As a teenager in the post-Nirvana 90s, I was an eye-witness to the strangling authenticity-above-all ethos of “alternative” music. “We dress this way because it’s how we feel,” said whatever amazing-looking, grunge-chic band member or skater kid on TV, “don’t be what other people want you to be, be yourself!” This was the “positive” message constantly rammed down our throats in those days: be yourself, unless “yourself” liked to wear the wrong thing, listen to the wrong music, or, especially, if “yourself” didn’t agree with the “be yourself” message. “Poseur” was a favorite insult during my high-school days–God forbid a teenager might want to try something new. I sometimes feel like I’ve spent my life trying to get out of the impossible labyrinth of this ethos. This book, about the “quest for authenticity” in its most natural habitat, the music scene, opens with the death of Kurt Cobain, a tireless promoter of the very catchphrases that were tearing him up inside.
The subject matter is interesting/infuriating, but the authors’ use of it is confusing and strangely banal. They come up to the point of demolishing the entire idea of “authenticity” altogether, but can’t seem to bring themselves to seal the deal, because they still want to say that Neil Young’s 70s albums are more “real” than Trans. They show how music has always been syncretic, and black and white musicians (before the segregation imposed by record companies) played the same repertoire, but they still imply that Moby and Paul Simon are cultural imperialists. They trace the genesis and eventual ubiquity of the autobiographical song–mostly unknown before the 20th Century–but put this research to use only to mock Tori Amos and other “confessional” songwriters that they dislike. They lay out a case (without quite coming out and saying it) that “world music” notions of authenticity are essentially racist, but still call commercial American releases like Buena Vista Social Club “watered down”. They love to point out that what white, rock-ish audiences consider authentic-sounding are in fact unpopular with the communities that birthed them–a strange “gotcha” that simply substitutes one arbitrary authenticity criterion for another. It’s strange to read these two authors building up all this evidence to undermine the entire edifice of music criticism today–as they point out, authenticity is still something by which music of any kind is judged–but refuse to follow through with it, so they can still criticize the artists they dislike (Europop, Yes, Fatboy Slim) with it.
In any book on popular music, I end up feeling that some band I care about has been neglected–I really feel like the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion belongs in here, for example. I suppose I can accept their begging off the topic of hip-hop as being too complicated to fit into this book–it probably does deserve its own volume. But I really do think that the chapter which contrasts the “real” Neil Young to the “fake” Billy Joel would have been much more interesting if they had substituted David Bowie for the latter. The fact that Joel is relatively critically un-acclaimed stacks the deck; Bowie, both beloved and widely considered “fake”, complicates their whole thesis. Surely in a book about authenticity in rock’n’roll, Bowie deserves a place, if only to break down why on earth we call him, but not Joey Ramone, inauthentic.
In the most intriguing moments of the book, by breaking down the concept of authenticity, the authors end up chipping away at the very concept of the continuous self. The imperative to “keep it real” and “be yourself” has always been impossible. How can one be authentic if one is continually changing, moment to moment? All of us, not just the miserably pigeonholed stars they highlight (Cobain, Donna Summer, John Lydon, etc.) are to some degree trapped within our own identities. The insistence on authenticity is essentially an insistence on an illusory stability in a world of flux. To their credit, the authors recognize this. They quote Kafka: “I have nothing in common with myself.” With the early discussion of acoustic blues beloved of white record collectors, I was reminded of Steve Buscemi’s 78-collecting character’s lament in Ghost World: “I hate my interests!” I would have liked this book to go further along this path, but perhaps it ends up too deep into philosophy, and strays too far from the pop-music topic that they started from. But maybe someday we’ll find a way to let ourselves, and each other, change our minds, adopt new mindsets, try different styles, as unhesitatingly and smoothly as we change our moods.