Authenticity

When I was younger I was obsessed with authenticity in music. I wouldn’t even play electric guitar because it felt too easy, like cheating somehow. I expended a lot of energy and attention trying to figure out what is and isn’t authentic. Now, at the age of 34, I’ve officially given up. I doubt there’s even such a thing as authenticity in music, at least not in America. There’s just stuff that I enjoy hearing, and stuff I don’t. But the concept of authenticity meant a lot to me for a long time, and it continues to mean a lot to many of the musicians and music fans I know. So what is it, and why do people care about it?

At various points in my quest, I thought I had identified some truly authentic musical forms and styles. Here they are, more or less in order of my embracing them.

Sixties Motown

When I was growing up, my mom and stepfather had the Big Chill soundtrack in heavy rotation. You could equate authenticity with soul, and there’s plenty of soul here.

In the eighties, my parents’ friends liked to praise the classic Marvin Gaye and Aretha Franklin recordings on this soundtrack as “pure,” by contrast to the music of the then-present: hip-hop, synth-heavy pop, Michael Jackson. I dutifully accepted this formulation, even though my ears told me to like the eighties stuff as much as the sixties stuff. I can’t argue with the musical qualities of the Big Chill tracks. The singing is full of emotional truth-telling. That said, the arrangements sound cynical and commercial to my ears now. All those strings weren’t exactly sticking it sonically to the man. The slickness of Motown drove me to eventually seek out…

Delta blues

Raw, intense, minimalist, tied to a specific time and place: this is as good a definition of musical authenticity as you could ask for. The fact that it’s being made by oppressed people is even better. I embody the cliched story of the white hipster going back through the Stones and Zeppelin and hearing all the music they were inspired by/stole from.

The blues is a powerful and truth-telling musical form. But my desire to participate in it quickly became a problem. Blues might have been authentic for Howlin’ Wolf, but for me, it’s an awkward fit. It’s not for lack of trying; I play the best white blues harmonica of anyone I know. The phrasing and microtones and general attitude have shaped my approach to every other style of music I’ve attempted. But if I was going to tell my own truth in music, I needed to find something socially a little closer to home. Jerry Garcia helpfully steered me towards…

Bluegrass

As the fans like to say, bluegrass is sung from the heart through the nose. It has all the earmarks of regional authenticity, including an apparent lack of concern with finding a wide audience.

As with blues, I ran up against some immediate cultural tourism issues when I started exploring this music. It’s easy for a New Yorker like me to condescend unintentionally, treating bluegrass as “pure” because its practitioners are supposedly unsophisticated hicks, and therefore “unspoiled.” The true story is more complicated. The bluegrass guys might be rural, but they most assuredly are not dumb. Bill Monroe conceived bluegrass partially on a commercial basis, choosing repertoire and instruments that appealed to the audiences of his time and place. Also, bluegrass requires a lot of technical skill, especially for the lead instruments like banjo and fiddle. It’s not a good genre for the casual dabbler. Besides, by the time I dug into this music I was also starting to get interested in…

Monk and Coltrane

One way to define authenticity is through exclusivity. Bluegrass excludes casual dabblers with its technical demands. But bluegrass isn’t remotely as demanding as bebop. This is part of the reason why bebop is as untainted by commercial success as any snobby hipster could wish. Hard jazz is consistently the worst-selling genre in America, year in and year out.

Monk and Coltrane don’t fit into the bebop box exactly, even though they helped define its sound. They’re good avatars of purity because of the extreme individualism of their respective sounds. Any three-second sample of either of them is instantly recognizable. Monk isn’t as impenetrable as his reputation would suggest — several of his tunes have melodies a normal person could whistle. Coltrane wrote some nicely approachable tunes too, but he gets extra authenticity points for spending his last few years playing harshly avant-garde experimental music.

I’d recommend that any musician tackle bebop if they want a rigorous education in American music generally. It’s all in there: the blues, the showtunes, the highbrow and the lowbrow, all the chords and scales and rhythms and textures our culture has to offer, at least up until the advent of electronic music. But much as I love it, bebop never really felt like home to me. I’ll continue to study Monk and Trane and their cohorts, and will continue to enjoy and be inspired by them, but if I want to express my experience in the present reality, they don’t have all the answers I need.

Klezmer

Okay, so if urban black or rural white music is an awkward fit for a New York Jew, how about the music of the tribe? Klezmer is culturally close to home for me. It straddles the shtetl and the big city, the old country and the new one, ancient folk forms and American pop.

