Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Paranoid and Dilemmatic Ideology in Punk Rock Music

The term “punk rock” is applied to diverse artists that often have a hard time fitting underneath the same umbrella. As such, punk (like other mega-genres such as hip-hop and metal) is further broken down into seemingly infinite sub-genres like hardcore, emo, ska-punk, and folk punk. Songs and artists are placed into one sub-genre or another based on (aural) aesthetic characteristics like instrumentation and tempo. In this post, I propose a new way of sub-categorizing punk music, based on lyrical content rather than aural features. In so doing, I split the entire mega-genre of Punk Rock into just two branches, which I call Paranoid and Dilemmatic.

Paranoid Punk

The term “Paranoid” is borrowed from the work of the American historian Richard Hofstadter, who wrote about “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” According to Hofstadter, the Paranoid Style is characterized by “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy.” Similarly, Paranoid Punk features lyrics about conspiracy theories, stereotypes, and paranoid suspicion.

Source: Wikipedia
The song “9/11 was (an inside joke)” by Star Fucking Hipsters is exemplary of the Paranoid style in punk music. The song, as the title suggests, endorses the paranoid conspiracy theory that the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks were orchestrated by members of the United States political and economic elite: “G-Dub played the king / to wipe the crime scene clean / smart folks know what I mean / Giuliani fixed the job / abetted by the mob / Air Force and CIA / NORAD with Dick Cheney / erased the facts away.”

Star Fucking Hipsters is just one project of prolific front-man Stza Crack, whose other bands include (now-defunct) Choking Victim and Leftöver Crack. Interestingly, Leftöver Crack’s first album Mediocre Generica was released on September 11, 2001. The band’s next album, Fuck World Trade, features cover art of the burning Twin Towers and lyrics boasting about “the tower-tumbling Mediocre Generica.”

The paranoia of Paranoid Punk need not be political. Seminal (and apolitical) punk band The Ramones also fit into the category. Ramones song titles (e.g. “Gimme shock treatment,” “I wanna be sedated,” “Teenage lobotomy”) are replete with references to psychosis and paranoia. Even The Ramones’ love songs are filled with obsessive paranoia and the need to control and conquer the object of desire. Perhaps no song exemplifies this more than “Today your love, tomorrow the world,” which compares romantic conquest to the Nazi conquest of Europe: “I’m a shock trooper in a stupor, yes I am / I’m a Nazi schatze you know I fight for the Fatherland…Today your love, tomorrow the world.”

Dilemmatic Punk

The second branch, Dilemmatic Punk, gets its name from the study of ideological dilemmas in the field of discursive psychology. In their influential book Ideological Dilemmas, Michael Billig and colleagues characterize ideology not as something which is rigid and free from contradiction; rather, ideology as studied by Billig et al. is something which is dynamic and paradoxical.

Unlike Paranoid Punk songs, which streamline the complex dynamics of American and international politics into simple, internally consistent (yet totally wrong) conspiracy theories, Dilemmatic Punk forges a worldview that embraces paradox and seeks out a balance between extremes. For example, “‘Merican” by The Descendents takes a look at the love-hate relationship that many progressive Americans have with their national history: “I come from the land of Ben Franklin / Twain and Poe and Walt Whitman / Otis Redding, Ellington / The country that I love / But it's a land of the slaves and the ku klux klan / Haymarket Riot and the Great Depression / Joe McCarthy, Vietnam / The sickest joke I know.”

Just like Paranoid Punk, Dilemmatic Punk can also be apolitical. The Queers, for example, explore how rejection can stir of feelings of melancholy or rage – “I can’t get over you” and “Strangle the girl,” respectively.


I should note that all of the songs and artists I’ve talked about are, in a word, awesome. By labeling them as Paranoid or Dilemmatic, I am in no way making a judgment about goodness or badness. Instead, I only use these terms in order to probe into punk rock in a way that hasn’t been done before.

Paranoid and dilemmatic ideologies are not only characteristic of punk rock music. Rather, this essay has explored punk music as a microcosm of broader social and political tendencies. It should be easy to see how the division I have drawn between Paranoid and Dilemmatic Punk can be applied to other areas – different genres of music, political movements, characters in fiction, etc. For instance, the film (and book) The Da Vinci Code is clearly conspiratorial, fitting into the Paranoid group. On the other hand, a movie like Free Radio Albemuth, in which the conspiratorial fantasies of characters are constantly undermined, is Dilemmatic.

These categories should prove useful in differentiating between more and less neurotic political ideologies. An ideology which fits squarely within the Paranoid camp will be rigidly internally consistent, but will break down and collapse due to its own repressed contradictions the moment that any outside critical thought is voiced. On the other hand, Dilemmatic ideologies are flexible, dynamic, and embrace contradiction.


  1. Hey there,
    Interesting thoughts. I like it but it presumes that punk needs to be political, politics certainly is a big part of punk but there are other things in there too. There are bands that I adore not for their lyrical content but for their sound. NOFX for example, they sing about some pretty weird stuff but I don't care, I love the way they sound.
    I reckon we need easier to identify sub-genres, I know I'm not the first to get confused.

    That's my two cents..

    1. Thanks for the comment. I did include the examples about the Ramones and the Queers to show that I'm not just talking about politics.