Saturday, April 28, 2007

Authenticity and Pop Music

The question of authenticity in popular music is a gnarly one. What's more real: Bon Jovi or Skid Row? Skid Row or Mötley Crüe? Mötley Crüe or Metallica? Metallica or Megadeth?

When I was in high school I asked myself those questions, opting to advertise my choices of the last two bands in black t-shirts and keep my Skid Row and Mötley Crüe to myself. Bon Jovi was too wimpy to bother with.

Add the element of race to the question and it gets gnarlier still. No white hip hop fan can ever feel quite as authentic as any black fan. Suburban white kids may argue about how race is a state of mind to justify and increase the legitimacy of their fandom. What they are trying to say is that race is cultural, and they may be right, but unless their peers are mostly black and their home is in the city, they share none of the culture promoted by their hip hop heroes. They have to manufacture it.

And in a way, that's what all fans are doing -- manufacturing culture. Punk rock was one of the most nakedly manufactured subcultures we've ever had. Was it any more or less authentic than hip hop in or out of suburbia?

What qualifies anything as authentic?

Last weekend I saw Kevin Spacey, Colm Meaney, and Eve Best in Eugene O'Neill's Moon for the Misbegotten. All three actors were superb, especially Ms. Best, but what moved me most was to see Best crying when she came out for a bow. She so obviously believed in what she was doing, believed her part so completely that the tears were real. She wasn't faking it. That's authentic.

The question came up among a couple of my friends when I e-mailed them a review of Faking It: the quest for authenticity in popular music by Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor in The New Statesman.

The title of the book, the review tells us, comes from a suicide note that Kurt Cobain wrote. By the time Cobain did himself in, I had relegated him to a has-been category of musicians whose public persona and self-indulgences eclipsed their music. Like Madonna or Michael Jackson.

So what can that big phony tell us about authenticity? The first chapter of the book discusses Kurt Cobain and Leadbelly, the blues legend. Reviewer Jeff Sharlet describes it:
Cobain's companion is Leadbelly, a favourite of folk aficionados who to this day perceive him as a giant of "black music", even though the vast majority of his fans were white. (When white producers brought Leadbelly to New York City in 1935 to play "traditional" music, Life magazine declared in a headline: "Bad Nigger Makes Good Minstrel".) Cobain's swan song, performed on MTV's Unplugged a few months before his suicide, was a cover of Leadbelly's "Where Did You Sleep Last Night", about a woman who wanders into the woods after her husband is hit by a train. Cobain, so deep into the authenticity trap by then that he'd never escape, seemed to be making one last attempt not to "fake it", by reviving a song by his "favourite performer", and exiting the stage without an encore.
It would be inauthentic for a presumably rich white musician to sing soulfully -- as if he'd had a hard life -- a song written by a black man whose life presumably was hard, a song about tragedy. But Leadbelly himself wasn't what he seemed. His white manager had him perform in prison clothes to make him look more ... authentic. Was he playing real "black" music, or was his music what his white manager thought white people would think sounded like "black" music?

When I e-mailed the article to my friend K, he questioned the very idea of criticizing pop music:
I like criticism, but I think it has little business framing low culture as something fixed and serious. Low culture is about simple pleasure, not engaging our highest faculties for mechanical introspection. Low culture can be quite introspective, but it is personal and attached instead of impersonal and detached.
Good point. Where is the listener in all of this talk of authenticity? When I'm moved by a song, what does it matter what the musician was thinking? Or where he or she came from?

I've found myself (inexplicably) moved by songs from artists as diverse as Ozzy Osbourne, Cyndi Lauper (why does "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" sound so sad to me?), the Rolling Stones, 60s pop princess Linda Scott, jazz legend Ornette Coleman, and the Norwegian electronic/folk singer Erlend Øye.

A search for meaning that doesn't take the artist into account has more weight in a world with fewer and fewer live performances. When the gulf between musician and audience is as huge as it seems to be today, it's easier to say the author's dead.

But don't we get something more out of learning about an artist's development? K thinks so:
Articles about the inspiration for music are my favorite music writing. I love hearing how much Catholicism has influenced James Mercer of The Shins. Tom Morrello of Rage Against the Machine has a Kenyan father, who owns a tea plantation. Duncan Shiek is a prep school kid. These facts about their lives let me make inferences about the art. It seems more fitting and more personal. Assessing authenticity is much easier when the artist's style correlates well with their history. Mercer's contemplative style fits the expanse of Catholicism. Morrello's elite father is the epitome of what Rage railed against.

Shiek's music is overly folksy and I bet it's a response to his stuffy prep school. You can't fix the flux of low culture. I hate when critics even try. Their rule is too straight and only their mass of previous work can give them authority. I'd rather hear it from the horses mouth.
Inauthentic would be if the musicians told us what we wanted to hear in an interview. If the musician didn't believe what he or she was saying. If the musicians weren't genuinely moved by their own music.

My other friend, I'll call him A, didn't like the review. The premise seemed pointless to him:
I think anyone chasing (or claiming to chase) (big-A) Authenticity as a record collector, critical listener, reviewer, etc. is after something that never existed in the first place. I thought the article was headed that direction with "great popular music is always a collage of cultures" but it was a dead-end. There are many ways to judge music, but this is not one of them.
That quote he refers to is the part of the review that I thought made the most sense, too:
The strongest argument of Faking It is for the endless "miscegenation" of music. Great popular music is always a collage of cultures, while the quest for authenticity all too often functions as a means of policing racial boundaries.
Or of collecting money from plagiarism suits.

To be fair, none of the three of us have read this book. We're all reacting to an article about the book. But isn't that just like pop music's development? Leadbelly plays a song he learned from black musicians who learned from white musicians who were imitating something they heard once from a black musician who would have played differently if he only had a better guitar. And then Kurt Cobain thinks he's playing something purely, authentically real decades later -- something more real than he could come up with on his own. In fact, he chose this song by this musician to cover because he thought it might lend him a little authenticity.

None of this is real. My friend A says it's safest to assume all rock stars are motivated by trying to earn a buck and impress the opposite sex. He wrote:
Why does anyone do anything at all? The whole world is fake...

It's not fake or inauthentic, it's self-interest. And it can be a powerful motivator to produce great art.
The only real thing we can each rely upon is what we feel when we hear the music. Even if it changes all the time.

If that sounds too wish-washy, try this:

1. Spending too much time criticizing ephemeral pop music is missing the point of pop music.
2. Looking too long for authenticity in popular music, a theatrical enterprise full of posturing and costumes, is silly.
3. All art inherits something from its predecessors.
4. There's no accounting, as they say, for taste. While I may hear something deeply sad and true in Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun," A and K may dismiss it as pap.
5. To elaborate on the point above, as much as any artist brings to a song, both in its conception and performance, we as listeners bring our own set of experiences and preferences and predilections when we hear that song.
6. Any time we can learn about the artist and his or her artistic process, we add another layer to our experience of the art.
7. Even the phoniest artist can move us if his or her art is well-crafted.

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