It’s everywhere. There is no way to escape it. It blares from our radios and televisions and slyly whispers through telephone hold music and elevators. It takes many forms and strikes when you least expect it. Our lives are indeed plagued by the spine-chilling strains of crap music. For something that makes up an unfortunately large percentage of our musical intake, not much is known about bad music. We know what we don’t like, but why? What is it about these aural assaults that make them so unpleasant? This article aims to prove that the reasons behind all this bad music are simply a question of authenticity.
The Macquarie Dictionary (1981) defines authenticity as the quality of being authentic; genuineness; the quality of being genuine or not corrupted from the original. What does this mean in terms of music? Peter Kivy (1997) describes two types of musical authenticity: historical and personal. Historical authenticity mainly refers to performers interpreting the work of composers. Kivy mentions several points such as “faithfulness to the composer’s performance intentions, faithfulness to the performance practice of the composer’s time and faithfulness to the sound of a performance during the composer’s lifetime.” Authenticity is a very important aspect to consider when interpreting a composer’s work however this article will mainly be focussing on personal authenticity. Kivy describes personal authenticity as “faithfulness to the performer’s own self, not derivative or an aping of someone else.” How exactly does authenticity fit in with bad music? A lack of authenticity is the downfall of many a tune. Authenticity affects every aspect of a song, from its conception to its performance. This article will examine the role of authenticity in music, or more specifically, crap music.
Sometimes it is very easy to tell what constitutes crap music.
Other times however, the path is not so clear cut. What some people consider to be aurally offensive could someone else’s all-time favourite track. Bad music is often a question of taste based on each individual’s social and psychological conditions. As such, the aim of this article is not to assemble a hit lists of crap songs or albums but to investigate the common causes behind crap music. Naturally, the first point of call for this article is to determine what exactly bad music is.
Simon Frith (2004) states that bad music seems to fall into two broad categories: incompetent music and self-indulgent music.
Incompetent music is dependent on the musician’s levels of technical skill with their chosen instrument. This incompetence can be broken into two very different areas: untutored and unprofessional. Untutored musicians play bad music because they can’t play any other way; either because they were never taught or are simply not musically able. Unprofessional musicians, on the other hand, play badly because they choose to. This sounds strange initially but entire musical genres can be based on having less than virtuosic musical ability. Punk, for example, with its homemade, DIY roots started out as a rebellion against the cashed-up, overproduced ‘mainstream’ artists. Instead its authenticity is determined by the rawness and reality of the lyrics as well as the passion with which the instruments are played, rather than any particular musical gifts. Passion and authenticity are often the defining characteristics of good music, even more so than technical ability. Frith (2004) states that “even in classical criticism, reviewers tend to favour a passionate performance, wrong notes and all, over something that is technically flawless but cold.”
Peter Kivy talks about failures in performance versus failures in sincerity. A performance can be technically perfect and still lack feeling and sincerity. On the other hand, as the boys above so aptly demonstrate, a performance can have all the sincerity and earnest emotion it wants but if it can’t back it up with at least some technical proficiency, crap music is usually the end result.
The second category that crap music falls into is that of self-indulgent music.
“Someone left the cake out in the rain
I don’t think I could take it, `cause it took so long to bake it
And I’ll never have that recipe again, oh no!”
Bad musicians play or compose in a completely incomprehensible, introverted way. Isolating listeners with un-relatable or hollow lyrics that reflect self-obsession rather than any urge to communicate musically. Y. Taylor and H. Barker state that “Increasingly the fundamental purpose of rock music came to be self-expression. Less talented musicians have used this goal to justify self-indulgence and obscurantism, producing songs that are meaningless to anyone but themselves.” Self-indulgent musicians can also be criticised for egocentricity, forgetting or ignoring that music is a collaborative, communicative practice. Fifteen minute drum solos are a dead giveaway for this type of musician. They use a performance or a song as a vessel of their own self-promotion. To show off how well or loud or long they can play, ignoring their colleagues, resulting in music that is unbalanced. Self-indulgent music also includes empty, cold music. Frith (2004) describes this type of self-indulgence as “music that indulges in form at the expense of content … that has nothing to say but says it elaborately anyway.”
