This was sweet, whoever sent it.
I started listening to David Bowie sometime between the ages of twelve and fourteen. Prior to this, my understanding of music largely consisted of the typical mainstays of so-called classic rock, such as Led Zeppelin and Cream, who I came to find increasingly tiring over time. Contributing factors to my disenchantment with traditional classic rock included what I perceived to be an overreliance on the blues form, which I found restrictive as both a listener and as a beginning guitarist at this time, a focus on guitar solos which, my love of Jimmy Page aside, I began to think of as incredibly masturbatory, and an overt masculinity which struck me as over-compensatory, anti-intellectual, and, frankly, kind of pathetic. That said, I was left unsure of where to go, musically, from there. I found my answer upon my discovery of albums like Ziggy Stardust by David Bowie, The Velvet Underground & Nico by Lou Reed’s Velvet Underground, and the records of Iggy Pop and his band the Stooges. These bands provided me with music which I found to be artier, rawer, more varied and thus intellectually interesting. In particular, the gender-bending, androgynous qualities of David Bowie provided a stark contrast to the machismo debauchery I had come to associate with rock music. These qualities of Bowie helped lead me on a path towards the music that has come to define my current taste and influences: bands like Pavement, Guided by Voices, Joy Division, and Sonic Youth, who, while operating within the rock genre, simultaneously seem to be defying its conventions in providing something “alternative” to the blues and roots-based rock ‘n’ roll of so-called “mainstream culture.” David Bowie, however, for me personally, provided the essential stepping stone in between these two worlds.
Keir Keightley, in “Reconsidering Rock,” presents a framework for considering rock music that particularly strikes me and my sensibilities as I read it, and I find it proves an extremely useful theoretical framework for considering David Bowie, in particular the song “DJ.” Keightley describes rock music and the phenomenon of rock authenticity in terms of the Romantic and the Modernist: Romantic rock is described in terms of tradition, populism, folk and blues, naturalness and sincerity, recalling acts such as Bruce Springsteen and the Grateful Dead, while Modernist rock is associated with experimentation, elitism, styles like art music and soul, and a sense of irony and obliqueness (137). Upon reading these descriptions, I was struck by the way in which my personal preferences and tendencies so precisely align with the Modernist authenticity, while the Romantic authenticity so reflects the qualities of the “traditional classic rock” I found myself rejecting as a youth. Moreover, I was struck by how much the Modernist authenticity recalls David Bowie in particular.
David Bowie is known for his ever-shifting personas, such as the alien rocker Ziggy Stardust and the cabaret zombie the Thin White Duke. At first, this seems to imply a distinct lack of authenticity in Bowie as it is normally understood, and this is true as long as we operate under the Romantic logic of authenticity. The fact that Bowie so shifts his identity, wearing outrageous costumes and adopting foreign personalities, even changing the content of his songs to express the fictional, constructed narratives of his personas (e.g. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars), seems to expose the fact that Bowie is not “being himself.” He is putting on an act and a show; he is a performer. In real rock music, the musician should eschew personas, presenting their “true selves” to the audience, who then achieve a real and substantive connection to the performer which is understood as authentic, reflecting Keightley’s description of Romanticism’s belief “in an organic, and even traditional, connection between the artist, the material means of expression and the audience” (136). For example, Bruce Springsteen does not seem to have changed much across the last forty years, so he must actually be the person he presents to his audiences, right? Bowie, in “DJ,” acting as a sort of anti-Springsteen, presents a Modernist authenticity that causes us to question these Romantic assumptions.
By singing, “I am a DJ, I am what I play,” Bowie rejects the idea of an inherent true self behind the music of rock stars that provides them with authenticity. Bowie may be constantly changing his persona, but that is because he recognizes there is nothing inherent and true about him that needs to be preserved; such a logic relies on something other than music, while Bowie recognizes that if there is anything substantive to be determined between a fan and a rock star, the music is the only place that can be turned to. When Bowie changes from Ziggy Stardust to the Thin White Duke, he is not changing to a higher level of truth, rather, the truth is in the act of change itself, which removes the idea of a static, truer image. Essentially, by devoting so much time to his image, Bowie calls attention to the fact that his image is bullshit. Springsteen might point to his working class roots and his image consistency as a sign of authenticity, but Bowie is what he plays. Bowie thus recognizes that he is a practice; there is no real him, only what he does, which is produce music. If there is any real meaning to be found (we could debate about whether or not there is), the music is the only place to go to look for it.