Klezmer sometimes gets called “Jewish jazz” but a better comparison is to country. There’s the oompah-derived boom-chick beat, the harmonic minimalism, the melodic improvisation, and the emphasis on rawness and feeling over technical complexity. The scales are different — you don’t get a lot of Ahava Raba scale in country. But the comparison is close otherwise. Discovering this music was a key puzzle piece for me; I use those Arabic scales any chance I get. Klezmer’s mutt-like fusion of disparate styles is a truer statement of myself than anything that could be described as pure. Unfortunately, klezmer isn’t a great way to connect with other people aside from other NYC hipsters with Jewish ancestry, so it was never going to be my ultimate destination. But I’m glad to have gotten acquainted.

The impenetrable avant-garde

You could define authenticity as an uncompromising commitment to inner truth, the desire to please others be damned. There’s something noble and admirable in this commitment. The problem is that the furthest reaches of inner space don’t usually produce music that other people can connect to. I never enjoyed extremely experimental music, but the academic world and critical establishment hold it in high regard. As an educated highbrow type, I felt like I had to dutifully subject myself to a lot of avant-garde experiments in an effort to purge myself of my weak-minded desire for music to be fun. I guess I learned a few things about the limits of human tolerance, but mostly I learned that I really do just want to have fun. Here’s a hilarious quote from “Can Machine-Made Music Sing Without a Composer?” in New York Magazine:

[O]n February 5, the Fireworks Ensemble will perform a live version of Lou Reed’s notorious 1975 album Metal Machine Music, at Miller Theatre. Listening to Reed’s original double LP is a test of endurance. In his garment-district loft, he leaned various electric guitars against their amps so that they howled at each other in crescendoing feedback loops, and welded the tracks into deafening industrial polyphony. The result was one of the most loathed records ever to hit the market. Nevertheless, the intrepid composer Ulrich Krieger decided to arrange it for traditional instruments, an undertaking that smacks of flagellant zeal.

I like the word “flagellant.” We just can’t shake our puritan roots, can we? There’s a lingering notion that painful music has the deepest purity. I’m grateful to have rid myself of this silly idea. Deliberately annoying music seems to me now to just be another form of class competition, its flamboyant uselessness a bigger statement of materialist affectation than any crassly commercial pop.

Fake is the new real

So where has the authenticity quest ultimately led me? As a kid I loved Michael Jackson and Run-DMC to pieces, but as I got a “music education,” I felt morally obligated to reject their music for their sinful use of drum machines, synthesizers and borrowing other people’s ideas. Most especially, I felt I had to reject them for their emphasis on pleasing people above all other musical concerns. Now pleasing people seems to me to be the only good reason to make music. If “fake” and accessible sounds like synths and drum machines put bodies on the dance floor, then fake is better than real.

I’ve had an instinctive attraction to electronic music dating back to loving science fiction sound effects and scores as a kid. But my peers and educators pressured me to be suspicious and hostile towards high-tech, pop-friendly musicians like Herbie Hancock. Herbie’s acoustic piano work is acceptable to the guardians of the jazz canon, but controversy continues to roil over his embrace of the synthesizer, sequencer and the sounds on the radio.

I’m glad to have withdrawn from the battle over purity. Not everything you hear in clubs or parties is terrific, but rejecting it wholesale was getting me nowhere. Giving myself permission to enjoy pop-jazz fusion, Herbie’s seventies and eighties future sounds, hip-hop and dance music has opened up huge new continents of sonic enjoyment to me. Authenticity is about truth-telling. For a high-tech city dweller, loop-based electronic sounds are more truthful to my experience than banjos and mandolins. I’ve whole-heartedly embraced the whole bag of technological tricks: Auto-Tune, lip-synching, whatever you’ve got.

Musical authenticity is in the emotional content, not the tools used to make it. Many musicians of my acquaintance fetishize vintage gear. There’s the hope that if you play the same harmonica as Little Walter Jacobs through the same mic and the same amp, maybe some of that Little Walter Jacobs magic will rub off on you. No doubt, quality gear sounds good in the right hands. But the hands are more important than the gear. Good tools can make it easier to realize an idea, and can even spark ideas. But a lame, unpracticed or anxious harmonica player will sound lame, unpracticed or anxious no matter what. And there’s nothing inherently soulful or un-soulful about any instrument. Drum machines only sound inauthentic when they emulate human drummers. Drum machines are perfectly authentic when used for their uniquely posthuman quality. It all depends on the musician. Like Herbie Hancock says, the machine doesn’t program itself.

