Prep vs Punk

One of the observations I made in my first-ever post on this blog was about the tension between appearance vs. the music you enjoy. That’s been a recurring theme around here ever since. I was recently inspired to revisit the topic after I went for a drive with some friends. One of them referred to The Official Preppy Handbook and the “punk/prep” connection. That connection was admittedly something I’d never thought about before so I wanted to dive into it more.

The Official Preppy Handbook was published in 1980 as a satire of the boat shoes-and-lacrosse set. It goes into detail about what it takes to really fit in with that lifestyle: the “right” schools to go to; how to correctly hem your pants; the importance of combining kelly green and pink. And in a little column, almost hidden away, the authors talk about the punk-prep connection.

Some preps are the types who might only read about music for the shock value. Others might genuinely love its sound and would go all out if they could. On weekends they swap their uniform of Sperry Topsiders and polo shirts for sneakers and oversized t-shirts. The column also mentioned the Talking Heads, which I found to be an interesting choice: I’d never thought of the Talking Heads as being especially “punk.” New Wave, certainly, but not of the same ilk as, say, the Sex Pistols.

Maybe the authors labelled the Talking Heads as punk because some of their songs have a heavy guitar beat but are a palatable level of alternative for a traditionally buttoned-up (literally and figuratively) group of people. Someone can jam out to “Burning Down the House” on Saturday and go back to being a marketing executive on Monday.

I think one element of the punk-prep connection is rebellion. Preps have been told their entire lives how to think, dress, act, even eat and drink. Punk is the complete opposite of all of that. It offers an alluring, total escape: scream your heart out, rip your clothes, raise your finger to The Man. Do whatever you want. As Against Me! would sing, years after their forefathers yelled their way onto the charts, “The revolution was a lie!” (Coincidentally, that song, “I Was a Teenage Anarchist,” really spoke to me back as a youth.)

You’ve also got timing. Prep has been around forever, but in a lot of ways it was really reaching its zenith in the 1970s and ’80s. That’s of course when punk was taking shape, too. Students at prep schools would have been growing up at the same time The Ramones mumbled that they wanted to be sedated. They might have sneaked out past curfew to see a concert or two. And if they were anything like me, those beats would have hit them straight in their hearts and shown them a world far beyond what they’d known for so long.

2 thoughts on “Prep vs Punk

  1. I think Talking Heads was initially branded as “punk” because they played a lot of the punk clubs when they were first starting out. The term “New Wave” was in some use in the early 1970s but it’s always been kind of subjective as to what is and is not “New Wave.” There’s a book called ARE WE NOT NEW WAVE? that talks about how some label head got it in his head that “punk” was a flash in the pan and that he wanted his acts labeled “New Wave” instead. This was really all about money, like most things.

    I recently went back and re-listened to TALKING HEADS ’77 and it sounds nothing like what I would consider punk to sound like. I think one of the things I like about Talking Heads is how bizarre/out of step/unclassifiable they really were.

    1. I will definitely have to pick up that book – thanks, Jason! You are so right in that musical genres/labels do often come down to money and branding.

      Their experimentation is one of the things that I really like about Talking Heads as well.

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