To find your voice in a foreign language - Authenticity and reflexivity in an anglocentric world of rock
By Gestur Guðmundsson
in Journal Young Volume 7 Number 2 1999
There has been a steady growth of studies in rock and other popular music in the Nordic countries since the seventies.
A number of impressive studies (cf. Tagg 1979, Fornäs 1985, Fornäs et al. 1988/1995, Roe & Carlsson (eds) 1990, Berkaak 1993, Lindberg 1995, Bjurström 1997, Michelsen 1998) have been published and network ties been developed, (1) but strikingly little has-been said about Nordic popular music, its place within the global picture or the national cultural scenes. Especially missing is a critical reflection on the Anglo-centric bias in popular music studies as well as in popular music itself.
The anglocentric iron cage and authenticity
Within social and human sciences the American hegemony of the last decades is slowly declining but, on the other side, the English language and Anglo-Saxon forms and standards of university education are more prevailing than ever. Within popular music this construction of the scientific field corresponds neatly with the construction of the field to be studied. USA dominates, with some competition from Britain, and contributions ‘from outside’ are mainly from other English-speaking countries like Australia and Canada.
Studies in popular music are primarily cultural studies and to alarge extent they grew out of the cultural criticism of American rock criticism of the late sixties and seventies, critics like Landau,Christgau, Willis, and Marcus, (Frith, 1981: 278). The leading rock sociologist of Europe, Simon Frith originally shaped his approach while staying in Berkeley California 1967-69 (Frith, 1981: 3-4), and the first major history of rock written in Britain (Gillett, 1970) started as a M.A. thesis in USA and did not leave the American context before p. 249. These authors adapted some basic axioms of the American critics, who for years had tried to legitimise rock as a form of culture and art and at the same time as rebellion against high art. Most of these critics had been just as hampered by American ethnocentrism as any other American scholar. Marcus addressed this most directly by legitimising rock through its deep roots in American culture and identity. This was e.g. repeated by Simon Frith, stating so late as 1981 that ‘rock is an American music’ (Frith, 1981: 11) and by Lawrence Grossberg stating in 1992 that ‘... rock is ‘about’ growing up in the U.S. (at least that is the only context I am talking about)...’ (Grossberg, 1992: 201)
However, some voices had raised other angles. Nik Cohn (1969) was not only one of the first rock writers but has become a lasting influence. He wrote for magazines and newspapers in the mid-sixties and issued a book on rock in 1969, before his American colleagues. Here Cohn localises his own point of departure in Belfast Northern Ireland in the late fifties, where he as a protestant teenage misfit is drawn towards the catholic teddy boys from the slums. For Cohn it is a revelation to see those social losers defy their fate through posing as winning rockers. Later, Dave Marsh(1983) followed this thread through devoting himself to the study of the Who and their point of departure in Shepherds Bush in London. Lester Bangs,who was probably the most influential rock critic of the seventies, lended his ear to many types of music,writing in 1970:
The most promising new scene right now seems to be developing in Northwestern Europe, where a few Germanic countries and especially the Scandinavian bloc are producing individualistic, promising and solidly accomplished groups at a dizzying pace. (Rolling Stone 1.10. 1970: 34)
However, it was not this side of Bangs, that was canonised, as can be seen in the posthumously compiled book of his writing (Bangs, 1988). The leading tale of rock history was constructed in the following way: Rock and roll originated in America in the early fifties through various attempts to cross musical boundaries between blacks and whites. It spread to most of the world, and in Britain groups like the Beatles and Rolling Stones managed to bridge the gap to the black music even better than the white Americans, who could now explore their own cultural roots with the help of this British mirror. Rock originated from the margins of American society (Gillett, 1970), appealing massively to a new generation alienated by the dominant culture and explanations (Christgau, 1973) by creating a new sense of community out of hidden experiences and obscured explanations (Marcus,1975). The basic contradiction of rock has been the tension between the artistic values and commercial pressures, but this pressure has been bearable because commercial success has always been an artistic criteria in rock, unlike jazz or higher art(Frith, 1981). All the tellers of this story agree that the core of the rock as music and as culture remains American and that the melting pot of USA can absorb music from all over the world as exotic spices.
Rock music bears the stamp ‘made in USA’ even more obviously than other forms of popular culture. The music is originally American and the language is English. The American market has always been largest and in terms oftrend setting the only challenge has come from Britain. The paradigms of discourse and study have been developed in USA and to some extent in England. All together this locks the discourse and studies on popular music together in an iron cage of anglocentrism. This means not least that discursive formations that have developed within this cage perpetuate to form the world view and habitus of participants in the game, placing people from outside the anglosaxon domain in peripheral positions. With extra effort individuals from the periphery can make their way to the centre, often posing as strange pixies amusing the natural bearers of the dominant habitus.
It is a worthy task for popular music studies placed in the periphery of this discourse to make and polish tools to break out of the iron cage. Here the concept of authenticity will be examined as one possible tool,using the Nordic countries as main empirical reference of ‘the periphery’.
