Friday, March 4, 2011

Singer-Songwriters and the Death of Authenticity

Earlier this week I watched a wonderful documentary on the singer-songwriters of the 1960s and 1970s on PBS's American Masters series, Troubadours: Carole King/James Taylor and the Rise of the Singer-Songwriter. Though the documentary focused on Carole King, who made the transition from Brill Building songwriter to singer-songwriter in the 1960s and 1970s, and James Taylor, one of the most successful singer-songwriters in the 70's, and the long professional and personal relationship between the two, other singer-songwriters and Doug Weston's Troubadour Club in Los Angeles, from which many of the singer-songwriters emerged, made their appearance in the documentary as well including David Crosby, Roger McGuinn, Steve Martin, Bonnie Raitt, Linda Ronstadt, Joni Mitchel, Kris Kristofferson, Eagles, all those session men like Danny Kortchmar who played on the albums of the singer-songwriters, and even Elton John, who made an early legendary appearance at the Troubadour in August of 1970. Troubadours did everything a good PBS documentary normally does. It was educational, enlightening, and entertaining. It was also, for me, a nostalgic walk down memory lane. I grew up listening to the Byrds, James Taylor, and Carol King in part.

As I was sitting and watching the documentary I couldn't help think about how far contemporary popular music has strayed from the singer-songwriter mentality of the past. Coming out of the folk, folk rock, and folk influenced rock movement and impacted by the countercultures of the 1960s American singer-songwriters strove for authenticity in music and in life. Today this cult of authenticity seems a thing of the past. Today we have Fergie who, when she isn't a singer in her band the Black Eyed Peas, is shilling for Avon, appearing on the Dan Patrick Show, and singing at the halftime show at the Super Bowl, a Disneyfornicated spectacle that is perhaps as far from singer-songwriter authenticity as one can get. Today we have Jessica Simpson and Katy Perry shilling for the acne product Proactive. Today we have popular celebrity-singers like Fergie, Britney Spears, Jessica Simpson, Katy Perry, and Christina Aguilera, and even that infamous contemporary bad girl Lady Gaga (Dale Bozzio meets Madonna meets the theatrics of early Genesis) who seem to think that Life is a Movie and that they are its stars and its celebrities who we, the music masses, should worship and adore and emulate (latter day Horatio Algers?). No wonder so much popular music is dead on arrival these days. No wonder so many theorists assert that reality and authenticity have died to be replaced by a postmodernist simulation, a postmodernist simulation, by the way, that has none of the artistry or ideological and gender subversiveness of punk or the gender subversiveness of glam. RNIP.

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