Modern Rock & Authenticity
We are currently in the wake of a nostalgic wave crashing over pop culture. The influence of the past can be felt in the movies, clothing, and perhaps the most in your face, the music that we consume on a day to day basis. This influence of the old on modern music is felt beyond what one would just hear on the radio, it has its hold on the indie and the underground, and in a way, is helping those groups to get their sound in front of the mainstream. Through the examination of bands like Greta Van Fleet, Dead!, The Estrons, The Struts and The Bay Rays; the concept of rock authenticity will be questioned. By using these examples, the element of nostalgia seems to stand out in their performances and reviews. Nostalgia in music could be something as simple as a sample from an older song to an entire showcase of the sound and visuals of a past generation, but it is not easily defined. Authenticity and rock music are concepts for which the definition changes and diverges from over time. It is highly unlikely to find two people with a common definition of either, let alone a unifying definition of both. Using nostalgia as a tool, these artists are clawing their way into the public eye. But are these strategies of adopting another time reminiscent of the artists own reflective nostalgia or a way to capitalize on our current obsession with the past? The idea that with age, rock will draw upon itself and its past can be seen in many modern bands. Fans of the genre are concerned with nostalgic repetition, but like in any industry, I think there is an inherent need to innovate that will drive a new sound. I would argue that both approaches seem to be correct; and even when groups are busy embracing the nostalgic enterprise, there are some bands with a traditional punk sense of contrariety and individuality that want no association with older music. By analyzing the costumes, music videos, live performances and albums of rock artists on the rise, the search for authenticity in modern rock music will be questioned.
Defining Rock Authenticity
Authenticity, like nostalgia, is not something easily defined. Attempting to define it in the context of rock music is not much simpler. Rock music itself has an abundance of subgenres and influences that make it what it is, but at the same time, many of these categories are debated upon frequently. Extremely simplified definitions of rock music would have you believe that the genre consists of a group of people with electric guitars and drums playing loud music with a powerful backbeat (Frith, 2018). In reality, examining the plethora of bands that would consider themselves to be part of this genre, we can see so many contradictions, that this definition fails to support the group in its entirety. Rock has a degree of variability that can be observed by just taking a short glance at the vast list of subgenres that call this umbrella home. There is an innate sense of polarity in the sea of rock music. One cannot simply say that psychedelic, grunge, glam, ska, emo, and progressive rock all have the same sound. As the musical category of rock music can’t be defined clearly in full, finding the true nature of authenticity in rock is equally as difficult.
One thing that people involved in the rock scene will agree on is that pop is inherently less authentic than rock will ever be. There are quite a few conflicting ideas with this statement when we consider what authenticity in music even is. For some, authenticity means finding a unique sound and innovating in the genre. For others, nothing except the classics and the music played twenty years ago will ever be considered authentic. In a way, defining authenticity means examining the message, technicality and influences of a bands sound. Writers like Von Kalm, think that rock music needs to be “intelligent and inspirational for its listeners” and involves them being true to themselves (Von Kalm, 2009). This definition sounds good at first listen, but there is so much variability and subjectivity that it really fails to be a definition at all. While we are defining authenticity and rock, we can’t also be defining what it means for a song to be intelligent and inspirational. In many contexts the inspiration develops from the background and experiences of the artist; and in other times it comes from the causes that they support through their performance and music. The intelligent part is a bit more difficult to work out. It could mean any number of things from the technicality of the music to the literary artistry of the lyrics. It could mean any number of things, essentially leaving it up to the interpretation of the listener.
The idea of street credibility is something deeply involved in the culture surrounding rock music. Street-cred is the idea that the music and the people behind it are respected amongst the community. Some argue that it involves having to come from conflict or a need to fight for a cause. “Rock pushes up from the bottom rather than being imposed from the top,” is the idea that rock music must burst through the popular music scene and will face some challenges in doing so (Frith, 2018). Rock in its own nature is seen as a style of music that is made by the people. It is a genre not manufactured behind the closed doors of a studio for constant reproduction. Rather, it is made by thousands of groups all over the world, promoted by individual bars and carefully curated fanzines, and inspired by the everyday experiences of the everyday person. Rock invokes a sense of struggle and talent that cannot be mass produced, and this is the root of where street credibility lies.
