I Against I: The Commodification Of Punk

June 18, 2024

In 2023, one of the biggest films of the year Spiderman: Across the Spider-Verse debuted grossing a little over $690 million dollars worldwide and quickly became a critical darling. Aside from the awe inspiring animation, one part of the film in particular captured the public imagination. Hobie Brown a.k.a  Spider-Punk only gets roughly five minutes of actual on screen time but that was enough to leave a lasting impression on me, and the fanbase as a whole. Played by Daniel Kaluuya, Hobie is explicitly an embodiment of everything that could be considered the essence of punk as a genre and a movement. The way his Anarchist beliefs and Blackness blend together create an authentic presence, which is no mistake considering how much of his design is based on the legendary punk group “Bad Brains.”  However, despite how much I love his design,  political leanings, or the intangible coolness that Kaluuya brings to the role, Hobie Brown is still the property of The Walt Disney Company. 

That fact gets at the heart of what makes punk definable as a movement. It’s not the clothes or mayhem or the sake of just fun but actual community based resistance to oppression of all peoples in the form of music. The outfits and flashier aspects of punk are all born out of genuine bond between resistance ideology and the most ostracized members of western society. So,  how does that blend with the ambitions of a multi-billion dollar corporation?  

A large part of the conversation around the commodification of punk is the struggle between art and capitalism. Punk suffered a fate that is familiar to many artforms with anti-establishment roots that have existed underneath capitalism. This includes the stripping away of Blackness of the movement as we see with modern day jazz and, to a certain extent, hip-hop. The political ambitions of the movement are stripped away while the aesthetics become liberalized and made acceptable for popular consumption. This description, while accurate, undermines what I feel is a key question in the discourse, can what is being sold back to us by the machine still be considered punk? 

The  answer to this question lies in the history of the genre itself. Both whitewashing and loss of community, have affected the way we view the birth of punk and who claims it as culture.  The distinction between  the history that  has been passed down since punk became a for-profit entity and the actual history of the genre is what has led punk down the unique path it walks now. 

In America, the widely recognized history of punk runs through cities like New York, Detroit or Seattle with “Proto-Punk” bands like MC5 or more definitively punk bands like The Ramones or the NY Dolls. While, in the U.K., the punk scene runs through London with groups like The Clash or The Sex Pistols. In both countries, these scenes are mythologized as the expression of the anger of the (mostly white and male) middle class kids who rightfully sought to take a stand against the apathetic ruling class.  

These descriptions have some basis in reality, but what is largely missing from both are the nonwhite and nonmale artists who gave both communities their aesthetics and political foundation. Pretending that a working-class movement that can trace its roots back to early ’70s Detroit and Camden Town, London, would have no ties to Blackness isn’t just silly—it’s purposely anti-Black.

In 1974 while much of the Black music scene in Detroit were doing their best to capture the magic of the Motown sound a band called Death, was busy shaping the soundscape that would take hold of the youth in years to come. Groups such as Pure Hell and the aforementioned Bad Brains rarely came up as mainstays of the origins of Punk despite the fact that they and many more are instrumental in its impact.  Even later punk revival groups in the Riot Grrrl Movement in the 90s exemplify how much of the diversity of the Punk scene had been expelled even 30 years ago with GUNK Zine writer Ramdasha Bikceem telling Vice in 2015 “I just hesitate to talk about Riot Grrrl like this because I become a footnote all the time,” The whitewashing of the very Black and queer history of punk made the genre much easier to promote to both American and British audiences who could feel a lot safer knowing that while this subculture was rowdy at least it was white and would not truly upset the status quo. 

Ironically, the best comparison to understand the path that punk has taken is modern feminism. In actuality, much of the discussion around the commodification of punk is analogous to the commodification of feminism that we see in the West, and this is not by accident. As one of the more maligned schools of thought by non-reading incels and posers alike, feminism itself has seen the teeth of its societal critiques pulled time and time again. This relates to the way we view feminism because both it and punk have been essentially boiled down to an amorphous form of “empowerment” instead of the actual countercultural roots that inspired and created them. Just as punk seems to be in a period of flux without its core Black and nonwhite audience, the same can be said for modern feminist movements.

Feminism seems to only exist in the mainstream as a decorative collection of Target mugs rather than an actual agent to overthrow the evils of patriarchy without the inclusion of Black and Brown women.  Black women in particular have been written out of the history of both despite pioneering the space in thought and sound and this leads us to the second part of understanding Punk’s current position—the loss of community. 

The establishment did not set out only to destroy punk solely by neutering its political aims, the true way to destroy any organic political actions is to create confusion and distrust in the ranks.  As more radical voices in the space were removed from its history; those whose identities matched the forgotten pioneers removed themselves largely as well. This is not to say that punk today has no base in Black and queer communities, quite the opposite; the likes of Rico Nasty and BLK Odyssey assure us that the legacy lives on, but what is missing is the ability to build a community around these artists that include radical politics. Without well held beliefs to back up Punk aesthetics, it becomes impossible to distinguish between Radicals and controlled opposition. 

Looking back at Hobie we see that his presentation is not actually all that bad, he does work within the story of the film as a source of upheaval and to a certain extent even revolution against an oppressive system. His character is about as far as I’ve seen a major studio go in presenting the Anarchist as the good guy but even still the application to real life falls flat. 

Subcultures like punk can’t afford capitalist mimicry, even seemingly very sincere expressions of the culture can loop around and paint the movement in ways that go against the best interest of those on the ground. The fact is the identity of Punk exists beyond the clothes or a devil may care attitude. What makes punk is the solidarity between outcast and the downtrodden, its meaning can not be bestowed by multi-billion dollar corporations. Capitalism has the ability to swallow entire movements and use its own aesthetics to advocate against the stated goals of said movement. The best defense that newer punk acts can have against this is to find solid fitting in their beliefs and ensure that the spaces they create promote the best of all of those who contribute to its maintenance.