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Rock Ideology

The concept of authenticity is one of the defining features of popular music criticism. David Sanjek observes that it is so ingrained into the discourse that it is central to rock ideology. As such, the value of a musician is polarized between his ability to speak for a particular audience and the concessions he has made to appeal to mainstream demographic. The fundamental problem with this proposition, Sanjek asserts, is that notions of authenticity are built on absolute concepts of what is true and what is false.

An absolutist definition of authenticity is problematic because it is founded on subjective perceptions of music that have less to do with technical matters and more to do with the observer’s knowledge and expectations. Simon Frith clarifies this best by noting that “What is being described is not how something was actually produced, but a more inchoate feature of the music itself, a perceived quality of sincerity and commitment. ” Frith addresses authenticity as “a human judgment” that “reflects extra-musical beliefs.

” Deena Weinstein questions authenticity further by suggesting that authenticity in rock discourse is problematic not merely because of the absolutism Sanjek questions, but because it is placed in direct oppositon to commerce. Weinstein observes that authenticity’s roots originate in Romantic ideology, where the non-rational sentiments of passion and imagination are contrasted against the intellectual and practical world of the rationalists. The true function of authenticity in music is a paradox.

It is maintained as a measure of artistic sincerity in order to sustain the commercial support of an audience that values it. In less obtuse terms, the authenticity of a musician is defined by the target market it serves, where target markets are equivalent to an audience. The Encyclopedia Britannica articulates this best by noting that rock music is produced, promoted and sold mostly by commercial entities, yet somehow maintains its noncommercial status by sheer fact that it caters to the motivations and preferences of the musicians and their audience.

As such, “Rock is at once the mainstream of commercial music and a Romantic art form, a voice from the social margins. ” It is only when rock musicians fail the scrutiny of its audience and critics that its commercial origins become part of the discussion. Philip Auslander notes that despite the relentless fragmentation of rock into an ever increasing number of sub-genres, rock remains the prime benchmark of authenticity.

Under such a view, rock is the measure by which all music is valued. Those who disagree with this call such an ideology ‘rockism’. ‘Rockism’ is a word applied with varying intent. In its most negative sense, it insinuates a bias against other forms of music that do not follow the ideals and criteria of rock espoused by such magazines as Rolling Stone, which Sanjek charges as having maintained a conservative 60s-centric attitude towards music.

Critic Kelefa Sannah describes a rockist as not just those who champion rock, but those who do so at the expense of other musical forms: “Rockism means idolizing the authentic old legend (or underground hero) while mocking the latest pop star; lionizing punk while barely tolerating disco; loving the live show and hating the music video; extolling the growling performer while hating the lip-syncher. ” (Sennah)

The term originated in the 80s from when the countercultural value of rock was valorized at the expense of pop music, ostensibly contrasting the honesty of the former against the widespread insincerity of the latter. Sennah repopularized the term by noting that rockism is so pervasive that it has become canonical to music criticism in general, noting that classic albums and catalog-spanning respect is accorded exclusive to rock acts while R&B and rap are dismissed out of hand.

Douglas Wolk notes that rockism wasn’t always a bad word, though. In earlier years, rockism meant demanding sincerity from pop rather than dismissing it of any potential value and Wolk states that in its most neutral form, rockism is merely the casual treatment of rock as the normative standard. This casual form of rockism is most evident in examples where “pre-stereo-era blues and country” are measured in how “they anticipated rock” and “Run-D. M. C. and Alison Krauss are notable because their virtues are also the virtues of rock.

” Casual rockism is essentially an inability to discuss popular non-rock forms in terms not set by rock, rather than the dismissing them. As earlier implied, rockism originated in 1960s rock and the publications that championed them, most notably Rolling Stone magazine. According to Sanjek, Rolling Stone was initially a publication with a countercultural affiliation with hippies and boomers, but now maintains a “mythic canon of 1960s values and musical traditions” while promoting “lifestyle iconography whereby music [is] one more marketable signifier.

” As the decades passed, the magazine cemented its values and limited its heroic pantheon to authentics such as the Beatles and Bob Dylan. This has since drawn criticism for having created a rigidly defined bias which Jody Rosen calls, ‘unrepentant rock fogeyism’. Rosen observes that the magazine has maintained decades spanning disregard towards post-60s rock genres such as heavy metal while casually dismissing of hip-hop and R&B. Weinstein expands on this generational bias, noting how rock historiography is largely centered around the 60s.

But the precedent of rock, 50s rock and roll, was when authenticity was not the central value of music, but rather the audience a musical form was intended for. The operating binary for 50s rock and roll was the youth versus the adult. Weinstein notes: “Whatever its provenance, rock ‘n’ roll as “ours” (youth music), not “theirs” (adult). ” Other post-60s forms, like the initially disdained punk movement was inevitably ‘redeemed’ by critics once its democratic notion of artistry came to the forefront.

