are we in a post-authentic music world?

One of the themes of Jenn Lena’s Banding Together is that genres organize the entire music industry, from the way that musicians create their art to the way that producers find and market it to the way that consumers form their own identities around music choices. Chapter 5 in Banding Together discusses the consequences of genres more in depth.

The keynote speaker at this spring’s South-by-Southwest festival, the Boss himself Bruce Springsteen, challenged the idea that genres should be an essential element to the way musicians create music. In his incredibly thoughtful remarks, Springsteen suggested that we live in an era in which musicians can be free to be themselves simply by creating the music that is inside them without feeling constrained by the conventions of genre.

I’d like to talk about the one thing that’s been consistent over the years, the genesis and power of creativity, the power of the songwriter, or let’s say, composer, or just creator. So whether you’re making dance music, Americana, rap music, electronica, it’s all about how you are putting what you do together. The elements you’re using don’t matter. Purity of human expression and experience is not confined to guitars, to tubes, to turntables, to microchips. There is no right way, no pure way, of doing it. There’s just doing it.

We live in a post–authentic world. And today authenticity is a house of mirrors. It’s all just what you’re bringing when the lights go down. It’s your teachers, your influences, your personal history; and at the end of the day, it’s the power and purpose of your music that still matters (emphasis added).

It’s not as if Springsteen isn’t aware of the genres that form the backbone of the music industry. A few minutes earlier in his talk, Springsteen jokingly went through a short list of the various genres that categorized the bands wandering the streets of Austin that week, stopping to note that he had no idea what “Nintendo core” is. He added, “Just add neo– and post– to everything I said, and mention them all again.”

I think Springsteen’s main point is that it’s no longer necessary for artists to play by the rules of a specific genre to make music that resonates with a crowd.  You don’t need to strive for authenticity in the same way that artists of a previous generation did because the rules for what it means to be authentic don’t apply anymore. The proliferation of new genres has, in a sense, freed musicians to do whatever the hell they want. An artist doing his version of classic blues on a synthesizer is just as authentic as is a folk artist doing an an acoustic cover of “Robot Rock.”  What counts more than one’s inclusion in a genre subcategory is an artist’s workmanship and basic creative impulse.

Of course Springsteen can say this because he is The Boss. He sells out stadiums night after night. He no longer plays by the rules or conventions because of his success and popularity. But is there an element of truth to it? Do genres matter as much as they once did? I see a couple of reasons to give his argument merit. The first is that the Internet really does seem to have freed artists to “remix” and hybridize musical genres more than was done in the past. The Internet has become its own scene, reducing the importance of old geographic-based scenes, which in turn makes it more likely that people working in different genres or subgenres will be aware of and influence each other.  And I also think there is some truth to the idea that precisely subdividing subgenres has the ironic effect of making those subgenres less meaningful and less constraining.  Sub-subgenres are usually just hybrids of two or more genres anyway, and so what difference does it make to layer on a third or fourth genre? Melding together 4-5 new genres subsequently decreases the social distance between you and every other artist working in the space of popular music and simultaneously opens the possibility of bringing in old genres in your next creative moment. Suddenly the idea that Texas polka has real combinatorial potential for rap seems possible. I think this is what it means to say we live in a post-authentic world.

Written by brayden king

April 30, 2012 at 4:43 pm

Posted in books, brayden, culture

7 Responses

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  1. The simplest way to resolve the apparent difference of opinion I have with Mr. Springsteen is to note that he uses a musicological definition of genre and I use a sociological one. I don’t assume any intrinsic fixidity to the link between musical sounds and the words we use to describe them. It is as a result of strategic, concerted action and cooperation that we come to have stable links between (types of) sounds and terms to describe them. (In other words, rap isn’t one “thing,” nor is rock. Lots of different sounds could be associated with these terms, and each of them has a some-sized audience. So, I agree: there are lots of “right” ways to do “it.”)

    Springsteen’s argument about innovation is convoluted–on the one hand he suggests “there’s no right way, no wrong way” and then in the following paragraph lists the conventional attributes that musicians attach to their music in order to make it meaningful to consumers–having teachers, a particular set of institutionalized beliefs, a string of events that you identify as a “personal history” (if I had his address, I might send him a copy of Howie Becker’s Art Worlds).