One final element of authenticity to take into consideration are the feelings and expression of the composers, producers and artists involved. As long as a piece is expressing the performers feelings and is an accurate representation of their situation or surroundings, it should be considered to be authentic (Frith, 2018). With this element involved, you can easily ignore the nostalgic calls to another time and the technical elements of a track to the feelings involved. This is a dangerous slope to perch one’s definition on. If a track’s authenticity were to solely rely on emotion, a listener could argue that an artist widely viewed as inauthentic has a degree of authenticity. It is situations like these that drive us to qualify our argument on what makes an artist authentic by taking several of the qualities described to decide an artist’s degree of authenticity. With this in mind, we also must qualify feelings, and one of the grayest areas that will be focused on, is nostalgia as an emotion. An artist producing tracks with a strong likeness to the music of their past can still be producing authentic music because it is based on their ties to that past. This idea will be pursued in the following section in conjunction with several examples.
The result of searching all of these definitions is that authenticity in rock music is virtually impossible to get a non-biased and complete definition for. Logically, this makes sense because music in its very nature is tied to emotion and feeling, intangible things with inherent subjectivity. As such, for the remainder of this paper, authenticity will be analyzed as an amalgamation of the ideas of social consciousness, street credibility, artistic emotion, technique and general uniqueness. These themes will be explored by use of several up and coming bands who are slowly gaining traction to come into the mainstream. They are, in the proverbial sense, ‘pushing up from the bottom’.
Nostalgic Influence on Modern Rock Music
An artist makes the music, but the music defines the genre and place of the artist in the public eye. With each album and single dropped to the masses, the compilation of rock music grows ever larger and more intimidating to sift through. When the time is taken to look through the mass that has accumulated, the music can be sorted into more than just genres. Across generational boundaries, patterns in style and performance can be located. These intergenerational similarities are what will be analyzed to see if these rock groups with an older sound are authentic and innovatory or just contrived copies of older sounds.
Greta Van Fleet is a rock band on the rise; they have amassed a huge following since the release of their first EP, Black Smoke Rising, merely a year ago. In such a short time, it seems like a dream to be headlining an American tour and selling out shows, but it was the reality for this band just on the cusp of adulthood. Looking at their youth and the current popular sound of the time, one would not expect the music that these boys produce to be their own. They have managed to produce a sound with a striking resemblance to Led Zeppelin and other 70’s rockers. Just taking a quick listen to the tunes that they have produced and comparing them to Zeppelin classics, the similarity is uncanny. It permeates their latest album, From the Fires, and is not something that they can run from. Out of four interviews done with the members, not a single interviewer was able avoid mentioning this striking resemblance in their music. They seem to be haunted by their Zeppelin influence, but is Zeppelin really an influence or are listeners projecting their own nostalgia on their art?
Imitation is not a flattering word when describing rock and roll. It breaks that boundary of self that was described in the discussion of authenticity. Greta denies that they have imitated or have had the intent to imitate the band with which they sound so similar to (Mital, 2018). Instead they make an interesting argument that they were influenced by the same artists that inspired the works of Led Zeppelin (Hiatt, 2018). The band of brothers argue that they had never heard “contemporary music until they got to middle school” and that the pop that their friends grew up on just never appealed to them (Kaufman, 2017). Essentially, they grew up in a unique bubble. They were raised on their father’s record collection of the blues and rock visionaries that were the inspiration for the 70’s sound. This bubble changed the range for which they have nostalgia. If their music was influenced by early blues artists rather than the 70’s bands people compare them too, they have shifted the nostalgia of a person in their early twenties to the nostalgia of a 60 year old. They grew up on the same influences as Bonham and the other members of Zeppelin. With that in mind, if Zeppelins music is not contrived then Gretas can't possibly be defined as contrived either. Their influences can best be heard through the heavy guitar and unique vocals of their debut track ‘Highway Tune’. Taking a listen to this song, many people feel transported to a new time. Their music is by no means easy to play or create, but it does have such a jarring resemblance to older tunes that even people who grew up on the 70’s music can confuse the two bands for one another (Fine, 2018). The fact that these two artists share a sound would traditionally be considered copying, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be described that way. Authenticity as defined above, has many elements to it. One being the level of technique and talent. Jake Kiszka, the lead guitarist for the band has said that he believes that pedals and filters are ‘falsities’ that essentially lie to the listener about the players talent (Mital, 2018). In that sense, the talent they have on instruments and vocals exists and is authentic. Through their raw talent, Greta Van Fleet has gained street credit and amassed a following in what feels like record time.