The early rock critics established authenticity as an important tool of distinction in the late sixties. They were influenced by authenticity standards of jazz criticism, film criticism, the folk movement, literary criticism and aesthetics. Jon Landau established himself as ‘the dean of rock critics’ in 1967-75, defining clear standards for evaluation of rock music. For him (Landau 1972) authentic rock has three aspects. Firstly it expresses the subjectivity of the creator in the sense of classical aesthetics,although rock appeals to other senses, as essentially a ‘body music’. Secondly rock has a distinct history with its roots in blues and its classical expression in the fifties rock’n’roll and the reinterpretation of Stones, Beatles and Dylan. Thirdly it expresses a collectivity. In his work as a critic this third dimension became subsumed under the two first, as for Landau a rock musician who is true against himself and his musical roots is simultaneously true to his community. Landau has frequently been criticised for being ‘seriously limited in aesthetics’(Rolling Stone 9.3. 1968) and for his ‘auteur-perspective’. In the late sixties and early seventies people like Robert Christgau, Ellen Willis and Lester Bangs extended the scope of rock criticism by stressing fruitful ambiguities and strains inherent in rock, for instance between community and impersonal media, between sincerity and irony,between cheap thrills and total ecstasy. Greil Marcus (1975 and 1990) took a further step by tracing the roots of rockin cultural history of the United States and Western Europe back to previous centuries.
This early canon of rock criticism came under attack in the punk era, and in the eighties and early nineties rock studies repeatedly warned against the ‘romantic primitivism’ of an authenticity cult (Middleton, 1990). Some observers abandoned the concept altogether but others took a more sober stand:
... using authenticity to distinguish between pop and rock is no longer valid, though it continues to serve an important ideological function, helping differentiate particular forms of musical cultural capital. (Shuker 1994, p. 8)
Lawrence Grossberg (1992) has explored authenticity as ideology,especially through pointing at the various ghosts of authenticitygestalting after postmodernism was said to have killed this naive animal. Grossberg’s own account of this story is problematic, particularly through its American ethnocentrism and overemphasis on political meaning, but it is nevertheless an important inspiration to use authenticity as a key to the discourse of popular music. It is impossible to divide the body of popular music into pop and rock, but it is possible to attempt an analytical distinction inherent in more sophisticated rock criticism and in rock writers like Peter Wicke, Simon Frith and Iain Chambers:
Authenticity is what is left in popular music when you have subtracted the commercial aspect. The essential contradiction between commercialism and authenticity in rock expresses itself in the music, in its production and its reception. (Michelsen 1993, p. 59)
If the discourse on rock is taken at face value, it can be divided into three periods from the perspective of authenticity. Authenticity was the paradigm of the discourse in the period 1965-80, which makes the period until 1965 the ‘pre-authentic period’ and the eighties and nineties the ‘post-authentic period’. However, the study of cultural production should not isolate the discourse from other elements of the field (Bourdieu, 1993) and this article will furthermore point to the importance of broadening the perspective from Anglo-American music and discourse to other areas. Through this double widening from a narrow discourse analysis the conception of authenticity can not be locked within simple periodisation but becomes a key to the changing and multiple meaning of rock and to the gradual breakdown of centre-periphery relations in the rock field.
Under the disguise of non-authenticity
Though the discourse on authenticity was not established until the late sixties, important elements of it had been structuring the understanding of popular music for a while. Writers on jazz and folk had mocked rock music for being artificial commodity. Outside the USA rock was not only compared to ‘higher’ forms but to the homegrown popular culture and not only seen asnon-authentic but also as an alien ingredient in the culture. The strong affections for or against rock were undoubtedly connected with its status as something exotic and linked to the lifestyles of teenagers in the USA and Britain as expressive consumers.
This clear distinction between home-grown and external popular culture was only possible in the special atmosphere of the fifties and early sixties. The Nordic countries had for centuries been open for economic and cultural exchange, in neither field they had strived to beself-sufficient to same extent as bigger nations. Although cultural development had been channelled through the bottleneck of nation building since the early nineteenth century, a large part of the ‘national culture’ was clearly pan-Nordic and/or had obvious connections with European culture. Not only the great artists and writers, like Thorvaldsen, Strindberg and Munch, found it necessary to travel widely to learn and seek inspiration, the popular culture gladly received impulses from abroad. A part of the nation-building processes had been the spreading of dances and folk music of mixed origins, often with a strong German component, all over the Nordic countries - each district developing its own style, underlined by specially designed 'national dresses'. The high ratio of trade secured a steady import of new styles from most of Europe, and the emigration to America also had its feedback. In many areas of the Nordic countries up to one fourth of the population emigrated, there followed a vivid correspondence over the Atlantic and some of the emigrants came back bringing with them new tunes, new dance steps and new ideas.
The internationalism was reinforced within the realm of ideas, as liberalism and socialism became the strongest ideological forces, and conservative ideologies were on the defence.
The breakdown of international trade after World War I changed this situation in the Nordic countries as in many comparable regions, and the specific ‘Nordic model’ of the thirties seemed to confirm Nordic separatism - although paradoxically it was based on international ideas of socialism and Keynesianism. The Cold War and the prolonged trade protectionism after the war stretched this isolationist period even further, and it is first at the end of the century that these decades, from the twenties to the fifties, can be seen as a parenthesis in the process of globalisation.
