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volume 3
november 2000

Pleasure and principles

Index of the journal Tracking  

  Issues of authenticity in the analysis of rock 'n' roll
by David Sanjek Spring, 1992
  Director, BMI Archives

In this essay David Sanjek offers a critical analysis of Rolling Stone magazine, Sound Choice, The Source, Rock and Roll Confidential and some self-produced fanzines like Swellsville and Why Music Sucks and their struggle to create 'authentic' communities within and against the current fragmentation of audiences.

  "Rockwriting is, and nearly always has been, the trade of simps, wimps, displaced machos, brats and saps; of, in [Lester Bangs'] own words, "asskissers of the ruling class"; of fuddyduddy archivists with cobwebs on their specs; of pathetic idealizers of a lost youth no one has ever — even approximately — experienced or possessed; of sycophantic apologists for chi-chi trends, musical and extramusical alike, without which — so they've always claimed — "rock is dead"; of binary yes/no cheeses with the cognitive wherewithal of vinyl, shrinkwrap, the physical column-inch."
(Richard Meltzer, 1990: 43-44)
  "Records are still to me like ice-cream cones, physically cathartic rides, or jamming conversations. What I want most is for you to pay me lots of money to hang around the house, spin records, and put my thoughts down on paper until I get them right."
(Jack Thompson, 1988: 4)
1 The history of rock 'n' roll criticism is a checkered one. It began as little more than a branch of publicity. The reviewers in Cash Box, Billboard, or Hit Parader were basically shills for the record companies and uninterested in critiquing the musical merits of a recording let alone its social, political, sexual or ideological significance. Then as now the critic is provided with a free copy of a recording in his format of choice — vinyl, cassette, or compact disk — in return for which, the record company hopes, he or she will produce favorable analysis of its contents and free publicity for the artist and his record label. It was not until the mid-1960s that writers began to see the possibility not only of rock providing an oppositional discourse to the dominant society but also that it could be written about in a manner where the prose approximated the energy and exhilaration of its subject.
2 These practices began in the pages of the underground press and such publications as the Village Voice, LA Free Press, and Berkeley Barb. They helped codify what Simon Frith (1981: 168) has called the dominant ideology of rock: it was "valued for its political stance, its aggression, its sexuality, its relationship to cultural struggle." However, in these publications rock was but one of many concerns, and it was not until the inauguration of such specialist periodicals as Crawdaddy (founded in 1966), Rolling Stone (founded in 1967), Mojo-Navigator, Fusion, and Creem that the ideology Frith identifies becomes codified.
3 One of the central issues to rock ideology is authenticity: the degree to which a musician is able to articulate the thoughts and desires of an audience and not pander to the "mainstream" by diluting their sound or their message. While individual consumers may not theorize about their choices, they do decide with their wallets as to who is good and who bad, who produces the "real thing" and who is the purveyor of jive, schuck, and trash. However, the question of authenticity is a slippery one, as it too often bases itself upon totalizing definitions, positing absolute conceptions of truth or falsity and communities of homogeneous consumers. Instead, we must realize, as Lawrence Grossberg (1988: 21-22) states, "there are no homogeneous communities ... no 'taste cultures' and contradictory subjects constantly moving through, proliferating, and transforming temporary alliances and formations." Individuals do make affective investments when consuming popular music; just ask an adolescent about, say, New Kids on the Block, and you will instantly encounter the intensity of that investment.
4 The question remains, what place does authenticity have in that investment, how is it defined, and is the very concept undergoing transformation as the community of rock consumers fragments into diverse and contradictory entities and the degree of rock's resistance to the dominant culture diminishes. We are undergoing what Steve Redhead (1990: 25) has called "the break-up not simply of former theoretical traditions — or master or meta-narratives — about the emancipatory potential of youth in the West, but the disintegration and restructuring of those formulations — rock culture, youth culture — which were produced as their object."
