- Home on the Stage: From Real Cowboy to Postpunk Slacker
When Kurt Cobain, leader of the rock ‘n’ roll band Nirvana, committed suicide two years ago, fans and rock critics grieved because Cobain had been that rare rock ‘n’ roller whose music seemed to communicate emotions directly, purely, and without artifice. And Cobain had attempted to do this on his own terms, without “selling out.” Spontaneous gatherings of mourners outside his house in Seattle demonstrated the direct emotional connection his fans felt to his music, as they participated in the construction of a community through a shared response to these emotions.
Cobain’s death highlighted what the sociologist Simon Frith has identified as the central meaning of rock since at least the late sixties: true rock ‘n’ roll is supposed to be authentic, that is, anticommercial and purely expressive. For some fans, this true rock ‘n’ roll can only be created through local, club-based, underground scenes apart from the mainstream productive apparatus of the multinational rock ‘n’ roll industry. From this perspective, the industry is the enemy against which the subcultural rock scenes define themselves, and like all of corporate consumer capitalism, [End Page 128] the industry tries to co-opt the alternative scenes, searching everywhere for more product. Once rock ‘n’ roll becomes merely product its purity is threatened, as when Seattle’s grunge scene burst through in the wake of Nirvana’s success. The twin myths of Rock ‘n’ roll Saved my Life, and Rock ‘n’ roll Companies Stole my Scene were the essential narratives governing Cobain’s fame and death.
In Dissonant Identities: The Rock ‘n’ roll Scene in Austin, Texas, Barry Shank shows exactly how these myths have developed and shaped cultural production in one locale. He traces the evolution of a local music culture historically, through the dual trajectories of a vibrant local country music tradition and the international corporate music marketplace. The book examines both the production and the consumption of music in Austin over a series of generations, situating each successive emerging scene as conditioned by numerous factors, including the values and regulations of the larger Austin community, the heritage of Texan mythology, the late-capitalist music business, and the histories and ideologies of previous scenes. Shank’s attention to the many variables in the production and reception of popular culture over time makes for an exciting, in places brilliant, and important work. In its focus on popular culture as a site for the negotiation of the identity of individuals and a community, Dissonant Identities provides a model for theoretically informed, empirical and historical, cultural studies.
Shank traces the emergence of a specifically Texan musical and performance style that has critiqued the commodification of everyday life while simultaneously pushing musical production into the marketplace. Shank follows Austin music from the cowboy songs collected by John Lomax, through the hillbilly music of Jimmie Rodgers and Ernest Tubb, sixties folk and psychedelic rock scenes, the progressive country and punk rock of the seventies, up to the alternative rock ‘n’ roll of the eighties. He demonstrates how certain themes of authenticity, sincerity, and antimodernism have worked continuously in different settings, informing each scene differently and always working (again, in different ways) in conjunction with a parallel spirit of the entrepreneurialism of the individual in harmony with the community. Each successive scene has responded both to the history of previous scenes and to developments in the wider sphere of Austin politics, economics, and community life, as well as the international music industry.
Austin music began with the invented tradition of the “real” cowboy—a nostalgic link to a presocial, premodern, Texan, male cattle trader. The [End Page 129] discourse of cowboy authenticity provided the basis for the popularity, and potential profit, of a cowboy singer and his songs in the early twentieth century. Since popular music was an important field where cultural identity was negotiated, this image of the authentic cowboy was not only an aesthetic creation, but also a social one that influenced cultural...