Professor Simon Frith on authenticity and popular music

Posted: March 12, 2012 in article, blog, music
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This extract is taken from ‘professor of pop’s blog‘ and the article is an interview with Professor Simon Frith by ‘professor of pop’ Andrew Goodwin.

Again, an interesting discussion of authenticity in light of hip hop.

AG: Your work is well known and widely admired for, amongst other things, its trenchant refusal to buy in to any notion of ‘authenticity’ as a viable way of assessing or indeed understanding musical performance. Does this critique also extend to composition? To what extent do you think that this might have been your English reaction to (perceived?) American naivety? And, if that is the case, have you ever had cause for second thoughts, or a revision of your approach? I will say, with respect, that this is one area where authorial intent (which I know about from the inside, as a musician and composer of pop ditties) seems to me to trump your critique, which does nonetheless seem to me to be correct, in so many instances — the dearly missed James Brown and his rehearsed spontaneity is one that you deploy. Of course I do not mean that when I play the drums or write a song I am always authentic, but I do feel that I know the difference (or maybe being a good musician means knowing the difference) between something I really meant to say in a song (as a drummer or writer) even if it was discovered in the act rather than known ahead of time, and something that isn’t fully felt, intended; unrealized bits of music come out in those moments perhaps when you are not really present.

Also, I can’t help feeling that I prefer the music of the Pet Shop Boys to the music of, say, Erasure partly because it is more authentic, more sincerely meant and much more, well soulfully, delivered, even (especially) in its flatness. I feel the same way about comparing the music of Joni Mitchell to – I’ll say it – the music of Britney Spears. Jimi Hendrix or Trevor Rabin? I mean to say! It surely is clear that Hendrix has something to say, Rabin does not. Led Zeppelin compared to Aerosmith, likewise. The Pets, Joni, Jimi, and Zep really meant what they were saying, and it shows in the music, especially at the point of composition. That’s what I hear, anyway.  The mistake is of course to conflate authenticity with aesthetic value: clearly, Phil Collins means it, and that is the problem. Surely David Bowie’s use of artifice speaks to ironic distance, but then the project as a whole (pop art) feels meant, intended, done for a good reason. One feels that he had something to say. I can’t feel that about, say, Duran Duran, even though I like some of their songs. I suppose I mean that Run DMC are more authentic than Michael Jackson, in the end, and while that is not necessarily a good arbiter for taste or judgment, denying the truth of these perceptions seems like an odd thing to do.

SF: I think you conflate a number of issues here—I’m not sure that authenticity, sincerity, and having something to say are the same things (or are heard/judged in the same way).   It’s useful to think about what we mean by ‘a good actor’ (and more particularly, ‘a good film actor’) in this context (I’m writing this on Oscars night).  This does seem to involve a quality of ‘really meaning it’—i.e. making us believe in the character being acted—would we use the terms authenticity or sincerity here?  Rather the common sense term is ‘convincing’—we are convinced or unconvinced, and listening to actors talking about the moment when they are taken over by a role, when they do it right at the moment when they somehow stop thinking about it is like your account of not being present, of being taken over by the music.

My original interest in ‘authenticity’ was sociological—I wanted to critique a particular kind of marketing/consumer discourse not to dismiss it (I was curious that ‘authenticity’ matters to people so much) but to suggest that it is a constructed or conventional quality (rather than being naturally or obviously present in a piece of music). I quite agree with all your points in the second part of your question (Performing Rites was designed to defend precisely such value judgements—and was duly dismissed by Rob Walser as just another version of musical appreciation). (More on this below). I don’t think this was particularly a UK/US thing though obviously I was sensitive to different accounts of authenticity, particular post-punk when the UK music press was dominated by a postmodern arty notion of what it meant to mean something.

Judging someone’s sincerity seems to be somehow different, a more personal judgement (of the quality of a voice, for instance), related to our everyday assessment of other people but even here conventions of expression are involved (David Brackett once wrote an interesting paper comparing Bing Crosby’s and Billie Holiday’s version of the same song, suggesting that to hear the latter as more sincere than the former is an aesthetic judgement from which evidence of intention etc. is read off, rather than vice versa).  What this and your question suggest is that how we decide that somebody really means something involves a judgement in which it is difficult to disentangle what we hear (musical qualities of various sorts) from a kind of ethical judgement (this is something worth listening to).

I guess music can either be about something non-musical (feelings, a situation, whatever) or about itself (drawing attention to its own way of working). Rock laid claim to extra-musical meanings (and if it seemed simply about its own processes sounded like vacuous virtuosity); pop that is any good has to say something interesting about itself.  In both cases there has to be a sense of a directing intelligence (that also has to be interesting). But if I were to explore these issues again I would want to think much more about the music making (rather than the music listening) process. This is related to a question below to which I’ll come later!

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