Bowie does not wish to be worshipped as a singular true self under the Romantic logic of Springsteen and the Grateful Dead. While he cites his “believers” who believe in “him,” that “him,” in the same song, is declared as equivalent to “what he plays.” Bowie’s thoughts on the fan/star relationship are captured in the song’s opening moments, when he contemplates the likely existence of one of his female fans, singing, “I’ve got a girl out there, I suppose./ I think she’s dancing,” which is as good a guess as any, but Bowie ultimately rejects the idea that he can ever substantively know anything about this fan or have the kind of connection that the Romantics so crave. He thinks she is dancing, but as he later reflects, singing, “What do I know?” he can never know her in any sort of direct way. Just as Bowie-in-himself is inaccessible to the fan, the fans-in-themselves are inaccessible to Bowie; they can only communicate through the medium of the music.
There is a real David Bowie somewhere, in that there is an actual, physical man with a driver’s license, a bank account, and a criminal record. This man is ultimately immaterial to us, however, and if we wish to “believe” in Bowie, we have only the personas. Indeed, even if and when Bowie throws his personas aside and attempts to become “David Bowie” again, that is just another persona, even if it lacks a clever name or an elaborate costume – anything Bowie wears on stage is ultimately a costume, after all. Modernism can do more than merely reject and expose Romantic authenticity, however: it can create its own authenticity. It devotes itself entirely to the music for meaning, but believes, to quote Keightley, that “the relationship between artistic materials and meanings was, like power relations in society, ultimately arbitrary and therefore open to change and improvement” (136). The message is not that since meaning is arbitrary, we are lost in a soup of meaninglessness; rather, the fact that meaning is arbitrary gives us the ability to defy the Romantic conventions and instead produce new and shocking kinds of art.
Now, does all of this mean Bowie is actually more authentic than his “Romantic rock” counterparts? While it seems to me that it does, perhaps the strongest claim we can safely make is that Bowie produces his authenticity in a particular way that is appealing to certain people, such as myself, with certain sensibilities. Determining whether these sensibilities are categorically “true” or “false” is a messy enterprise. At least it can be said, however, that Bowie points towards something undeniably real for his authenticity, the music, which, while not necessarily authentic, almost definitely exists.
The most sensitive among them tried to understand me, and that effort led them to melancholy surrenders.
Tattooed men who are not in prison are either latent criminals or degenerate aristocrats.
[Last assignment ever for college, a take-home exam. Like a lot of my cultural studies papers, perhaps vaguely interesting outside of the academic circle, so I thought I’d post it.]
A great amount of ink has been devoted to telling the “rock story,” most notably, in the mainstream imagination, through publications such as Rolling Stone, and, also, perhaps more fruitfully, through the journals of the cultural studies academic field, who have developed a very particular story arc to rock’s history, crafted a canon of ”classical” works, in the tradition of literature and film, and established the criteria through which rock music, an art form that verges on the purely subjective, is to be understood and analyzed in something approaching objective and critical discourse akin to literary theory and criticism. However, whereas the traditional rock story is fairly simple – it emerges as a mass youth culture due to the Baby Boom, peaks through the classic rock years, toppling in its own excesses only to be saved by the punk rock revolution – cultural studies, and its capacity for analyzing how things work, instead of what they mean (or, even more suspiciously, what they are), consistently challenges the assumptions of this story. In this essay I will attempt to paint a more accurate picture of rock music than is traditionally reported by examining several key moments and concepts in the narrative. First, I will examine the early history of rock music as explored by Richard A. Peterson, who challenges the simplistic assumptions as to why 1955 was the year for the breakout of rock music. I will then examine the particular ways in which rock music produces value and cultural capital, as demonstrated by Motti Regev, followed by spending some focused time on the concept of authenticity, which I find to be the dominant force in rock music value production and discourse. Having established this primacy of authenticity, I will then take brief looks at how authenticity and rock music are affected by changes in technology and by competing Romantic and Modernist aesthetics, as understood by Keir Keightley.
One of the most basic assumptions made about rock music is the inevitability of its advent, the demand it met for a new youth generation, the Baby Boomers, who, in their great numbers, were able to take hold of popular music and transform it into a youth-focused industry. In spite of its seeming inevitability, Richard A. Peterson, in “Why 1955? Explaining the advent of rock music,” points out how 1955, amidst the Eisenhower years and lacking any significant sociopolitical climaxes, is ultimately a rather arbitrary year for dramatic cultural change. It seems more likely that rock shaped the sociopolitical climate of the late 1950s than that this climate called for and gave birth to the rock ideal. Likewise, the idea that rock emerged merely because the mid-50s happened to be when the great talents existed seems suspect; one might sensibly assume that a suitable number of talented individuals are operating at any given time, so other forces must be leading to their recognition or lack thereof at particular times. Lots of “stuff” has to happen before a given Elvis Presley is ever heard by anyone, regardless of how “inherently” talented he is, or not. Indeed, rather than finding rock was culturally necessary, or that rock’s figures were culturally undeniable, we find the answer in the complex relations of the various music markets of the time. A thorough retelling of Peterson’s argument would take many pages, but he succeeds in tracing a variety of phenomenon which, together, help make sense of the year 1955. Changes in music licensors, the physical vinyl medium, FCC regulation, the structures of the record industry and radio broadcasting, the introduction of television, and the development of heterogeneous markets led towards the recognition of a previously ignored demand (as the homogenous industry structure resulted in a complete devotion to big band and crooning jazz music styles) for new music, resulting in wild experimentation by developing independent record labels, who were now financially viable, ultimately culminating in the development, transportability, marketability, and consumption of rock music. Thus we learn, in what will be a recurring theme and discovery of cultural studies of rock music, that the typical narratives of Rolling Stone are just that, narratives, and for a true understanding we must examine the total picture, which necessarily includes the nature of the markets to as much as (and in truth a greater degree than) a perceived cultural inevitability or constructed, mystical youth salvation story.
