The DIY Work Ethic and the Punk Rock Subculture

As a college student, I often find myself all too aware of the various subcultures which exist in our society (one need look no further than the quad to see many of these subcultures represented by Texas State students). While incredibly interesting, the more complex features of the various subcultures and their influence upon our cultural history tend to go unexplored (at least by me). Faced with this research paper, I wanted to explore an element of our culture I find myself encountering on an often daily basis. The do-it-yourself ethic has been influenced by the punk rock subculture in America, in addition to being a crucial element of said subculture.

To begin my research, I employed the use of the first step in the information gathering model to analyze the context and content of my message. Before I could go any further in my quest for information, it was necessary to determine the audience. In this case, I am writing for an audience of my professor and peers. This step is vital because it will influence how I select and evaluate the information I gather, as well as ultimately playing a part in how I create and then deliver the final message. Because the purpose of the message also plays a role in the information that is needed to craft a successful message, I then concluded that the purpose of this message is to educate my intended audience.

I began the information gathering process with the vague notion to research the do-it-yourself ethic in hopes of discovering its influence on American culture. With the help of my instructor, I was able to narrow this search to include only the influences of the American punk rock subculture on the do-it-yourself ethic. This significantly refocused my search to include only information relevant to the do-it-yourself ethic in the past thirty years (the punk rock scene first emerged in New York City in the 1970s) rather than the last fifty years or more (the DIY ethic grew out of the postmodernism that followed World War II).

Once I began the process of gathering information, I was able to find informal, journalistic, and scholarly sources under the umbrella of potential contributors. In the end I had more information than was necessary to write this paper, but this was to my benefit when I reached the Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½evaluate and select’ stage in the information strategy model.

The informal source which proved most useful was Microcosm Publishing’s website. From my own personal experience of ordering merchandise from Microcosm and the offhand knowledge I have of two of the people who run it (Joe Biel and his wife Alex Wrekk), I knew that it would be a good place to start for a general feeling of the connection between the punk rock subculture and the do-it-yourself ethic. Besides the Microcosm catalog, the website also features, among other things, interviews with the people behind various DIY projects, including two young women responsible for Boxcar Books, an alternative, DIY bookstore in Bloomington, Indiana. In response to Biel’s question about the incorporation of punk and DIY ethics into a project such as the bookstore, Ali Haimson says that “Probably the main thing is the fact that we all volunteer our time. The punk lifestyle (sharing houses with our friends so that we have cheaper rent, getting food for free, etc.) allows a lot of us this extra time because we don’t have to work at our real jobs as much. As far as DIY, what could be more DIY than saying, Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½I want to start a bookstore,’ and then doing it! I would definitely not say that we’re a punk store though. A lot of us aren’t really punks at all.” I felt that it was important to note that while DIY is a huge part of the punk subculture, not all those who participate in a DIY lifestyle identify as punks.

While realizing that Microcosm’s website could also fall under the category of journalistic sources because it was produced for a general audience and distributed via the Internet, I felt it was better identified as an informal source. The information I collected was more nearly general observations about the punk community than hard facts about the influence of punk on the DIY ethic.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½

The next type of source I sought out was journalistic sources. Using the Internet and the catalog at Alkek library, I searched for books and articles relevant to my search. I found this to be the easiest part of my search; the miracle of the Internet has allowed anyone with something to say a medium in which to say it. However, this also meant I had to be more selective in the information that I did chose to use during the Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½select and evaluate’ stage of the information gathering strategy, to make sure it had journalistic integrity.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½

In an article found on the Internet titled “Cassette Culture,” the author, Richie Unterberger, who has written several books on rock and roll, credits the punk and new wave explosion of the late 1970s for bringing the do-it-yourself ethic into popular music. The formation of numerous independent labels, distribution networks, fanzines, studios and whatnot were unified not so much by musical style as a determination to do things their way, without concessions to corporate or commercial demands (Unterberger n.p.). According to David Byrne, a member of the punk band Talking Heads, as he is quoted in Cultures of Popular Music by Andy Bennett, “punk wasn’t a musical style, or at least it shouldn’t have beenâÂ?¦ it was more a kind of Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½do it yourself- anyone can do it’ attitude. If you can only play two notes on the guitar you can figure out how to make a song out of that” (qtd. in Bennett 60). In this way punk is represented as not just exerting influence on the DIY ethic but as being the embodiment of the do-it-yourself ethic.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½

When associated with the punk subculture, the DIY ethic can be interpreted as a reaction against popular culture. Instead of blindly consuming whatever is readily available, the DIY ethic encourages its followers to bypass so-called “popular culture” in favor of one they create for themselves. I found this sentiment echoed in an interview by Krista Scott-Dixon of the authors of Turbo Chicks, an anthology about third-wave feminism. In the interview, Allyson Mitchell identifies two ways of engaging with popular culture.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½

“The first is to be media literate and selective with pop culture. It is unavoidable but you can choose not to by and read fashion magazines or watch so much television. The second is to use it. Pop culture is everywhere and this makes it cheap. It is an excellent tool [f]or arts and crafts. Use it to make your own culture. Rip it apart and re-fashion it; cut and paste the words so that they tell a story about your own existence, not someone else’s.” (qtd. in Scott-Dixon n.p.)Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½

Essentially, bypassing pop culture in order to create one’s own culture is exactly where punk and the do-it-yourself ethic intersect.

