Three and a half years ago, kid-rock culture had its Malcolm McLaren moment: Camp Rock. The 2008 Disney Channel movie starred the Jonas Brothers and Demi Lovato, and centered on a high-rent summer program for aspiring pop stars. A sequel—The Final Jam—followed in 2010. Jack Black was no longer the center of the kid-rock universe.
Over the summer, I volunteered as a counselor at a very different kind of rock camp: Girls Rock! DC. The 5-year-old program is an independent outgrowth of the Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls and other similar programs around the country, which hope to build their charges’ self-confidence through a collaborative creative process. The campers were ages 8 to 17, and some were there on scholarship.
On Day 1, Girls Rock! felt like punk rock prep school. The kids had all the signifiers of consumer punk culture: ripped fishnets, cool parents, Ghost World attitude.
The week concluded with a performance at 9:30 Club, where over a dozen bands and DJ crews performed original material. Imagine a middle-school band concert, but with a slightly different possibility of two-way embarrassment. In the end, none of the songs had much to do with the Jonas Brothers, and you’d have been hard-pressed to find anyone onstage who gave a shit. One particular refrain, from a group of middle schoolers calling itself The Uncontrollables, sounded more punk than anything I’d heard from that stage in years: “If you see me on the inside/You might be surprised/I’d burn your eyes.”
At St. Stephen’s, when I ask Francy Graham if she’s in a band too, I get a classic third-generation punk kid response: “No, but I just started playing guitar a few months ago. My teacher Mary’s in a band, though. They’re called Wild Flag.” Her look screams, “Have you heard of them?”
Graham says she asked her teacher—who, by the way, is Mary Timony, one of the more revered indie-rock guitarists of the 1990s—to teach her a Bratmobile song.
This, of course, leads to an important question: Why would you need to be taught a Bratmobile song? Bratmobile songs have chant vocals, three-chord surf riffs, and lyrics about high school. Teenage punks aren’t supposed to study this stuff. They’re supposed to write their own versions.
Or, at least, that’s how we’re used to conceiving the creative life of an adolescent rock ‘n’ roller: Disaffected with the past, they chuck out the rulebook and make something totally new. Rip it up and start again.
Angst about age in punk rock—and the wider universe of what’s nominally grouped as “indie”—extends in two directions. There’s a kneejerk tendency to see the post-career reunion culture as a cheap way to cash in. But we’re also quick to dismiss young punks as either adorable, or as nonrebellious marionettes with strings pulled by adults.
In a lot of ways, anxiety over manufactured kids’ punk is a proxy for our worries about handled and packaged adult punk. What would you think if Kurt Cobain had taken guitar lessons at Bach to Rock? We want our musicians to emerge from a pure, primitivist void.
In our hand-wringing over musical handholding, we tend to conceive outside interference of any kind—fussy A&R reps, rock-school instructors—as creative inhibitors. Which, of course, is silly: Any song that isn’t made by a Jandek-like recluse will have many cooks. For kids, we might draw a line at guitar lessons, or at rock camp. For adults, we saw that line crossed last year by Lana Del Rey, whose focus group-tested pinup pop, conventional beauty, and simulacrum of vaguely defined hipness set off every conceivable authenticity trap the indie blogosphere holds dear.
When we talk about rock and who’s responsible for it, we’re really not talking about creativity. Authenticity is the currency, and kids’ bands complicate that conception by their very existence.