Essay on the Concept of Authenticity
Number of words: 1535
Authenticity, authentic. Words that have been used countless times to describe an artist, a piece of music or a music style. According to the Cambridge dictionary, authenticity is the quality of being real or true. How do we relate this definition to the description of an artist or a piece of music as authentic? How is it real or fake, true or untrue? Does it even make sense at all to use this word in this particular context? This is the question that I am going to answer in this essay and, for that, one first needs to understand some of the concepts reflected on articles and books that have been studied during the last trimester of the course.
Let’s talk about who’s got bad taste.
We all have different tastes when it comes to music. We may believe that there is a reason that supports the fact that we like the things that we like. We might even describe what we like as good or authentic, which immediately makes us look down on the tastes that other people may have about other types of music who, at the same time, have the same opinion about the things that they like, looking down on our tastes.
This phenomenon is what Bourdieu described as a quest for social status (symbolic power). We use our tastes to distinguish ourselves from others, or in other words, to distinguish our class from the class of others (usually those people who belong to lower classes). This means that it is not wise to think that something is authentic just because of the fact that we like it, as tastes have nothing to do with authenticity. ‘Taste is a means of distinguishing ourselves from others, the pursuit of distinction. And its end product is to perpetuate and reproduce the class structure.’
Art vs commerce binary.
The art-authenticity-commerce binary rock criticism appeared and founded itself on this same binary. The myth of the irreconcilable opposition between art-authenticity and commerce was established: Henceforth musical discourse had a literary discourse to police it, indeed, to normalize it.
For about forty years there has been a topic of discussion and even arguments amongst both musicians and audiences. Is it a piece of music or an artist authentic or is it a sellout? We all know about the typical band that starts to perform at local clubs and venues and gets a relatively solid base of fans and followers until the moment in which they sign a contract with a major record label, which is when one starts hearing people describing them or their music as a sellout. This started happening along with the appearance of rock, when the meaning of authenticity shifted from being an appropriation of an authentic source to being obedience to one’s own way of making music, to one’s own way of performing. Perhaps because people thought that once you sign with a major record label, certain people in the business would start telling you how to do things in order to target sales rather than following your gut and do things only the way your inspiration would tell you (which may or may not be true, depending on the case).
However, discussing this topic seems to be a little bit pointless in the twenty-first century since this art-commerce binary has been deconstructed over the last few decades by reducing the gap between professionals and amateurs. It started to happen in the nineteen seventies with the appearance of punk. Record labels gave artists total autonomy to let them record what they wanted without the influence of third parties, which eventually dissolved that professional-amateur gap, taking all the relevance out of the art-commerce binary. However, this binary is still present today. One can easily see it on pretty much any music newspaper, article or documentary. If this binary is essentially dead, why is it still present nowadays? There is a reason for that – the own music industry is interested in keeping it alive because it produces secondary gains:
- It feeds the idea of the romantic author, which sells records and merchandising
- It validates the fans’ sense of autonomy.
- In order to maintain the aura of art critics, they perpetuate the binary seemingly siding with the artist.
This idea describes authenticity as something fabricated by the own music industry in order to protect its interests.
Authenticity as authentication.
In an attempt to name a piece of music or a band authentic one might consider several qualities and features of it, such as the type of music they play, the arrangement, the instruments, their most common chord progressions, the type of chords, the scales they play and even the effects they use and the recording process. When doing this we usually make the mistake of thinking that authenticity is something that comes directly from the artist and the music, from the stage or our headphones, as if it were something inscribed to it, something that one could sense coming from it. However, as Deena Wienstein explains in the book, authenticity is rather ascribed, a meaning that we give to an artist or a performance. It is the audience who create the meaning of authenticity. Therefore, authenticity is relative to each individual. Three different types of ascribed authenticity are listed and explained in the text:
- First person authenticity/authenticity of expression: A very accurate explanation of this first point resides in the article:Particular acts and sonic gestures (of various kinds) made by a particular artist are interpreted by an engaged audience as investing authenticity in those acts and gestures – the audience becomes engaged not with the acts and gestures themselves, but directly with the originator of those acts and gestures.
- Third person authenticity/social authenticity: Audience usually ascribe authenticity in this manner when an artist or band uses a style of music or composition that has already proved to be successful and is known by the public. Even though they usually change something (mainly on the arrangement), the grounds and structure of the style are the same.
- Second person authenticity/authenticity of execution: It happens when an artist successfully creates the impression of representing the ideas or feelings of an audience in an accurate way within a tradition of performance. A good example of this type of authenticity is Bob Dylan himself. He was criticized when he first played an electric guitar back in 1965, on the 25th of July at the Newport Folk Festival. People were not used to see a folk artist playing this kind of instrument. The standard and classic way for a folk artist to perform was with an acoustic guitar. For this reason many people at the time did not hesitate to categorize Bob Dylan’s performance as not authentic, just because of the instrument that he was holding. It was not pure folk music. However, soon afterwards this did not matter because the feature that seemed to madk Bob Dylan’s music authentic was not a guitar without pick-ups and without a jack output, it was the way in which he wrote music, his individuality when writing lyrics. Bob Dylan wrote about challenges that individuals face in life. This subjectivity was the element that people were ascribing authenticity to.
There is no such thing as an authentic piece of music or artist. Authenticity is neither a skill nor a genetic feature that affects behavior – it’s ascribed, not inscribed.
How useful is the concept of ‘authenticity’ in evaluating and understanding music?
After analyzing and evaluating the ideas depicted above, one could arrive at the most obvious conclusion: Authenticity has been used either by the music industry in order to perpetuate a modus operandi that has proved to make huge profits throughout the years or as a way of ascribing value to something while unconsciously thinking that we perceive it from an external source. Therefore, authenticity seems to be something that is exempt from music, something that does not really exist beyond the scope of these ideas, reason for which evaluating and understanding music under the concept of authenticity should be confined within this scope.
Moore, Alan, ‘Authenticity as Authentication’, Popular Music, 21/2 (2002), 209-223
Weisntein, Deena, Stars don’t stand still in the sky, (New York and London, New York University Press, 1999)
Wilson, Carl, Let’s talk about love: A journey to the end of taste, (Canada, Bloomsbury Academic, 2014)
 Carl Wilson, Let’s talk about love: A journey to the end of taste, (Canada, Bloomsbury Academic, 2014), 91
 Deena Weinstein, Stars don’t stand still in the sky, (New York and London, New York University Press, 1999), 59
 Alan Moore, ‘Authenticity as Authentication’, Popular Music, 21/2 (2002), 209-223 (214)