"Rise Above, We’re Gonna Rise Above!": The Symbolic Practices and Semiotic Conversations of American Early Hardcore Punk



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Social historians have argued that being an American teenager or a young adult in the late 1970s and early 1980s meant experiencing a changing landscape in American culture, politics, music and entertainment. In some sense, teens were stuck experiencing the aftershocks of the intense radical 1960s that demanded social change and the peace loving nonviolence of the 1970s. Having no unified youth culture or movement to look to, many teens felt alienated, disillusioned, and disappointed with the American Dream’s failure to come to fruition for them. Dewar MacLeod, for example, claims in his Kids of the Black Hole that American teens easily felt that they were part of the “the blank generation” and in truth did not ‘feel connected to anything.’ Such a setting proved to be a fertile landscape for a new subculture to arise that represented and expressed youthful experience, its anger and creativity: hardcore punk. My project focuses on American hardcore punk from the early 1980s and how this subculture developed in relation to societal issues, historical events, and cultural narratives. Paying attention to the ‘roots’ of hardcore, I move from historicizing its emergence in Los Angeles to examining the symbolic practices used by its participants. Through this, I try to explain how hardcore functioned as a subculture and what function(s) it fulfilled for its participants. Why and how did hardcore punk spread from Los Angeles to many other cities and locations in the U.S.? What can hardcore punk reveal about American society? How was hardcore punk used as an expressive vehicle by its participants? How was American hardcore punk a thriving subculture? I argue that each symbolic practice from how the body is treated and viewed to symbolic drawings in the form of album art and band shirts, are carefully and consciously used and appropriated by participants in this subculture. I show how this subculture’s specific symbolic practices and ‘signs’ function in society and how they reveal such societal constructions such as hegemony, historical specificity, and ideology. More specifically, these symbols, signs, and practices distinguish certain social and cultural units as being, in Raymond Williams’ terms, ‘residual,’ ‘emergent,’ ‘dominant,’ ‘alternative,’ and ‘oppositional.’ This project shows how vital and essential youth subcultures like hardcore punk are in American life and in understanding what it means ‘to be an American’ from a wholly different and alternative perspective. Dewar MacLeod, Kids of the Black Hole: Punk Rock in Postsuburban California (Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 2010), 15. Steven Blush, American Hardcore (Los Angeles: Feral House, 2001), 21. Dick Hebdige, Subculture: The Meaning of Style (London: Methuen & Co., 1979). Raymond Williams, “Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory”, New Left Review, November-December 1973, 3-16.



hardcore punk, critical theory, cultural theory, dominant cultures, alternative, oppositional, raymond williams, dick hebdige