Even more crucial to the rock story, however, beyond how it becomes produced, distributed, et al, is how value is assigned to it. What makes a song like “Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones stand the test of time and receive critical acclaim, whereas songs by Herman’s Hermits and Sonny & Cher fade into obscurity, in spite of similar levels of popularity within the release year? It is tempting to merely state that the Rolling Stones are better than Herman’s Hermits and, well, this is probably true, but it is a subjective argument best left for bar conversation. Cultural studies must seek to determine how rock music produces value, not merely engage in a process of assigning said value to particular songs, as a publication like Rolling Stone does when ranking the five hundred greatest songs or albums of all time. In “Producing Artistic Value: The Case of Rock Music,” Motti Regev points towards rock music’s reliance on an “ideology of subversiveness” and an “autonomous creative entity” for its value production. Rock, through its associations with a particular generation (associations that are less intrinsic than perhaps thought, as shown above), is thought of as a rebellious music, acting against the “square” mainstream culture. Furthermore, the fact that it can be considered a “serious” art form in the vein of literature or painting relies upon its accordance with the traditional artistic model of production, that is, attribution to a singular artistic entity as its source, in opposition to the collective, factory-esque systems that existed in the Tin Pan Alley. Paradoxically, this rebellion provides the rock musician/singular artistic entity with great wealth and success. This logic is reflected in, and helps explain, a song like “Satisfaction,” which comments on Western consumerism, expressing a dissatisfaction with the quality of the mass consumed life, in spite of the song’s status as a mass consumed product. The rock “habitus” values the “authenticity” and “subversiveness” expressed through this nonetheless paradoxical message, and examining those same Rolling Stone ranking lists will expose the near omnipresence of such words in rock discourse when it is time for value to be assigned.
Authenticity, indeed, seems a dominant focus of rock music’s “story.” The bands which become canonized are those that express authenticity in some way. We might take some time to examine what exactly authenticity means, though. Like Raymond Williams’s account of “nature,” authenticity is far from an easily encompassed term; it means different things at different times for complex reasons. Williams describes nature as a concept which cannot be understood as having a proper meaning – this is not even a desirable end. Rather, the ever evolving meanings of nature reflect the varied and contradictory contexts it enters in as a human-crafted and used principle. Authenticity works similarly. Certain qualities seem to remain consistent, such as the emphasis on “raw” sound, but what exactly defines “raw” sound? The Sex Pistols are described as raw and authentic due to their distorted, guitar-based sound, yet their album Never Mind the Bullocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols is actually an elaborately constructed record featuring dozens of guitar tracks on given songs. Likewise a “back to basics” band like the Strokes utilize digital effects to recreate the “authentic” sounds of the garage rock bands of the 1960s – a practice of suspect authenticity. Folk music is authentic due to the directness of approach and its origins as music of “the people,” yet folk’s greatest acts, such as Bob Dylan, quickly abandoned “the people’s music” for original compositions of such poetical complexity that the common man could barely wrap his head around them. Is it more authentic to sing a working man’s tune that you did not actually write yourself, or an “elitist” composition that is nonetheless the product of your own creation? There are no hard and fast rules, showing how a discourse based on authenticity, which rock music largely is, will always require the perspective of cultural studies in order to properly unpack the complex relations that belie solitary claims of authenticity, subversiveness, and value.
