It is common knowledge that ‘authenticity’ is perhaps the most important of the mediating discourses through which musicians/music become associated with different types of meaning and value. Although something like genre discourse is as pervasive as authenticity, its impact is a little more restricted and formalistic – attribution or use of genre labels is rarely as heated or as libidinal an exercise as are struggles over authenticity/credibility/realness (to put some contextual meat on the term’s bones).
Authenticity is important, then. But it is also processual and dynamic. Just as particular artists’ authenticity shifts over time, so do the parameters and contexts of authenticity itself. It used to be (I use the past tense here more aspirationally than in any other respect) that in mainstream western classical music, for example, authenticity was measured in terms of ‘originality’ and ‘innovation’ – in short, was measured according to the floating yardstick of ‘genius’. That is not quite the case today. It also used to be the case that conductors and musicians thought that they could most vividly resuscitate older music by locating through performative interpretation the emotional ‘truth’ of their own ages, as signified through recognisable music-emotional tropes of ‘intensity’ and ‘passion’ (=big orchestras and heavy vibrato), in that earlier music. This is also not the case today – the HIP movement of the 1970s put an end to such ‘romanticism’, replacing it with a modernistic version of positivistic romanticism.
In popular music, it used to be the case that ‘authenticity’ was aligned with ‘real’ instruments, authorialism, albums, and masculinity. Men were rock, women pop. Men made and wrote albums, women (and feminised boys) sang singles. This is not quite the case today. The growth of sampladelic hip hop, built on Roland and Akai samplers and drum machines and out of appropriated musical material from the 1960s and 1970s, alongside the emergence of electronic, acousmatic music of acts such as the Chemical Brothers in the 1990s, slowly put paid to myths built around equations like the following: acoustic=intimate=authentic. The ‘contamination anxiety’ (Lethem) that dominated popular and classical music slowly broke down in the face of postmodernist ‘sublimated collaboration’, which in any case had been pre-echoed earlier in the century by Dadaism, musique concrète, and many other important fugitive movements of appropriation.
In recent years, as postmodernism has accelerated into various crisis stages of disillusionment and collapse, even the hoary old rejection of ‘inauthentic’ pop music, built on Adornian and Marxian notions of ‘alienation’ and ‘standardisation’, has spunked its rhetorical load. Residual anxiety remains for some – seen in the comically anachronistic opposition of ‘manufactured’ and ‘authentic’ made by Matt Cardle, of all people, recently – but in the main audiences seem to have embraced pop unironically. At least to the degree that ‘Call me Maybe’, ‘Superbass’, and other songs are taken to the centre of culture, and acts such as Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and Beyonce are given more respect than they would have been twenty years ago. (HOWEVER, that is of course not to deny the sputtering and impotent rage directed at these acts on YouTube comment boards and other discursive nether regions.) Left secessionism of the sort that sees all popular culture as being equally co-opted by destructive forms of ideological and politico-economic capture, and as such endorses complete rejection of and withdrawal from that culture, has thankfully given way to a more internally dynamic, mobile view, where popular culture is not seen as a corrupted monolith, but instead as a terrain to be fought over.
These changes lead me to ask the rather pompously put question; whither authenticity in 2012, 2013, 2014, and beyond? Composers such as Bernhard Gander and Seán Clancy (and, of course, many others) attempt to move beyond the polystylism and quotational practices of earlier figures, by embedding popular culture into the distributed networks (as opposed to centralised hierarchies) of their creative practices. Authenticity, here, becomes a somewhat redundant critical category.
What about boybands? Take That and One Direction provide salutary case studies in this regard. In the 1990s, as the group reached a commercial and critical peak, Robbie Williams absconded from Take That. Many will be familiar with the story. Sick of what he saw as the tackiness and artificiality of boyband music, like George Michael before him, Williams struck out into the much more culturally ‘valuable’ world of getting drunk with Oasis and writing sickly masterpieces such as ‘Angels’ (to be fair, Williams has made some excellent music as a solo artist). This sort of ‘evolution’ became a canonical narrative of the young, ‘manufactured’ pop star. At a certain point in their career, most pop acts have sought credibility of this fetid kind.
My argument here is that, with the changes surveyed above, this ‘escape into authenticity’ is no longer a viable or even useful option for artists. Even Williams ended up getting back with Take That; Kylie went back to her pop roots. With One Direction, it has never really made sense to try to place them into the canonical narrative of manufactured objects-into-creative subjects. Even as a silly recent article discusses the ‘seven ages of boybands’ – not noticing the key internal contradiction that the act that served as organising metaphor, One Direction, already break apart the typology, since members can already be seen to be sporting tattoos and having affairs and getting drunk, even though they are at most in the prime of their ‘imperial stage’ – we must acknowledge that, as with composers of notated music, the mediating discourse and the mythic narratives that have governed these music cultures in the past are being overwritten by new narratives (even notions of good/bad are becoming ever harder to parse), just as Niall Horan’s voice must be getting continually overwritten in American recording studios by mechanised versions of the same.