New York Punk Rock: Genre as Mourning & Reconciliation (1967-1980)

Ervin, Jarek Paul, Music - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Puri, Michael, Department of Music, University of Virginia
Will, Richard, Department of Music, University of Virginia
Miller, Karl, Department of Music, University of Virginia
Hamilton, John, Department of Media Studies, University of Virginia

My dissertation takes a speculative cue from the reception of 1970s New York punk, which is typically treated as both rule – the symbolic site of origin – and exception – a protean moment before the crystallization of punk proper. For this reason, artists such as Velvet Underground, Patti Smith, the Ramones, and Blondie are today afforded the simultaneous status of originators, interlopers, innovators, and successors. This has led both to the genre’s canonicity in the music world and its general neglect within scholarship.

I argue that punk ought to be understood less as a set of stylistic precepts (ones that could be originated and then developed), than as a set of philosophical claims about the character of rock music in the 1970s. Punk artists such as Patti Smith, Jayne County, and the Ramones developed an aesthetic theory through sound. This was an act of accounting, which foregrounded the role of historical memory and recast a mode of reflexive imagination as musical practice. At times mournful, at times optimistic about the possibility of reconciliation, punk was a restorative aesthetics, an attempt to forge a new path on memories of rock’s past.

My first chapter looks at the relationship between early punk and rock music, its ostensible music parent. Through close readings of writing by important punk critics including Greil Marcus, Lester Bangs, and Ellen Willis – as well as analyses of songs by the Velvet Underground and Suicide – I argue that a historical materialist approach offers a new in-road to old debates about punk’s progressive/regressive musical character.

My second chapter explores the way this conversation shifted from an abstract, philosophical debate to a concrete musical project. I call attention to a seldom-acknowledged early punk subculture centered on LGBTQ punk artists in the first years of the 1970s. Using work in queer theory by Tavia Nyong’o, Elizabeth Freeman, and Rosemary Hennessy, I emphasize the role of LGBTQ artists like Lou Reed, Magic Tramps, and Jayne County in shaping the early contours of the genre.

My third chapter turns toward mid-seventies punk. Though a chief reference point for later portrayals of the genre (the classical moment of punk, as it were), the mid-1970s punk scene surrounding CBGB was intensely factionalized at the time. I use this dissensus as a vantage point to rethink punk’s status as a subculture. Drawing on the work of the Birmingham School as well as the writings of Benjamin and Marx, I argue that a historical materialist theory of subculture allows for a greater role of contradiction in social movements.

My final chapter examines the fate of this alternative at the end of the 1970s. I chart the simultaneous explosion of punk as a transatlantic media obsession, and a wellspring for new subgenres. This chapter traces the way late seventies punk enacted, once again and for the last and first time, a set of claims about punk’s afterlife as postpunk. I argue that punk saw its simultaneous arrival as a meta-genre, and its fracture into dozens of antagonistic subgenres. In splitting into two, 1970s punk evinced the two paths its offshoots have followed since: to pull down its own future, and to start building again.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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