The short time that it took to get sold-out headlining shows and first place atop the billboards are the things that concern the role of nostalgia in Greta Van Fleet’s music. Looking at their song, ‘Highway Tune’, it starts off with a riff similar to that of Heart’s ‘Barracuda’ and vocals reminiscent of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Achilles Last Stand’ (Fairchild, 2017). It exhibits a washed-out sound with blending of the instruments and sharper vocals like what was produced back in the 70’s. Additionally, it features Josh’s crooning vocals that highlight their old blues influence. In a way, whether they were drawing upon other influences or not, Greta Van Fleet is producing something that is entirely their own and that expresses their own feelings through the pace and lyrics, all of which are prime examples of the authentic ideal.
Greta Van Fleet is said to be the tip of the ‘rock resurgence’. Publications like Billboard argue that 2018 will see a resurgence of rock back into the mainstream with these brothers taking the lead (Cirisano, 2017). With a vote of confidence like that one could argue that they are following the idea set forth by Frith that rock music requires a struggle from the bottom to rise to the top, making their sound inherently rock and roll and obviously authentic.
The Struts are another band that follows several similar criticisms and praises. The Struts is a British rock group that is slightly more seasoned than the young Greta Van Fleet, but just as classic in their sound and punchy in their vocals. Back in 2016, this band could be seen opening for a crowd of 60,000 for the Rolling Stones (Oloizia, 2016). This is a well-deserved pairing. But looking at more of the bands visuals and sound could make us see why they were pulled into the gig of opening for an old rock classic. The Huffington Post describes The Struts succinctly as “unabashedly over the top retro-fetishist classic rock” (Shapiro, 2017). The tie in to classic rock is an obvious one, their glam rock roots can be felt in every track from both of their full-length releases. In addition, the title of over the top is nothing short of accurate when you see one of their intense and riotous live performances. The Struts are all about the principles of loud harmony that glam rock thrived on. The one part of the definition that is reductive of their art is the description of their style as ‘retro-fetishist’. Retro-fetishisism is a term that has a sort of negative and obsessive connotation associated with it. In its base form, it is an obsession and romantic tie in to the older sounds. It could be argued that their tracks like ‘One Night Only’ and ‘Kiss This’ have the pomp of an 80’s classic but go much deeper in their tie-ins to newer pop music. This structure of style helps them to amass a following and gain acceptance in popular culture. The Struts have a sound that draws upon multiple elements but is still able to balance nostalgic sound with the upbeat and modern vocals that keep it relevant.
The Struts are also one of the easiest bands to explore the concept of inspiration as an aspect of authenticity. Front man, Luke Spiller, did not have an easy time becoming the artist he was today. Back in the day, he was tied to the old hits of AC/DC, Manson, and Queen from a young age, but his Christian family would go through periods of staunch disapproval, ripping apart the CD’s of these ‘bad influences’ (Articulate, 2017). These experiences drove his lyrics and the outpouring of emotion in every performance. It is what he preaches at each stop on tour. The Struts had a familial struggle that they had to overcome unlike the support that other bands immediately receive. This is where the root of their authenticity lies. The feelings of their time can be seen in the passion and energy that they put out on stage during each performance. Their music, like any other group on the planet, has influences. The Struts have described their own to be a range from My Chemical Romance to Oasis to Def Leppard (Beaumont, 2017). With the variety that they boast, it is difficult to say that their music is a copy of anything old. Instead, they were influenced by the things they grew up on, and their nostalgia can be felt tenfold in the work they have produced. The Struts are proud of their intergenerational amalgamation.
