During our seminar over the past few weeks, it has been suggested that authenticity plays a role in why listeners identify with particular musical artists. Increasingly, the word seems to have no fixed meaning when it comes to rock music. One listener’s definition of the authentic artist may be totally different from another. While this seems to be essentially problematic, it actually opens up a different notion: is there actually one type of authenticity at work in rock music, or are there several? If we accept that there are several types of authenticity that people use to qualify artists, we can then stop fixating on finding one actual definition for authenticity and shift the conversation to what finding out what kind of authenticity is being displayed by a particular artist.
Two weeks ago, Professor Solis posed the rather simple question: “Why Beefheart?” Indeed, what is it about Captain Beefheart that appeals to listeners and critics? Surely it’s something besides the pure enjoyment of his music. I grant that someone may reply to this post and say “I love the music of Captain Beefheart because it moves me on an extraordinarily deep level and that’s the only reason.” This statement would be totally valid, but I venture to say that in the majority of cases, there is something else at work here in relation to why a listener would be drawn to Captain Beefheart. This something else is a type of authenticity I’ll refer to as the genuine article.
Here I’ll turn to Christgau: “Zappa’s distance from his audience is a calculated means of bullying it into respectful cash-on-the-line attention. Beefheart really doesn’t give a shit. Zappa plays the avant-gardist and Beefheart is the real thing. He does perform, but for once performance and self expression are almost identical: his detachment is in some sense pure and even innocent, and at the same time he is arrogant as only the pure heart can be arrogant.” (from Any Old Way You Choose It) In other words, both Zappa and Beefheart are weird, but Zappa is being weird. Beefheart is weird. Thus Zappa is a poser and Beefheart is the authentic artist, worthy of reverence and whatever else. To Christgau, it would seem that if Beefheart were playing music in his living room, he would be playing it exactly the way he was on stage that evening. There is no seperation between Beefheart the person and Beefheart the performer, and he is thus the genuine article.
So how does Christgau (and countless others I presume) know that Beefheart isn’t simply acting the part? Here’s where I’ll draw a parallel to another artist who exhibits similar qualities, Daniel Johnston. (If you haven’t experienced him, rent the film The Devil and Daniel Johnston.) On stage, both Beefheart and Johnston are weird, but there’s something about their persona that projects more…they’re almost like idiot savants, and they clearly don’t just play that on stage. Because of this quality, it would seem that they are immune from posturing, from record companies, from the corruption of big time rock, and they are in fact genuine artists.
It is this “purity” that draws people to Beefheart and Johnston. I don’t deny that their music speaks to people, but it’s the feeling of authenticity that creates a substantial part of their lure. Because of their idiot savant like nature, they project the image of the genuine article, and thus serve as an example of authenticity that many listeners look for in their artists.