Musical Authenticity

Billie Holiday vs. Bing Crosby

Hank Williams vs. Garth Brooks

James Brown vs. Prince

I’ve been spending a lot of time in the last few months thinking about musical authenticity (mostly in order to pass one of the classes in my master’s program). This topic has come up here at the Roadhouse before (1|2|3), but this is the first time I’ve done any real heavy lifting on the topic. So here, in very un-academicy format, are some of my thoughts on musical authenticity.

1 – Romanticism
Most people use the “Authentic” as a stand-in for the romantic notion that art should be unfiltered and un-crafted. Sophistication is the antithesis of authenticity. Niel Young is authentic because he gets falling-down drunk and then records songs on the first take without rehearsing the band. Never mind that the result sucks, it’s authentic. The idea of muse, inspiration, artist-as-bystander, these are the notions that get bound up in the term “authentic”.

2 – Historicity
Authentic is also a function of historical proximity to the musical nexus, when something changed into something new. When field songs became the blues, the first generation of artists were “authentic” by virtue of being close to the source. The Sex Pistols are more authentic than Green Day because they were part of the pivot. In some sense, anyone who tries to stand in an existing stream of music suffers comparison to how it was done by the first ones who did it, and even the flaws and cracks in how the first generation did it become codified as essential to the “authentic” sound.

3 – Pills and Powders
If you have liver damage, you are more authentic.

4 – Africa
This is a particularly American phenomenon, but authenticity in American music is often used as a way of quantifying the amount of “Africanism” in the music. American music emerged out of European and African streams – it’s not African, it’s not European, it’s American, something uniquely new emerging out of the tension and crossing influences of the two. In spite of this historical reality,  the controlling narrative of musical criticism is that White music stole and corrupted Black music. Against this backdrop, “authenticity” is a code phrase for music that is less “corrupted” by white influence, something that is “true to it’s African roots”. This narrative was already in full effect by the time John Lomax made his famous field recordings of the early blues, seeking out music he believed to be “untainted” by white influence (ignoring the fact that anything with a dominant 7th chord is already hopelessly entwined with European harmony). The commercial success of Lead Belly and other earth blues artists with white audiences was specifically because of this perceived authentic preservation of Africanism in their music. This controlling narrative emerged again and again, in the social commentary on Jazz, Be Bop, Motown, Funk, Hip-Hop …

It’s impossible to escape the blatant racism in this assumption, especially in light of point 1. The subtext of Africanism-as-authenticity is the appeal to lack of sophistication, the romantic notion that music emerges unfiltered and un-crafted. Clearly James Brown couldn’t have thought through the complex intricacies of how to form a funk groove – “those people” just have natural rhythm!

So, I’m interested in what you fine folk have to say. Here are a few questions:

  1. Is it possible to be authentic as a 2nd generation artist in a genre?
  2. How important is impact (who it influences, how long it endures) on authenticity?
  3. Does authenticity matter? I know we all get skittish about words like “better” or “important” when we talk about music, but let’s acknowledge for a minute that our experience grants us some expertise, and make a judgment call. When it comes time to load up humanity’s cultural artifacts in the space-ark, will authenticity be part of the criteria for preservation?
  4. Race. Not really a question, but go for it anyway.

I promise, you are not being drafted into my thesis paper homework. I just think this is a discussion worth having.

14 thoughts on “Musical Authenticity

  1. Josiah Mory

    Are you limiting it to just having to do with the authenticity of a “sound,” and removing the artist’s (performer’s) intentions and concept of being “authentic to oneself?”

  2. aly hawkins

    I echo Josiah’s question. I’m unclear about how “authenticity” is being used here. On the rare occasion when I have remarked on an artist’s “authenticity,” it has usually had more to do with the lyrical content and/or the “wholeness” of the lyric with the music.

    But it seems as though you are talking about something different entirely—not having much to do with the lyrics, maybe having more to do with genre, style and/or production?

  3. michael Post author

    Josiah, I think it encompasses both of those things, both the authenticity of the song (recording, etc.) and the authenticity of the performer delivering it.

    Aly, I think the way Chad used it in the first post linked above (me singing the blues) is the way it typically gets used, and the use that I’m reflecting on here.

    As a small illustration, when James Brown let’s out his unholy shreak in the middle of “Super Bad” it’s the result of his authentic artistic sensibility. When Prince does it, it’s an attempt to “do James” – not authentic.

  4. Steve

    I once heard the iconic graphic designer Milton Glaser speak to the difference between creativity, plagiarism, and inspiration, using his most famous work, the I (heart) NY logo, as an example:

    1. Creativity plays close to the nexus, developing the essence of what makes it original – - in this case the simple, bold graphic quadrant of 3 letters plus one universal symbol:
    “I <3NY” [sorry, Milton!]

