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Reactionary Rockism: The Dangerous Obsession with “Authenticity” in Indie Rock

We should take seriously indie rock trends driven by nostalgia— the revival of white rock forms, the whitewashing of disco and yacht rock, and the rise of normcore—as what they are: conservative gestures flying under the radar in a climate of poptimist reappraisal.

In the almost 15 years since Kalefa Sanneh took “rockism” to task, it seems like the music press has heeded his call to be, instead, “poptimists”. There’s a greater willingness today to evaluate music on its own terms rather than against standards set by rock ‘n’ roll, and artists once relegated to the ghetto of mere “pop” are praised for making meaningful connections with fans and listeners. Even Pitchfork has essentially become a clearinghouse for mainstream pop content.

Guitar-driven music has also retreated from the mainstream, thriving almost exclusively in the indie scene, where it has undergone its own transformation, thanks to poptimist openness. Heightened awareness around issues of representation has pushed new artists to the fore of indie rock and made room for fans who might have felt alienated during the genre’s icier, dudier periods. “Women are making the best rock music today,” the New York Times declared last summer in a massive interactive feature that profiled such bands as Diet Cig, Snail Mail, Sheer Mag, and Vagabon, all of which have rock-band configurations without the all-male personnel. In her 2017 recap, “The Year ‘Indie Rock’ Meant Something Different”, Pitchfork’s Jillian Mapes saw indie breaking free of a homogenous scene lorded over by bearded and bespectacled taste-warriors. Not only are shows becoming more inclusive, they are serving as much-needed safe spaces. “I see more women, and queer people, and black and brown and Asian folks,” Mapes wrote. “There’s lots of kids who fall in between the cracks of it all, just like the music they’re coming to hear.” In the era of Trump, indie rock is redefining itself around a diverse and empowering community.

But indie rock has also become one of the last refuges of rockism. It seems obvious that a preoccupation with rock ‘n’ roll mythology should chase that music wherever it goes. But indie and rockism also have something common at their cores: a shared fetish for authenticity. It has been difficult to talk about indie rock without also praising its “authenticity”; and likewise, to talk about “authentic” music without also invoking indie rock. Today, that catch-22 is driving a rockist blowback that would brush aside a whole slew of critical questions —about politics, money, and identity—being asked in the music community and in the culture at large.

“Dejected white bro” detachment has long been the go-to way for indie rockers to appear unfettered by the music business (David Turner, “Is Indie Rock Over the White Male Voice?”, MTV News). It is precisely this cult of the lone male genius that Sanneh and the poptimists have rejected, and it’s been rejected, too, by the new generation of indie rockers. A big part of the recent shift in indie has been toward the sincere collective action of movements like feminism, which propose their own solutions for wriggling free from commercial interests but also from toxic social dynamics. In the face of this change, insisting on a narrow definition of authenticity starts to feel like a reactionary attempt to cleanse the scene of a certain kind of politics.

When David Longstreth of Dirty Projectors calls indie rock “bad and boujee“, as he did last year, what he means is that it’s strayed from a definition of authenticity that aligned well with his identity and that of his peers and heroes. In a post on Instagram that earned him a lot of heat from younger musicians, he claimed that, these days, indie is “underwhelming—mostly miming a codified set of sounds and practices whose significance is inherited rather than discovered.” More than that, indie has become “refined and effete, well removed from the raindrops and drop tops of lived, earned experience.” The outrage these comments stirred is understandable. Many emerging indie bands have come up through DIY scenes sustained by a tireless and unpaid devotion to music making. What kinds of “lived, earned experience” enjoyed by indie bands of yore have they been denied?

It might seem unfair to pile on the Dirty Projectors’ frontman. After being called out, he walked his comments back, and the whole thing turned out to be a minor episode in a year filled both with terrifying crises and with earnest efforts to challenge the power structures wound into arts and entertainment. And yet, it’s significant that these remarks came just a few weeks after the inauguration, in the shadow of the tantrum of the “white working class”.

Ta-Nehisi Coates debunked the myth of the “white working class” in The Atlantic, arguing that the WWC isn’t so much a political force as it is a convenient fiction. After all, Trump was elected thanks to white voters from across all economic strata. Rather, the focus on the working class lets white elites off the hook for being complicit in a larger project of white supremacy. “Indeed, there is a kind of theater at work in which Trump’s presidency is pawned off as a product of the white working class as opposed to a product of an entire whiteness that includes the very authors doing the pawning,” Coates says of the pundits who were sent reeling in the election’s aftermath.

One effect of this “theater” has been to depoliticize white identity politics and to continue leading the public to believe that “[a]ll politics are identity politics—except the politics of white people.” The myth of the WWC asks us to imagine working people as ingénues with motives they do not fully understand. Their political will is a response to globalization, “economic anxiety”, the disappearance of steel mills—in short, anything but politics. We might say their lives are made up of the meatier stuff of “lived, earned experience”, as Longstreth would call it.

In much the same way that pundits and politicians politicize the WWC, rockists aestheticize a subjectivity that is closer to emotion and experience—that feels more. But rockism is not a musical corollary to the “white working class”. Instead, it’s an expression of the same phenomenon that Coates describes: a bait-and-switch in which a rugged, class-based definition of authenticity gets deployed to uphold the status quo. This has been going on for a good while, even since before the mid-aughts, when Williamsburg solidified hipster fashion as the tongue-in-cheek appropriation of white working-class masculinity.