The Estrons, a female-led punk band, are a contrast to the pride that The Struts have for being connected in sound and appearance to older bands. The Estrons have a style of music that sounds like many other female punk bands. What they lack in riffs and percussion is made up for in the importance and punch of their lyrics. The Estrons are commonly compared to other 90’s bands during their interviews. This act of comparison is not necessarily a negative thing, but when mentioned to the group they vehemently reject the idea that any other band, old or new, holds any artistic influence over their art (Beaumont, 2017). In a way, this is hilariously in line with the opinions of the same bands they are being compared to. Punk itself is a subgenre about rejection of norms and self-expression. If they were to admit their influences, then would they be considered authentic punk? Whether or not they would be, it is just interesting to contemplate the fact that the previous two bands happily agree to offer up their idols and laugh off comparisons while this group ignores them and even acts hostile toward them. With that in mind, the comparison of growth between bands like Greta Van Fleet and The Estrons is interesting to look at under the scope of accepting and embodying a nostalgic title and style. Both Greta Van Fleet and The Struts have pride in their connections and accept and laugh off comparisons in interviews. At times, it could be said that the men in these groups play up the sound and fashion of their comparative times. This acceptance of nostalgia and their roots is helping them gain fans at a rate much quicker than the Estrons. The fact that The Estrons don’t necessarily accept their similarities to other groups should not be considered the only reason why they are growing slowly. There are many factors and variables involved in a bands growth and progression, but this avoidance to nostalgic tendencies could be one of them.
Overall, a musical group can’t escape comparison at any point in their growth. They have the option to accept and live the comparison or to reject it and face a hard road to growth. But in either context, their music can still be authentic. The comparison to nostalgic influence is inescapable and permeates the sound of some modern bands; but even in the face of contriety, they can find their way into the spotlight and in front of iconic crowds.
Visual Similarities in Old and New Music Videos
A band is about more than just the music. Just looking at the sheer number of views on a popular music video should be enough to show that an accompanying visual can be a powerful tool for a group to capitalize on. A music video add meaning to a song, with costumes, settings and thematic ideas to consider. Many modern music videos draw upon the themes from the past. We as consumers now know many of the tricks that can be used to make a video appear aged, but does the listener view the band in a negative light in response to these tricks of production?
One of the most iconic things that come to mind when people mention rock music is a garage. Outside of the subgenre, garage rock, the garage itself is a place of importance to rock music. The garage is the famed place where a band starts and finds their sound. It has its own layer of mystique, intrigue and authenticity as the location where a band can find their sound. This is possibly the reason why so many bands, old and new, have at least one music video featuring a garage or warehouse of some sort. Greta Van Fleet decided to capitalize on this principle by having their first music video for the song ‘Highway Tune’ in a grungy, dimly lit garage (Fairchild, 2017). Despite the deceptively dirty and authentic exterior of the video, the production for it was still deceptively high. The camera angles it featured and the smoothness of the shots show an attention to detail unlike the traditional do it yourself attitude of rock. Greta Van Fleet is using this tried and true method for a music video to capitalize on the ideas that we all know and love rock bands to be about.
Post production can also have an impact on a video to make it appear older and more authentic. If age equals authenticity, then these groups as well as many others are trying to cash in and visually add some years to the creation of their music videos. The Estrons did this with a black line filter and margins on their video for ‘Glasgow Kisses’ (‘Glasgow Kisses’, 2017) and the Bay Rays continued their trend of wanting their video to look old with a similar set of filters and static sound overlays in their video for ‘Satisfaction’ (Satisfaction, 2017). These filters add a layer of faux authenticity to the video and make it seem tied to the iconic videos of the 80’s and 90’s. They could have also been used simply for the aesthetic and not consciously used in a contrived manner, but even then, the aesthetic they would have to be going for would have to be one of a vintage feel, which in and of itself is already fake.
