Authenticity an ‘absent other’ and second person authenticity

Authenticity has always had something of a problem relationship with popular music. When we think about the meaning of authenticity, we often think about what makes music sincere or genuine. This sincerity is usually portrayed through shared emotions between the performer and the listener, by creating this emotional connection, the listener buys into the subjective concept of authenticity. I perceive authenticity as a construct that we are all guilty of using, one that is used to make profit through image crafting, imposes that the “original” is always the better version and enforces that commercial music can not be authentic. But music is an ever changing domain, which in turn, affects our perception of what is authentic, causing society to constantly reinvent authenticity. 

In 2002, Allan Moore outlined authenticity in three categories: first person authenticity, whereby a performer is true to him/her self, third person authenticity which occurs when one is true to a tradition or an ‘absent other’ and second person authenticity in which the audience decide if it is true to them and their experience, (Moore, 2002). In his discussion of first person authenticity, Moore says that to understand first person authenticity, we must first understand that its basis is upon interpretation. The same can be said for second person authenticity, and this is perhaps why the two are so closely linked – whilst a performer may feel that they have been honest the audience may perceive the opposite, this further emphasises the subjective nature of authenticity, after all, ‘People don’t buy somebody else’s feelings, they buy their own’ (Cusic, 2005), and we do not all feel the same. This is partly the reason as to why there is such hostility surrounding cover songs.

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In 2006, José Gonzalez released his cover of ‘Heartbeats’ by Swedish synth duo The Knife. Being a new artist and also Swedish, covering the song was particularly risky, especially when the song was popular for its sawtooth synthesised chords, pulsating female vocals and thick texture – everything Gonzalez’s version was not. Personally, this is why I find Gonzalez’s cover so captivating, dare I say more authentic than the original. In reducing the texture to voice and guitar the emotional force of the lyrics is pushed to the forefront, creating a truly melancholic portrayal. Of course, this suggests that perhaps using technology to emulate real instruments is automatically deemed less authentic, given that you can use expression and technique that a synthesiser can not. This is suggested by Bohlman in which he states, ‘Real instru- ments were seen to go along with real feelings … and artistic purity…’ (Redhead, 1990, p52), this is a particularly Rockist point of view, and one that implies that instruments using technology are fake. Yet, we do not label electronic pianos as fake because they make use of technology; indeed a synthesiser could be deemed to be real given that today they have their own sounds that define their independence from trying to emulate the sounds of instruments such as the piano.