Coates’s take on the WWC is also a poignant reminder of the dangerous politics of wanting no politics. As scrutiny increases around who gets to control the levers of power, more reactionary rockists will come out of the woodwork to insist we talk about what really matters—good old authentic, art for art’s sake. In the past, that strategy has been very effective at bracketing conversations about, for example, all those other factors that grant someone like Longstreth—who went to Yale, gets paid by a corporate music industry, and enjoys the attention of an “indie music press” that is mainly in the business of partnering with brands—his position of relative privilege. Indeed, fixating on authenticity means dismissing those questions about race, gender, politics, aesthetics—and even class—that a broader conversation about pop music encourages us to ask.

Rockism has always shut down discourse in this way—that’s what makes it a conservative force. As Sanneh observes, it can be difficult to criticize rockism because rockism has co-opted the “language of righteous struggle”. We see this in Longstreth’s strange riff on the Migos lyric, where he sketches a frivolous world encroaching on indie’s integrity, as well as in that classic refrain, almost as old as the music itself: “rock is dead”. While rock’s death may be more imminent than ever before, it still seems like you can’t talk about rock—whether its death or revival—without also talking about its exceptional status vis-a-vis all other pop music.

Dan Ozzi recently fell into this trap in an essay for Noisey entitled “Rock Is Dead, Thank God.” Rather than being a celebration of the end of rock—or even of the end of the “rock is dead” mindset—the piece celebrates the genre’s return to authenticity. It doesn’t matter if the kids flock to the glitzier stages to see Travis Scott or the latest cookie-cutter EDM act, as they did at the most recent Governor’s Ball festival in New York City, leaving rock headliners the Gaslight Anthem out to dry. In fact, this is preferable, since rock is at its best when it’s on the fringe. “The more its popularity shrinks, the more it attracts freaks and weirdos—those with something to prove and nothing to gain,” he writes. Ozzi fantasizes about the return of idiosyncratic rock idols, those “true, inimitable visionaries making groundbreaking work for the sake of art and not money.” And in Ozzi’s esteem, a lot of artists are in it for the money, artists like Miley Cyrus and Migos, who, as Ozzi observes, name check 19 different brands in “Bad and Boujee”, making that track the official bugbear of the rock mind.

Increased pop coverage has made a lot of critics, including a good many poptimists, cordon off the conversation on rock music, giving it space isolated from the rest of the pop landscape in which to indulge in the same old mythologies. But that space is not only shrinking; it’s becoming irrelevant. We should be cracking rock’s myths open and putting the genre’s larger assumptions about pop music to the test. But instead, we seek out familiar and ever-more-predictable characters to be our token rock heroes.

Recently, it was Adam Granduciel of the War on Drugs, whom critics like Amanda Petrusich were unable to write about without summoning up all of rock ‘n’ roll history. In his review of the band’s A Deeper Understanding, Pitchfork’s Mark Richardson invoked Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Neil Young, and Bob Dylan, names that, when said together, are like a rock ‘n’ roll incantation. The album, he concluded, is “a place you hide inside, not a tool for exploring the world”, which is also a perfect description of where rockism is taking the conversation on rock music. Rock has been allowed to become a shelter for outdated male geniuses and those who want to insert themselves into that lineage, an increasingly private craft that serves no other purpose in the world than to fill the ever-slimmer demand for “rock”.

In addition to being short-sighted about where rock, specifically indie rock, might be headed, this view propagates an exclusive notion about authenticity in music. Indeed, talking about authenticity in rockism’s terms is not the same as having an open conversation about what’s real for whom in late-capitalist America. There’s a lot of good yet to be said about rock music; about, for example, its scrappy tradition of songs written and performed by someone—anyone—who just happened to pick up a guitar and start playing. Guitar music shouldn’t have to be forever at odds with all other genres.

Sometimes, our politics and our culture seem to be moving in opposite directions. Other times, the reactionary impulses that have taken root even in our countercultures stand out in bold relief. It’s not a coincidence that alt-right figures like Milo Yiannapoulos and Vice co-founder Gavin McInnes resemble the mid-aughts hipsters that once seemed inseparable from the indie rock scene (these comparisons have been made in The Australian Financial Review, The Globe and Mail, and elsewhere). We also have to take seriously certain indie rock trends driven by nostalgia—such as the revival of white rock forms, the whitewashing of disco and yacht rock, and the rise of normcore—as what they are: conservative gestures flying under the radar in a climate of poptimist reappraisal.

This is not to say that all scenes are reactionary. On the contrary, alternative creative communities have been crucial in opening up space for new voices and ideas. Many music critics have written about women in punk and grunge, for example (see Women Make Noise: Girl Bands From Motown to the Modern, Aurora Metro Press 2012). Today’s younger indie rock artists seem very much to want to seize on that tradition and extend it. But we’ll have to be vigilant about the reactionary element embedded in the indie ethos. It has been particularly effective at using the scene’s foundational principle of authentic creative expression to consolidate power in the precise places where it’s supposed to be challenged.