9th November 2015

The problems of authenticity in male-dominated rock music journalism

Joe Connell examines the narrow scope of gendered rock criticism that has for decades revolved around the phallic symbol of an electric guitar. Is a paradigm shift upon us?

The late Philip Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal of notorious music critic Lester Bangs in Almost Famous stands as one of his many film-stealing roles. As a kind of surrogate father figure to Cameron Crowe’s avatar, Hoffman portrays Bangs as a wise patriarch of musical knowledge—passing his understanding of authentic music to the next generation.

“Give me The Guess Who,” he says. “They got the courage to be drunken buffoons, which makes them poetic,” living in that flowery past, where being drunk was, of course, a courageous and poetic act.  Through Crowe’s rosy lens, the film showed us intoxicated idiocy disguising the authentic genius of the rock star, something which modern-day hacks like Alex Turner and Serge Pizzorno endlessly try to ape into in increasingly embarrassing ways. It’s a nice film to watch—touching, even, but it’s hardly controversial to suggest that the legacy it idealises has its fair share of problems.

Bangs, alongside publications Crawdaddy!, Creem and Rolling Stone magazine, are culprits in the construction of this rock and roll mythology. What this school of thought appears to do, is value truthfulness and authenticity in music. However, it actually creates an association between authenticity and certain aesthetic qualities preferred by the macho Lester Bangs and his California-based contemporaries. Punk rock, in its aggression and simplicity, is emotionally and artistically authentic, and was seen as a return to rock and roll’s authentic, countercultural roots. Opposing this, we have the polished, feminine and fundamentally inauthentic likes of Carole King, Jimmy Webb, and The Carpenters.

It doesn’t really make any sense and you don’t have to be particularly intelligent to see why, but it remains a strangely dominant consideration in rock music criticism. It’s a fallacy so pervasive that when Jake Bugg and his utterly shit music began a crusade against The X Factor, One Direction were made out to be bastions of musical inauthenticity, despite clearly having a better claim to authentic 21st century music. All because Bugg sang like Bob Dylan and was liked by middle-aged men, as opposed to 1D’s young and mostly female fanbase.

Such a focus on these quite patriarchal qualities in music, curated by the underground critics of the 60s and propagated to this day, understandably factors into the exclusion of women from critical acclaim, festival slots and rock music generally. Only when women like Patti Smith and Joan Jett embrace the masculine aesthetics of rawness, simplicity and aggression do they gain rockist approval and legitimacy.

Compare this, say, to Madonna, an artist who, despite her famous autonomy within the music industry, remains a controversial and allegedly inauthentic figure. Perennial sexist and racist poetaster Morrissey described her as “closer to organised prostitution than anything else,” which tells you everything you need to know about the paradigms that the authentic/inauthentic, serious/unserious categorisation actually operates within. As a woman, you can be authentic to yourself and your artistic vision, but only via male-approved standards.

A particularly interesting example of this occurred last year, at the usually sterile and boring Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony. Controversy arose not because of Nirvana’s acceptance into such a terrible institution, but rather that pop singer Lorde fronted the band for ‘All Apologies’, despite Krist Novoselic, Dave Grohl and Courtney Love’s insistence that the female-fronted lineup—which also included Kim Gordon, Joan Jett and Annie Clark—was in keeping with the legacy of passionate feminist Kurt Cobain.

Fans seemed to disagree. Guitar-wielding Annie, Joan and Kim, were seen as acceptable replacement frontwomen, but not chart-topping Lorde. Some viewers might have seen a nice reference to the timelessness and pop craft of Nirvana’s songs and their continued reverence and influence amongst teenagers. But, predictably, the sort of people who associate with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame are rigid adherents to the Rolling Stone philosophy, creating their musical worlds around the phallic symbol that is the loud ‘n’ proud electric guitar.

This sort of thing exists as one of the many branches on the rock tree—the same kind of ethos that rolls its eyes at rappers headlining rock festivals, and peddles an incredibly narrow and dated definition of what a playing a real instrument is. Cameron Crowe’s ode to his youth spent travelling with Led Zeppelin captures what might well have been a revolutionary time for popular music and youth culture, yet it is now abundantly clear that this was a cyclical revolution. The man now wields a guitar and sports long, unwashed hair.

As such, we see more and more responses to the poisonous legacy of guitar music. The idea of a Penny Lane—an object of the male songwriter’s authentic gaze, seems thankfully ludicrous, as do the tedious Claptonesque guitar solos wrought in her honour. Moreover, even publications like Pitchfork have adopted a poptimist stance, and it won’t be long before bigger printed publications do the same. This September, NME even featured Rihanna on the cover! The rockist hold is slowly loosening.

On one hand, this shift is very clearly for the best and promotes all sorts of diversity outside narrow aesthetic considerations, made to seem even more narrower by advancements and improvements in musical styles and technology. Yet it also raises the question of how far we can separate the reasons that we like certain music from our political and social contexts.

We know to dismiss the misogynistic and homophobic slurs (masquerading as musical criticism) that are flung by metalheads at artists like Justin Bieber. But what happens in the future when our own consideration of good and authentic expression is tied to an outdated political compass? Are we all doomed to become some type of prejudiced Dadrocker no matter what? Our musical conservatism tied into our political conservatism—like a cynical take on Homer Simpson in that episode with the Smashing Pumpkins and Sonic Youth?

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