5 In order to consider these issues I want to examine three segments of the critical community which takes rock as its principal or sole subject. The number and type of such publications, both amateur and professional, has mushroomed since the 1960s; there are easily hundreds of periodicals, each addressing a chosen constituency and with a particular agenda to defend, but here I will address three. First, Rolling Stone, perhaps the oldest publication to define itself as being "not just about music, but also about the things and attitudes that the music embraces" (Draper, 1990: 69). While it once promulgated an oppositional stance, it now defends a mythic canon of 1960s values and musical traditions as well as promotes a version of lifestyle iconography whereby music is treated as but one more marketable signifier. Then, I will take up those publications, including Sound Choice, The Source, and Rock and Roll Confidential that respond to the fragmentation, the "genrefication" as Jack Thompson calls it, of contemporary music by defending a self-chosen territory against encroaching commercial contamination or journalistic ignorance. Finally, I will turn to the self-produced fanzines, concentrating on Swellsville and Why Music Sucks, as those publications in which the process of reformulating rock and youth culture is being most fruitfully formulated.
6 When Jan Wenner began Rolling Stone in 1967 he saw it as a professional alternative to the, so he felt, amateurish nature of Crawdaddy, the preeminent magazine of rock and roll criticism of the period. He disdained its writers fancying themselves to essayists rather than journalists and felt the typographical layout was snobbish in its mimeographed spareness and lack of ornamentation. Instead, he wanted Rolling Stone to read like Billboard, the principal music business periodical, and look as elegant as Sunday Ramparts' typography. At first, the publication was catholic in its approach; early cover subjects included Tina Turner, Zap Comix, Sun Ra, MC 5, and Captain Beefheart. However, soon it became apparent that Wenner identified rock's authenticity with a limited set of figures who formed the publication's icons of the rock canon: these include Dylan, the Stones, and the Beatles. It is an essentially conservative, even mystical approach to music; as Simon Frith (1981: 176) writes, "the rock experience 'the magic that can set you free' is never described but endlessly referred back to as some mythical adolescent moment against which all subsequent rock moments can be judged." The community which these values represents is always assumed, never assessed or theorized. Increasingly, it was perceived as just another taste-public for whom Rolling Stone could act as a hip consumer guide, its imprimatur of value confirming for its readers the validity of their consumer choices.
7 Wenner has consistently possessed an ambivalent attitude toward the cultural and political values Rolling Stone purports to support. For instance, he attacked the Yippies for what he felt to be their incendiary manipulation of adolescents during the 1968 Democratic convention and equated them with the corrupt political forces they sought to demolish. In doing so he branded any other than cultural resolutions of social crises unacceptable: "Rock and roll is the only way in which the vast but formless power of youth is structured, the only way in which it can be defined or inspected" (Draper, 1990: 121). Rock and roll and its counter-cultural ethos soon became but one of Rolling Stone's concerns. While they initially identified themselves as "a little rock and roll newspaper from San Francisco, " by 1974 their publicity sheets determined the magazine to be "a biweekly general interest magazine covering contemporary American culture, politics and arts, with a special interest in music" (Draper, 1990: 223).
8 Music's clearly subordinate position reflected Rolling Stone's editorial assessment that its consumers' tastes had more connection to marketing surveys than ideological constructions. Perhaps no gesture reflects this diminution of rock's position as an authentic index of adolescent opposition than the celebrated 1985 Perception/Reality campaign carried out to increase the magazine's advertising revenue. Its aim was to dissolve the corporate perception that Rolling Stone's readers were stereotypical hippies rather than mainstream consumers. The campaign, designed by the Fallon McElligot agency at a cost of $500,000, constructed a formula that could be repeated endlessly. Images of the 1960s and 1980s were compared: Perception: a psychedelic van. Reality: a smart-looking sports car; Perception: George McGovern. Reality: Ronald Reagan; and, perhaps the most telling, Perception: "All You Need Is Love." Reality: "What's Love Got to Do With It" (Draper, 1990: 344-345). The campaign was an enormous success; within three years the percentage of advertising pages in Rolling Stone had increased 50%.
9 However, that is not to say that the magazine has altogether abandoned its commitment to that canonic body of figures it continues to identify with authentic rock and roll. While Rolling Stone may have at worst ignored and at best given short shrift to some of the major musical genres of the last twenty years, most particularly punk — a body of music Wenner apparently intensely dislikes — and most black music — the magazine has never hired a full time black writer, virtually ignored disco, placated funk, and give grudging admiration to rap. At the same time, it has remained true to that small body of performers who it feels embody the authentic spirit of rock and roll: specifically, during Rolling Stone's first twenty years of publication, members of the Beatles have been featured on the cover over twenty times, the Rolling Stones fifteen, and Bob Dylan eleven. These actions validate Simon Frith's (1981: 176) assessment of Rolling Stone: "What they value in music is its ability to infuse hedonism with a sense of community; rock is defined by a particularly nostalgic use of leisure — it is old people's youth music." Senior writer Mikal Gilmore has admitted of his employer, "They were tastemakers. At this point they're taste trackers" (Draper, 1990: 358-9).
