The Anxiety Of Authenticity

There’s a puzzling idea at the center of this Sasha Frere-Jones piece about Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings and some of their peers. It’s the assumption that not only are artists like the Dap-Kings and Eli “Paperboy” Reed merely mimicking the past, but that there’s something wrong, or weak, in pop music that revives previous styles:

“The goal of these artists isn’t just able mimicry, though a skeptic would say that the work begins there. . . . Don’t reinvent the wheel, but do keep it moving. . . Very few of these bands like the word ‘revival,’ probably because it robs them of credit even before they take the stage. But how much of the past does one need to draw on before shifting categories from new to retro?”

It’s as if Frere-Jones had been suddenly struck faux-naive, and found a way to feign ignorance of how music, especially pop music, is made. If a band like the Dap-Kings is enamored of the polyrhythmic, funky soul of James Brown and decide they want to make their own version, the problem is . . . what, exactly? That they are not reinventing the wheel? Since when are pop musicians, working in a field where the long view of time is cyclical and previous styles always return to the forefront, required to do this? Since when does pop music, derivative by nature, need to be regularly reinvented? And why should musicians stop learning from those who came before? All this from the same man who previously praised Amy Winehouse, the diva of ersatz soul, accompanied by none other than the Dap-Kings.

Originality in this sense can be highly overrated. In an age where electronic beats are manufactured and sold, literally as commodities, it’s refreshing for a band to lay down some real, human funk. The Dap-Kings are original in the sense that they are playing their own music the way they want to, true to themselves, and even more importantly, they are authentic. It’s not a bunch of white suburban kids vamping for the unknowing crowd, they are the real deal. Their new album, I Learned the Hard Way, is excellent, the latest in a line of strong releases, each one better than the last. Yes, they are specific about where they are coming from and what they value, they are sincere; to paraphrase Stravinsky, they don’t recreate, they love. From the dramatic opening horns and strings fanfare of “The Game Gets Old,” we know exactly where we are in pop culture, a timeless space where R&B meets the dream of the racially integrated big city and both the polish of television and radio media distribution and the respect and value of showmanship that is an inherent, and valuable, part of African-American music. Take it as theory, and it’s an exemplar of the construction of American culture. There is an artificial sense of drama to it, that Sharon Jones and the band are fulfilling a role, and there’s nothing wrong with that. American culture is an artificial, mongrel thing to begin with, free of the atavism of language, blood and geography.

The real deal

This is a Brooklyn band that occupies the Brooklyn of the mind, the place in the imagination that has also been created by Spike Lee, Johnathan Lethem, “Bored To Death” and Daptone records. It came full circle on a recent “Simpsons” episode, where the Flight of the Conchords guest star and live in the bohemian center of Springfield, ‘Sprooklyn.’

Brooklyn exists and so does ‘Brooklyn,’ where people are funky and the food is fresh. The point is that it is created out of the imagination, that is what culture is, and the Dap-Kings are an act of imagination. Call them retro, I don’t really care, it’s not only wrong but it’s a meaningless label, void of critical thinking. They are the opposite of Beck, who’s just a retro but with an ironic stance that makes his music gestural and insincere, if that’s what works for people. As for this band, they couldn’t make the track “Money” without the legacy of decades of music, and thank goodness, because it’s both a song of the times and a timeless song. It’s great, and so is the album, a pleasure from start to finish and one of the best recordings of the year.

I’m not personally as much of a fan of Reed’s Come And Get It, but that’s a matter of personal taste and not of quality. This is a polished, nicely crafted, totally authentic bubblegum-soul recording, songs for and about the little girls. Reed really captures the ultimately good-natured teenage angst and sweet heartbreak in cuts like “Name Calling” and “Tell Me What I Wanna Hear.” The music is about innocent love, without a hint of adult anxiety about sex and work. It’s a strain that comes out of the young Stevie Wonder and the Jackson 5, with a heavier backbeat and a rollicking sense of fun on “Explosion.” It’s completely authentic.

That’s perhaps the word of the current era, authenticity. It matters, but few people seem capable of evaluating it. The mass media exists for the most part to promote falseness as authenticity, and the damage it does would be minor if the political media had not embraced those values. I’m old enough to remember the 2000 Presidential campaign, when Katherine Seelye and Eleanor Clift mocked Al Gore as a phony for things that were demonstrably true and sincere, while Frank Bruni tasted George Bush’s O’Doul’s and declared it Veuve Cliquot. Recently, there was the spectacle of Helene Hegemann, plagiarist, declaring that “there’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity,” completely unaware that she was damning herself as both unoriginal and inauthentic. Is is really so hard to judge? No, it’s just those who get to do so in public forums are mostly unqualified.

Two new releases from Naxos give perfect examples of both the authentic and inauthentic, and do so in interestingly complex ways. One CD is the Symphony No. 3 and Piano Trio in F major from Marcel Tyberg, the other collects two John Corigliano works, his Phantasmagoria, a suite made from the music for his opera The Ghosts of Versailles, and his ‘Red Violin’ Concerto, developed from his music for the film of the same name (JoAnn Falletta leads the Buffalo Philharmonic on each). Tyberg’s personal story is authenticity of the most tragic kind, an Austrian Jew who died in Auschwitz, and whose work has been rediscovered. The personal story is not the music, however, and the music is disappointing in that it is inauthentic. To say Tyberg was influenced by Mahler and Brahms is misleading, since that term usually describes a point where a composer begins. For Tyberg, Mahler and Brahms are also where he ended; the Symphony is not just indebted to Mahler, it’s a pastiche of that composer, especially his Symphony No. 7, while the chamber work is a resetting of ideas from Brahms, mixed with Mendelssohn. The music is capably made, but it is capably made versions of the music of other composers, there is nothing discernable of Tyberg himself, and if this is indeed Tyberg, then his work is inauthentic. Corigliano, on the other hand, has written deliberately inauthentic music, that is the opera music is meant to sound like it belongs to a different era, a stylized take on 18th century opera buffa. It requires craft for Corigliano to convincingly convey familiar styles and do so in quotation marks, so we know that he is capable of speaking in his own voice as well as mimicking others, and that what we are hearing is deliberate. It’s what a good film composer does, making music in the style the director requests, and he does it. While the staged opera was not really a success, the music is inventive, witty and sincere in both it’s appreciation for the past and it’s comments on it. The violin concerto is of course film music, written to expressive spec, but here expanded with skill into a substantial and enjoyable work, one that uses archaic structural forms, like the opening, substantial “Chaconne.” Like the Dap-Kings, there’s nothing retro about this, a musician taking something from the past that works and that he loves and making his own version. That’s how music is made, and has been made for centuries. A terrific performance from soloist Michael Ludwig and a top quality recording of this piece. True dat.