On the basis of this parenthesis elements of the popular culture as well as the art world could be seen as national in the fifties, and rock and roll could be seen as a foreign threat, although much of the cultural elements it was threatening had originally been just as foreign.
Commentators did not even have to argue that rock and roll was not an authentic cultural form. Participants and observers agreed that it was only an imitation. Dance band and jazz musicians performing the music stressed that it was simple and did not allow for artistic expression and the teenagers dancing to the music did not challenge this idea. They were busy learning the dance steps, adopting the style and catching the phrases, some even trying to sing in this strange manner. They saw these processes as ‘having fun’ and the older generation did not see them as learning processes, rather as de-civilising processes. They were only loaded with heavy significance when they were connected with violence, promiscuity, homosexuality and other forms of juvenile delinquency, the catchword of the youth discourse of these days.
Digging into the music that was influenced by rock in this period shows a remarkable similarity in all the Nordic countries but also interesting differences. Rock'n'roll had a public breakthrough in the Nordic countries almost simultaneously in the autumn of 1956. It was introduced first and foremost as a dance form, causing excitement in dance halls, at outdoor dances and in the cinemas. Only gradually the music and other aspects of the rock style became more apparent (Jacobsen et al., 1980; Brolinson & Larsen, 1984; Gudmundsson, 1990). The first people to play rock'n'roll music in the Nordic countries were just like anywhere else in Europe - and like a great part of the American musicians - professional musicians who had no particular feeling for rock but measured their own professionalism by their ability to play any popular style. In line with the focus on singers and not on the musicians, promising young men got the opportunity to participate in a contest or to sing a couple of songs with a professional band. One or two years after the first rock'n'roll wave, the first collective rock bands took the steps from the garages and classrooms to the public arenas.
The material of the first Nordic rock bands consisted of hits from the American charts. As a rule, the most important thing was to render a version as close as possible to the hit version, and only the slightly older musicians with roots in the jazz world dared to make their own arrangements. It was more important to include the latest hits than to play within a genre, so ballads and other pop songs were usually mixed with rock in the repertoire of bands using the rock label. Usually the bands did not differentiate between 'white' and 'black' rock music and were often unaware of the skin colour of the original singer as well as of the exact content of the lyrics. The choice of music included many curiosities, seen from a nineties perspective. In Denmark, Elvis Presley's records were not available for some time due to a dispute between record labels, and consequently the Danish rock bands copied other rock stars to a far greater degree.
The first Nordic records relating to rock were published in the fall of 1956 and more were to follow in 1957. They did not take rock'n'roll more seriously than any other fashion trend, using it to cue in on the latest fad or even making a joke about it. The established professional orchestras were playing, sometimes using their own singer but increasingly aiming at credibility by using young, male and often working-class singers from the 'rock generation'. They did not choose 'hardcore' rock songs, but songs from the fringes of the rock world. Several 'skiffle' songs were recorded, and the two greatest hits in Iceland in 1958 can be used as examples.
Following the success of Tommy Steele's Water Water Everywhere, an Icelandic version, sang by Skapti Ólafsson, was published in the spring of 1958. A jazz musician, later to be well known as a modern composer, arranged the song with an emphasis on a vibraphone and a flute, creating an image of playful water, while the lyrics took the listener with the dreams of the sailor from the hazardous sea to the exchange of body fluids when coming home.
While Elvis Presley started in the army, a string of hits kept his name warm in the USA, one being Wear my ring. The Danish band leader Jørn Grauengaard backed Icelandic singer Haukur Morthens in a version that emphasised the melody rather than the beat, flavoured with jazzy elements not least in the solo. While the original lyrics had been nine lines about ‘going steady’, the Icelandic lyrics of Jon Sigurdsson were considerably longer, telling the story of urbanisation and dissolution of morality.
In the lyrics of several songs rock symbolised modernity, in positive and playful terms, and this was underlined by music hinting at sexuality,danger and modernity. These musical elements did not have to be rock and roll as most musicians could better express themselves through the jazz form. However, there are examples where the musicians limited themselves to simpler rhythms emphasising the ‘rock feeling’ of the singer, like in the Icelandic versions of Presley's Too much (performed by Ragnar Bjarnason and KK sextett) and Stuck on you (performed by Gudbergur Audunsson and Kjell Karlsen Band)
The approach of the experienced dance musicians making these recording was a logical extension of their previous music, to absorb rock and roll just like any other musical style, but the examples above also show that they wished to go beyond the simplicity of rock, simultaneously putting artistic effort into their ‘cover versions’ and trying to encapsulate the wider social implications they sensed in rock music.
Body language was the focal point of the youth culture of rock. Dance steps were trained in the shadows of teenage rooms and living rooms while the parents were away working. They were displayed in public with the help of dance bands, juke boxes and rock'n'roll movies, accompanied with clothes, hairstyles and poses. As a part of this distinct culture words primarily functioned within phrases and served only a subordinate role in its language.
The accepted national culture referred to other epochs, and the modern culture of rational design of space and commodities did not put much content into the life world of young people growing up under conditions radically different from those of their parents. The American mass culture industry was effectively filling this vacuum through the production of strong images, placed within a modern horizon, transmitting the message of youthful joy and an extending sphere of consumption.
