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What Is Punk? 25 Definitions From People Who Should Know

Trying to define punk rock is a perennial endeavor that leads to endless frustration. Is it about smashing the system? Is it about rebelling against oppression? Or is it nothing more than an efficient way to sell T-shirts? Discerning between the sellouts and the authentic is not easy.

Always willing to take on a sisyphean challenge, we decided to give it a go — except that instead of using our own words, we’re quoting the women and men who once were, and continue to be, the faces of punk. After the jump, check out 25 diverse definitions of punk and let us know who we missed, who should have never been included, and whose take you agree with most.

“When punk rock came along, the one thing you were not supposed to be was musical.”
Nick Lowe (songwriter, producer)

“The popularity of punk rock was, in effect, due to the fact that it made ugliness beautiful.”
Malcolm McLaren

“Punk is musical freedom. It’s saying, doing and playing what you want. In Webster’s terms, ‘nirvana’ means freedom from pain, suffering and the external world, and that’s pretty close to my definition of Punk Rock.”
Kurt Cobain

“A guy walks up to me and asks ‘What’s Punk?’ So I kick over a garbage can and say ‘That’s punk!’ So he kicks over a garbage can and says ‘That’s punk?’ and I say ‘No, that’s trendy!'”
Billie Joe Armstrong

“Punk rock is a word used by dilettantes and heartless manipulators about music that takes up the energies, and the bodies, and the hearts, and the souls, and the time, and the minds of young men who give what they have to it… I don’t know Johnny Rotten, but I’m sure he puts as much blood and sweat into what he does as Sigmund Freud did. What sounds to you like a big load of trashy old noise is in fact the brilliant music of a genius — myself. And that music is so powerful that it’s quite beyond my control, and when I’m in the grips of it I don’t feel pleasure and I don’t feel pain, either physically or emotionally.”
Iggy Pop

“[Punk] was something which brought people together, so they realized something was possible”
Pete Shelley (Buzzcocks)

“Punk was defined by an attitude rather than a musical style.”
David Byrne

“There are characters in [punk] that do deliberately go as far as they can in certain kind of taboo areas.”
Richard Hell

“Punk is: the personal expression of uniqueness that comes from the experiences of growing up in touch with our human ability to reason and ask questions; a movement that serves to refute social attitudes that have been perpetuated through willful ignorance of human nature; a process of questioning and commitment to understanding that results in self-progress, and through repetition, flowers into social evolution; a belief that this world is what we make of it, truth comes from our understanding of the way things are, not from the blind adherence to prescriptions about the way things should be; the constant struggle against fear of social repercussions.”
Greg Graffin (Bad Religion)

“I think punk rock, especially for me, was a big middle finger to this whole talent thing.”
Mike Watt (Minutemen)

“I came into the punk scene because punk stayed with you, it has taught you something. A lot of the other music of the time left you as it found you.”
Mick Jones (The Clash)

“At its best New Wave/punk represents a fundamental and age-old Utopian dream: that if you give people the license to be as outrageous as they want in absolutely any fashion they can dream up, they’ll be creative about it, and do something good besides.”
- Lester Bangs

“Punk rock seems like my childhood, the glorious, very exciting naivete of rock n’ roll. Stenguns and guitars seem very idealistic when you’re twenty.”
Tony James (Generation X)

“Punk rock, when I was a part of it, was called ‘the underground.’ There was something very attractive in all the hidden places, the hidden histories.”
Mary Harron (journalist, filmmaker)

“The whole punk ethic was do-it-yourself, and I’ve always been very literal, especially as a kid. When they said that anybody can do this, I was like, ‘OK, that’s me.’”
Michael Stipe

“I think what we took away from first hearing about the punk stuff in England and then the early American punk stuff was a sense of self-definition and also sort of playing music for music’s sake and being part of a family for family’s sake.”
Ian MacKaye (Minor Threat, Fugazi)

“I don’t need to advertise my punkness. A real punk doesn’t need to show off…Its like a Karate man… the Karate man bleed on the inside. A real punk is punk on the inside.”
Mark Hoppus (Blink 182)

“What people don’t understand is when punk started it was so innocent and not aware of being looked at or being a phenomenon and that’s what everyone gets wrong. You can’t consciously create something that’s important, it’s a combination of chemistry, conditions, the environment, everything.”
Siouxsie Sioux

“Were it not for the Clash , punk would have been just a sneer, a safety pin and a pair of bondage trousers.”
Billy Bragg

“I don’t like saying, ‘You’re a punk and you’re not.’ There was a record out there called Ca Plane pour Moi by Plastic Bertrand, right? And I guarantee you if I had to play it for you right now you’d go, ‘Right! That is rockin!’ Now, if you were to say to any sort of purist punk, ‘This is a good punk record,’ they’d get completely enraged. But Plastic Bertrand, whoever he was, compressed into that three minutes a bloody good record that will get any comatose person toe-tapping, you know what I mean? By purist rules, it’s not allowed to even mention Plastic Bertrand. Yet, this record was probably a lot better than a lot of so-called punk records.”
Joe Strummer

“Punk became a circus didn’t it? Everybody got it wrong. The message was supposed to be: Don’t follow us, do what you want!”
John Lydon

“I come from the home-grown punk ethic, where it doesn’t matter if you can’t play a note, it’s how you communicate.”
Siobhan Fahey (Bananarama)

“Mozart was a punk, which people seem to forget. He was a naughty, naughty boy.”
Shirley Manson

“Undermine their pompous authority, reject their moral standards, make anarchy and disorder your trademarks. Cause as much chaos and disruption as possible but don’t let them take you alive.”
Sid Vicious

“Punk rock is just another word for freedom.”
Patti Smith

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