Theses and Dissertations


Issuing Body

Mississippi State University


Thompson, Joseph M.

Committee Member

Giesen, James C.

Committee Member

Hui, Alexandra E.

Committee Member

Osman, Julia

Date of Degree


Document Type

Dissertation - Open Access



Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D)


College of Arts and Sciences


Department of History


This dissertation traces the history of punk rock and the birth and progression of the “punk ethos,” the principles and stylistic choices that characterized punk as a subculture and lifestyle of which music was a part. It argues that the punk ethos emerged as a result of two interrelated tensions within punk – the first between an inclusive vision of punk that welcomed new people and an exclusive vision that aimed, for various reasons, to limit the genre’s appeal to a select few. The second tension that defined the punk ethos related to the question of whether punk would be an ironic, satire-laden artistic movement or a sincere social movement with genuine goals.

The early New York punk ethos expressed a mostly apolitical commitment to artistic freedom. It reveled in humor and sarcasm, and some punks dabbled in ironic usage of bigoted and fascistic language and symbolism. In the eighties, influential magazine editor Tim Yohannan hoped to convert punk into a left-wing political mass movement. He used his platform and resources to promote bands that adhered to his preferred message and aesthetic. His tactics produced a backlash in the nineties, as punk artists – many of whom had been friends of Yohannan’s – saw mainstream success. Fearing such exposure would dilute the genre’s political power, Yohannan turned against some of his friends.

Yohannan’s influence waned, and punk’s nineties success drew new battle lines between supporters of an inclusive punk ethos seeking to expand punk’s audience and supporters of an exclusionary punk ethos that hoped to narrow punk’s appeal by alienating potential fans with racism, misogyny, and homophobia. Representative of the latter was Vice magazine, whose cofounder, Gavin McInnes, maintained for years that his bigoted statements were ironic, before revealing the sincerity of his views by founding the neo-fascist organization the Proud Boys in 2016. The trajectory of punk over the past five decades reveals much about irony and its risks in American society at large.

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