Only ‘the other’ is authentic
Bohemian culture of the after war period was ridden by the search for authenticity in exotic otherness. In the forties the New York intellectuals worshipped Woody Guthrie, a few years later Jack Kerouac and his friends were digging black be-bop musicians and holy savages like Neil Cassady. Bob Dylan sought credibility by telling stories of learning folk songs from hobos, and Mike Bloomfield was sitting at the feet of black blues players in Chicago. This cult of the other was not least a search for identity in a period when traditional norms, values and cultural images were losing their value faster than ever. A similar search for identity wasting place in the working (and lower middle) class and teenage based rock culture although it was not intellectualized. The presence of the exotic other was more ambiguous but a strong part of the image of Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, not to mention Chuck Berry the ‘brown-eyed handsome man’ or Little Richard. The absence of intellectual statements about the identification processes of the participants made them even more mysterious.
In Europe rock was exotic enough by just being American. In some cases the black element added to the excitement, but rock represented enough 'otherness' through the images of soda bars, cars driven by teenagers and other elements of the lifestyle of white American teenagers.
In a clique of rock and rollers only few years older than me there was this dark guy called ‘Blackie’. He was very silent and the only words we ever heard him mutter were mostly quotes of rock lyrics. We believed that he was American and we held him in high esteem. Later we found out that he was just a shy Icelandic guy. (Harald G. Haralds, Icelandic rock singer in 1958-63)
'Real' rock and roll was only made in America and the closest European musicians could get to 'authenticity' was to copy the 'originals' - and nobody bothered to notice that many of these songs had been reworked from older rhythm'n'blues or country songs. Every European country got its own Elvis and singers could become 'special' by excelling in rendering copies of, for instance, Little Richard or Connie Francis.
In the early sixties the emphasis on exact copies decreased. It was more important to get the excitement of twist through to the audience than to sound exactly like Chubby Checker. Then a new generation of musicians started to copy the British guitar group the Shadows, not only their music but also the dance steps, dressing in similar group uniforms. They paved the way of their fellow countrymen Beatles and the waves of Merseybeat and rhythm'n'blues that followed. The 1950s rock in the Nordic countries had mostly been performed by professional musicians of an older, jazz-orientated generation, only fronted by a young singer who wanted to sound like Elvis or Little Richard. The British wave was performed by groups of young people, who had started copying rock, the Shadows or even this new wave. The audience would not accept ‘fakes’, however professional, only real youth who could appear as the kin and equals of the new generation of Englishmen.
The search for ‘the real thing’ had moved from professional copies to youth that could act as they were living their life in London or Liverpool.
There was a tricky moment in this new type of identification. In the beginning of the British wave Nordic ‘beat groups’ could follow the footsteps of English rhythm'n'blues groups by copying American songs (Lilliestam, 1998), but soon the standard was set by Lennon and McCartney. In order to be like them you had to write your own music and this one step further in an identification process demanded a new element of expression. Wherever Beatlemania raged pimpled teenagers unable of reading music sat down to compose songs.
Originally composed beat music of the Nordic countries in the mid-sixties did not raise great interest. Decades later many recordings do not sound inferior to many English or American hits of the period, but when they were issued they were heard as echoes of English or American hits from last season. Their primary function was their contribution to place the music of the time in the neighbourhood. ‘Our boys can,too,’ although they were doomed to be judged inferior. Rock and beat music was always measured by the standards of the Anglo-American 'originals' and found to be imperfect, scoring maximally 9 OnTime scale of 10. If the same method had been used on these originals, and they had been measured by the standards of Black blues musicians, they would neither have been up to standard. The main difference was that only aficionados used the blues as a standard, but the Anglo-American hits set the general standard. However this mental exercise should make it clear that analysing the Nordic 'copies' from the perspective of reworking and acculturalisation (Lilliestam, 1998) reveals active cultural production,just as was the case with American rock'n'roll or the British wave. Rock and beat music was probably the one most important cultural form for young people of the Nordic countries to come into terms with the modernisation processes they were experiencing. By the first, primitive processes, that appeared as copying they were taking their first steps on the way to acquiring a voice of their own.
The greatest dilemma of the beat groups was to choose language. Usually they wanted to sing in English, but the record companies often found that the native languages had stronger appeal to the home market.
The Icelandic group Dátar can be used as example. Their first EP issued in 1966 contained three songs written especially for them by a young folk musician and with Icelandic lyrics written by a musician of the ‘jazz generation’; these became popular and had considerable airplay, while the fourth song was more popular by the hard core followers of the group. That song was the rhythm'n'blues song Cadillac, picked up from the Swedish Hep Stars and the Danish Defenders. It was sung in English and consequently banned from the air. In 1967 the group resolved this image tension by releasing four original compositions, using a lyricist of their own generation to write innovative lyrics in Icelandic. These became hits but can be seen as the end mark of the period 1964-67 as they did not relate to the new music of the summer of love.