10 If taste is a creditable subject for rock criticism, the current fragmentation of audiences into discrete entities requires that we recognize the difficulty of stabilizing the mobile and shifting alliances of listeners into homogeneous communities. The construction of concrete historical subjects into "taste cultures" has grown increasingly problematic. At the same time the proliferation of popular music genres has disabled even the most assiduous listener from assimilating any more than a representative sample of contemporary recordings. As Steve Redhead (1990: 94) has written, "The problem for theorists of the postmodern condition, who wish to draw on postmodern theory to analyze their object particularly in regard to popular music, is the glut of signs, the very excess of rock and pop discourse that prevails." This proliferation of material and lack of a coherent youth culture has led to the marginalization of rock discourse, the construction not so much of a binary opposition between "mainstream" and "marginal" forms of musical expression as a more fluid set of positions dependent upon local initiatives. Each of these initiatives marks itself out as the expression of an authentic community that defends its self-defined precinct against any external contamination. By doing so, they celebrate the magical possibility of making a difference against all discernable odds through the affective investment in their chosen cultural initiative.
11 One can discern such a project in those periodicals that cordon off a self-defined community and valorize its values and their musical expression. It can be observed in Sound Choice, the journal of the "Audio Evolution Network" that aims to infiltrate and liberate the nation's noncommercial airwaves. Sound Choice proposes to interview those individuals and review those recordings that would enable that project's completion. The Source, "The Magazine of Hip-Hop Music, Culture, and Politics, " counteracts the negative and unrepresentative depiction of Rap and Hip-Hop in the mass media, a position represented by the race-baiting, poorly researched Newsweek diatribe "Rap Rage" that claimed that "civilized society abhors attitude." In response, The Source submits that hip-hop possesses its own style, language, attitude and political outlook antithetical to and critical of the dominant culture. If its substance is not to be coopted or condemned by the dominant society, the Source must articulate hip-hop's values on its own terms. Finally, Dave Marsh — a former Rolling Stone editor and biographer of the Who and Bruce Springsteen, two preeminent rock icons — has endeavored in Rock & Rock Confidential to protect the values and practices of a community of consumers and producers against their cooption or condemnation. Marsh (1985: ix) perceives rock as form of culture for the uncultured, and particularly as a means of expression for those to whom more rigorously credentialed channels are denied:
  "As one consequence, the audience and the performer are almost always linked in my writing, through their changing relationships to the ideals and ideas that the music expresses and represents."
12 Rock & Roll Confidential promotes Marsh's agenda as rock criticism's foremost populist, a true believer in the maxim that the music can set you free and consumers of rock constitute a community which, while not homogeneous, shares common values and desires. Rock & Roll Confidential editorializes fervently against any repression or censorship of that community's interests, including the PMRC's attempts to censor free expression through stickering albums or the record labels' limitation of consumers' free access to recorded material through legislation against home-taping. In the face of an industry that can market its own material with the slogan "The Man Can't Bust Our Music" Rock and Roll Confidential politicizes the production, promotion, and consumption of rock and roll. It substantiates that "most of our 'individual' decisions reflect, in fact, collective social forces and this is as true of our aesthetic tastes as anything else" (Frith & Horne, 1987: 16).
13 Finally, fanzines capture the enthusiasm of consumption. They attempt to avoid the fetishistic retro-pop nostalgia for a golden past represented by Rolling Stone and obdurately question the cynicism about conglomerate culture that empowers marginal communities. As the editor of Swellsville: A Critical Guide for Consumer Deviants Jack Thompson (1990: 4) writes, "No consensus is better than a bogus consensus." The problematic nature of that social collectivity to which Dave Marsh subscribes and the realistic impossibility of either stretching beyond the categories of one's listening or keeping up with the "genrefication" of contemporary culture, musical or otherwise, undermines any pretenses to master narratives. The fanzines's resolution to the problem of maximizing one's consumption of information without falling prey to "lifestyle-iconography" or being "politically correct" is to celebrate the fragmentation of contemporary culture, admit one's confusion, and dance.
