by Jenifer Abercrombie
In March of 2013 a man named John Roderick wrote an article declaring that punk rock was a farcical, false phenomenon. The overwhelming response to the article crashed the server of the Seattle newspaper where his work was published. This one polarizing argument questioning punk’s validity sparked thousands of people to action and opinion, swarming the site with so much heated discussion the article had to be removed for a time. But why?
From Doc Martens to tartan and all the “Oi Oi Oi”s in between, last Thursday night Dr. Ken Spring explained how musical subcultures like Punk can be the source of both enormous passion and important sociological insight.
Dr. Spring, an Associate Professor of Sociology at Belmont University, began the seminar by outlining the basics of Sociological theory. To condense years of Sociological training, he kept it simple describing the three major lenses of sociological study: Conflict Theory, Structural Functionalism, and Symbolic Interactionism, drawing a stick figure representation of something called the “Reality Model,” and finally, detailing the basic premise of a technique called “The Sociological Imagination.” Dr. Spring explained that using these techniques and ideas, it is the job of a Sociologist to take an isolated personal issue, combine it with history and biology, and identify whether or not that same issue might be affecting society on a larger scale.
And to demonstrate how all of this theory works, he asked the scholars an important question, “How much does a good evening dress cost?”
Opinion differed as the Scholars debated the price tag of a good gown. Then Dr. Spring threw a wrench in the discussion: what if you thought a good dress cost $145,000? Using an anecdote, about a woman loaded with money and pressured to go shopping, Dr. Spring explained that in addition to theory, things like finances and education are other factors Sociologists use to examine groups of people. Operating closely on W. I. Thomas’ theorem–“If people define situations as real, they are real in their consequences”–Sociology looks at the way that all of these influences determine personal beliefs and reality, or as Dr. Spring explained with his example, “you can do life differently if you don’t have to think about dropping six figures.”
Then it was time to turn up the music.
“What kind of music do you like?” Dr. Spring polled the Scholars.
Answers were varied from underground rap to alternative rock to Korean pop and beyond. The students lit up at the chance to discuss their favorite artists or songs, but Dr. Spring had something a little more academic in mind.
“Techno,” one of the scholars shouted from the front.
From this prompting, Dr. Spring began in on a history of the genre citing its birth in New York house music, followed by its permanent adolescence in Europe, and its eventual return to the United States in the form of mainstream Dubstep. But after this brief introduction, he followed with another question:
“What is the culture surrounding techno like?”
The techno fan was a bit perplexed about what he meant by techno “culture,” so Dr. Spring shifted back to punk to give an example.
Utilizing his specialization in cultural Sociology to help the Scholars make the connection, Dr. Spring expounded on where fans stand at concerts. From a sociological perspective, both the big burly guys in the front of every punk show and the older fans posted in the back of the venue are significant to understanding how subculture affects people’s lives. The people populating the back of punk shows are usually long time dedicators that used to stand at the front, showing a transition period that occurs with seniority and credibility within the culture. The muscle in the front line, however, is a group that is still vital and involved, feeling it is their duty to protect the band and manage the crowd.
But not everyone can be so committed. “Scenes,” Dr. Spring explained, are different than subcultures. “Scenes” are identities that can be assumed or removed. A kid wearing a Ramones t-shirt or drowning her headphones in the Dead Kennedys’ back catalogue is involved in the punk “scene,” while active members of Punk subculture might adopt Veganism or a straight edge lifestyle as Punk clearly changes their ideas and values.
The Scholars agreed that they had witnessed these Sociological theories in their own lives in things like wearing the right outfit to attend a certain type of concert, or noticing what sort of people populate a fan base. Dr. Spring defined their observations as exchanges of “subcultural capital,” explaining that what a person wears or how they behave becomes a value system within that subculture and determines their status within the group. Even the most extreme subcultures still have normative behaviors that if violated can result in the offender being outcast, and as Dr. Spring concluded, “you don’t feel comfortable if you’re the odd man.”
The seminar ended on a high note as the Scholars left the lecture hall still buzzing with questions, each taking home a bit of academic theory and a new collection of lenses to re-analyze their favorite tunes.