The last thing to discuss in music videos is a shocking pattern that was uncovered during the process of researching for this paper. A common thread was found amongst the videos sifted through by complete chance, but for some reason it is a trope that we as a public never get tired of seeing. This phenomenon will now be referred to as ‘the studio video,’ is a style of performance and recording so common that it is almost laughable when you know what to look for. Among the five bands analyzed for this project, two were found to have a video made in this style. Looking through the comments, the video style can be traced back to a classic Nirvana music video for ‘In Bloom’. Nirvana’s ‘In Bloom’ video begins with a clip nearly copied by the band the Bay Rays, of a show announcer in black and white introducing the band (‘In Bloom’, 2009 & “Satisfaction, 2017). Following this awkward introduction is the body of the video featuring the band continuing the awkward attitude by stiffly playing their instruments and looking worried in ill-fitting suits. It is quite shocking the level of similarity the two videos can get to, but at the same time, the Bay Rays call back to Nirvana is helping their video to gain traction. Exploring the comments of their video we can see the outpouring of support for their tribute to Nirvana. Tribute is a heavy word, implying support and love for the original and giving the act of copying a positive connotation. The Bay Rays, whether you view their video as blatant copying or a call back to an iconic band, are gaining some sort of benefit for choosing to make this ‘In Bloom’ reminiscent video. Now as earlier mentioned, there was another band that exemplified this studio video trope. The UK band Dead!, had a video that appeared to be influenced by the videos of the old rather than copied frame for frame. Their video for ‘Up For Ran$om’, skips the awkward introduction and black and white intricacy of the previous two videos but still contains elements of nostalgic throwback. The band is all lined up in ill-fitting powder blue suits like in the Nirvana and Bay Rays films, even featuring the band's name lit up behind them in lights (‘Up For Ran$om’, 2018). The strange feeling one gets when watching all of these videos in procession is quite contemplative. You don't necessarily appreciate one more than the other, and in fact sometimes a feeling of admiration can be felt for a video playing accurate tribute to a well-loved and appreciated classic. This is an idea that these bands can either be wanting to capitalize on. If not, they could have gotten the idea from the video out of their own reflective nostalgia and love for the bands that influenced them while growing up. This idea makes sense in the context of how young the two bands that made these Nirvana-esque videos are. They likely grew up admiring the sound and aesthetic of Nirvana and aimed to commemorate that through elements in their own art.
After the advent and popularity of the music video, there have been so many produced that it is likely impossible for one or two elements of a new production to not be similar. You get commonalities in contrived location and filters as well as admirative ‘love letters’ of sorts to nostalgic acts from the past. Music videos have authenticity that is different from what we defined authenticity as above. A video involves the authenticity of the music but also that of the visuals. With these additional elements the line is blurred even more as one could have an authentic vintage aesthetic, which of itself sounds contradictory.
Nostalgic Fashion and Stage Presence
Hearing a song through the wires and transistors of a phone is one thing. In a way, it is like seeing only the outside of a house: you are missing so much detail and impact by never venturing to knock on the door. Inside said metaphorical house are the members of the band, their personalities and the way that they perform live. These elements and many more are impactful qualities that can draw upon the nostalgia of a previous time. Some groups visuals and stage presence can be considered contrived and carefully curated to create the facade of a rock star of the past. In other cases, the artists are just enjoying themselves, paying no mind to their looks and image beyond what they desire to do and dress like. With these men and women being at the center of their art, they too must be analyzed for authenticity.
Authenticity in personality is confusing at times. We all adopt different personas in different situations. When in front of a new group of people maybe you become more confident and maybe in a conflict you become more reserved. We all have these elements of our character that are fluid when need be to make it through situations that might be described as tough. For the everyday rockstar, this can be something necessary to make it through the limelight. Elements of fluidity like these can make it extremely difficult to define the authenticity of a person. Along with personality are the visual elements of ourselves that we show off to other people. Those include clothing and makeup, which are integral elements to the character of the rock star and make up how they are perceived by others.
