❉ Ty Matejowsky explores the suburban backdrop that shaped the ethics and aesthetics of punk.
“…it is hardly surprising that so much punk rock expression casts a gimlet eye on the suburbs, engaging this real and imaginary space as either subject-matter or setting, lashing out at all its perceived dysfunctions, conformities, absurdities, and inequities, frequently satirizing its stereotypical homogeneity in the harshest of terms.”
Punk’s ascendancy in the popular imagination is largely predicated on its underground urban pedigree. As a post-Glam phenomenon whose earliest iterations remain wholly subsumed within the minimalist, transgressive, satirical, and street-level sensibilities of struggling musicians, art school iconoclasts, local scenesters, and other like-minded individuals eking out an alternative existence within the creatively fertile hand-to-mouth milieus of blighted mid ‘70s New York and London, this enduring expression of youth culture disaffection retains the distinctive aura of seedy city life whether emanating from Lower Manhattan or pre-Thatcher England.
Considered retrospectively, select city neighbourhoods and districts – the Bowery, St. Marks, Camden, Chelsea – effectively became incubators of antagonistic D.I.Y. expression, time-stamping this burgeoning music scene/subculture with a decidedly urbanised identity that persists even as its blast radius influence rippled outwards across time and geography, mutating into various sub-genres and stylistic idiosyncrasies, propelled by a sneering urgency that successive generations of putative punks embraced with varying degrees of commitment and authenticity.
With its urban origins firmly entrenched in public thinking nowadays, one can still credibly argue that punk’s deepest resonance and widest impact lie not in the financially abandoned densities of pre-gentrified city centres rent asunder by white flight’s decades-long disinvestment but further afield in the outlying bedroom communities and planned developments that even now experience widespread adolescent ennui. If the middle class complacency of suburbia’s cul-de-sac neighbourhoods engender their own special kind of benign neglect, then arguably nothing proves more immediately visceral and personally empowering than the frenetic fury of punk rock’s counter-programming. From the Bromley Contingent to the SoCal scene, peripheral commuter hubs play crucial roles in articulating aesthetic manifestations of this highly factionalised music-centered subculture, both reflecting and reifying the teenage alienation that persists just beyond major metropolitan areas.
Against this backdrop, it is hardly surprising that so much punk rock expression casts a gimlet eye on the suburbs, engaging this real and imaginary space as either subject-matter or setting, lashing out at all its perceived dysfunctions, conformities, absurdities, and inequities, frequently satirizing its stereotypical homogeneity in the harshest of terms. Whether communicated through songs (The Descendants’ Suburban Home), band names (Suburban Lawns), or movies (Penelope Spheeris’ Suburbia), the safe and familiar landscapes of edge city subdivisions become easy targets for those so inclined to spit venom against whatever place-based injustice they feel society imposes upon them.
No matter how heartfelt or hackneyed, such sentiments typically leave little room for subtlety or nuance when asserted through punk rock idioms, The Clash’s Lost in the Supermarket being the notable exception given Strummer/Jones’ understated account of adolescent disillusionment and detachment amid aisles of consumer abundance.
Unlike the verbal immediacy of punk rock songs whose lyrics convey scathing critiques of suburbia’s numbing sameness with a derisive intensity rarely encountered elsewhere (e.g., Sex Pistols’ Satellite), communicating similar ideas non-verbally proves more challenging as recycled caricatures of manicured front yards and cookie-cutter housing only goes so far before devolving into stale cliché.
Keeping these pitfalls in mind, some punk rock aesthetes end up sidestepping this issue altogether, sending up the suburbs vis à vis its inhabitants’ rampant consumerism and reputed lackluster tastes, embracing the de facto stepchild of supermarket merchandise – that is, the once widely encountered but now rarely seen budget “generic” product lines – exploiting their supposed shoddy quality, sparse white/blue labelling, limited shelf space, and all-around depressive character by elevating such lifeless chain-affiliated store stock into something approaching resonant semiotic shorthand for whatever existential malaise plagued post-Watergate/Vietnam suburban life in the U.S. and elsewhere.
Whether showcased in album packaging, music videos, or even feature films, the foregrounding of these uninspired no-name grocery goods experienced some measure of mid ‘80s (post-)punk cachet with memorable appearances in edgy artwork that appealed primarily to non-mainstream audiences. Interestingly, generics’ integration into the American marketplace reveals uncanny parallels with punk’s concomitant rise, both emerging out of mid ‘70s recessionary inflation and global economic uncertainties, providing responsive alternatives to the socioeconomic dislocations and “no future” anxieties wrought by the 1973 oil shock and its immediate aftereffects.
Moreover, punk’s ghettoised relationship to contemporaneous popular music finds similarities in how generics are segregated within supermarket layouts, kept well away from major brands, usually along all or part of a dedicated sales aisle, grouped together for bargain shopping expediency. Finally, both generics and punk music generally lacked the advertising or marketing reach of their less niche counterparts, effectively existing on their own commercially speaking.
On Flipper’s aptly titled 1982 debut Album – Generic Flipper, the San Francisco noise rock quartet and seminal Nirvana influence introduced the generic aesthetic to punk’s visual vocabulary, mimicking these no-frills grocery products’ basic fonts and plain stylings, foregrounding the word “ALBUM” on the cover much the way a down-market can of corn displays “CORN” on the product label. Some three years later, generics cropped up again, this time in the music video of Suicidal Tendencies’ signature single Institutionalized wherein lead singer Mike Muir – playing a beleaguered suburban teen – searches his family’s kitchen for that ever elusive Pepsi, only to find both pantry and fridge fully stocked with these low-priced goods.
The following year Public Image Ltd (PiL) released Album – or Cassette/Compact Disc depending on format. As much a collection of polished post-punk as a spleen-venting bully pulpit for John Lydon’s incendiary caterwauling, the work’s generic packaging and marketing materials quickly drew criticism as a conspicuous rip-off of Album – Generic Flipper both conceptually and aesthetically, leading the band Flipper to name their next album Public Image Flipper.
Enduring 1984 cult classic Repo Man takes punk’s embrace of generics to new heights as director Alex Cox features these unbranded items – especially cans of “BEER” – in scene after scene whether at the supermarket where audiences first glimpse the film’s college-age anti-hero Otto (Emilio Estevez) or at the perennially robbed liquor store that he frequents with his collection agency mentor Bud (Harry Dean Stanton). While liberally showcasing generics throughout the film comes across for many as trenchant social commentary on Regan-era suburbia, their utilization was more a matter of necessity than design according to Cox. In a roundtable discussion from Repo Man ‘s 2013 Criterion Collection reissue, he reveals that their repeated appearance emerged out of a failure to secure brand name product licensing of mainstream merchandise, leaving few options but to use expired grocery stock from West Coast supermarket chain Ralphs.
Considered altogether the above examples demonstrate a particular point in time when the pocketbook realities of middle class suburban households intersected with the subversive sensibilities of punk rock taste-makers, creating a unique visual marriage of art and commerce that conveyed deeper meanings about the reduced circumstances and limited prospects that adolescents not so easily cowed by capitalism’s aspirational promises experienced. As expressions of punk itself became increasingly generic over the years, these initial embodiments of this counter-cultural phenomenon feel both quaint and decidedly nostalgic.
❉ Ty Matejowsky is a Professor of Anthropology at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. He has published various pieces with We Are The Mutants, The Middling Spaces, and Sports Literate. His book Smothered and Covered: Waffle House and the Southern Imaginary (University of Alabama Press) came out in 2022. https://www.linkedin.com/in/ty-matejowsky-86026a92/