Is Music Still True?
Authenticity is a major issue in popular music, and it also seems to verify the differences between ‘rock’ and ‘pop’. To musicians, rock is the genre that has authenticity and is most trusted, while the pop genre tends to be more of a commercialized type of music, which most musicians today believe that the ‘pop’ music is about the glamour and the money. In the end it comes down to the listener’s point of view. In this argument, authenticity is understood as ‘true to its origins’.
Some say that with the new technology today, it’s hard to make anything sound authentic. In some cases, for example Jack White from such bands as The White Stripes, The Raconteurs, and The dead Weather, have stayed away from technology when it comes to the recording end. White also attempts to capture authenticity by using old instruments, to capture the essence of the old time sound. Like White, other artists as well find that the new technology today takes the ‘soul’ out of the music, as well as go far enough to use authentic old style instruments.
Although some believe that you can use technology today to give it even more of a rich authentic sound. Most people believe that ‘soul’ is the key component to authenticity, while some believe that it is about reenacting the innovators of the past. Some believe that songs or artist’s can still have authentic meaning.
One artist’s that has dealt with issues of authenticity was 60’s folk star Bob Dylan. Dylan’s first electric album rainy day woman had a enormous impact on his fans. The fans were enraged at his desertion from the authentic folk roots that he was so well known for. He received some credit with the fact that his lyrics and song topics were still awarded as authentic. Dylan’s song were known to make a strong stand toward politics, and had simple lyrics but had complex understanding. Then there are artists like John Mayer, who keep to the authenticity on every level, but seems to add his own modern twist. Mayer is a well known blues guitarist who keeps to his ‘bluesy’ guitar riffs, but with a sound of a distorted guitar. Mayer at times has also been subjected to the ‘pop’ commercial genre, with his higher pitched voice and for his criticized lyrics. Artists like these prove that authenticity in music, does not mean that it has to be exactly like the origins it came from.
Certain authors have pondered that this distinction may be misleading, but even so, have divided authenticity into several categories (Moore, 2002): first person authenticity, where original music is performed in a manner that makes the audience believe the music is authentic: that is, authentically created, and performed; and third person authenticity, where a performer of music succeeds in conveying the impression of having accurately conveyed the expression of an – absent – other (Moore, 2002).
Authenticity is assumed, by many authors, to be inscribed to a musician or performer, yet this assumption is wholly wrong, in that authenticity is actually ascribed to musicians and performers. Authenticity, as a value, is something that must be constructed by each and every listener personally, according to their own response to the music in question. It is only after the listener sees the performance of the music by the musician, that they can begin to understand the musician’s relationship to the piece, and their interpretation of the piece, and only then can the musician be said to have any authenticity. The following is based on this view of authenticity as an ascribed value.
Eric Clapton and his music are used as an example by many authors on the subject of authenticity in music, and these discussions invariably fall into Moore’s (2002) second category of authenticity: third-person authenticity. Eric Clapton, a highly able and respected musician, gained a huge worldwide following in the 1960’s for his interpretations and performances, solo and with his band, Cream. I say ‘interpretation’ as many of the songs that Clapton, and Cream performed, such as Crossroads, were not original songs, and were re-worked by Clapton. Crossroads was a song originally written and performed by the country blues star Robert Johnson (Moore, 2002). Johnson led a tragic life, dying early in mysterious circumstances, and living his life as a poor man, with only his guitar for comfort, on which he composed blues music, through which he explored his own life through distorting the sound of the instrument to provide an analogue for his own tortured soul (Moore, 2002).
It is argued that, to a certain extent, when Clapton performed Crossroads, he did not authenticate Johnson’s music by reinforcement, rather his interpretation of Johnson’s song authenticated Clapton’s own musical presence (Moore, 2002). It was the appropriation of the ‘black’ blues tradition, of which Johnson was a part, which gave Clapton the material through which he constructed himself as an authentic performer (Moore, 2002). Clapton’s appropriation of the ‘black’ blues tradition was then cemented by his full discovery of this tradition, from BB King to Freddie and Albert King, from country blues through to Robert Johnson (Moore, 2002).