As of this moment, my favorite song is “Empire State Of Mind” by Jay-Z and Alicia Keys.

Is it authentic? Not really. It panders to me on many levels, as a hip-hop head, an R&B fan and a patriotic New Yorker. But Jay and Alicia pander so well, the beat is so tight, the chord progression and melody are so energizing, who cares?

The concern over purity is really about exclusivity. A mutt like me is is no position to be excluding anyone. But then, no one really is in a position to be excluding anyone. The shocking truth of biological evolution is that if you go back far enough, we’re all cousins with each other, and if you go back further, we’re cousins with bats, bananas, and bacteria. I believe strongly that the rules of evolution apply to music too. Our music all descends from the same monkey calls, so who’s in a position to be disputing the musical methods of anyone else? You don’t have to like everything, but disliking something is no reason to call its basic validity into question.

7 thoughts on “Authenticity

  1. I think it’s interesting that you include the impenetrable avant-garde among these other examples of “authenticity.” At first it seems to have little in common with the other examples (which I might also mention tend to come from disenfranchised minority communities – with perhaps the exception of Jay-Z and Alicia Keys who are more complicated). But, I think you’re absolutely right that there is a type of authenticity-making going on with experimental music as well – it just works differently from your other examples. “Purity” doesn’t necessarily mean “authenticity.”

    When I saw that you were working on this post on twitter, I was almost inspired to write a post myself about the “axioms of a rigorous relativist,” or something like that. The first one, borrowed from Anthropology, would be something like “nothing is inherently authentic” (or its brother: “natural”). People do conceive of certain things as more authentic than others. The interesting thing to do about that is to look at how certain things come to be considered “authentic” (perhaps something to do with the disenfranchisement I mentioned above), not to try and figure out what practices are and are not “really” authentic.

    The unwieldiness of that paragraph shows why I didn’t actually write that blog post…

  2. Your comment prompted me to go back and clarify some of my language about the avant-garde. You’re right that it’s an oversimplification to equate purity and authenticity, though the overlap is broad enough that it works in a lot of circumstances. Imagine a bluegrass band with a keyboardist playing sampled upright bass via MIDI. That would seem inauthentic, even if it sounded the same, because the MIDI keyboard doesn’t “belong” to the world of bluegrass, it would dilute the purity and thus the authenticity. One of my guitar students told me how disappointed he was to find out the Gillian Welch grew up in LA and went to performing arts high school, it makes her music seem less authentic because she’s not from a hardscrabble Appalachian mining town.

    I think you should totally write your blog post! The rigorous relativist position is one that I strive to maintain, and I’d like to see your gloss on it. The relationship of disenfranchisement and authenticity is an especially vexed one, I’m reluctant to even touch it. Like, why do we want rappers to have the most miserable upbringings possible? What does that do for our ability to trust their music? Chuck D is from a middle-class suburb; does that make “Fight The Power” less credible? Why does he have so much street cred while the similarly suburban Kanye West has none whatsoever? Seems like a rich vein of inquiry.

  3. This is such a rich topic for discussion — I have just a couple of quick thoughts. A big part of authenticity (and I think, btw, that this applies easily to any art form) is that we seek a connection to an individual in our music. The more a piece of music seems to reflect the persona of an artist, the more compelling it is. That’s why Jay-Z’s blatant commercialism is so much more appealing than your average flavor-of-the-day major label rapper. Jay’s whole schtick is right there on the surface — lovable and honest, eager to please – to sell; Lyndon Johnson to Nas’s Kennedy; Biden to Obama. Actually, it’s interesting how well these things work well in pairs, isn’t it? Miles’s eagerness to please worked well for the decades when it was paired with intellectual, iconoclastic collaborators: Gil Evans, Trane, Wayne & Tony.

    The inauthentic is often that which is perceived to be mediated by committee or overcalculation. It isn’t commercialism per se — cuz we like Jay-Z — but a barrier between the audience and the artist that mutes the individualism of the artist. A rock band with slick production, Leno vs. Conan. Even the worst Star Wars prequel is at least interesting as George Lucas’s personal failure, as opposed to your average studio blockbuster, written by an endless series of screenwriters. Sorkin penning “The West Wing” vs. whoever the fuck wrote “Commander-In-Chief.”

    We want to see an artist through their art. Form a connection with an exciting mind. Fall in love. Whatever. We seek art that has specificity. That might be a more accurate lens than “authenticity.” Or at least that’s what I am looking for.

