The Philosophy of Punk
May 20, 2020

Small towns in Kansas do not have a large punk scene. Usually, there are two or three people in a town of two thousand who are even aware that punk is not just a type of clothing or an insult to call a youth who steps out of line. If it isn’t Tim McGraw or Shania Twain, then you might as well leave town. At least, that is what I did.

My parents were much cooler than most of the town’s parents. I learned to headbang when I was three years old. System of a Down, Metallica, Judas Priest, KISS, Godsmack, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Linkin Park, were just a few bands blasting through our house or cars on a regular basis. Country music was accepted but more out of nostalgia than genuine enjoyment.

“Hard” music was widely accepted in our house. My parents never told us not to listen to a band. Movies? Sure. Books? I remember my mother getting mad about my Grandpa giving me Kenny Stabler’s book, Snake. It probably had something to do with the sexualized legs coming out of the helmet on the cover and my being only 9 years old. But a CD, with horror imagery, that hosted the track Mommy, Can I Go Out and Kill Tonight was an easily acceptable Christmas present.

It was my sister, though, who introduced me to my favorite bands. I don’t remember the exact conversation or what was happening, but my sister handed me Richard Hell’s Blank Generation and I was instantly enamored of the apathetic face on the cover. I listened to that album hundreds of times through.

Finally, my sister wanted her CD back but could only get it out of my hands by trading me the Misfits for the Voidoids. This became our routine when I hoarded every CD given to me until she traded it for another. This is where punk came into my life.

Through all my darkest moments, punk has been there for me. The other day, I was thinking about how quiet I was and how I could never seem to communicate what I thought or felt until I was introduced to punk and philosophy. They gave me the words to speak about what I was experiencing. Even if I misused those words, I still had the beginning of a vocabulary.

The best-written piece on punk is Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk. I read that book like a fundamentalist reading the Bible. In other words, I read it too many times and know way too much about it. Another time I will write about the reactions I received in a private catholic high school carrying this book around from class to class.

Let me expand on what makes up the culture and values of punk as a movement.

Art is fluid, just like life is fluid. The target is not always moving, but its appearance to every artist is different from one to another.

As I studied philosophy in college, I cannot go without defining some terms. By philosophy, in this article, I mean the study of the nature and meaning of the subject. In this article, that would be punk.

I’m using the term punk to describe the culture of those in the movement; this is not the place to fight over what is actually punk music or not, nor do I think it is worthwhile to argue about what constitutes punk. I’m only writing about what is behind the attitude and culture of punk. The elitists of punk, take this as a fuck you. No one wants your pretentious opinions.

My experience with punk only goes back to the early ‘90s. While I am part of the generation who grew up with Sum 41, The Distillers, and the like (I dare to include Emo), most of my knowledge is of the early bands based in the New York area and L.A.

Do me a favor? Google the definition of punk and see what kind of responses you get. There is a giant heap of shit to sift through before seeing some real gems. We have the general definition of fast and aggressive music from the late ‘70s to the early ‘80s. I’m cool with that, but there is much more than just the music. My point is, most definitions of punk do not even touch what is most important about the word.

Take a look at these definitions below:

“To me, punk rock is the freedom to create, freedom to be successful, freedom to not be successful, freedom to be who you are. It’s freedom.” — Patti Smith

“Punk rock is a word used by dilettantes and heartless manipulators about music that takes up the energies, the bodies, the hearts, the souls, the time and the minds of young men who give everything they have to it.” — Iggy Pop

Read these definitions carefully. They are vague, distant, abstract, but at the same time hopeful. Punk is a reaction to an experience. That experience can be injustice, existential crises, abuse, abandonment, oppression, etc. Punk is the freedom to react to an experience one has in a raw form.


One of my all-time favorite quotes is by Richard Hell:

Basically, I have one feeling… the desire to get out of here. And any other feelings I have come from trying to analyze, you know, why I want to go away… See, I always feel uncomfortable and I just want to… walk out of the room. It’s not going to any other place or any other sensation, or anything like that, it’s just to get out of “here.”

Depressing, right? Not to me. To me, this is something I can relate to. A perpetual feeling of not belonging anywhere.

I was an athlete for a long time. A lot of my best experiences came from playing sports, because for me it was escaping from the day to day pain of just existing. It is hard to think and be in your own head when you’re trying to catch your breath. There was only one team in one sport where I really felt part of the family. My college rugby team meant and means the world to me.

