Today’s musing comes thanks to my visit back to Austin–my first since 2000 when I left grad school and moved to Madison–for Seth’s wedding (Sorry, Seth-lovers! He’s taken now!), which coincidentally coincided with talk on our Sartre episode about the suspicious (according to Sartre) ethic of authenticity and my inclusion there of “Minnesota Freak,” a fake country song that I recorded when in Austin in 1999 with my band Mark Lint and the Fake. And then I also just wrote “No Exit” (which I wrote about here), which I think of as a real country song, though its lyrics are pure artifice set to accompany the play.
While in Austin, Seth recommended, and I (and Dylan) attended, a lengthy concert purporting to put forth Austin’s musical history. You can read a review of it here, as I won’t attempt one. I saw it as a good opportunity to learn exactly who some of these people were whose names I heard and generally ignored while I was there. (Willie Nelson was not on the roster, but his statue shown above stands at the entrance of the venue.)
I found it difficult while in Austin to take all the extreme regional chauvinism: All Texas all the time, which was just not me. In my last few years there, I did pick up some Texas players and made some attempt to play not just rock but the kind of genre rock that was a big down there, with blues and country elements, and this song “Minnesota Freak” was a jokey attempt of mine to write in that genre. It works only because the guitarist actually plays in that style. The kazoos that thoroughly mock the whole thing (if the lyrics hadn’t done this already) were not part of our live arrangement, but actually just something I laid down to teach the horn players their parts. When I held the horn recording session, while the horns did play on some other album tracks, they liked how the kazoos sounded already on this one, so I decided just to leave them. The lyrics (which I was banned from discussing on stage after doing so once) reflect my feeling out of place in the Austin scene, as is obvious. I don’t remember what exactly made me include the reference to “Jim Bob Sartre,” but surely I had something about mock authenticity in mind.
Authenticity in music has been a recurrent preoccupation of mine, as you might tell by my band names in Austin: The Fake Johnson Trio, then Mark Lint and the Fake, then (as a studio project, to complete the “trilogy of lies”) Mark Lint & the Simulacra. While I didn’t doubt that my love songs recorded as an 18-year-old represented something honest, when I started playing more accessible rock music, I felt I was putting on a persona of some sort, busting out some partying machismo bullshit that I didn’t really feel but which was fun to play-act. I experienced something comparable when adapting to play funk/blues/country in Austin.
But that’s all about me. What about the source material? Do these Texas songwriters really feel it in their souls what they sing constantly about the Texas moon and ramblin’ and drinking whisky out of a broken bottle? Does using traditional tropes make it basically bullshit?
This is an issue I remain ambivalent about, and I don’t think it’s unique to “roots” music of this sort. My own more recent band New People was even more than the “Fake” bands an attempt to use established rock tropes yet still hopefully create some unique (or at least not distractingly cliche) experiences. The difference is maybe that I’m less apt to use such tropes in my lyrics even if I admit them in allowing simple chord structures and bright, familiar tones and harmonies.
Like Sartre, then, I feel that authenticity is a myth. Early Bob Dylan is often cited as the paradigm case of authentic, earnest music, but if you watch interviews with him from this time, I think it’s clear that he was mostly bullshitting: a sophist, an artful creator of intriguing word salad who wanted to be just like Woody Guthrie. And of course in my own case, my teenage compositions, even if most heartfelt, were by necessity my most derivative work, as I had yet to fully develop my own “voice.” Cherishing “authenticity” over all else causes one to miss out on a lot of great art, art that is self-consciously playing with traditions.
At the same time, nothing makes me more readily discount a work than complete lack of originality, and though I recognize when, e.g. someone plays the blues in a way that is fresh and lively, that genre and others similarly super-restricted in style (Zydeco? Samba?) don’t hold a lot of interest to me, the way I typically hear them played. If I just can’t see any reason for a new work to even exist, any novelty to distinguish it from its many predecessors, then it’ll be harder for me to confront it with the fullness required for me to get out of it what’s there to be gotten.
It’s not so much actual authenticity that matters, but the pretense of authenticity: the psychological impact of feeling like a work is saying something (in whatever sense; it could be entirely instrumental) worth hearing and that it’s saying it just for you, which is of course the biggest and most obvious lie of all. A love song, for instance, except where sung for the first time to a specific beloved, is a missive overheard, taken out of context, possibly fabricated, and yet if it works, it connects with you. Something comparable can be said for any other kind of music; one (artist) to many (audience) communications are by necessity not going to be authentic like one person honestly addressing another. Even in this one-to-one case, we still use public, traditional, often well-trodden words, yet somehow these still can have their intended effect of expressing the individual. Kind of makes you think that the self is just a bullshit cultural creation, eh? Sartre would agree.