Formations of Control in Underground Venues

I think about the sheer authenticity related to the experience of enjoying punk music in a basement. Admittedly, authenticity is a social construction, but in the moment – Wow! This shit is for real! Seriously, two weeks ago I found myself screaming at my friend Jimbo’s face, “You’re the only real thing!” after his band Radio Exiles played. As an academic who actively promotes the deconstruction of all claims to authenticity, this is a pretty big deal. In all honestly, by the time his band played, most of the audience had left and it really was just fifteen dudes in a basement. Ten had already played, and the other five were playing. Half an hour earlier things were very different. . .

What I noticed, in the concrete basement, the epitome of DIY ideology and functionality – packed with fifty people while the touring band played, was that there was an eerie level of self policing. The ten people, old timers (almost 30 years old), who stayed till the end lingered around the perimeter watching the crowd more than the band. Now this practice was likely tacit, unknown to the practitioners, but for a scene that prides itself on authenticity and brands itself as a subculture it was interesting to see common societal mechanisms of control being replicated again within the community. Basement venues are kept secret because when they get press, they are shut down by the police for several reasons regarding safety and noise. This external policing has been internalized, and recreated by the people maintaining the scene. This is Foucault’s discussion of discipline, the prison and panopticism, almost literally produced in underground venues. The reason basement venues seem authentic, is because there is no contrived societal organization within, instead there is ideological consensus; a natural cultural phenomenon. Authenticity is the organic recontextualization and subsequent recapitualization of an order we already know and understand. Basement shows are authentic because they feature familiar tropes of organization, safety and music, in an alternative environment and context.

Perhaps Radio Exiles were real because radio has become obsolete. At any rate, that’s a discussion for another time. Check em’ out:


Radio free Brunswick!

Radio free Brunswick!

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5 responses to “Formations of Control in Underground Venues”

  1. drjsa says :

    Okay, so now we are beginning to get to the meat of the issue–authenticity isn’t actually about content (this is context dependent, always changing, and always either perpetually out of reach or evaporating) it is about mobilizing boundaries to particular ends. We shouldn’t be asking what authenticity is. . .but rather what it is doing and for whom? when? How is authenticity mobilized?

    Aaron, what you are saying is that disciplining one’s self for a particular scene is a microcosm of disciplining one’s self for the state? so authenticity in this case is really just a hyperpolicing mechanism with the illusion of (self)control, resistance, and/or novelty?

    Authenticity is something you are willing to police yourself for–and played out culture (what is the opposite of authentic? fabricated?) feels like external policing? culture being foisted on you vs. culture you feel emanates from the you that you have crafted and regulated?

    @ Liana, I am going to show my age here, but I remember walking down the high school parking lot at lunch and having the ironic experience of hearing different songs off Nevermind blaring from the trunks of all the people that made fun of nerds like me and I do remember hating Nirvana for that, as if it was something intrinsic in the music that made them a pied piper for jerks. I felt for Kurt a little on that one.


  2. Liana Silva says :

    I’ve always been curious about this idea of “less people=authentic.” You know how some argue about how their soul dies a little when their favorite band makes it onto the Top 40 list? I know I’ve felt it. Yet, what makes that so bad?

    But what I really wanted to point out is that what you bring up about policing authenticity has a lot of potential. Think about it: authenticity depends on those people who watch the gates (the proverbial gates) and keep the posers in check. There always has to be someone who watches that distinction closely, even if it’s the band members themselves. I don’t know why, but Kurt Cobain comes to mind. While he was alive, he always obsessed over how popular his music had become. He didn’t want that; he was deathly afraid of “selling out.” And selling out is the opposite of authentic in the sense that when you sell you you supposedly lose control of the product.

    I’m probably not really getting anywhere with this, but I just wanted to draw attention to what you brought up about policing the scene because I think it’s a valid, important point. If no one polices the scene, how can you determine its authenticity?


  3. angbandking says :

    I don’t think you would think these basement shows were as authentic as your BBQ parties – they wouldn’t be quite as familiar. Similarly, I’m positive that for me, my authentic punk experience has very little to do with sunlight and open space (although, there have been a few legendary shows featuring the trifecta Booze / BBQ / Bonfires at a nearby ranch-house). I think you’re on to something when you nip out how unreflexive some of popular music studies is when they set authenticity up as a collection of masculine tropes and then evade the hard question how gender plays into the mix. I think that might have a lot to do with familiarity as well.

    I’ll say it, the elephant in the popular music studies room, is gender. Critics, academic and commercial, frequently sidestep the masculine connotations of rock music – and avoid examining directly how this reaffirms common symbolic connotations in its mythos and iconography.


  4. Dr. Jsa says :

    I loved reading about the alchemy of sound, bodies, and space in this piece! As someone whose notions of punk authenticity lies in hiding from police helicopters at backyard shows, though, I wonder how region plays a role in notions and experiences of authenticity. Would I find the same authentic feeling in your concrete basement that you do? Would you find that sunlight, barbecues, and bonfires somehow tainted the punkness of a show?

    Also, I just have to say it. . .there is a line of thinking in popular music studies that says a show with “15 dudes in a basement” is always authentic. I am curious to hear more about how your ethnographic work disrupts or at least thinks through this easy equation of: less people + the more male they are=authentic.


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