Both of the aforementioned aspects of bad music reflect the importance of authenticity in music. Both portray a breakdown in musical communication, whether between musicians and other musicians, musicians and their audiences or composers and performers. What about authenticity of physically performance? We can all agree that seeing a truly awesome live band is a fantastic, sometimes moving experience. Conversely, having to endure a crap performance is only slightly preferable to having teeth pulled sans anaesthetic. Authenticity is such an important trait to bring to a live performance; it is simply not enough to amuse an audience. Indeed, theatricality is a trait more fitting of inauthentic music than anything else. H. Barker and Y. Taylor (2002) wrote:
“In Lennon’s distaste for McCartney’s pop entertainments, in Supergrass’s and Nirvana’s embarrassment at their mainstream success, and in a thousand other rock voice, we can hear in retrospect that it is inauthentic or inadequate to merely entertain and that simple amusement or listening pleasure is not enough.”
Kiss is a perfect example of this. Yes, we were all mildly bemused by the theatricality of the make-up and the stage personas but it is certainly a stretch to consider this a piece of soulful, authentic music. They certainly sing about heartfelt topics like love and God giving rock and roll to us, yet we don’t consider them authentic musicians. The fact that Kiss are so outright in asserting who they are, or at least who they pretend to be, is a contributing factor to this. Y. Taylor and H. Barker (2002) outline two kinds of honesty: earnestness and self-revelation.
“It’s the difference between an answer and a question: earnestness is saying, “This is who I am, and I really want you to believe me,” while self-revelation is saying, “I wonder who I am- could you help me find out?” For obvious reasons, the latter is a far more inviting position.”
In stark contrast to the garish, over-the-top glam rock of Kiss, Nirvana’s iconic Unplugged performance is one of the most enduring examples of authentic music. Despite the fact that they are performing a cover of someone else’s song, the musical journey undertaken through this song is unquestionably one of self-revelation. The audience are invited and enticed to help the band, or perhaps just Kurt Cobain, find out who they really are. The raw emotion and pain in this performance brings more authenticity than any amount of make-up or sequins ever could.
Who else is to blame for the vast quantities of crap music plaguing our lives? The bands cop a lot of flack but there is, of course, a higher power at work. This may seem glaringly obvious; of course it is those soulless, money-grabbing record companies, who else could so shamelessly disseminate this rubbish? It is always easy to blame the business side of the industry but, in reality, it is not that simple. Essentially, the music we hate is a direct, albeit unfortunate, result of the music we love. It is our love of music, and subsequent readiness to financially invest in it, that results in such vast quantities of poor music. Naturally, record companies want to maximise profits by creating music that will appeal to the largest possible audience and therein lies the problem. When music is created solely for the purpose of pleasing everyone and making money, it loses all of its authentic qualities and becomes, quite simply, crap music. Simon Frith (1978) states that:
“The Leavisite literary criticism is also scathing of mass culture, stating that it is a ‘corruption of such art.’ The key critical concept is ‘authenticity’; the argument is that a culture created for commercial profit must lack ‘a certain authenticity’ even if it ‘dramatises authentic feelings’.”
D. Hughes (1978) agrees stating that mass music is worthless because there is ‘nothing essential in the music itself which belongs to either real emotion or to an unmistakeable vitality’. However it does revert back to the age-old theory of supply and demand. If no-one bought crap music then there would be no benefit in making it. Are the record companies simply giving the people what they want? Has our musical taste been eroded to empty, meaningless tracks written purely to make money? It is certainly not the most positive outlook and is probably slightly exaggerated. Throughout the ages, as long as people have been making music, some people have been making crap music. It just makes us appreciate the good, authentic stuff even more. The fact that every Singstar and Guitar Hero can now publish themselves and their music on MySpace or YouTube certainly has done wonders for the amount of crap music available online. Hopefully, this means we will be appreciating the truly emotive, authentic songs a hell of a lot more.
In conclusion, authenticity is by far the most important quality in a song if it is to be respected and liked. Bad music can be divided into two, occasionally overlapping, categories: incompetent and self-indulgent music. Both of these stem from questionable authenticity whether it be physical, musical proficiency or using music as a vessel for egocentric self-satisfaction. Authenticity also plays an intrinsic role in the reception of live bands. Overly-theatrical shows are seen to be fake and lacking in genuineness while truly emotive performances take audiences on a journey of self-revelation. There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that authenticity is what makes or breaks a good artist or band. Changing technology, the advent of MySpace and YouTube, are providing a blank canvas for bad musicians as well as good ones. It is up to the faithful and, hopefully, discerning listeners to hold authenticity of composition and performance as essential qualities, forcing higher standards in music. We definitely don’t want another Achy Breaky Heart.
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