Friday, April 30, 2010

Teaching Authenticity

For those of us who teach courses in popular music, one inevitably arrives at the "authenticity" moment. Perhaps it is part of the syllabus, a unit of thinking about the methodology of pop music studies. Perhaps it arises more organically, say in a class discussion when someone offhandedly uses Miley Cyrus as an example of the decline of western civilization--the actual word "authentic" is rarely used, but that ideology is usually in the background of complaints about auto-tuning and controlling manager/fathers or whatever. However it happens, I think most of us have a usual schtick for this topic. I like to do a little brainstorming, first coming up with a list of pop artists that the class things is "real"--this tends to include the likes of Bob Dylan and Jay-Z, depending on the relative level of snobbery in the local student population--and then from that, extrapolate a list of characteristics, musical and otherwise, that link those artists they find most real. The point of the brainstorming is that we eventually hopefully realize as a class that the ideology of "authenticity" is usually a means to promote our own arbitrary aesthetic interests.

So, fine. That's some good teachin'. However, the other day I was musing aloud in class about Green Day. As you may know, last year Green Day collaborated with Berkeley Rep to produce a musical theater version of their 2004 hit album American Idiot, and this production is now on Broadway itself, garnering positive reviews. The whole thing is, of course, shocking for those of us who had some part of our musical consciousness formed by punk rock. I grew up in the East Bay, where Green Day is from, and although as a teenager I was absolutely nowhere cool enough to have been part of the Gilman punk scene that gave birth to Green Day, Rancid, etc. in the 1990s, I did know people who were, and I remember the community horror that greeted Green Day's decision to sign with a major label and release Dookie. The term "sell-out" was widely used, with no irony intended; it was as if Green Day had singlehandedly destroyed DIY punk rock. And now...they are doing a Broadway musical?!

I have enough academic distance from that scene to realize the ideology of authenticity at work. (And of course, the boundaries between punk and the camp theater of glam rock were never exactly distinct to begin with.) But anyways, the whole point of this post is that in musing aloud about this on different occasions, in the presence of students who grew up not in the 1990s but after the turn of the millennium, I realized that not everyone was registering my mock-pretend outrage at the idea of a punk rock musical. To be sure, some understood why the whole thing was funny. But for many, my uncomfortable realization was that they saw no problem with that concept. There are rock musicals, hip-hop musicals, why not a punk musical?

And that's when it hits me: there are many people out there who, rather than needing to be taught to deconstruct authenticity, actually need to be taught what authenticity is in the first place. For if you grew up over the turn of the millennium, authenticity was never really part of the game. I feel like I've been trying to disrupt my student's commitment to authenticity for years now, only to find that now I need to figure out how to teach it. For you can't really understand a number of musical trends of the past fifty years without--the weird commitment of English guitarists to the blues, say, or the backlash against disco--without understanding the idea of authenticity. It's the fundamental building block of a great deal of music criticism; heck, you could say that the discourse of authenticity is a fundamental building block of American popular music itself.

I certainly don't miss it now that it's gone--and I exaggerate for effect here, of course--but as a teacher I'm going to need to make some adjustments.


Celexo said...

Since you brought it you have any suggestions for places to start for those of us coming late to the popular-music party. Any foundational texts that we need to learn before prepping a pop-music course?

PMG said...

ooh, interesting question! I might open this up to the floor. Anyone have any good suggestions?

one quick easy idea: Keith Negus's Popular Music in Theory is a great overview of methodological issues.

MMR said...

this is such an awesome post, so true and thought-provoking. It's making me think back on my blues class with a different perspective--some of the moments of disconnect where the class wasn't seeming to comprehend something I was putting before them, now I am thinking this issue was the root of that disconnect. WILD.

HT, with T for Teh said...

Agreed- flagrant 19thC versions of authenticity seem absent from the sphere of popular music, but that does not necessarily mean that a materialist understanding of "authenticity" (fabulously distributed via the problematics of copyright laws and authorization issues - this is surely not a dead issue) cannot "raise from the dead" to haunt the disciplining and production of tunes today? Even youtube pays malicious attention to copyright laws.

V. Vxn said...

As someone who saw American Idiot at Berkley Rep, I can say it sounded more like punk rock than Broadway, and didn't force the songs into any more musical "plot" than they would have on an album that has a bit of implied narrative arc. Although I think some of the feeling of punk music/rock concert authenticity they tried to achieve in the theater by just being really loud. I have the same issue wit values and authenticity in teaching liveness and mediation in theater.