    In this model, “authenticity” is the set of tropes by which we make rough guesses about specificity in the big cultural marketplace. It’s not that we need our rappers to have the crappiest life possible to be authentic. It’s that we assume, based on our stereotypes about creativity, that with so many things to worry about other than the esoteric pursuit of artistic expression, any musician coming from the ghetto must make music because they HAVE to. Their art is a burning passion within their souls. Bonus points for introspective lyrics or for a Black Man Expressing His Feelings. Boom! Instant connection, instant specificity.

    This is what ties the personal narrative of a blues singer to the unlistenable harangue of an avant-garde composer — the sense, in both cases, that we are hearing the work of an individual. That no one else could tell that story or would be interested in making something so non-commercial. (It’s non-commerciality is a signifier for a specific and personal motive. Bad avant-garde art is that which is revealed to be an affectation, and therefore inherently non-personal.)

    It is also interesting to note how different genres handle “inauthenticity” and what connotes it. Overproduction in rock, a middle-class upbringing in hip-hop. Show tunes? No idea. Classical music, because it is based on music by an individual composer, is mostly free from charges of inauthenticity. At worst you are a panderer, a copycat/follower or affected. But, as with Jazz, those who are nakedly commercial are simply pushed out of the genre: few classical lover would consider Andrea Bocelli “real” classical music, as jazzers simply think of Kenny G and Fourplay as “not actual jazz.” Those that stray into the nakedly commercial are regarded with suspicion if they return to the fold and ideally must go through a ritualistic purging (Branford’s unimpeachable piano-less, post-Tonight Show quartet, etc.) or at least maintain obvious balance between the commercial and the artistic (Leonard Bernstein’s whole career).

    That’s sort of the place that I am in with my music right now, except that feel (as I assume Bernstein felt, actually) completely non-conflicted about it. I write these thorny pieces of weird left-field jazz and then write jazz versions of Jay-Z tunes. I know that there is an audience for arrangements of Yeah Yeah Yeahs songs — as far as any jazz goes, this will probably be the more popular music that I am doing. But I am simply writing these arrangements because I love doing it, and I love the music. So hopefully there will be nothing inauthentic about it.

    Anyway, just a couple of thoughts. Curious to hear what you think.

  4. I think you’re right on about the desire to connect to an individual. It’s hard to know when that’s happening in music. So much of it is mediated through cultural traditions, fashions and fads, commercial pressures, technical and financial limitations, the collaborative nature of the process, especially in recording. Plus a lot of musicians are deliberately obfuscating their innermost selves. No wonder, then, that any musician who makes it a point to be willfully self-revealing and emotionally intimate will attract legions of devoted, obsessive fans. I’ve never been a big Tori Amos person, but I can easily understand why people love her so much – that confessional mode is easy to connect to.

    I think, too, that you’re right on that Jay-Z has managed the neat trick of turning capitalism into a personal statement. “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man.” That’s a trait that I like in a lot of hip-hop artists, it makes them so much more credible to me than the vagueness and indirectness of so many rock songwriters.

    You’re the only person I can think of who would describe Miles Davis as “eager to please.” I guess compared to Coltrane… :-)

    As for equating inauthenticity with art-by-committee, I think that’s mostly true, but it’s possible for individual creators to be just as slickly fake when they put their mind to it. I guess that’s the result of bringing the committee inside one’s head. A friend of mine who’s a film studies guy explained to me once that Michael Bay’s movies are all intensely personal, auteur-driven projects, he just has personal tastes that map onto the commercial mainstream’s very tightly.

    Specificity is a pretty good synonym for authenticity. It gets at the attractive regionalness of the blues and bluegrass people. Show tunes are intrinsically inauthentic, I don’t think that even approaches being a concern for the theater crowd. There the concern is with bigness of emotion, however it’s achieved.

  5. So funny that you should mention Michael Bay — I was gonna use him as the example of the Hollywood machine and then I realized that, as your friend points out, his movies are very personal. He just has rancid garbage inside of him.

    Miles WAS eager to please throughout his whole career. That’s not the same thing as saying he didn’t have integrity — he had lots — or that he pandered. He wanted, I guess, to do a couple of things: to be out in front, artistically. To be the trendsetter. To express himself artistically, and to sell a lot of records and make a lot of money. For an amazingly long time he achieved those goals. And because of the nature of his art form the result was music that had incredible integrity, emotionality and intellectual heft. And then, not because he changed but because the culture changed around him, the pull to be “out in front” began to conflict with the musical cohesiveness. And then the drugs really fucked up his integrity in a way that hadn’t happened before. (Not because he chose to play material that I don’t like, but because for the first time in his life he played badly, and surrounded himself with subpar musicians.)