Authenticity is the very essence of the pop versus rock paradigm. This segregation ‘originated in the mid 1960s’ (Moore, 2002), with the principle behind Rockism being that an artist is more authentic if they use real instruments rather than DAWs and auto tune, write their own materials, and reuse to sell out under the pressure of conforming to societal standards to gain financial profit rather than making music that is true to oneself. In response to this is Poptimism, this is the belief ‘that all pop music deserves a thoughtful listen and a fair shake, that guilty pleasures are really just pleasures’, (Richards, 2015). With the interaction of social media with mass media, we are under immense pressure to fit into the crowd, this imposes these guilty pleasures upon us, as if it is somehow a disgrace to enjoy listening to Justin Bieber. This segregation between the good and the bad is not a new one, with both Theodor Adorno and Roger Scruton dividing music into ‘serious’,(Adorno, 1941) and commodity or ‘high brow and low brow’, (Scruton, 2008). Importantly, both views fail to see that this binary is an illusion, ‘since all mass-mediated music is subject to commercial imperatives’ (Moore, 2002), therefore, rock is just as inauthentic as pop, and pop just as authentic as rock. In accepting that music is subjective in itself, we must accept that the binary between Rockism and Poptimism is one that should hold little significance in dividing our likes from our dislikes. For example, The Rolling Stones released ‘Miss You’ and ‘Emotional Rescue’, two disco songs that topped the UK and US charts; clearly they cared no more about crossing over into pop music than I do, despite being one of the biggest rock band of the 1960s.From this binary grows the cult of the singer songwriter. The concept became popular in the 1960s and was mainly used in reference to folk and rock genres, the focus is on the lyrical content of songs but also portraying the ‘attributes of a performer – such as emotional honesty…authenticity and artist autonomy’ (Straw, 2003, p198). Simon Frith states that, ‘As the folk emphasis on songs and lyrics, on the performer’s honesty… were adapted to the commercial needs of rock… the rock songwriter became the poet, the singer/songwriter the archetypal rock artist’ (Frith 1978, p186), in saying this, Frith acknowledges the crossover of the principles of folk into the commercial world of pop and rock. At this time, Bob Dylan started to shape his individuality, distancing himself from the constraints of protest folk songs. This move was received well by many who were in support of the individual but was criticised by those who were grounded in traditional folk aesthetics. In my opinion, singer songwriters such as Dylan are examples of the bridging of the gap between folk and rock; he explored subject matters outside of the stereotypes such as love in his song ‘Lay Lady Lay’, in which he sings about his desires to be romantically involved with a woman (implied by the line, ‘Lay, lady, lay, lay across my big brass bed’). In writing about these subjects, Dylan provides other artists with the confidence to freely express their emotions. This does not necessarily mean that singer songwriters are more authentic than cover artists, indeed, there are many examples of brilliant artists that do not, one of the most famous examples being Elvis Presley. Presley’s 1956 cover of ‘Hound Dog’ was one of his greatest hits, topping ‘the pop chart for 11 weeks’ and being ‘inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1988’  (Walsh, 2003). Presley’s cover was more successful than the 1953 original by Big Mama Thornton which spent just seven weeks at number one and was not inducted into the Grammy Hall Of Fame until February 2003. In fact, Elvis did not write any of his music, and he covered many songs. Cusic outlines an important point in saying that in asking singers to write their own material we are ‘”cheated” of hearing … great musicians interpret a great song’, (Cusic, 2005), to me this couldn’t be more true, Elvis Presley would not hold the status he does today had it not been for the popularity of his cover versions, and these covers would not exist had he written his own materials. Many critics feel that ‘Hound Dog’ was a result of black culture and in covering the song, Presley gained credit that belongs to the original artists. However, it must be noted that he made ‘Hound Dog’ his own in introducing it to the rock and roll scene. Presley increased the tempo and changed the lyrics from “you can eat your tail but I ain’t gonna feed you no more” to “well you ain’t never caught a rabbit and you ain’t no friend of mine”, he deliberately make his cover different to appear as himself; this is emphasised by the time of release. Thornton’s original was no longer in the charts, so in releasing his cover three years later, Presley was not attempting to steal credit; he made it clear that his influence is African American music and paid homage to it in covering the song. If anything, Presley only gave credit to the original and in doing so it was heard by a new audience, this is what makes Elvis Presley so authentic to me. Today, singer songwriters are often used as a commercial marketing tool by record companies in order to promote artists as being more authentic or “real”, with songs often being labelled as “original” we are tricked into thinking that they are better than perhaps the latest artists or cover versions. However, covers are naturally more authentic in their origins, since they tend to be chosen by the artist and are not subject to the commercialism of perhaps a hit song that has a corresponding music video. It is also important to note that originality is just as abstract as authenticity given that we can not decipher what the original is, perhaps it is the album version, or the first time the song was stored be that in the mind of the composer or on paper, of course today, music is rarely scored as popular music is disseminated by gigs and advancements in technology. With the dependency of success upon commercialism comes a reliance upon image crafting, in which artists create a persona that is consumable to a set demographic. This image is not necessarily an honest portrait of the artist, but one that appears to be original. A key example of this is the use of stage names, for example, Onika Tanya Maraj is known in the pop industry as Nicki Minaj. Arguably, her stage name is not overly different, but it is enough to make her sound quirky, i.e original, which is ironic when we consider that her name is fake. This fakery is translated as authentic, because Minaj does not conform to the expectations of society, she is true to herself, whether this be the “real” or “fake” version. Over time, Minaj’s aesthetic has changed too. When she first came into the music industry, she was well known for her vocal abilities and her zany fashion sense that made her stand out from other artists; but as we trace her career we see that the focus has shifted from her talent to her body. Minaj emphasised this in her music video for ‘Anaconda’, in which she sexualised her body, proving that having the ideal pop/rockstar image is essential for success in the competitive music industry. Of course, Minaj is only one example and she is certainly not the first. It is important to note that the images are often shaped by the artist, in other cases, record companies and producers discriminate against individuals in order to sell.  In 1991, Martha Wash released ‘Gonna Make You Sweat’, also known as ‘Everybody Dance Now’, Wash was replaced by Zelma Davies in the music video after she was ‘labelled “unmarketable” because of her weight’ (Anon, www.festivalguides.com). This exemplifies the impact of image on record sales, but to me, it shows that technology has damaged music, we do not just listen, we look and we judge. At this time, Michael Greene was the president of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Science, he said, ‘we have moved into the age of video where image is often emphasised as much as music in marketing, but we award Grammys for excellence in musical performance not packaging.”, (Chuck Philips, 1991). For me, this quote defines how even today, the music industry is dependent upon a marketed image, and we take these images into consideration when we judge the authenticity of a performance.The X Factor is fuelled by commercialism and is by and large based on covers; the way in which artists interpret and deliver the chosen songs determines how authentic their cover is in relation to the “original”; in my opinion, cover artists have the capacity to be just as authentic as the original provided that they expose their true intentions. In 2008,  Alexandra Burke received criticism after performing a cover of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’, more so by fans of Jeff Buckley’s 1994 version. Buckley’s untimely death in 1997 goes some way to understanding why fans were protective of him, he romanticised the image of the suffering artist. A campaign was launched Facebook by Cohen and Buckley fans to prevent Burke from being the Christmas number one ‘for fear that her version would not do justice to the original’ and that her ‘pop idolised version does not appreciate the real meaning of the song’, (Anon, 2008). In response, Burke stated that she did not decide on her winners single, implying that she is impartial to the song and exemplifying the argument of the Cohen/Buckley cohort that in covering it, Burke played into the hands of inauthentic commercialism. 

On the whole, it is difficult for one to say that music is authentic or inauthentic, we can make suggestions as to why it is one or the other, but it is the connection that the music makes with the individual that determines if a song is authentic. It does not much matter if the song is written by a singer songwriter or if it is a cover version, both are valuable in their own right, and this value differs between us all. Authenticity can not be defined, and we have no business in trying to objectify it into something we can pin down, it is built to be flexible.