    The argument about authenticity is even more confusing because he suggests first that audiences have no stable concept of authenticity (or that’s how I take “post-authentic”), then he suggests we have aesthetic, performance-based means by which to judge it, and then it turns out he thinks performers signal value through some rather conventional mechanisms or attributes “we” use in evaluating authenticity: “teachers, your influences, your personal history.”

    The whole thing is an analytic mess, and I’m not sure how to help.

    As far as you’re concerned, Brayden, your comments beg for two kinds of counter-argument or -example:

    1. I would discourage you from treating Springsteen’s remarks as empirical evidence that structures of power, prestige, and differentiation are any different now than in the past–stronger, weaker, or anything else. The perceived authenticity of performers in most genres is still judged on how well they fit disciplinary conventions, including race, class and gender. We still label “white rappers” and “new country” (a disciplinary code for “young” and “middle class”). Oh, and on the general need to establish a thing called authenticity, please see the fall’s “debate” over Lana Del Rey. And/or most debates about Drake’s blackness.

    2. On the combinatorics of styles: I’m inclined to agree that genres (again–I’m talking about one of four kinds of musical communities, wherein participants think they’re making the same type of thing) can form and dissolve more quickly with the spread of digital technology and social media–I meant to say that in the book, if I didn’t. Some genres have long been in the business of mutating quickly and sloughing off the old stylistic trappings like snakeskin–c.f. most electronic and dance styles including shades of house, techno, and now EDM. Why bother? Because drawing and redrawing boundaries serves a social function, and members of these genres can find their genre ideal better fulfilled by the evasion of tourists, industry capture, and the like. Arguably, not all musical styles are alike, and not all genres have genre ideals that emphasize the avoidance of the mainstream, constant change, etc. Like…bluegrass.

    And, as a kind of aside to the last point: the combination of styles appears to be arbitrary, and it may well be, but if you wanted to have me put money down, I’d say there’s a logic above genres (and above streams) that governs what styles have the potential to be combined in any one era.


    Jenn Lena

    April 30, 2012 at 5:37 pm

  2. To Jenn’s very thoughtful post, I would just add the additional comment that claims to authenticity are often little more than attempts to “pull trump” in the context of dynamic cultural scenes. Authentic food, for example, whether Quebecois terroir or “ethnic,” seeks a kind of prediscursive, authoritative correctness. Ditto with authentic places, faux-authentic art, and so on. Springsteen’s “no rules, just right” approach is right in line with this ideological tendency: to argue that the institutions, patterns, and practices that have grown up around music are (or ought to be) irrelevant to a prediscursive good-ness.


    Andrew Perrin

    April 30, 2012 at 6:11 pm

  3. I think authenticity takes two forms: the one is “pulling trump” as Andy puts it, the other is when consumers look for it, or rather then they notice when it isn’t there. Ritzerian disenchantment, for lack of a better term. A non-traditional or new stylistic $thing can still have enough of the second sort of authenticity to be what someone might call authentic, I think. One is about prestige and laying claim to this or that label, the other is about sincerity, I suppose.

    Perhaps it isn’t authenticity at all, but I think laypeople tend to use the word in that way (about sincerity) often.



    April 30, 2012 at 7:03 pm

  4. No genres? Seriously? When has Springsteen or any other contemporary artist incorporated opera, German lieder, French art songs? I almost never hear Appalacian music brought in, and I can’t remember the last time I hear Australian digeredoo in a contemporary song.

    It’s one thing to pontificate about various genres of American popular music, but don’t pat yourself on the back.

    Caribbean? Who in American music incorporates soca, cumbia, steel pan, or even reggae (except to occasionally borrow a Bob Marley song)?

    American music is so myopic.



    May 5, 2012 at 12:42 am

  5. […] Sullivan cites an essay by Brayden King written before Yauch’s passing to answer in the negative “Do Music Genres […]


  6. Evolution in music always comes about by combining what are considered different genres. Taking differing views/approaches and melding them together. It’s what Bartok did with Folk songs and Classical music. It’s what Mumford and Sons do with Appalachian music/Bluegrass/Rock. Blending genres is nothing new.

    Clearly defined genre categories are in place for corporate record labels that want everything to be safe, generic and easy to market.

    Progress and Innovation, in any field, always come from melding different thoughts, approaches and views.


    Mike Finkel

    May 10, 2012 at 8:16 pm

  7. […] said, @Finale_Music posted a link to a short but intriguing article (“are we in a post-authentic music world?”) speculating on the end of genres in music.  That resonated with me instantly for the simple […]


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