Every fan of music finds themselves wondering, at some point or another, what it truly means to be authentic. The word is thrown around a lot in American music culture, usually to juxtapose the idea of a “sellout,” but what do these terms really mean? Most of the arguments I have heard regarding the authenticity of music come back to rock and roll as the ideal form. Many purists argue that rock is the end-all-be-all of authenticity. As a result, every other form of music is either a legitimate offshoot of rock or just fake. Personally, I surround myself with people and musicians that share this opinion, because that is the type of music I listen to. However, there are people that would say rock is a phony form of music. If you go back to the 1950s and ‘60s, parents thought of Elvis and his pelvic thrusting in the same way parents today see rap songs about “getting money” and “fucking bitches.” They don’t see it as music at all. The point is that it is hard to define authenticity through music. It depends on who you ask and when you ask them.
If you talked to me last year, I would have sworn by the previous statement that rock is authentic and that all modern music sucks. My justification for this would have been that rock bands usually employ a lineup of guitars, drums, bass, piano, and vocals; the essentials for a true, raw sound. To me, technology blurs the line in terms of what is and what isn’t music. How can a guy sitting behind a laptop be the same, to a generation of people, as the Beatles were to teenagers in the ‘60s? The Beatles not only harmonized and wooed crowds, but wrote lyrics that were personal and introspective. EDM and rave music, on the other hand, is just noise—unpleasant noise.
But that is just my take. Who am I to sit up on my high horse and judge musical styles that are popular to so many around the world? How can all of those people be wrong? Am I, in fact, the misled one—the 20 year old still listening to songs that were popular decades ago? You see this is where the problem sets in for me. I am a music fanatic. I live and breathe rock and roll. I think about it more than anyone or anything. Since it is constantly on my mind, I have one big question that I need to answer: what is authenticity? This then leads one to ask what makes a band authentic? Is it their lyrics, their sound, or their mannerisms off stage? Is rock truly the only form of authenticity?
This question has been killing me for years. I will sit in the car with my dad for hours on end and the sole topic of discussion will be based on this question. But the answer is asymptotical. I get closer and closer to thinking I understand and then I realize I can’t prove why a certain band or song is authentic. The same goes for my interactions with my rock history professor here at Georgetown. This guy knows more about the field than the legends who lived it. I’m serious. But after endless conversations with him and countless readings on romanticist versus modernist authenticity, I still find myself searching for more. That is until I met Ian MacKaye.
For those unfamiliar with this name, MacKaye is an extremely talented musician who led many punk groups throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s. His most popular band, of course, was Fugazi, which made a name for themselves in the DC punk scene around 1988. On the surface, MacKaye sounds like nothing more than another singer in another band, but there is so much more to the man than that. As I came to see after speaking with him, he is the epitome of authenticity. The first thing he talked about was punk and what it meant to be punk. Punk, as most people know it, is that angry, mohawk-obsessed subgenre of alternative rock. It is often associated with violence, drugs, and alcohol and carries predominantly negative connotations to music purists. It’s easy to look at a band like the Sex Pistols, who spit on their audience and drunkenly puked at shows, and confirm this notion, but that is just a generalization. Sure, some punk bands were crazy and hooked on drugs, but that can pretty much be said for any genre of music—I mean, Beethoven was an alcoholic and Leonard Bernstein was addicted to painkillers. Regardless of all the stereotypes surrounding punk, two claims need to be set forth.
The first is that punk is not the aforementioned definition. As MacKaye so eloquently explained, punk is not music emerging from DC in the ‘80s or the Pacific Northwest in the ‘90s. It can be these things, but it is not limited to them. Punk is actually just any radically new idea. So, technically, any musical genre that is alternative to the mainstream music at its time of birth can be seen as punk.
The second claim about punk is that it involves revolting against the norm and pretty much being against everything. MacKaye told our class a funny example of this. During his high school years, he and his friends would challenge the protesters of the Iranian conflict, because objecting the war had become so mainstream at this point in time. This second claim offers a good counter to the popularized idea that punk is all about drugs and violence. Some punk rockers may take drugs and act out violently to revolt against the system, but others, like MacKaye may take the complete opposite perspective. They may reject drugs and violence altogether, especially after it has become the new mainstream within the punk community. You see, punk comes in all different forms and generalizing it does it no justice.
But how do punk and Ian MacKaye fit into the authenticity debate? Well, if you think about it, punk is almost synonymous with authenticity. The concept of exploring a radically new idea—straying from the norm—is acting in an authentic manner. Punk is taking everything familiar and comfortable and saying, “fuck you, here’s something new.” Being authentic is the basis of every up-and-coming musician’s existence. They talk about what’s real and what’s phony. They hate on corporate magazines and record labels. They are cynicists who look at every band that sold-out. But in reality, most of these musicians would kill to be the next Rolling Stones or Michael Jackson.
My favorite example of this false sense of authenticity is Kurt Cobain. Cobain is easily my favorite artist, but I still can’t help but critique his persona, which comes off as insincere. He always outwardly advocated for the independent music scene and saw becoming an international superstar as a failure. At the same time, though, he gave in, like most of us would. At the time of his suicide, he lived in a mansion and toured across the country. He once told MacKaye after a show that he played while being high on drugs in his wife Courtney Love’s clothing, that that was his way of exposing the spectacle of rock and roll. MacKaye then countered Cobain by telling him that acting in this way made him the spectacle of rock and roll. This exchange sums up rock musicians very well. Most of them think they are going against the system and finding what’s “real,” when in reality it is all just a performance to gain attention. Punk, on the other hand, just feels truer to me.
Most people have at least heard of either Cobain, Nirvana or “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” but how many people can name a member of or a song from punk groups like Fugazi or Black Flag. Of course there are the punk bands like Green Day who went mainstream, but I’m talking about real punk—punk that stayed localized and independent. It’s not necessarily bad if you make it big time and it doesn’t have to mean that you are fake. It is the punk bands, like Fugazi, who reject major labels and continue to put out all their own content that are the groups that really care about the music. Those are the bands who truly personify punk and those are the bands that truly exemplify authentic behavior.