Chatter: Ian Brennan - The Myth of Authenticity

September 5, 2013

AMONG MY MOST VIVID travel memories was once stumbling upon a cassette-tape seller at a dusty market in Kigali, Rwanda, who sold only Rwandan music—except for multiple copies of Dolly Parton’s and Madonna’s “Greatest Hits.” Similarly, when dining at a cafe in rural Algeria that featured a soundtrack of exclusively Arabic music, Willie Nelson suddenly popped out of the speakers.

In an era of mass-production dominated by non-mechanically reproduced and manipulated sounds (and increasingly images, as well), many have become obsessed with hunting for the “authentic” in art, food, locations, etc.

What often is lost in these searches and debates is that when it comes to culture, purity is actually a myth. Art forms are, by definition, dynamic and in continual states of flux— both providing and receiving inspiration from various sources. In order to survive, they must seek fertilization outside their own limited pools, just as species are scientifically at their fittest if they cast as wide of a net as possible for DNA when breeding.

 Mumford & Sons

A well-known example is reggae, which after being born from a potpourri of influences has now bounced back to Africa and infiltrated many local scenes there. In a parallel phenomenon, most African musicians’ only exposure to southern U.S.A. blues, if any, has come not direct from the sources (such as Robert Johnson), but is instead filtered, second-hand through more widely-distributed artists from England (such as Led Zeppelin) who themselves were doing their own interpretation of American music.

Though African-American artists have undisputedly played the vital and visionary roles in almost all popular music forms, much of that same music has now ricocheted around the world, diluting or contaminating older and “purer” musical idioms—for better or worse, depending on your perspective. One of my sadder personal exposures to corporate media’s monolithic bulldozer effect was witnessing the East African version of American Idol on Kenyan television. The program featured off-key and generically overwrought vocalists from all over the region who squeezed-out notes that could make Mariah Carey, in comparison, seem as raw, textured, and truthful as Nina Simone.

On another level, “authenticity” also becomes a myth when a band like Mumford & Sons unplugs and bulldozes all of the subtlety out of a working- class art form. The degree of artificiality that we are steeped in has deepened to such a degree that a group of aristocratic Brits (one of whom is the son of a billionaire who is among the richest men in England) can ride to the top of the charts and win an Americana award with hardly a soul batting an eye. Let’s consider, too, Vampire Weekend—an underground band comprising Ivy Leaguers who shoplift the musical styles of African pop. What is worse than the thievery is the disingenuousness of their adopting stances as to being authentic or cutting-edge in even the most remote way.

In a world of social networking, where momentary infamy can be snatched via a single HD camera, YouTube video, or laptop-engineered Facebook single, how are world-music artists who live without running water, electricity, or indoor toilets supposed to Twitter their way to the top—let alone keep up?

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