That team was punk rock. I was suicidal, lonely, and running out of options. They made sure I was not alone in a room all the time. Just like the music of punk made me feel not so alone and saved me. It allowed me the freedom to be myself instead of trying to act in a way that pleases other people. We were loud, rowdy, funny, disturbing, and raw.

Punk is the raw energy of the souls trying to find their place to belong or, more accurately, be able to be OK with not belonging.

I love what Patti Smith says when she talks about punk being freedom in every sense of the word. Allowing someone to be the most authentic version of themselves is the most punk thing anyone can do.

I did not pursue writing like I actually wanted to because of the natural ability of athletics I had. Sports were important to me because it was my way out. That desire to leave, to get out of here, was going to be satisfied when I got a scholarship to be anywhere but where I was. Unfortunately, I was conditioned to think I could only be one or the other. Artist or athlete. I thought I was an athlete who liked art, but it turned out, I am an artist who likes athletics.


I love how the movie 20th Century Women intertwines the punk scene with this young man’s childhood. I think about this line a lot:

“Yeah, it’s like they’ve got this feeling, and they don’t have any skill, and they don’t want skill, because it’s really interesting what happens when your passion is bigger than the tools you have to deal with it. It creates this energy that’s raw. Isn’t it great?

While I think she could be more clear about what she means when she says they, “don’t want skill,” it really encapsulates the ethos of punk. It’s not the negation of a desire for skill but a rejection of the need for the skill to be considered expressing oneself properly. Art is fluid, just like life is fluid. The target is not always moving, but its appearance to every artist is different from one to another.

This gives me a baseless reason to think that’s why Iggy and the Stooges’ first album was called Raw Power.


What has been covered so far?Punk is about a person being able to experience themselves fully and express that experience in ways that may be considered unconventional by some people.

Punk is the raw energy of the souls trying to find their place to belong or, more accurately, be able to be OK with not belonging. Punk is the lens in which people can see the world and not be utterly disgusted with themselves giving in to what other people consider to be good.

This broad definition makes punk accessible to anyone in whatever music scene, clique, race, religion, or sexuality a person finds themselves. In the wise words of Joe Strummer:

“Punk rock means exemplary manners to your fellow human beings.” — Joe Strummer

Most corporate people who look down upon Punk would never endure the kind of work that was needed to produce what they did.

This existential strand of the punk scene is balanced with the DIY attitude made famous by Black Flag, Minor Threat, and other DC/LA bands.

This rebelling against the elitist in the music industry and mainstream culture cultivated this sense of not relying on other people to get done what needs to be done. Bands were promoting, recording, playing, distributing, organizing everything with their own hands.

They stripped their music down to the barest bones possible. Frequently, the songs were only three to four chords and less than a minute long. No gimmicks, no pretty people to distract anyone from the music, just raw expression.

Punk was originally a derogatory word with a connotation of criminal, lazy, and worthless. And yet, Punks are some of the least lazy people in the world. Relentless hard workers who generally come from the working class.

While some did struggle with drug addiction and apathy, when the time came to make something happen, they made it happen for themselves. This is how, for example, Patti Smith and Richard Hell were able to get their writing published, start bands, launch literary magazines, and create lasting legacies.

This freedom of expression did not come with a sense of entitlement, but rather a sense of needing to put the work in to see the results. Lazy? HA! Look at SST, Dischord, self-published literary magazines, self-published books, publishing companies, etc. Back in the ‘70s, self-publishing meant they printed, folded, stapled, glued, designed, everything by hand. Each piece.

Most corporate people who look down upon Punk would never endure the kind of work that was needed to produce what they did.

Punk is an entire philosophy promoting freedom of the individual and working against conforming to the cookie-cutter form of existing we are told we must fit into.

If you only know punk as this weird music scene made up of people wearing weird clothes or of destructive little shits, I hate to tell you… wait, no I don’t hate to tell you… that you’re wrong.

Punk is an entire philosophy promoting freedom of the individual and working against conforming to the cookie-cutter form of existing we are told we must fit into. It is a philosophy of hard work, determination, love, sacrifice, peace, and mental strength. Members of this school of thought need not dye their hair or begin wearing spikes. Just allow yourself and others to be who they are, put your nose to the grindstone, your own grindstone, and get to work. Whether that means creating art, being the best person you can be (as a sibling, parent, spouse, or friend), taking care of your own mental health, or just surviving the day. Be you, be Punk, be kind, and fuck anyone who tries to put you or your thoughts in a box.


Photo by Greyson Joralemon on Unsplash

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