I was in a cranky mood yesterday afternoon at about 4:45, so when NPR commentator Sara Fishko started expatiating about her recent hunger for “authenticity” in recorded music, my buttons didn’t even need pushing; she merely brushed them, and set off my temper.
This is not a new topic; others have treated it with wisdom and profundity, online and offline. I don’t have time to search for specific links right now, but I’m sure Jeff Ward, Tom Matrullo, the Happy Tutor, and Ray Davis would provide more than enough grist for an edifying mill; I’d love to convene an online seminar on “authenticity” with those luminaries, chaired by Heideggerian philosopher David Weinberger — what a treat! Hermenaut’s article on “fake authenticity” opens the topic nicely, and if you’re more comfortable with print media than digital media, Adorno’s Jargon of Authenticity and I’m inclined to think there’s something by Dorothee Soelle that led me to Adorno — her critique of Rudolf Bultmann — that led me to Adorno, but I can’t find the reference right now.
The short expression of why “authenticity” vexes me comes down to, “There’s no there there.” Fishko rhapsodizes about the informal, flawed performances that she prefers to the technically-refined, highly-engineered masterworks by perfectionist performers. She’s entitled to that preference, of course, but identifying it as “authenticity” perpetuates a critical sleight-of-hand by which Fishko’s preference for endearingly imperfect performances ascribes to the work in question a positive attribute: “authenticity.” That ascription, though, occludes the question of “authentic to what?” Are the missed notes and “risks” that Fishko admires part of, say, the composer’s own vision of the work? Or do they constitute a more genuine performance than one in which the instrumentalist doesn’t miss any notes, or take risks with the piece?
In other words, “authenticity” all too often serves as an ideological placeholder term for “stuff I like, for which I don’t have a more precise or reputable adjective that justifies this appreciation.” That’s sloppy thinking, and I object to it.
For the record, I too tend to prefer performances that involve risky, technically-imperfect expression of the compositions in question — though not by any means across the board, and certainly not because such performances are more “authentic.” Some performances benefit from a swung tempo, some from an urgency that missed notes actually reinforce, some from precision and immaculate engineering, some from the casual ambiance that amateur recordings imply. Some rare, astonishing performances combine technical virtuosity with imagination and risk-taking in a sublime confluence of the highest standards in accuracy of performance, recording and artistic imagination; would they be more authentic if the performer flubbed a few notes, or the engineer recorded the performance with a narrow dynamic range and mediocre microphones? When performers deliberately select minimalist, one-take recording techniques, are they opting for greater authenticity, or are they inauthentically adopting a style that doesn’t reflect their customary practice or capacities? Different listeners will assess different combinations of qualities differently, but not because one recognizes true authenticity while the other doesn’t.
To paraphrase the quotation I have most often heard ascribed to Sam Goldwyn, “The secret to success is authenticity. Once you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”