As such, those who valorized the romantic authentics of 60s rock revised their perspective of punk by acknowledging it as one that introduced the “autonomous amateur” who erases the “elitist divide between performer and audience. ” (Weinstein 60) Where Rosen chooses to frame rockism as manifestation of conservativism and Wolk views it as an imposed limitation on criticism and discourse, Sennah alleges that it creates an exclusionary field where a musician’s value is based on how ‘rock’ they are.

He notes that even individuals who find fault with the Rolling Stone canon choose to praise non-rock artists exclusively by comparing them to the performance and production standards of rock authenticity. Auslander reminds us that the name most frequently used for rock’s Other is ‘pop’, insofar as it can be said to be manufactured, commercial and insincere, and by that logic all other non-rock forms are just as manufactured, commercial and insincere.

Intersecting this with Sennah’s unspoken implication that rockism is racist, sexist and homophobic yields a standard of music discourse that absolutely abnegates the value of non-rock forms on their own terms. The value of disco and house music, which is generally affiliated with the circles of queer culture, becomes discounted due to its reliance on ‘false’ technological tools and the artist’s surrender of authorial control to the producers.

The emphasis of Hip hop and R&B, which makes use of lyrical content that centers around materialist or hedonistic values rather than any countercultural ones, are considered insignificant in terms of expression. Simply put, any form of music that does not subscribe exclusively to rigid notions of authentic production or world-changing soul-seeking individualty-celebrating rhetoric has been dismissed. This dismissal stands regardless of whether or not these aspirations and values were relevant or valued by its audience or producers to begin with.

Sennah defends these forms by reminding readers that “lots of the most memorable music is created despite multimillion-dollar deals and spur-of-the-moment collaborations and murky commercial forces”. As noted above, instances of praise are usually according to the terms and standards set by rock ideology. Sennah asks us to consider the Beastie Boys, an all white rap group that was praised for resisting the aesthetic norms of gangsta rap, with such praise implying that the gangsta aesthetic can never be embraced wholeheartedly without compromising the value and worth of the musician.

More telling is how ‘rock’ has emerged as an adjective of praise or a verb that suggests an individual is deserving of adulation. (i. e. “she totally rocks”, “he rocked us hard”). According to Weinstein, the inability of popular music discourse and criticism (i. e. the state which Sennah describes as being ‘rockist’) to move on might have less to do with a lack of progressive critical thinking and more to do with the elements of rockist ideology that benefit the various parties who have an investment in popular music culture, financial or personal.

For musicians who must constantly struggle for the commercial success that comes with market acceptance while still maintaining the substance of their individuality and the approval of audiences and critics, this ideology consoles the unsuccessful by lending their struggles a degree of romance yet making the success stories a triumph of populist appeal. For the commercial superstructure of business itself, by perpetuating the opposition between artistry and commerce this ideology helps motivate the artist insofar as it encourages them to innovate new product.

Additionally, artists who label business concerns as irrelevant to their role as creators are much easier to exploit, as is evident in the industry’s history of leonine contracts that have deprived musicians of profit. It also difficult to deny that the myth of the romantic artist is a good sell. (Weinstein 63-65) For the ‘mass’ audience, this ideology bestows them with a sense of rebelliousness when they identify with the musician’s individualism. By doing so, it maintains the useful illusion that their sentiments and tastes are not manufacture, but are instead a genuine attraction towards romantic artistry.

This allows them to affirm their tastes as autonomous ones, rather than the result of commercial manipulation. For journalists, the ideology allows them to believe they are more than just historians of a commercial-industrial complex, but art critics as well, with all the mystical allure that comes with that. (Weinstein (66-67) Works Cited Auslander, Philip. “Seeing Is Believing: Live Performance and the Discourse of Authenticity in Rock Culture,” Literature and Psychology: a journal of psychoanalytic and cultural criticism Vol. 44, No. 4 (1998).

March 20, 2008 <http://www. lcc. gatech. edu/~auslander/publications/seeing. pdf> Frith, Simon. Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996 “rock. ” Encyclopedia Britannica. 2008. Encyclopedia Britannica Online. 22 Mar. 2008 <http://www. britannica. com/eb/article-93485> Rosen, Jody. “The Perils of Poptimism: Does hating rock make you a music critic? ” Slate Magazine 9 May 2006 <http://www. slate. com/id/2141418/> Sanjek, David. “Pleasure and principles: Issues of authenticity in the analysis of rock ‘n’ roll. ” Soundscapes.

Info Volume 3 (1992) March 20, 2008 <http://www. icce. rug. nl/~soundscapes/DATABASES/TRA/Pleasure_and_principles. html> Sennah, Kelefa. “The Rap Against Rockism. ” New York Times 31 October 2004 Weinstein, Deena. “Art Versus Commerce: Deconstructing a (Useful) Romantic Illusion. ” Stars Don’t Stand Still In The Sky: Music and Myth. Ed. Karen Kelly and Evelyn McDonnell. New York: New York University, 1999. 57-69. Wolk, Douglas. “Thinking About Rockism. ” Seattle Weekly 4 May 2005 <http://www. seattleweekly. com/2005-05-04/music/thinking-about-rockism. php>

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