Monday, July 25, 2011

Amy Winehouse, Authenticity, and Audience Confusion

There was a really good piece by Amanda Petrusich recently on Salon.com about the death of Amy Winehouse and the role of authenticity in music.
The article talks about the fact that music fans, and fans of other forms of art as well, crave authenticity in art. It also questions what the authenticity really means in terms of how it applies to art. In general, I guess listeners feel like a piece of music is more "legitimate" if the audience feels like the life of the artist clearly reflects the sort of experiences and emotions that the art seeks to convey. The line of thinking, I suppose, is that art comes from a more sincere, honest place if the audience thinks that the artist has truly lived the through the sort of events described in their work.

But what do you make of that notion in an age when so many artists exert tremendous effort to spin media images that comport with their art after the fact? We have a whole lot of different musicians out there who are surrounded by teams of managers, publicists, etc., all trying to craft a public persona for artists that will help to sell their product, rendering semi-fictional to entirely fictional biographies that only reflect their histories and lives in the most tangential way (a fact which is made even more absurd when you realize that some of these artists are trying to legitimize themselves by bending the truth about their lives, oftentimes in an effort to try to lend credibility to songs and records written by ghostwriters- songs that the "artist" didn't actually write in the first place).
Other artists try to create a lifestyle for themselves which they think will legitimize their music. Many a country music star has grown up in a suburban environment as a fan of rock and roll, never having ever really experienced a rural lifestyle, only to end up later parading around in cowboy hats, talking of their horses and cattle, and singing of the ranching/country lifestyle. A number of rappers have built careers upon descriptions of growing up "on the streets" despite having actually grown up in a relatively comfortable middle class environment. And, of course, many rock acts seem to have picked up self destructive drug and drinking habits almost as a way to prove to audiences that they're musicians who are legitimately deserving of the "rock star" label.
So the audience craves authenticity, but it's hard to know what's authentic a lot of the time.

And even if the lifestyle seems to match the lyrics, isn't it still impossible to know whether the emotions portrayed in the art are genuine? Doesn't anyone suppose that there have been rappers who are actually from the streets, having written songs about the despair brought on by violence and drugs, while in truth they sort of love the street life because it's brought them money, fame, and success? Haven't there been rock stars who've alluded to the pain and sadness of their drug problems, while in truth some of these same people have mostly enjoyed their habits, including the chance to sing about how awful their struggles had become? Is the music authentic just because of the life events of the artist, even if the emotions expressed in the art aren't genuine?
In her article, Petrusich also makes an excellent (and I think accurate) point about the fact that legitimacy, insofar as it actually exists in music, has to come from the audience and not the performer. The emotional resonance that matters is actually the affect that a piece of music has upon the listener. Maybe in some cases it helps a listener to feel more emotionally connected to a song if that listener feels like the artist was feeling some sort of genuine emotional experience at the time that the song was written. On the other hand, even if a song was written for a primarily commercial purpose, if that song conjures up memories or otherwise stirs up valid emotions in the listener, then then the origins of the song may actually be irrelevant.
Authenticity in art might rely primarily upon the emotional reaction of the audience and not upon the emotional investment of the artist. Given the fact that it's all but impossible to be sure exactly what the artist was thinking as they created their work, the genuine emotional response of the audience might be the best that we can ever really hope for in appreciating a piece of art.

Anyway, things aren't going to change, and audiences are going to continue to demand that the lifestyle of an artist mirrors the content of their work in some way.
As Petrusich points out in regard to Amy Winehouse, the problems arise when artists feel so strong a need to legitimize their work that they're willing to sacrifice everything- even their lives- in order to lend an air of authenticity. The whole phenomenon just becomes that more tragic when the whole thing is misguided and sadly self fulfilling on the part of both artists and fans.

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