I’ve been reading a book about Elliott Smith’s XO, one of my favorite albums ever, and the author spends a good deal of time discussing what makes an artist authentic.
Authenticity is a complex, strange idea. The author, Matthew LeMay, argues that Smith’s use of drug imagery and tales of depression and self-doubt are not exactly autobiographical, or at least not intended to be taken that way. Just because Smith himself had a history of drug use, LeMay says, does not mean the songs that make drug references are about him. But we assume they are, because cultural authorities have pegged Smith as the “drugged-up singer/songwriter” type.
Part of the reason for that, LeMay posits, is that listeners want to believe that Elliott Smith’s songs are somehow more “authentic” than someone else’s, that he has authenticity because he’s writing about things he himself has experienced. It raises the question, though: if Smith’s songs were not purely autobiographical (and LaMay makes a fairly compelling argument for why they’re not), are they somehow less authentic?
What even makes a song (or a musician) authentic? What makes a Bob Dylan song more authentic than, say, a Lady Gaga song? There are few who would argue Dylan’s “The Ballad of Hollis Brown,” for instance, is less authentic than Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face.” But what makes that the case? The very act of creating a song, of putting emotional and mental concepts into a formal structure, of setting it to a melody, is inauthentic: there is nothing “real” about singing about your feelings rather than, say, any other form of expression. Expression itself is an artificial construct, an effort to put into words or pictures or sound or whatever something that cannot be truly defined. The act of attempting to contain a concept as big as “love” or “addition” in any sort of expressive form is to put the concept in a box, but the box can never fully contain the entirety of the concept.
So, why then do we consider some musicians more authentic than others? Why does an Elliott Smith or a Bob Dylan come across as more authentic than a Lady Gaga or a Celine Dione? Does it have to do with the nature of their music, with Smith and Dylan writing songs that are more direct and often more literary than their poppier counterparts? Is it that they often write the songs themselves? Or that singers like Dione and Lady Gaga have an army of producers and engineers crafting their music, whereas a guy like Elliott Smith did it almost entirely by himself?
It’s difficult to say. I think it has a lot to do with verisimilitude. An Elliott Smith song feels real, feels lived in, and that lends it its air of authenticity. The songs feel believable, whereas Celine Dione’s “I Will Always Love You” just feels like it’s all soaring high notes and doesn’t necessarily carry the same weight of truth to it (or truthiness, even). Promising to always love some unnamed figure up on a pedestal feels artificial to us, even if you happen to love the song, while a stark ballad like Dylan’s “Hollis Brown” feels very human. It seems like something that could happen, and that is what gives the song the authenticity.
All music is artifice. When I was younger, I dismissed music from the ’80s as being “style over substance,” and felt pretty smug in my assessment. While I still don’t particularly care for ’80s music today, I can see how false the dichotomy I’d created was: there’s no song that hasn’t taken style into consideration, even if the decision is a lo-fi Mountain Goats “single voice and guitar recorded straight into a boombox” style. “Substance” is a pretty ephemeral thing, really, and it’s absolutely possible to craft a catchy, poppy song that has tremendous substance.
Ultimately, authenticity is a tricky concept. I think a lot of it has to do with how an artist carries his or herself. While a guy like Elliott Smith was always very concerned with the style of his songs and their arrangement, his meticulous approach to the sound and the lyrics carried a great deal of conceptual weight that granted him an air of authenticity, even when standing onstage next to Celine Dione at the Oscars. But authenticity isn’t about being a confessional singer/songwriter, it’s about holding true to your inner self, writing and performing what you want to, the way you want to, regardless of its style or substance.