The Who’s Pete Townshend came out of the womb with a sharp tongue and is more often than not making a scathing comment about something or other, even on occasion about himself and his band. However, there are five musicians that the musician classes as being the only ‘authentic rock stars’, and he doesn’t believe that he is worthy of featuring on that list.
The reason why Townshend feels as though he is not an authentic rock star boils down to the fact that he has been forced to a certain degree. Take his signature on-stage guitar smashing, for instance; the reason why he felt the need to stop doing the stunt was that he considered it to have become too rehearsed, too contrived and not in keeping with his authenticity—a factor that defeated the whole chaotic element from the act of showmanship.
There are only a handful of musicians who don’t have to force it like Townshend admits he had to: “I’ve always regarded the rock-star phenomenon with immense disdain,” he told the New York Times in 2019. “I’ve had my moments, which have been gloriously recorded and exalted but brief when I’ve felt I’m going to try and do this job. I’m going to try to be a proper rock star. Then I would do it, and it wouldn’t work. I was counterfeit.” It’s a searing reflection of a singer who refuses to recognise his impact on the musical landscape as anything but chance.
This degree of self-analysis and lack of ego is often lost on most artists who cannot admit that perhaps their schtick is somewhat forced. However, Townshend has been in the music industry for over 55 years; he is well equipped to spot what he considers a real rockstar. With that in mind, there’s only five he has witnessed that he thinks are completely authentic.
“There are very few people truly authentic to the cause: David Byrne. Mick Jagger. Neil Young. Joni Mitchell. Deborah Harry,” he boldly stated without a moment’s thought. It’s hard to disagree with any of the five choices; each artist is unquestionably authentic to their very core and has never tried to be something they’re not. In fact, it is why so many have tried to replicate their acts over the years.
Authenticity is a subjective word, which can mean a completely different thing to one person as it might another. Townshend believes it to mean “authentic to the perceived, accepted ideal of a rock star. Now, online, you’ll see a throwaway statement — ‘rock is dead’ — which is something that we in our genre have been considering since the ’70s. But what is rock? Rock is hip-hop. Rock is probably Taylor Swift. Rock is, dare I say it, Adele and Ed Sheeran. They’ve dared to take on that mantle, and they have to deliver.”
“They’ve got to do something spectacular as performers. Not just as recording artists. They’ve got to do something amazing, and if it includes dancers, if it includes too much video, then they’re cheating. They know that we know that and the audiences know that,” Townshend added.
The belief that there are only five authentic rockstars in the history of music is debatable, to say the least, although every artist on his list is unquestionably their own artist and have authenticity running in their veins.