Through a wonderful accident, I am rereading Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music by Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor (which, if you clicked the link, you will discover is an ongoing project via blogs). The book explores the overwrought notion of what it means to be "authentic", "keeping it real" as the hip-hoppers say. In the process they discuss Kurt Cobain, Jimmie Rodgers, Elvis, John Lennon's explorations in primal scream therapy, the tormented soul of John Lydon, and Donna Summer's exploitation and the dismissal of some of her best work because it is associated with disco. It is a wonderful book, full of both insight and delightful trivia (jazz impresario John Hammond was instrumental in "discovering" Bruce Springsteen).
One of the most troubling aspects of this quest for authenticity, and one dealt with in a chapter dealing with Mississippi John Hurt and the cult of the bluesman, is the racism inherent in the notion that there is something more real in certain life stories, certain behavior patterns, as well as the use of musical ideas. This idea is carried over from those whites who adore the blues, R&B, and jazz too often for the wrong reasons (what they hear as the "primitive" "jungle beats" of the complex rhythms of jazz and R&B and its variants, as well as the musical complexity of the blues that extends beyond mere instrumental virtuosity and emotional openness) music critics who too often demand of an artist both an emotional transparency and a lack of musical subtlety as true marks of what it means to be a great rock, soul, R&B, or rap artist. While I admire some of his work, the late Lester Bangs was among the worst offenders when it came to this kind of mindlessness; he actually considered Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music, a contractual obligation record he put out, featuring nearly thirty minutes of unlistenable guitar noise, a piece of musical genius, high art. Reed, as a sometime protege of Andy Warhol, no doubt laughed behind his hand whenever he talked to Bangs.
I must confess, at the same time, that I feel a bit defensive when this entire issue arises. One thing Barker and Taylor do make clear is that "authenticity" in art is something that is an unrealizable goal; by its very nature, all art mediates meaning between the artist and the public addressed by a work of art. John Lee Hooker sitting and stage and chopping the same chord for twenty minutes while he sings about hard times is no less mediatory than is Bach's B-minor Mass; it is a difference in audience and intended affect, rather than any substantive difference between the blues as an art form and sacred music. Furthermore, the reverence for simplicity, it seems to me, whether it be simplicity of harmonic structure, of tone palate, of rhythm, or of lyrical content is often considered goods to be pursued, rather than stages. The Ramones, for example, began as three-chord, two-minute rock-and-rollers, wearing leather jackets a la Fonzie and James Dean, but recorded a great cover of the Brothers Johnson's great psychedelic hit "Time Has Come Today" that is remarkably faithful to the original. John Lydon, while disdaining Pink Floyd at a time when they had become far too bloated and pretentious for their own good, nevertheless loved the dark, brooding songs of the progressive rock band Van Der Graf Generator. Kurt Cobain gave props in various interviews to King Crimson's Red, particularly the grinding guitar work on the title track.
All of this is to say that "authenticity" very often can lead an artist to a place that many critics just don't get. Among my favorite bands are some of those most reviled by rock critics (and I will admit there are times that critical distance is necessary). Yes; Emerson, Lake, and Palmer; King Crimson; Pink Floyd; Dream Theater; The Grateful Dead; Rush; Metallica; Black Sabbath - all of these bands have been heavily criticized (sometimes correctly; no artist, however gifted pulls it off well all the time). The basis of the criticism, to my mind, is based upon the a priori notion that precisely because of the music they create, they do not conform to what it means to be a rock musician or rock band. Yet, is it not possible that John Anderson, Steve Howe, Mike Portnoy, John Petrucci, Tony Iommi, Robert Fripp, Roger Waters, Keith Emerson, Greg Lake, Jerry Garcia, Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, James Hetfield, and Lars Ulrich all create the music they do because that is the music they hear? In what ways are their artistic offerings somehow less worthy of consideration than that of Chuck Berry, Bob Dylan, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Barry Gibb, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, or Neil Young?
I would argue that we are entering a realm where we should not so much leave authenticity behind as a criterion in judging music, but redefine authenticity to include not just a certain transparency, but a dedication to one's muse, even if it doesn't conform to certain canonical modes. Dream Theater produce the music they do because the core members of the band dedicated hours and years of their lives to studying the craft of playing their instruments, and then dedicated more years of their lives to the even more difficult art of writing songs and performing them before an audience. The results are sometimes uneven (I think they have matured as songwriters over the past decade; reaching a peak with Train of Thought and Octavarium), but that hardly matters. As Barker and Taylor point out, one artist most (including myself) would consider one of the great talents of rock, Neil Young, sucked for the entire decade of the 1980's. Similarly, ELP put out one of the most remarkable albums of all time - I would not necessarily call Brain Salad Surgery rock; I think it's unclassifiable, really - and also one of the worst, Love Beach. Yet, John Lennon put out "Imagine", but he also put out "Woman is Nigger to the World". At what point do we stop pretending that John Lennon was no less earnest than Keith Emerson in his desire to be considered a "serious" artist?
My point in all this, while slightly self-justificatory, is simple: I think the entire issue of authenticity is too often drawn far too narrowly to include the entire question of the product a musician creates being an authentic result of hard work, dedication to the crafts of musicianship and song-writing, thus leaving outside whole bodies of work that are too often dismissed out-of-hand as "inauthentic". While Barker and Taylor do the difficult work of making us realize that disco, bubblegum, Europop, and early techno (Kraftwerk) were all legitimate musics that offered something to the tastes public that liked them, the avant garde, art rock, progressive, heavy metal are still outside the boundaries because these are populated by ironists (Brian Eno, David Bowie), trained musicians (Rick Wakeman, Carl Palmer), and working class whites who distort the blues beyond all recognition (Tony Iommi; Black Sabbath, like another later heavy metal band Judas Priest, began life as a blues band). Yet Eno, Bowie, Wakeman, Palmer, and Iommi all have produced exceptional music that received at one time or another a wide hearing by large segments of the music-buying and -listening public. Unlike, say, Sonic Youth or (one of my favorite bands) Fugazi, they achieved success by "keeping it real" in a way that was different from the hyper-romantic and self-defeating demand to always be a suffering artist.
Or, perhaps, is my argument one for abandoning the entire concept of "authenticity" as a category for considering the worth of popular music? Perhaps it is, because the word is too ill-defined for serious discussion.