14 The best fanzines intimately acquaint us with the affective investment we make in the consumption of rock 'n' roll, how our choices enter and transform our daily lives. They exhibit the contentiousness and contradiction incumbent in making sense of the source of one's pleasure without consciously going against one's basic human instincts in the name of fashion or ideology. That has meant opening up the fanzines' pages to a plurality of contending voices, as when Swellsville invites readers to state what they're listening to and passionate about and then prints the unedited single-page responses. Or when Frank Kogan's Why Music Sucks proposes a series of questions, both serious and sarcastic, prints all respondents' replies, within a limit of 700 words, and then responds to them himself, setting off an internal dialogue that sparkles with rancor, foolishness, wretched excess, and polemic savoir faire. In the absence of any clear center or coherence to contemporary youth culture, the fanzines allow us to embrace the present confusion of categories and discourses and reacquaint ourselves with "the history of the way these specific discourses of rock and pop are constituted, and the manner in which they compete in the construction of cultural meaning in any particular period of pop history" (Grossberg, 1988: 65).
15 Where does this leave the question of authenticity? Nowhere, or perhaps caught between the Scylla and Charybdis of commercial co-optation and marginalized disenfranchisement. Is rock dead or its forms of expression exfoliated into too many genres for any of us to consider? Can we at least recognize that the binary oppositions of authentic/synthetic, rock/pop, and true/false no longer hold up? That as music becomes more international in scope, perhaps global/local is a more meaningful set of terms: That holding onto some sense of rock's liberatory possibilities does not require some fruitless search for a new politics of youth: Most of all that pure oppositionalism is insufficient. As the late Lester Bangs (1990: 19), the designated outlaw and deified casualty of the critical whirl, stated in a obituary to Sid Vicious:
  "While I don't wanna hear how everything is hunky dory like a lot of those disco people and Barry Manilows are trying to sell us, I'm just completely fed up with nihilism especially when it starts acting trendy. I know society is sick and life is getting more complicated by the second, but if all you've got to say is get fucked life sucks you stink I stink who cares I'm bored whip me beat me kick me there's nothing else to do then I think you and everybody else would be a lot better off if you just kept your fucking mouth shut in the first place, not to mention your self- destructive habits to yourself, instead of parading them around like the Red Badge of Courage or something. And this isn't like If You Can't Say Anything Nice Don't Say Anything At All, it's more like ... why restate what's been said and refuted already."
16 Bangs reminds us that we can all too easily become casualties of our own mythologies, that the fan can become the fanatic and allow his affection for rock's liberatory potential to become, in Lawrence Grossberg's (1988: 65) words, "merely the necessary occasion for the investment. The objects of the fanatic's taste then can only be named, never given any content, never made sense of apart from that investment"
  Works cited
  • Bangs, Lester (1990), "Bye bye Sidney, be good." In: Throat Culture, 1990, 2.
  • Crawford, John (1988), Baboon Dooley. Rock critic Baboon gets ahead in life. Ann Arbor: Popular Reality Press, 1988.
  • Draper, Robert, (1990), Rolling Stone Magazine. The uncensored history. New York: Doubleday, 1990.
  • Frith, Simon (1981), Sound effects. Youth, leisure, and the politics of rock 'n' roll. New York: Pantheon, 1981.
  • Frith, Simon & Howard Horne (1987), Art into Pop. London/New York: Methuen, 1987.
  • Grossberg, Lawrence (1988), It's a sin. Essays on postmodernism, politics and culture. Sydney: Power Publications, 1988.
  • Marsh, Dave (1985), Fortunate son. The best of Dave Marsh. New York: Random House, 1985.
  • Meltzer, Richard (1990), "Lester Bangs recollected in tranquility." In: Throat Culture , 1990, 2.
  • Redhead, Steve (1990), The end-of-the-century party. Youth and pop towards 2000. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1990.
  • Thompson, Jack (1988), "Rap gets the last laugh in '88." In: Swellsville: A Critical Guide for Consumer Deviants, 1988, 8.
  • Thompson, Jack (1990), "The Kerblooey blues." In: Swellsville: A Critical Guide for Consumer Deviants, 1990, 10.
  This essay was published in: Tracking: Popular Music Studies,
vol. 4, no. 2 (Spring, 1992)
  1997 © IASPM / USA