8.4 Calculating Anarchy
Authenticity as a singular value can cause cultural stagnation if it becomes an obsession that blocks access to innovation. This is the home territory of laggards and members of the late majority. The die-hard acoustic folkies who jeered at the newly electric Bob Dylan at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival fit this profile of dogged authenticity. Punks in the 1970s who felt that rock ‘n’ roll had lost its utilitarian 4/4 beat and abrasive rough edges busted rock’s door down with authentic innovators like the Ramones and the Sex Pistols. In fact, punk’s true innovation was its complete devotion to utility, and the very reason for punk’s existence was to stay true to a narrowly defined tribal aesthetic. As a consequence, the genre was played out in a few short years. Sure, there are still kids wearing Mohawks and nose rings, but they’re virtually indistinguishable from the kids who wore Mohawks and nose rings in 1978. The core of their wardrobe is made up of t-shirts for bands that no longer exist, from Dirty Rotten Imbeciles to the Exploited. Punk rock is now a futile exercise in authenticity.
“Prog” or progressive rock, punk’s antithesis and its inspiration, also had an original and authentic vision, innovating by adopting other styles and forms of music. It kept rock’s “rule breaking” tradition by fusing different musical elements and breaking the “blues-based” rule. Prog kept growing and received greater and longer-lasting acceptance. Despite rock critics’ dismissal of bands like Yes and Genesis in the ’70s, the influence of those bands can be heard today in critical, post-rock darlings like Sigur Rós, Explosions in the Sky, and Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Progressive rock has sustained itself by being both authentic and utilitarian. This is something we can dig our chops into, like a reinterpretation of classical French cuisine without all the heavy cream sauces. The punk reaction to progressive rock’s bloating pretension was original, all right, but after the aggression purge, what then? It was like gorging on Cantonese food and being hungry an hour later. Indeed, platinum-selling bands like Green Day, Good Charlotte, and Fall Out Boy have become what they set out to destroy: hugely popular rock stars.
Like products and the stock market, authenticity and utilitarianism as aesthetic values fluctuate in relation to each other. What’s authentic at one point can seem like a phony knockoff at another. Look for transitions from people desiring something utterly unique, irreplaceable, and authentic, to desiring something that makes life easier, is less expensive, and is more attuned to mundane, everyday cares. Sometimes, as with nouvelle cuisine, haute couture, and progressive rock, the purpose is to fuse ideas, values, themes and tastes that were once in opposition-even while alienating authenticity-clinging aficionados.