The British wave of the mid-sixties was not least fuelled by a strong tension in terms of authenticity. On the one side blues purists worshipped obscure black blues musicians in the same way as jazz purists had worshipped their idols, but on the other hand a pop orientation picked up influences from various styles. The pop aspect of Merseybeat did not last long, but the tension lived for instance in the Rolling Stones, where Brian Jones introduced blues purism, Mick Jagger jumped from one role to another and Keith Richards tried to stand on a bridge between the white and the black world akin to the one originally build by Chuck Berry. In 1969 Ellen Willis pointed out that American critics were blinded by their anti-commercialism, not seeing how British groups of the mid-sixties, like the Who, ‘embodied the tension between the wildness of rock and its artificiality.’ (Willis 1992, p. 35) Later Simon Frith and Howard Horne (1987) were to follow up on this point, reading British rock history from this angle.
Although dead-serious rock writers closed their eyes for this ambiguity of British rock, fans and musicians all over the world were thrilled and inspired by it. Britain became the second homeland of rock authenticity and redefined it.
Finding your own voice in rock
The first generation of rock musicians in the Nordic countries started playing during the golden age of American rock and their ambitions did not go further than copying this music. However, in retrospect this can be seen as a major cultural achievement and the ‘cult of the other’ as an embryonic conception of authenticity. The Beatles took the next generation further, as Lennon/McCartney plagiarism made the local rock musician a source of artistic expression. Bob Dylan and the West Coast music inspired new search processes in music and a new ideology of authenticity that had to be found in the experience of the artist himself.
One of the first Nordic contributions to this new wave was the Hip record of Steppeulvene in Denmark from the spring of 1967. The music was inspired by folk-rock and nascent acid rock and the lyrics were under heavy influence from Bob Dylan - but in Danish. Hereby the universe of Mr Tambourine Man had found a home in the Scandinavian languages. In few years youth culture in the Nordic countries had come a long way. Itsy Bitsy, who used to be a teenie-weenie in yellow polka-dot bikini, was travelling on rubber soles to Nepal, advised by Bob Dylan (lyrics of ‘Itsi Bitsi’, by Eik Skaløe).
In the 1950s, listening to rock was also dreaming of American consumer life. As the 1960s moved on there was a much clearer homology between the musical scene and the living conditions of the Nordic youth. Many uncertainties of the fifties had vanished, the Nordic countries were modernising in a faster tempo than ever, the welfare state ensuring a larger leisure time and buying power to the youth, as well as new paths of social mobility through the educational system and the labour market. Through extending consumption and acceptance of Anglo-American mass culture, the Nordic people seemed to be overcoming the previous tension between the fast modernisation processes and a culture rooted in earlier phases: by cutting their cultural roots and throwing themselves into an international mainstream. And the young people seemed to be leading this process.
During the experimental years of 1967-72 music that emphasised creativity and authenticity was rarely on the hit charts in the Nordic countries, but it was the music to draw young audiences to ballrooms,concerts and occasional ‘love-ins’. There was no doubt about its credibility.
Once again authenticity changed location. Until 1967 music performed in the native language was almost always classified as pop, but copies of American or English songs, performed in English, had an almost exclusive right to the categories of ‘rock’ or ‘beat’ and hereby to youth culture authenticity. As the definition of authenticity shifted to artistic self-expression,there was a growing demand that this new music should be performed in the native language.
This demand was not total. In Iceland, for instance, it was widely accepted that the most popular female rock singer Shady Owens, who was half Icelandic and half American and brought up in American surroundings, expressed herself vocally better in English than Icelandic, but the main trend was in the other direction. Protest songs could easily be phrased in all languages. Blues revivalists found ways to express desperate love and bad spells of a wicked world in their own language. Flower kids dug into national sources of romanticism, and northern mythology could be mixed with astrology in mysterious verbal pictures.
By bringing the criteria of authenticity home, the national scenes became far more exciting but new problems were created. On the one hand they were encountering other cultural fields, as lyrics were measured by the standards of national poetry and the music by standards of jazz or modern classical music, of course scoring low on these standards. On the other hand not only the national languages became barriers to the outside world but also elements of the musical side, especially the production and recording techniques. When Nordic artists set out to conquer the bigger world they often made new recordings in American and English studios, singing English translations, and the products did neither satisfy their home market nor the English-speaking world. In a double effort, to seek international recognition and to avoid misleading criteria of the national culture, the English language was dominating in Finland and Iceland from the late sixties and until the mid seventies, but the situation was more mixed in Sweden, Denmark and Norway, where many artists gained credibility through their innovative use of their own language.
The Nordic music of these years certainly contained potentials for recognition. Thus the legendary rock critic Lester Bangs peeped out of the iron cage of anglocentrism usually dominating American rock journals through very positive reviews in Rolling Stone of the Danish Savage Rose (18.10.1969) and of a series of Finnish bands, including Tasavallan Presidentti (1.10.1970). Interestingly, Bangs admitted that it took longer time than usually for him to appreciate Savage Rose, but on a later occasion he remarked that their Danish records were better than the American one. Given the double trouble of such groups, lacking proper home in their national culture and always appearing as lagging behind the latest international fad, no international success was to be expected.
The decline of progressive music in the early seventies was reinforced in the Nordic countries by the absent international success of the local groups. At first sight the situation looked as a defeat, but several searching processes would bear fruit in the coming years.