    By contrast, his “giants of post-Parker jazz” contemporaries — Monk, Trane, Mingus — were remarkably uninterested in the desires of their audiences. It is a spectacular accident of serendipity that their audiences were ready and willing to follow them on their respective journeys for a little while. But if you think about it, Miles is much closer in spirit to his mentors. Bird and Diz, who bridged the not only the stylistic gap between dance band stuff and Hard Bop, but also the commercial gap. These guys came up in an era when Jazz was popular music, and THEIR mentors were entertainers, first and foremost. For all their crazy harmonic innovations, Bird and Diz, Milt Jackson, Dexter Gordon and most of those slightly older cats never retreated into the citadel of High Art the way their idolaters did. And I think Miles was the perfect bridging figure between those moments in jazz. As he grew from Miles Davis into the legendary persona “Miles Davis” he managed the neat trick of being the guy who famously, literally turned his back to audiences, while more importantly being the guy who was always careful to make music that audiences wanted to hear. He was Cool. And he sold a lot of records.

  6. Maybe it’s that in order to form a specific connection, art requires idiosyncrasy. And by their very nature it is hard to predict which idiosyncrasies will endear you to an audience (Jon Stewart) and which will turn them off (Carrot Top). So one is left to either simply be themselves, or to spend a lot of energy trying to guess what people want to see and hear. Either approach can produce hits or leave people cold. But if you do the former, people will think that you suck but at least you have a soul.

  7. “Musical authenticity is in the emotional content, not the tools used to make it. ” I think this is very well stated.
    ———
    Here’s a little story from my life: When I was a student at NYU I started playing with and hanging out with a true virtuoso of the piano. He was a powerful person in many ways and I respected him a lot. We got ourselves into a lot of interesting situations. He was a vietnam vet and a truck driver by trade. He would alternate between a few years in the truck living by himself and saving up money so he could play piano for a few years doing what he loved.

    We were close friends for about a year when he laid this on me: “You’re a fine trumpet player but you sound like a student.”
    “Ouch,” I said. “What the hell?”
    “Well, think about it . . . ” he continued, “You go to school every day. You practice what they tell you. You’re a good student, even. You’re getting good grades. You eat the student food. Your peers are other students. The only reason you are living where your living is its proximity to the school. You try to please your teachers. You are what you are and that’s how you sound.”
    “Ok. Sure. But what do I do about that.”
    “Definitely finish school. The credibility will do you some good. But then put your horn down for a few years and live life to the highest of your principles. When you pick it up again you’ll sound like Jesse.”
    It took me a few years after I graduated to actually take his advice but eventually I did. I wound up being a full time volunteer for a youth shelter. I was working 50-60 hours a week counseling homeless teenagers at Covenant house and living in a dormitory for like minded volunteers. It was intense. I put my horn on the wall in my little room and said to myself that I would only touch it if another human actually asked me to play. Ironically, I wound up having more paid gigs that year than ever. Some friends started to give a few times a month and they kept asking me to play trumpet with them. But those 20 gigs or so were the ONLY times I played. I never practiced. Not once. And this is coming from a guy who was practicing 4-7 hours a day before that!
    When I finished that 13 month chapter of my life I moved up state without a car and lived on some widows farm house property and just stayed alone and tried to digest all the musical, physical and spiritual stuff that I had been exposed too for the first whole portion of my life. I was about 26 at the time. When I came back to the city 10 months later I sounded like Jesse.
    But that ain’t even what I’m trying to say . . . then it took the courage of my convictions to put all other things aside and risk just being Jesse!! Now we get to the heart of the biscuit. I’m an entertainer. I exist to connect with other people and make them joyous. It’s not about purity. It’s not about pandering. It’s about giving giving giving and staying connected the whole time. To me that’s authentic. But that’s just to me.
    I think, authentic means only being true to yourself. If I’m being true to myself (connecting, engaging, giving, creating a joyous rapport) then I can play any genre. The genres I choose are the ones where this is the easiest and most fun. As simple as that. Authentic is personal. Find out who you are. That’s a lot of work right there. Decide that that is all you need to be. And then be that!

Leave a Reply