‘I like music made with proper musical instruments played by proper musicians’; am I the only one tired of hearing that phrase? It’s usually uttered by people who feel that their taste in music is far superior to everybody else’s, thus unassailable. These people usually have two things in common; they hate anything to do with Hip Hop and Dance music, and they usually worship at the altar of ‘authenticity’.
For the uninitiated, ‘authenticity’ can actually also be applied to some forms of Hip Hop, but in the case of that genre the terminology is to ‘keep it real’, use straightforward language and/or strip the arrangement down to the traditional ‘two turntables and a microphone’ set-up. In rock music authenticity is an even more anal concept and it was possibly brought into play during the merging of folk/blues with rock ‘n’ roll during the mid-60s, a time when an artist was expected to write his/her own songs, henceforth reveal their own emotions in their songwriting and performance. Since then, the parameters have shifted and arguably tightened.
Artists like The Beatles – at least in the early days – were unashamedly commercial, and played pop, but their more middle-class counterparts like The Yardbirds made it their role to play ‘authentic’ blues (in reality it was not in the least authentic). Guitarists of the time, like Eric Clapton, have since revealed that they would even mimic what they perceived to be the lifestyles of their favourite blues musicians; drink gallons of bourbon, and so on. Of course, Clapton and his contemporaries didn’t want to emulate the poverty of the original bluesmen and were more than happy to reap the rewards of their record sales. The blues revivalists considered what they were playing to be automatically better than popular music, because they thought it was more emotional and ‘real’ than the popular music of the day. This also had another component; they felt blues to was better because it was the music of Afro-Americans and therefore it enabled the blues revivalists to feel morally superior to their more populist contemporaries.
Ironically, what actually escaped the attention of blues revivalists is that the original bluesmen were often encouraged to play blues by their record labels, because it was considered to be the most commercial part of their repertoire. Many country blues artists like Charlie Patton played as much and country, folk and ragtime in their live performances as blues, but since most of this didn’t make its way onto recordings it was largely forgotten about. Blues revivalists also didn’t seem to notice that some of the best popular music of the time was being made by Tamla Motown, a label owned and entirely made up of Afro-Americans – how could the music being made by these artists be less ‘authentic’ than the output of some middle-class, white, British kids trying to mimic old bluesmen?
Nevertheless, arguably the authenticity-badge was imported into rock via folk. Everybody knows about the story about when Bob Dylan plugged in an electric guitar, the folk fraternity went crazy and began calling him ‘Judas’ and so on. The biggest culprit for causing folk music’s obsession with authenticity was the UK’s own Ewan MacColl – an admirable man in many ways, but not renowned for his tolerance of other people’s opinions. MacColl insisted that folk singers should only sing songs from their own place of birth, and this was curious since MacColl himself sang Scottish songs, despite being born in Manchester (his parents were both Scots but even with that being considered, he was still bending his own rules somewhat). He was also known to sing Joe Hill, which is an American folk song – so it was certainly a case of ‘don’t do what I do, do what I say’ with our Ewan. It was not only MacColl who caused folk music’s rather insular attitude, but this may be one of the reasons why it has fallen out of favour as a genre. Folk music had a lasting effect on rock though, ever since Dylan went electric.
One of the most damning charges that can be made against an artist nowadays is that they don’t write their own material, being a great interpreter of other people’s songs is no longer enough. Being an Elvis fan, I have constantly heard people dismiss him for this reason, despite the fact that when Elvis came up in the music industry no-one was expected to write their own songs; Sinatra never wrote a song in his life! For this reason it is now common for artists to be described as singer-songwriters, but if one investigates further the facts are rather different (this was true of Katie Melua and James Blunt – both of whom I can’t abide for different reasons, but that’s beside the point).
So what is real musical instrument? It wasn’t too long ago that people considered the guitar to be ‘not a serious instrument’, and considering that it is now the most macho and phallic of all rock instruments, it used to be more often played by women. Rock guitarists will instantly claim that DJs certainly aren’t musicians because ‘all they do is play records’. If, like me, you have ever tried to ‘scratch DJ’ and been rather embarrassed by the results, then you’ll know there’s a lot more to it than that. I can play the guitar reasonably well, but when I attempt to scratch DJ it sounds like a washing machine falling down the stairs while remaining switched on. The same people dismiss rapping, but that is another skill that requires as much hard-work and discipline as singing – and it is certainly more creative than most of what I hear in mainstream rock.
It is however unfair of me to blame just rock musicians for all of this backward thinking. The worst offenders at the moment are Indie musicians. They will dismiss DJs, rappers and anybody who uses any musical instrument that wasn’t around in the 1960s – apart from when it suits them (this is why I have spent most of this particular blog discussing what went on during that period). They will use basic dance beats, for instance, but will at the same time complain about ‘music made with computers’ and ‘sampling’.
Yes, sampling. I’m hardly the first person to write about the ethics of sampling. However, many artists who have been sampled have had their careers revitalised as a result, rather like the blues musicians who benefitted from renewed interest in their music during the 1960s. It was a result of sampling that I first heard great funk bands like The Meters, for example, and for that I am grateful. Another point is that at least artists who such recording techniques now clear and give credit to the samples they use (most of the time); Indie musicians don’t credit The Velvet Underground when they rewrite Pale Blue Eyes for the millionth time (they will talk at great length about the band during interviews though), and how many times did Oasis get sued for infringing copyright? All of that seems to be far more dishonest than sampling, to be honest.
Indie musicians believe that they are more authentic than pop musicians, that what they do is more intellectual, and nowadays they even seem to think that they are more ‘ethical’. Indie musicians may write their own songs, but does that make them better songs? Does that make their performance of them more real? Anybody who knows anything about the music industry knows that that is nonsense; Indie bands are under as much pressure to create hit records as any pop singer, the criteria is just different. This is why there are record labels for Indie bands (very few are actually independent any more) and record labels for pop-stars – there are also record producers who specialise in every genre that one hears.
Indie musicians may not use computers to create their music, but it will probably be digitally recorded, and they will probably use digital effects during their live performances. Their producers will often edit and quantise their performance of their music before it is even considered for release. This is the final irony – most music we now hear was doctored on a computer, just like the films we see, the TV programmes we watch and so on. This is not even a recent development – even in the theatre, actors have a director, a producer, a script; composers would write to order; artists would be commissioned; authors write to be published and so on.
To return to that old blues music I discussed earlier it is important to remember that when John and Alan Lomax recorded those old blues and hillbilly musicians, they were looking for a specific type of sound that conformed to their own prerequisite view of authenticity, and this was music at its most basic and ‘primal’. There were plenty of Afro-Americans and hillbilly musicians at the time who were playing far more complex music, but this didn’t fit in with their criteria. Authenticity is in the ear of the beholder.