only understandable but expected.

In America, punk was different. It was not primarily associated with a worsening economy, although economic inequities in the United States increased dramatically in the 1970s. In New York, proto-punk and punk were fashioned by middle class and often college educated young people who were not the products of a worsening economy. In California, the most anarchic and nihilistic punks were actually upper middle class suburbanites who came from some of the best school systems in America and lived in the midst of relative prosperity. Nevertheless, their music was as dark, often violent, and infused with the same anger and rage as that of English punks. So, it raises an important question: “Why would an anarchic and nihilistic music like punk take hold in the United States…especially in light of the prevailing view that American exceptionalism was a central reality in the American experience?”

The idea that Americans were qualitatively different from the citizens of other countries has a long history. In 1840, Count Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America found Americans to be “exceptional” and different from people in any other country. He saw Americans as hard-working, driven by the prospect of a better life, bound together by their common love of freedom and equality, and, because of these characteristics, they seemed to be “called by some secret design of Providence one day to hold in their hands the destinies of half the world.” Where other countries’ citizens found their senses of themselves in their common history, Americans found theirs in the common sense of a shared future, which was a dynamic future of growth, betterment, and seemingly endless accomplishment. Perhaps more important than whatever the realities of American exceptionalism might have been, Americans saw themselves as exceptional, believed that the promise of America was theirs as a birthright, and have continued to see America as the “light of the world” and that “shining city on a hill” from the parable of Salt and Light in the Sermon on the Mount.

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