    2. Plagiarism takes the original thought but does not add anything of its own. It's inauthentic because the plagiarist secretly wishes that you didn’t know the original existed; the existence of the original diminishes the significance of the copy. For example, “I <3 MY (picture of a poodle)”. (By the way, they capture only about a third of the strength of the original, watering down its graphic punch.)

    3. Here’s the important part as it relates to authenticity: Inspiration occurs when you recognize and promote the existence of the original as essential to the understanding of the works that follow it.
    Milton loved the “I (spade) my (picture of a cat), because it relied on the remembrance of the original NY logo, and your remembrance of the ripoffs of that logo, and your tacit acknowledgement of the power of graphics (the playing-card “spade” as a visual pun for “spayed”). It took the original idea to a whole new level.

    Thomas Dolby once remarked to the effect that British musicians were the best in the world at co-opting the essence of other cultures’ music, and reinventing it in their own style. Their authenticity is not from proximity to the nexus, but how they respect and re-interpret the original.

  5. sharolyn

    There is a style of jazz singing called vocalese that I really enjoy in which singers expand on the improvised solos of jazz greats. Some might suggest it is the product of an inauthentic second generation. I feel that it is not. My previous reasons were:
    1) You try it! and
    2) But I like it, therefore it is okay.
    Steve, thankfully you are more articulate than I am. #3 put into words how I feel about vocalese. It keeps the memory alive of the jazz greats, acknowledges their power/influence, and takes their ideas to a whole new level.

  6. sharolyn

    The reason these make good discussion questions is that, for me, there are no yes/no answers. It always depends. As opposed to what I just said about vocalese, here is an example to me of what I think can only be first-generation art.

    “The compositions of these quilts contrast dramatically with the ordered regularity associated with many styles of Euro-American quiltmaking. There’s a brilliant, improvisational range of approaches to composition that is more often associated with the inventiveness and power of the leading 20th-century abstract painters than it is with textile-making,” Alvia Wardlaw, curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Museum of Fine Arts

    Here are some thoughts.
    -Perhaps the artwork is “authentic” because it was created by people with no access to other art, uninfluenced by misfortune (as opposed to Yanni’s choice to listen to no other music than his own)
    -(Here comes race!) It was created by a people who had something to express – an offshoot of the Civil Rights Movement
    -The artists were brought to Gee’s Bend with no choice, the town was named after the white guy
    -The land is enclosed on three sides by the Alabama River, and the ferry suddenly started having problems when it came time to vote. Its citizens didn’t get a working ferry for the next 44 years.

    It is beauty from desolation. It’s the one plant in the movie Wall-E. It’s hard for me to imagine a variation on this art that can be as meaningful if created by the second generation.

  7. aly hawkins

    I’ve been mulling this over for the past few days, but no ideas have completely crystallized. I keep thinking that the difference between art and design is significant (talking here about a song/recording, not a performance), i.e., the creation’s intent. A lot of pop music is designed; it is created solely to sell records, just as Target’s Exclamation! jeans are designed to sell jeans. Great care and sound materials may be involved in its creation (or not), but the music is designed to sell itself.

    There is some music, however, that is created with artistic rather than commercial intent. Commercial success is not precluded, but is somewhat incidental (or is perhaps only one motive among many). Artistic intentions and motivations can vary greatly—in fact, it’s this variety that makes this whole topic still a bit hazy for me.

    Adding to my haziness is the crossover between art and design. Bluh.

  8. michael Post author

    Aly, I think art/commerce is part of the equation, but looking back at the lives and careers of some of the most “authentic” artists in pop music (Lead Belly, Billie Holiday, Hank Williams, Bob Marley) they all made very calculated decisions about repertoire, performance elements, even public biography in order to accentuate their mythology and sell themselves to the public.

    For many of them, the mythology of being unconcerned with commercial success was a calculated more to make themselves more commercially successful. It emphasized that they were capital “a” Artists, in the romantic sense of the word.

    But of course they were also entertainers, with an astute sense of what audiences wanted from them, and what they would pay to listen to.

  9. aly hawkins

    We’re talking past each other a little. Have you been talking about artists who we might consider “authentic” this whole time? I wasn’t on that same wavelength. I’ll think about it from this angle.

  10. michael Post author

    Well, I think it’s both – artists and songs. The authenticity of the songs help define the authenticity of the artists, and often the biography of the artists gives credibility to the music they perform. I don’t think you can disentangle the two.

  11. Mandy

    Is authenticity related to quality? If an artist copies the style of an authentic performer, is the quality of their music necessarily diminished? What if that copy sounds extremely close to the original? Is it still of a lesser quality simply by being inauthentic? Or is it really inauthentic at all if it so closely represents the original?

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