While many ambitious rock musicians ‘went English’ in the late sixties an opposite trend can be observed in the lighter pop music, which reached national audiences largely through native lyrics. A few years later some of the musicians gained enough confidence to use English lyrics and aim for an international market. ABBA managed to break through with their high-quality pop rock, flavoured by European and Nordic musical traditions (Lilliestam, 1998), but several other groups lost even their national following through such efforts (Björnberg, 1987; Gudmundsson, 1990).
In the seventies, some of the progressive rock groups started to co-operate with each other, with various grass root organisations and sometimes with left-wing political organisations in building an alternative music scene. This alternative scene effectively formed the discourse through the most of the seventies with co-operating music labels and magazines. The movement was especially successful in Sweden, where the 'music movement' became the dominating force in live performances, unified by strong grass-root and left-wing signals (Fornäs, 1985 and 1993). This tendency was also strong in Denmark (Jensen etal., 1977), in Norway it was somewhat weakened by strong left-wing cleavages, and in Finland and Iceland it was mostly confined to folk music.
Leading figures of this radical music movement, like Michael Wieheand Björn Afzelius from the Hoola Bandoola Band in Sweden and the Røde mor rock group/cabaret in Denmark became common Nordic property, as well as rough rock bands like Danish Gasolin or rock poets like the Swedish Ulf Lundell or the Norwegian Åge Aleksandersen.
These developments gave new meanings to authenticity. The American late sixties emphasis on community roots was now extended to a demand that rock was to ‘serve the people’. The roots of rock in blues were mythologised and links to the music of ‘oppressed people everywhere’ were welcomed. The search for roots sent several groups searching through the national musical inheritance mixing it with rock, often with decent results without however opening doors for a wider movement.
When the native language was used in rock-based pop music during the fifties no commentators gave it more concern as cultural production than the local production of Coca-Cola. During the seventies rock was increasingly recognised as an arena of language innovation, which put older pop lyrics in the native language in a new light. It became clear that even lyricists of ‘simple pop music’ had often been adapting the language to rock music in an innovative way and,furthermore, many of them had been verbalising daily experience and new developments in everyday culture that had been left alone by the serious culture and by serious rock music (Nielsen, 1980). While ‘progressive rock music’ had been claiming access to high culture in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the boundaries between high and low were getting more blurred in the late 1970s.
Janus - the face of today
The punk wave, that hit the Nordic countries in 1978-80, was simultaneously a revolt against the existing rock scene and an extension of it. Punks mocked the localised rock scene as ‘bold pop’ at the same time as they exploited its achievements, such as the adaptation of the native language to rock music and the networking experience. Everywhere the punks attacked 'the politically correct pedagogues' of the alternative scene and their 'toothless sing-a-long' music. At the same time they used and learned from the grassroots organisation, e.g. building their own alternative labels and recording in the studios of the old movement, and some of the more dangerous figures of the alternative scene were hailed as 'the honourable past'.
Although the music and spirit of the Nordic punks to a large degree was copied directly by youngsters returning from holidays in London, the meaning of punk was not the same in the Nordic countries ase.g. in England. It did not and could not refer to poverty and urban deterioration in same degree as in Britain, nor mobilise through attacks on the music industry. Nordic punk was to a greater extent defined in relation to the alternative scene of the seventies, ambiguously ridiculing its political correctness and attacking it for a lack of political radicalism. The punks formulated aggressive attacks on welfare state and consumerism and all moral standards except for anarchistic individualism. It became largely a bohemian attitude of urban middle class youth, but gave also space for identity formations among youth in the coastal villages of Iceland, Finland and Norway.
The relation of the punk scene to authenticity was double-faced as Janus. On the one side they ridiculed claims of authenticity, through attitudes learned from David Bowie and his likes, not least the roots idea. On the other side punk fostered fundamentalist authenticity demands, stressing direct access, absolute artistic honesty and community. These sides had different protagonists, but through the ambiguity of punk they could be seen as one polyphonic movement.
The punk explosion effectively tore down some petrified fortifications and dichotomies, and the survivors could wander around the ruins and pick up what was left. There were no fixed prescriptions how to use the codes of rock, which opened the way to a series of new styles,strategies and syntheses. Nothing was self-evident any longer. Neither the clichés of pop nor those of progressive rock could be repeated any more, unless in ironic modes. Those who in the first instance benefited from this were not the punks themselves, but those pop and rock performers who were able to take the challenge of renewing non-punk genres of rock and pop, learning from the experimental and often post-modern aesthetics of new-wave music.
Lawrence Grossberg (1992: 224-239) has coined the term ‘authentic inauthenticity’ to stress that artificiality and authenticity can no longer be conceived as dichotomies but as dialectics. According to him the four main strategies of authenticity are ironic, sentimental, hyper real and grotesque inauthenticity. Again this classification is problematic, but the basic, general approach is sound. The weight on style,appearance and irony does not mean ‘that nothing matters - for something has to matter’ (Grossberg: 222), but that fixed and lasting criteria have been lost. Thomas Ziehe (1989) has related the new aesthetic strategies to wider cultural ‘search processes’ responding to the general loss of meaning in late modernity. He distinguishes between subjectivising (striving for closeness and intimacy), ontologising (striving for fixed meaning) and potentiating (striving for intensity). Individuals can change between these strategies and the energy within each strategy can change media. During the sixties and early seventies meaning could be sought in fixed criteria of authenticity, but for the last decades an intensified search for meaning has become an infinite journey.
