In our book, Faking It, we posit that early rock’n’roll was a reaction against authenticity, and that authenticity only crept into the genre at the inception of folk rock, since folk music was all about authenticity.
My friend Elijah Wald has dug up some quotations that appear to contravene this theory. Most convincingly, in my opinion, is a comment from Billboard in 1963: “Surfing music has to sound untrained with a certain rough flavor to appeal to the teenagers. As in the case of true c.&w., when the music gets too good, and too polished, it isn’t considered the real thing.”
And Columbia producer Mitch Miller, back in 1958, told Dwight MacDonald for a New Yorker piece, “The kids don’t want recognized stars doing their music. They don’t want real professionals. They want faceless young people doing it in order to retain the feeling that it’s their own.”
The requirement that music be unpolished and be performed by the salt of the earth can be traced back to the aesthetics of folk and country music, and was part and parcel of these music’s appeal as far back as the 1920s. But it was also part of the appeal of R&B and rock’n’roll as well. In this sense, authenticity was always important to rock’n’roll, and we were, in some respects, wrong.
Yet at the same time, rock’n’roll moved away from the pure authenticity of country and folk musics: it introduced a strong element of ridiculousness, it emphasized sex and fashion, and its vocal style was far more mannered and perverse than the plain, unadorned singing of folk and country. Rock’n’roll set out to be wild and undisciplined, and as such had to break free from the God’s-honest-truth aesthetic of country and folk. In this sense, rock’n’roll was deliberately inauthentic music.
Why was this remnant of authenticity so important to a group of young men and women who sought complete freedom from the outmoded tastes of their parents, and whose resistance to Hollywood-style marketing was essentially nil?
Because rock’n’roll was rebelling not only against the aesthetics of country music, but against pop music’s aesthetics too--both represented authority. Rebelling against country meant adherence to the ephemeral, the emphasis of desire over faith, the elevation of youth over wisdom, the employment of mannerism rather than sincerity. Rebelling against pop meant stripping the instrumentation down to the bare essentials, playing in a rudimentary style, and retaining all the rough, manly edges that pop had tried to smooth away.
Of course, that didn’t last very long. The biggest rock’n’roll stars were adding strings to their records by 1958, and by 1960, the need for an authentically “dirty” sound in rock’n’roll had been relegated to subgenres like rockabilly and surf music. The large majority of rock’n’roll hits of the pre-folk-rock era were completely divorced from the rough-edged aesthetic.
In our book, we carefully differentiate between personal authenticity (sincerity) and cultural authenticity (being true to tradition). Rock’n’roll roundly rejected personal authenticity. But it retained in some measure the aesthetic of cultural authenticity that was so important to its forebears, the aesthetic of primitivism: “when the music gets too good, and too polished, it isn’t considered the real thing.”