This tracing of the origins of a practice back to the originator of the practice thus reinforces the tradition to the tracer: this phenomenon, and is well known in discussions of authenticity in popular music (Moore, 2002); this process is also necessarily circular, as Clapton was authenticated via his appropriation of Johnson, who was then authenticated by his appropriation by an artist he himself had a great deal of respect for (Moore, 2002), since only music that is worth acquiring will be appropriated. As Moore (2002) argues, Clapton conveyed the message ‘this is what it is like to be me’ to his audience, using the message ‘this is what it was like to be Johnson’. Thus, authenticity of execution (Moore, 2002) arises when a performer succeeds in conveying the impression of accurately conveying the expression of an absent other (Moore, 2002), and Clapton is a particularly apt example of this third-person authenticity.
Thus, during his performances of particular songs (for example, Crossroads) Clapton speaks the truth of his own situation, as during his performances, he can only convey his own particular expression of a particular song openly, honestly and therefore, truthfully.
As to whether Clapton manages to convey the truth of the situation of absent others, this is a difficult one to answer. In order for an audience to believe that Clapton is conveying the truth of an absent other, the audience needs to know that Clapton has respect for that absent other, enough respect to have made a thorough study of the tradition to which that musician belonged, a study which allows Clapton’s interpretation of that particular piece of music to be authentic in the sense of being true to its origins.
As to whether Clapton speaks the truth of his own culture and thereby represents present others when performing the music of absent others, this is an even more difficult point of discussion. This point needs to rely on a meaning for the word ‘culture’ in order to fully answer this question, and this is difficult. Can Clapton, a white man, from a white culture, ever delve deeply enough in to a tradition to be able to authentically convey music from an entirely different (‘black’) culture? Cultural purists would argue not, but in today’s multicultural society, the answer to this question is increasingly (and increasingly believably) likely to be yes, at least for white audiences, and for ‘blacks’ who agree with the idea, and principles, of cross-cultural artistic expression.
However, it has to be recognized that there are certain tensions and resistance encountered in the process of cross-cultural appropriation of music, particularly in this case, as it concerns the black community, who see their musical heritage as something pure, a badge of identity entirely their own. This is entirely understandable, particularly in reference to appropriation of the blues tradition by whites, as blues is a black music, which arose out of unspeakable suppression and hardship at the hands of the white man. Tensions that arise from within the black community at the (mis)use of the blues tradition by whites should therefore be listened to, and could also be used as a lesson to learn from.
A recent book by Todd Gitlin (2001) argues that we, as a society, are becoming so overwhelmed with information from the media, in so many varieties of the media, that we are becoming immune to its lure, and are even beginning to shy away from this media onslaught. It seems that one way people can avoid this media onslaught is to search out authentic performances from authentic musicians, as this would guarantee quality and purity of enjoyment.
Authenticity of an artist’s like Clapton, really come down to the listeners and their opinion on whether or not the artist’s is authentic. Music has always been about the listeners, so they are the only ones who can really decide what is authentic. Most fans will say the authentic ones are the ones who ‘keep it real’, which is just another way of saying keeping it true to the original genre. Which makes Authenticity in music a very long ongoing topic. There will always be those who say ‘he is to commercial for me’ and those who will think that that artists perfected and recreated a new side of the authentic origin.
Artists, like Clapton, who appropriate music from other cultures, and who – we can argue – do this in a compassionate manner, are perhaps the guiding lights for many of today’s media-overwhelmed generation; they serve, for many, as a good introduction to the traditions from which such music is drawn, from which point the interested can do their own research and discover the authentic music from which such adaptations are developed. Cross-cultural musical evolution can only be a process for good in terms of the development of music, as long as authenticity and the ‘donor’ culture are respected.