The change in authenticity does not mean that earlier forms vanish but they certainly become more ambiguous. During the eighties Bruce Springsteen represented the classical ideals of rock authenticity, effectively staged by one of the chief shapers of this ideology, Jon Landau. According to Grossberg (1992: 229-230) Springsteen has acquired a new meaning since the 1980s. Along with Rambo and Reagan he is an 'ordinary hero' symbolising 'the magical possibility of making a difference against impossible odds (...) but the site and stake of the battle (...) are irrelevant.' Grossberg terms this appeal 'sentimental inauthenticity'. 'Cultural practices become merely the occasion for a temporary but intense affective investment, for a constant movement between emotional highs and lows.’ Although Grossberg has a point it could certainly be argued that classical rock authenticity is still at stake in Springsteen's position and works.
One explanation of the growing interest in ‘world music’ and rock artists from outside the metropoles is a search for the last stable remains of authenticity. From the Nordic countries Björk is an excellent example. It does not interest the discourse on her,that she grew up in a more modernised and urbanised milieu than most of American and European audiences. Coming from the north, dancing barefoot on the scene like Sandy Shaw in the sixties she is seen as an unspoilt natural child ora pixy. It underlines her authenticity, as the ‘natural child of the north’ that she often emphasises how the sounds of nature influence her music - although this influence can just as well be sought on the beaches of Spain as on the Icelandic glaciers. When Björk is repeatedly stating that she composes music most easily when in Iceland or thinking of Iceland, she puts herself in the tradition of Ray Davies with his North-London binding and numerous other musicians who stress that their creative source is localised. Understandably journalists are more interested to link Björk with the ice and fire of Icelandic nature than to seek explanation of her achievements in a fertile youth culture of her hometown (Gudmundsson,1993). These days the firmament of rock does not only need stars right above your head, but there is also room for a few ‘authentic others’ near the horizon.
At the same time as Björk and other Nordic artists are ‘old authenticity in a new disguise’ they bring new and interesting elements into the field. Until the nineties one main hurdle for many Nordic artists was their failure to make convincing English versions of their music, Danish Kim Larsen (1982) and Icelandic Bubbi Morthens (1988) being two prime examples. Only by placing themselves in the category of artificial pop, Nordic acts stood a chance, like in the cases of ABBA, A-ha, Ace of Base, Roxette and Aqua. Once again, Björk represents an interesting break. For fifteen years she has been changing between Icelandic and English, sometimes translating from Icelandic to English, sometimes writing in English, sometimes performing in the same language as the records, sometimes using Icelandic never to be found on records. Her statements are not consistent, as she sometimes stresses that Icelandic is ‘closer to her heart’ but sometimes that language is not important. Furthermore, her pronunciation of English shows also varying degrees of Icelandic accent. In short, Björk reveals a reflexive attitude in a search to combine the dominant form of popular music with her own artistic expression, displaying the classical aesthetical struggle between humanity and form in the terms of centre-periphery relations in modern popular music. The willingness of the audience to accept Björk's more detached English versions can also be interpreted as a sign of new sensibility. In the sixties Nico's German accent was the perfect medium to express Lou Reed's simultaneous ‘need to face one's nakedness and the impulse to cover it up’ (Willis 1992, p. 120), creating heroes for the underground. In the 1990s Björk's artificial English adds distance to herself-expression and the result hits the mainstream.
Björk does neither fit into the category of ‘authentic inauthenticity’ nor the old criteria of authenticity. Like Rolling Stones and numerous other rock artists she combines both forms and her success suggests there is more at stake than a break from one form of authenticity to another. At the same time as we see the dialectics and ambiguity of authenticity in rock come out clearer, we are for instance witnessing the beginning breakdown of the English birthright to the throne of rock.
Closing comments: reflexivity in centre-periphery relations
Strategies of authenticity can be more or less conscious and more or less effective, but they are all efforts to legitimise what you are doing. By claiming authenticity you insist that you are doing something ‘that matters’. By avoiding the label of authenticity you are saying that it is not important whether you are doing anything that matters - but it can be important in another way. Strategies of authenticity are also a method of hiding (cf. Hebdige, 1988). When Ian Dury stated that ‘Rock'n'roll didn't aim higher than pink cadillac and swimming pool. It fulfilled the basic human need to dress up and dance about’ (Dury, 1981), one can suspect him for deliberately drawing the reader's attention away from something that Dury wishes to keep as a mystery.
The clashes and controversies of recent decades - between rock and schlagers, between progressive rock and rock-based pop, between disco and punk - can in retrospect be interpreted as learning processes, where each successive youth generation incorporated and surpassed the achievements of previous generations. The adaptation of new cultural forms through copying had opened the way for new expressions: new ways of playing, composing and developing other aspects of rock'n'roll style. These processes also implied that a new cultural capital was distributed in another way than previous forms. Kids that had been placed at the bottom of cultural hierarchies gained privileged access to a new cultural form, which sometimes gained strong subcultural value and sometimes assumed forms that were exchangeable into more general cultural capital.
