Popular Music and Authenticity

Posted Sunday September 21, 2008 by John Gunders in |

Having been buried in discussions of authenticity in popular (mainly rock) music for a number of years now, I recently had reason to wonder how authenticity was talked about before Larry Grossberg told us not to talk about it any more. This edited first-release excerpt from my thesis explains my conclusions.


Before the critical examination of authenticity associated with Lawrence Grossberg and others, the term was treated largely as a self-evident concept that was only controversial in terms of where particular writers and commentators drew the line between authentic and inauthentic. For instance, Warren Fahey, although he was writing in 1989, captured the general tone of earlier times in his collection of Australian political folk songs, where he contends that:

Traditional songs are very special creative works for, unlike all other songs, they are the product of the community rather than the product of an acknowledged individual or tin-pan alley scribe.

Fahey goes on to contrast these traditional songs against a ubiquitous homogenising force intent on flattening culture for the advancement of capitalism:

It has been suggested that it is in the interests of international marketing that the world have one culture and it is this very fact that prompted me to document this collection.

As Marcus Breen points out, this view echoes Adorno’s complaints about the “standardisation” of popular music during the 1930s. Of course, this misses the point that Adorno’s version of authenticity is a different object to the one I am discussing here, nevertheless his protests about the dumbing-down of musical tastes and the commercialisation of popular music share a homology with views about the state of popular music that were common until the 1980s. David Grazian suggests that the first ethnographers of popular music were not sociologists but folklorists and ethnomusicologists, such as John Lomax, who in the 1930s travelled through the southern states of the US, making field recordings of African-American music (and coincidentally launching the career of bluesman Lead Belly). The way this sort of music was appreciated for its rugged vitality was captured by Lomax’s son Alan, who as an ethnomusicologist endeavoured to continue and to codify his father’s work, when he wrote in 1968:

Folk and primitive arts, their flinty structure tested at the fireside across the centuries, have always strengthened the more effete traditions of the city. Though somewhat more narrowly dimensioned, the simpler traditions have a germinal vitality and staying power that much cosmopolitan art lacks.

Around the time that the way the majority of people appreciated music changed from being through live performance to being through recordings, the category of authenticity, in its modern sense, started being important. Simon Frith describes (in order to dismiss) the prevailing view at this time:

the industrialization of music means a shift from active musical production to passive pop consumption, the decline of folk or community or subcultural traditions, and a general musical deskilling.

Before this move from predominantly live music (in music halls, dance clubs, and so on) to predominantly recorded music (on radio and vinyl records), the question of authenticity was simply not considered. As the apparatus of music became more sophisticated, so the importance of stressing the continuing human element entered the myths that were developing around the growing industry, and a critical approach to authenticity was born.


What do you think?

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  1. glen writes:

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