Sunday, 1 February 2009

The Dark Side of the Authentic in Underground Music

If there are two universal truths in human existence they are that one; people love music, and that two; they hate their jobs. The failure of human society to have evolved into anything other than a 24/7 party of love and utmost spiritual fulfilment can be attributed to an absence, thus far, of sufficient theorising on that which links these two fundamental certainties.

I’m sure I speak for the vast majority of readers of this text when I suggest that that which we are required to do during the day, for the sake of ‘earning a living,’ is at the sacrifice of living itself. Aside from a handful of freakish jobsworths and anomalous humanitarian aid-workers, sexy dancers and video-game testers, society is built on people who spend the majority of their lives being someone they really aren’t, or that they certainly rather they weren’t. Our jobs tend to be both demeaning and alienating, in as much as they demand that we adopt a character or mode of behaviour that isn’t ‘us.’ It is left to our activities outside of the 9–5 grind, then, to provide us with space to become who we ‘really are’. Whilst away from work we can engage in pursuits that let us express ourselves, unrestrained by the heavy chains of responsibility that dictate that we act ‘professionally’.

Capitalist society has addressed this dilemma by bestowing us with artists and musicians; a strange race of super beings granted the privilege to earn money, sometimes in vast quantities, to express themselves ‘sincerely’ as a job. What we lack in a qualitatively rich everyday existence is made up for by our opportunity to consume the produce of someone else’s authenticity. We are happy to provide musicians with a place in society where they can communicate how they feel and reflect upon life - whether that be through beauty, anger, machismo, sadness, joy, sexiness and so on - because of the absence of these qualities in our everyday lives. What we expect in return - when we turn on the radio, buy and album, watch a music programme on telly or go to a gig - is a concentrated hit of authenticity and unbridled ‘human expression’ to affirm that the musician’s side of this social contract is being upheld.

Following this logic through, I can begin to understand better my early attraction to punk and, subsequently, music done ‘DIY’. In this arena - one uncontaminated by the desire for profit, fame, sex, drugs and all the other clich├ęd incentives that ‘corrupt’ the mainstream music industry - I assumed to find the most authentic and sincere forms of musical expression. Indeed, the creative freedom gained when profit is not the motivating factor for a band, seemed to produce some of the most heartfelt and uninhibited music and performances I’d experienced. The gigs that I saw in the function rooms of pubs and social clubs and the records I bought by bands who had rejected the idea of commercial success as a guiding aspiration were, in the most, hitting my authenticity buttons hard, and madly flicking my sincerity-switches to boot.

That said, there were still a lot of DIY bands that I’d see, read about and hear records by, who’s freedom of expression would actually really wind me up. A lot of the noise and avant-garde acts I saw, for example, seemed to me to be taking the piss, or, to put it more politely, were being ‘contrived’. I could only imagine that this ‘outer-limits’ music was a deliberate attempt to be difficult, to get a rise out of the audience and, as such, was pure style over content. “Surely,” I’d convince myself, “these guys playing a single note for half an hour, or just jumping around screaming without demonstrating any musical skill aren’t sincere? They can’t actually enjoy it. They’re just doing it for show; in which case, it’s just as bad as the Spice Girls. All that’s happening in these experimental art-for-art’s-sake noise-outs is that spectacular entertainment has been substituted for spectacular anti-entertainment.” Similarly, I was, in earlier times, of the opinion that if a band weren’t competent musicians, or if they were playing music that was clearly derivative of other styles, then they mustn’t be ‘serious’ or ‘committed’. This, equally, fell under my critical fire as ‘inauthentic’ music, and was, therefore, not fulfilling the my-time-and-money-for-your-sincerity pact I assumed we had made. In short, I’d feel ripped off.

Over time, however, I began to re-evaluate this attitude. My experiences actually talking and meeting these groups of noise-makers and sloppy indie-nonsense players made me realise that, actually, they were just as committed and ‘into’ what they were doing as the technically proficient math-rock bands I’d revered. More importantly, though, I began to question the foundations underlying my desire for authenticity in music. Firstly, what was this elusive authenticity or sincerity I was expecting? How was I defining its limits? Was it possible, for instance, to see a band that sincerely enjoyed making money from music, or that genuinely enjoyed playing music that was derivative, or even outright cover-versions, of other bands? Would this prevent it from being authentic music? If not, then it doesn’t necessarily follow that the DIY scene is the only, or even the most likely, place to experience authentic music; it would be just as likely to occur or emanate from the commercially-driven mainstream as the ‘independent’ underground.

Secondly, and crucially, we should perhaps ask ourselves whether it is even healthy to crave the authentic in music or art. Wouldn’t we be better off spending that energy creating spaces for authenticity in our own lives, rather than delegating it to some other party, be they professional or otherwise? Furthermore, what is so socially beneficial about authenticity anyway? Although we might lack spaces where we feel we can act ‘as we really are’ and ‘be our true selves’, that rests on an assumption that there is a ‘real’, ‘true’ self to be expressed. By believing in such notions we are, of course, in real danger of encroaching on to the territory of reactionary, conservative, and even rightwing thought. A quest for the ‘true’, ‘uncontaminated’ essence of man has, historically, gone hand-in-hand with the partition of the ‘natural’ from the ‘unnatural’, the ‘pure’ from the ‘impure’ and, subsequently, the exclusion or division of peoples and the implementation of repressive hierarchies based on these ‘truths’. ‘The authentic’, then, is potentially as harmful a concept as it is an inspiring one, a Pandora’s box of sorts, and one who’s absence from our activities outside of our working lives is perhaps not such a bad thing.

I would suggest, then, that we are better off talking about that which we seek as an antidote to the boredom and alienation of everyday life - and the thing that is available to us in the experience and participation in music, especially in its DIY form - as honesty, not authenticity. This opens up space for us to accept the impure, the contradictory, the mistaken and the plain wrong – all those things, in fact, that we can’t be whilst at work, and all the things that make life worth living. In short, we’re not listening to music and going to gigs to experience pure, unadulterated emotional truth; we’re going to see people having, and have ourselves, as Freddy said, a real good time. Don’t let the desire for the authentic stop that now.

Andy Abbott

Andy Abbott fills his time being an artist and the guitarist in That Fucking Tank amongst other even lazier activities. If you are so inclined, a lot of the ‘produce’ of this can be found by visiting

1 comment:

HH said...

Love it when someone perfectly articulates something that's been niggling with you subconsciously... Think I'll read this 3 times. It's an excellent article! Would you like to be my musical shrink? Ha! Thanks...