One particular example of how cultural studies can unpack the essentialist rhetoric of authenticity is in regards to the ever changing technology of music production and consumption, which has established itself as a particularly controversial topic within music circles. Simon Frith investigates this phenomenon in “Art verses technology: the strange case of popular music,” in which he examines the process through which new technologies are developed, rejected as anti-art, and then co-opted for purposes other than originally intended by the industry. Frith’s most striking example is the crooning style of singing which pre-dated the rock ‘n’ roll culmination of 1955 that Peterson previously documented. The crooning style developed directly as a result of the invention of the microphone because, prior to its creation, such a singing style would be impossible to perform, as it is incapable of achieving the necessary volume and projection without amplification. This new kind of singing, lacking the classical trained projection techniques of “real” singing, was rejected as decadent and effeminate. This notion strikes us as particularly strange today, a time in which the likes of Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby might be concerned near the pinnacle of “manly” singing, with someone like Elvis, who was found effeminate in his own time, not far behind. Meanwhile the vocals of a band like Passion Pit, while meeting a modern standard of femininity, clearly go beyond what was considered even possible in a world in which crooning is considered “girly.” Frith strikes similar issues with the introduction of synthesizers and with Bob Dylan’s famous “going electric.” In both cases, authenticity is claimed to have been lost: musicians are no longer playing real instruments; Dylan is creating distance between himself and his audience through technology. Yet, rock history now looks back upon the electric Dylan albums as absolute classics bursting with authenticity, even if the traditional folksters of the time rejected them. By the same token, the synthesizer, while originally designed to make mainstream, formulaic music production even more streamlined, was co-opted by the likes of Suicide and the Screamers to make music as raw as any guitar album made up to that point. The drum machine, a favorite of Martin Hannett, was meant to save such producers the hassle of finding skilled enough studio drummers to produce precise rhythm tracks, but, in the hands of Steve Albini and his band Big Black, it was used to create industrial music. Thus, while we want to label certain technologies (microphones, electric guitars, synthesizers, drum machines) as “inauthentic,” the history of rock music makes it clear that these determinations are never essentialist. What is truly at stake is never what the technology is, but how it is used.
Keir Keightley, in “Rock Reconsidered,” presents further evidence of the unessentialist nature of rock authenticity by presenting two completely distinct models for it: the Romantic and the Modernist. The Romantic, recalling acts such as the Grateful Dead and Bruce Springsteen, has, as its central creed, some sort of appeal to an intrinsically authentic past or community which is being recalled. Thus, this music emphasizes live performance, community gatherings, and “roots”-based genres such as folk, blues, and country. Bruce Springsteen and the Grateful Dead seem authentic to us because, essentially, they have been playing the same exact type of music for their entire careers. If Springsteen is still singing folksy heartland rock anthems about factories and affairs, like he has since 1972, there must be something about him that is essentially tied to this kind of music. He is authentically Bruce; he is what he is, and he’s not changing with the times. However, the Romantic authenticity does not seem to hold much water on its own upon further examination. Indeed, given the fact that the average person feels fundamentally different from the person they were one to five years ago, the fact that Bruce Springsteen has possessed the same public persona for some forty years suggests, to me at least, the very constructed nature of this persona. Springsteen must be self-consciously appealing to a particular base, or he is the single most consistent human being to ever be born on this planet. Thus, the oppositional Modernist authenticity, typified by David Bowie but also groups like the Velvet Underground and Joy Division, seems to offer a better answer. Emphasizing studio production, challenging, avant-garde sounds, and genres like soul, post-punk, and new wave, the Modernist mode rejects the idea that there is an inherent authenticity to the past to be retained. Rather, it seeks to create its authenticity through constant experimentation and recontextualization. David Bowie’s practice of shifting his personas self-consciously highlights the nature of this behavior: not only is Bowie saying his own personas are bullshit, but that the personas of Romantic rockers like Springsteen and Jerry Garcia are as arbitrary as his own. That said, an extreme take on the Modernist aesthetic risks falling into music so unrecognizable to the rock idiom it is hardly meaningful to the prototypical rock fan any longer. For this reason, most of the groups recognized as universally great in the rock story, perhaps typified by the Beatles, seem to possess qualities of both the Romantic and the Modernist authenticity.
In conclusion, cultural studies clearly has much work to do in retelling the rock story, a story which has been dominated in the popular imagination by hackneyed magazine narratives, films like Almost Famous, and way too many AC/DC albums. Our understanding of rock music is tied to many loaded words and concepts: history, value, authenticity, technology, identity, both Romantic and Modernist. The instinctive reaction is to understand such phenomenon as simply being, that is, reflecting the way things are. This is always a dangerous notion in any discourse, but it is particularly damaging to rock discourse. Above, it has been demonstrated, time and time again, how whenever we have a particular notion of what makes something authentic, what makes something raw, what makes auto-tuning hogwash, or what makes the Boss the Boss, we have just as many reasons to question these assumptions. By examining how things work, rather than what they are, we can avoid such a trap, which devolves into essentialist rhetoric, and achieve a greater and more nuanced understanding of rock music and the culture that spawns it. Nothing is authentic, but lots of things produce authenticity. This is the perspective rock studies must take if they are to achieve more than can be achieved in the Darkhorse Tavern on a Friday night, as the band preps for an encore performance of “Don’t Stop Believin’” (which, from the perspective of cultural studies anyway, is really, really bad advice).