Graduate Liberal Studies Program

Course Description

GLS 592: The Political Voice of Punk: From Rebellion to Registered Voters

Instructor: Mika Elovaara

"[Rock] lyrics embody a set of beliefs about the self and larger society. They celebrate autonomy both in personal relationships and the larger community." -Sociologist James T. Carey-

"As a believer in the anyone-can-do-it, all-or-nothing-at-all ethic of punk rock, I think real music's not about technique or virtuosity. It's about believing in what you have to say and wanting to say it so badly that you'll scream your guts out if that's what it takes to get people to listen."
-Sarah Vowell-

Throughout the past 50 years, critics of popular music have insisted on a cause-and-effect relationship between music lyrics and rebellious, inappropriate and indecent behavior, "charging that lyrics incite America's youth to rebel against their parents and society." Arguing that "rock/pop lyrics have undermined the moral fiber of Western civilization with their sexually crude, politically radical, and, more recently, violent content," these critics have had vast support from all kinds of groups of people from parents to politicians, from sociologists to psychologists to name a few. (Friedlander, 284).

Not unlike rock 'n' roll when it burst into contemporary culture in the 1950s, Punk rock and its culture has faced strong criticism since its first beats, chords and screams hit the airwaves. Various groups of people, including politicians and musicologists, have tirelessly called into question the musical quality, morality and propriety of the genre and suggested that not only is listening to it a waste of time, it is also demoralizing and a sign of immaturity. Yet while the detractors of popular music have not quieted down, they are now facing a perhaps stronger opposition than ever before, as Punk has gained global popularity and is deemed as a meaningful musical genre representing global community among the fans and expressing the thoughts and concerns of artists and fans to an increasing global audience. What is more, the genre can no longer be called youth music- it involves participants and attracts fans of all ages.

In the past 40 years, the anti-establishment music genre and movement that originated in the US and the UK in the 1970s has experienced an interesting evolution from a rebellious movement to a chart-topping global voice of socio-criticism that has even reached the Broadway in NYC. Legendary bands like The Clash, The New York Dolls, Ramones and The Sex Pistols, among others, started a musical genre of short and fast melodies with three-chord tunes and often socio-critical and political lyrics that is now popular worldwide. Though punk rock experienced a slight decrease in its popularity in the 1980s, the 1990s brought along a resurrection of the genre with the California punk scene and bands like Bad Religion, Green Day, Rancid, and The Offspring, who now enjoy worldwide fame. Today, while voting percentages and public interest in partisan politics are low everywhere in the western world, punk rock, with its youthful rebellion and educated political viewpoints, voices the opinions of millions of global citizens and attracts a global audience. Descriptive of the new, more educated form of punk rebellion and the political voice of punk, often even the most popular punk bands encourage and inspire activism, take on environmental, religious and political issues in their lyrics, and encourage their fans to register to vote.

This course is divided into two parts: During the first part of the semester, we will study the history of punk in the UK and the US and learn about the social circumstances that inspired the punk movement. During the second part, we will take a closer look at contemporary punk bands and their music, and study some of the social issues that contemporary punk bands heavily criticize. The objective of the course, both individually and collectively, is to gain an understanding of the history of punk rock and its legacy to the current punk rock music and subculture, and to explain the current state of punk rock and punk subculture. No "fan" interest in punk rock is required from students to do well in this class, but an open mind and an interest to investigate the musical genre and its place in contemporary culture and society is expected.

The class structure is based on relevant homework assignments, in-class discussions and activities, and the following evaluated assignments: a presentation, a mid-term paper, a final paper.

Tentative reading list:

  • Diehl, Matt: My So-Called Punk
  • O'Hara, Craig: The Philosophy of Punk: More Than Noise (AK Press)
  • McNeil, Legs & McCain, Gillian: Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk (Penguin)
  • Savage, Jon: England's Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock, and Beyond (St. Martin's Griffin)
  • Belsito, Peter & Davis, Bob: Hardcore California: A History of Punk and New Wave (Last Gasp)
  • Selected essays and articles as handouts
  • Selections of lyrics, introduced by both the instructor and the students

Last Update: December 21, 2011