Changing the disguise from entertainment to copying ‘the authentic other’ allowed for a deeper search for expression into body music without having to account for it in the same way as, for instance, jazz musicians. The next step, in the late sixties, was to qualify to the label of authenticity, risking to be judged as ‘pretentious’ as The Doors or as ‘naive’ as Donovan. The label of authenticity does not necessarily imply a ‘true’ declaration of content, the classical example being the icon of authenticity in rock, Bob Dylan, and all his lies about running away from home learning the music from vagabonds on the road. Ellen Willis took as early as 1969 her knife to the bone of the matter: ‘Dylan's songs bear the stigmata of an authentic middle-class adolescence...’ (Willis 1992, p. 5)
As Grossberg has pointed out, the label of ‘authentic rock’ is primarily a claim that ‘rock matters’. Although this claim was not made in the early days of rock, the core of artists and audiences shared a feeling that rock mattered. That feeling hid behind disguises of ‘fun’ and ‘imitation’, making it possible to explore the possibilities of rock without having to defend it in an alien territory, i.e. within the realm of ‘the talking classes’. ‘Tacit’ learning processes and the gradual incorporation of college students into the audience gave the rock community the self-confidence and language to go into open battle and make territorial claims of authenticity. The American-English hegemony of these years is by no means surprising, rather the fact that rock milieus almost everywhere in the world were able to make this claim only a few years later. Not only in the metropoles but also in the periphery the preconditions had been produced.
The really ‘pretentious’ and ‘naive’ reading of rock history is when the claim of authenticity is taken at face value. Beatles, Stones and Dylan were as artificial as they were authentic, and Velvet Underground, Iggy Pop and David Bowie intensified this ambiguity, which later became the aesthetic trademark of the punk revolution. The search for authenticity in the Nordic countries was also a double process. When rock was localised through adaptation of native languages to rock music and rock attitudes, rock became simultaneously a medium to express experiences of modernity and the spearhead of com modification. Already in the fifties and sixties rock made feelings and phenomena audible, that had been silenced or tabooed,broadening the spectre of cultural expression, but simultaneously rock influenced advertisement and reinforced the market domination, also in the art world.
The struggles between ‘popular music that matters’ and ‘popular music that does not want to have to matter’ has been silenced and replaced by (unbearable?) tolerance and popular music as a never widening medium. At the one end of the spectrum is the music track of commercials, on the other side rock as celebrated art. In the Nordic countries rock has for almost thirty years been receiving state support, strengthening the non-commercial and ‘folksy’ aspects. However, in later years rock artists are abandoning their reluctance to produce commercials and stage rock musicals in an industrial manner, at the same time as the official acceptance was sealed when Iceland's most celebrated pop star Björk received the prestigious Nordic Music prize in 1997.
In the beginning of this article three periods were identified through the discourse on rock. Authenticity was the paradigm of the period 1965-80 and therefore the preceding period can be called ‘pre-authentic’ and the following period ‘post-authentic’. However, this article shows that these periods are primarily to be found in ‘the realm of dominant ideas’. The ideology of authenticity articulated sensibility and attitudes that had followed rock from the beginning, and the ideology of inauthenticity is on the one hand a discovery of elements to be found in rock for decades and on the other hand it does not kill the intensified search for authenticity which is one feature of the late modern era.
The terms of 'post-authenticity' or 'inauthenticity' are misleading labels for the change in sensibility and attitudes implying a more reflexive attitude to authenticity. They lead the focus from important elements of this change, not least the weakened fundament of the American-English hegemony in popular music. For decades the insistence on rock authenticity was coupled with an understanding of culture as national in constructing centre-periphery relations in the rock world. Urban American could fake rural accents and Mick Jagger could fake cockney, but foreign accents could not be accepted as authentic. Singing in English called for mockery in the home countries and a low place in the international hierarchy.
As the reflexive aspects of modernisation have come to the foreground, identity is no longer automatically ascribed and everybody has to work for it. Those with a birthright within rock community lose their privilege and risk becoming reflexivity losers. (2) Those who were born in the periphery suddenly learn that they have developed a ‘competitive advantage’ by striving to express themselves through cultural forms that were considered as alien in their surroundings, and in a foreign language. In this sense, the transformations of the quest for authenticity have made it possible to create new centres in what used to be a periphery. From the Nordic countries, not only Björk but also the whole line from ABBA to Aqua bears witness to this revolutionary dissolution/reshuffling of hierarchies.
The conception of rock discourse and authenticity owes much to my collaborators in an ongoing project on rock criticism, Ulf Lindberg, Morten Michelsen and Hans Weisethaunet. This group will without doubt develop the discussion much further in its later publications. The presentation of Nordic rock history owes much to information and comments provided by Johan Fornäs and Lisbeth Ihlemann.
1. In 1991-95 the network ‘Nordic rock research’ with more than thirty active members met 1-2 times a year, funded by the Nordic Academy for Advanced Study. An offspring from this network was the pan-Nordic Ph.D. course ‘Rock as a research Field’ held at Magleås, Denmark in April 1997, where the first draft of this article was presented.
2. This term was coined by Scott Lash (Beck et al. 1994) primarily denoting groups of young working class males clinging to obsolete cultural patterns. However, if this term is to be used with minimal reflexivity, it is a sign of warning to all bearers of ‘self-evident’ habitus.
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