DIY had become so influential by the 1990s that in an article about rock and roll during that decade, author Peter Gorman uses the term as a label. Gorman describes it as “lo-fi recordings made on four tracks in a bedroom, rap that anyone can do (but oh so few can do well) in a plethora of styles, simple guitar licks, sometimes unplugged, and now MP3, a way to bypass the entire industry and put music out directly to the masses” (n.p.). This is evidence that by the Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½90s, elements of the punk subculture (which received a lot of attention in the Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½70s and Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½80s) had disseminated such that it influenced culture as a whole, not just subcultures.

In its opening, Visions of Suburbia, edited by Roger Silverstone, the anthology is identified as a discussion “of suburbia as a range of practices, images and ideas, dreams, nightmares, and realities,” which “examines the histories of suburban development and the representation of suburbs in the mass media and music.” In his introduction Silverstone identifies punk as the sound of the city but with its fans in the suburb (24). It was in the suburb that the do-it-yourself ethic gained popularity. It was creative compensation for unrewarding work as middle-class men increasingly abandoned entrepreneurship and became white-collar employees (Silverstone 115). The punk scene was vocal in its response to suburbia, largely because of the background of its members. The devotees of punk (often sexually unconventional individuals) had long been on the receiving end of what Silverstone identifies as suburbia’s Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½capacity to exclude those who did not fit into the tightening straight-jacket of the suburban ideal’ (Silverstone 265). There is a bit of irony in noting that those who felt stifled by the suburbs adopted a work ethic popular with the same individuals responsible for the ubiquitous nature of suburbs.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½

To locate the scholarly sources needed in my research, I used a few of the library’s many databases. I found many full-text articles, but did end up requesting an article via interlibrary loan, which gave me experience using a feature of the library that I had never taken advantage of before.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½

In “Postmodernism and Punk Subculture: Cultures of Authenticity and Deconstruction,” Ryan Moore explains the growth of the punk movement and its association with the do-it-yourself ethic. According to Moore, the term “punk” first appeared in the world of popular music during the 1970s, when American rock critics used it to describe relatively unknown “garage bands” of the previous decade and a developing music scene centered in Manhattan’s lower east side (309). Moore also states that the DIY ethic is referred to as the process of creating independent media and interpersonal networks in opposition to the corporate media with the punk subculture (307). Throughout the rest of the article, Moore argues that the DIY ethic allowed not only spectators to become participants, but also enabled a sense of local community (323). One of the ways in which punk subcultures have responded to post modern society has involved a quest for authenticity and independence from the culture industry, thus altogether renouncing the prevailing culture industry (Moore 307). This culture of authenticity began to develop in part because of the inspiration young people found in the punk scene; they could participate in the subculture, whether it was by playing in a band, writing a fanzine, or creating an independent record label (Moore 314). According to Moore, the culture of authenticity and the do-it-yourself ethic led to the creation not only of relatively durable communities and alternative media, but also forums that facilitate political critique and action (308). It is crucial to note that many punk bands personified the boredom and purposelessness of suburban youth socialized to be spectators and consumers (Moore 307). Moore states that young people have been left with scant opportunities to find sources of fulfillment and creativity on the job, with no guidelines for transforming a culture of consumption into a basis for a meaningful existence, and unable to participate in the spectacles of mass media as anything but a spectator (321).Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½

In Did Punk Matter?, Kevin Mattson explores how young people forged what he calls a “robust community of producers” (72). Members of the punk subculture wanted to forge their own identities and cultural products, instead of relying upon corporations to do it for them (Mattson 73). Mattson credits independent shows, non-corporate ways of distributing music (commonly done with cassette tapes during the Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½80s), as well as zines, for allowing young punks to do just that (74). Because all of these independent initiatives existed outside the influence of major corporations, it allowed young people to see themselves as a robust community of independent cultural producers (Mattson 77). Mattson eventually concludes that yes, punk did matter, because the youth involved in the punk subculture showed that much of the pleasure of culture comes from its production and communal sharing (92).Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½

After gathering information from informal, journalistic, and scholarly sources, I moved on the Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½evaluate and select’ portion of the information strategy model. During this stage of the research process I used critical thinking to evaluate all the information found during my search and decided which sources would be included in my final message.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½

To conclude, it can be said that the punk rock subculture exerted a tremendous amount of influence of the DIY ethic. Punk took a work ethic typically associated with the most uninteresting group in terms of politics (largely white, middle-class, child-rearing, middle-aged homeowners and working-class people with middle-class ambitions) and used it to create their own culture (Melchionne 254). The punk do-it-yourself ethic serves as an exemplary model for an alternative institution which allows ordinary people to communicate, create, and participate in opposition to a society which relegates citizens to the position of spectator and consumer (Moore 325). While punk may not garner as much attention today as it did during the Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½70s and Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½80s, it is still a viable subculture, and one whose influence has the ability to affect even those members of society who do not identify as “punk.” Punk has popularized the DIY ethic so that many young adults today, punk or not, are encouraged to “rip [pop culture] apart and refashion it” (as advised by Allyson Mitchell). No where is this more evident than on the Internet, where a simple search will turn up numerous “distros” (independent/alternative distribution networks). While punk may be aging, many facets of the subculture are still relevant to the youth of today, making it clear that punk-and the do-it-yourself-ethic-will continue to influence culture for generations to come.

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