Out of the bands discussed above, The Struts have the most personality and stage presence out of them all. The members of the band all have a distinct look that sticks out. Front man Luke Spiller stands out the most. Spiller has adopted a look reminiscent of Freddie Mercury and Tim Curry, a vintage bombshell of quirk and sparkle. He admitted in several interviews that he wears around 80 percent women’s clothing, all patent leather, flowing tops, bright colors, and fringe and sparkle (Eliscu, 2016). He is completely unashamed of his style and the confidence with which he pulls off this unconventional look is admirable. It is authentic in that it is a physical manifestation of who he is and who he desires to be. Luke explains that his whole goal in becoming an artist and performing a show is to not care about how he looks or however big a fool he makes of himself, rather it is all about him trying to amp up the room and give the people exactly what they want (Articulate, 2017). His stage presence is just as big as his personality and is what makes the concerts that the Struts perform so infectious and lively. He is active beyond belief and sings with passion and curiosity that you can feel. Spiller is not afraid to embarrass himself in the slightest and takes full advantage of it to perform with passion (DeRennes, 2013). He is up-playing his natural character to bring the music to life, all in a similar way to his inspiration the glam rockers of the 80’s. Spiller channels his inner 80’s hair performer through outfits and a signature dark eye and a can of hairspray. It is all a part of a look he found himself starting in college. He was able to come into his own away from his religious family and live his life the way he wanted to be (Oloizia, 2016). He even was able to work with the stylist for Freddie Mercury, his dream come true (Oloizia, 2016). With influence like that around he is bound to have a vintage look, but it is the fact that he loves it and takes the opportunity to curate it himself that makes what would be inauthentic on the normal human, authentic on him.
Compared to Luke Spiller of the Struts, not much in today's time seems as drastic, but that doesn't mean that it is any less important. Greta Van Fleet is another group with a front man who has a unique old school inspired and eclectic style. Seeing him on stage and in interviews he likes to walk around in long patterned tunics and feminine kurtas. In addition, he owns an extensive collection of chunky necklaces and hats to finish off the look (Hiatt, 2018). His brothers have said that this is how he has always dressed showing that it is not necessarily out of the ordinary for him. If this fashion is the norm for him, then it must be authentic. It really is a unique and uncommon style, especially for a man to wear. His eclecticism is unique and a part of him and his performance even if it does harken back to the style of the 70’s.
Interestingly enough, the modern trend to men with long hair is continued along with pretty much all of the bands mentioned. Most of the members of Greta Van Fleet and The Struts, have adopted long flowing locks like the hippies of the 70’s. It's a decision that they made and normally such a decision would not be thought twice about. It is interesting to contemplate the fact that we see this as an attempt to become like a classic rock band for someone in the industry, but we wouldn't think twice about it on a man walking down the street.
Fashion and persona are elements of the artist. They are a bit more difficult to pin down but are equally as important as the visuals and slightly less important than the music. With that high of esteem going to these qualities, they need to be focused on with just the same attention to detail.
Music is a diverse field made by the creative minds of thousands of artists over decades of time. With the frequency with which new songs are produced and let out onto the unsuspecting ears of the audience, it is inevitable that some songs will have similar qualities and moods. With the degree of variability that music is produced at, a song with a similar sound, pattern or quality of instrumentation to another should not immediately be considered as inauthentic. Authenticity comes from many sources including the technical ability of the artist, the feeling and meaning behind the lyrics and instrumentation and the social consciousness of the group. Not every mark will be ticked, but just a few should be enough to consider an artist or song as authentic. Authenticity becomes even more muddied as we examine the videos and persona that each group has the opportunity to adopt while up on stage and during interviews. A video has so many more details than a song that makes defining authenticity so much more difficult and a persona is so much more fluid that at times it can be contrived while at others it is authentic to the individual in their everyday life. Authenticity is such a variable idea. It is not simple to pin down.
In the context of modern rock, the links of commonality between new and old create some distress in defining the boundaries of what makes an artist unique and themselves. Maybe on occasion the things that make up themselves are elements of the things that they grew up loving and listening to. They find something they like and make it their own, these little details are the things that we as consumers of the music can pick out and attribute back to the original influences. Having inspiration and an appreciation of what had come before us is admirable in the context of history or art, therefore it should be just as positive in the context of rock music.
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