Online discussion #10 (the last one of the semester!) is available for comments November 7-13. The rubric I’ll be using to grade your discussion participation is available here.
We touched upon several ideas that are often conflated with musical quality in class last week: financial success, audience base, likability. One that we avoided was the notion of “authenticity”—how real, traditional, or truthful a musician is. Maybe that’s a way to assess how good a musician is?
Apples and basketballs
Is Plácido Domingo’s singing more authentic than Marvin Gaye’s? Below, Domingo (b. 1941) sings an aria from Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot (1926), and Gaye (1939-84) sings The Star-Spangled Banner.
We really can’t say that one is more “authentic” than the other—they’re simply quite different because they’re operating in different worlds with different rules about what’s “right.” The singers grew up in different places, use different techniques, produce very different sounds, perform for different audiences, and wear different clothes. If Gaye sang in Domingo’s style, his listeners would likely be quite confused. Opera goers, similarly, would probably be disappointed if someone used Gaye’s style on stage because this kind of singing wouldn’t not be heard in all the seats in a 4,000-seat theater without amplification.
Aretha Franklin (b. 1942), for example, performs the same aria as Domingo did above with a microphone, takes breaths an opera singer would never take, and uses an inflection that fits her gospel background but which is inauthentic in the opera world:
What all this means is that is “authentic” is the sum total of all the educational systems, social roles (like how gender and disability are perceived and treated), musicking, and money making that define norms in a given place and time, and it’s socially-defined—one person alone doesn’t decide what’s “authentic.”
The example above compared very different genres, but tastes change wildly over time within the same genre, too. In the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, it was a common practice to castrate young boys who had excellent singing voices before they hit puberty so that 1) their voices would stay high, and 2) all the work that went into training them wouldn’t be lost in the unpredictability of puberty (boys’ voices become really unstable as the body changes—Haydn was an excellent singer until puberty, and he became a composer instead). For the boys’ families, this was a chance to escape poverty—castrati were famous, adored, and paid quite well—so this was a calculated choice, despite the medical risk and barbarism of the practice.
People really liked the powerful, high pitched voices of castrato singers and thought of this vocal timbre as particularly attractive, heroic, and noble. Castrati were the rock stars of their day and were known by single names (like Beyoncé or Prince): Senesino (1686-1758), Farinelli (1705-82), Cusanino (c.1704-c.1760). People would make sure to see any opera in which these stars were performing.
Castrati were used on stage in female roles (dressing in drag) or in heroic roles (which today might now be sung by a woman, since there are no more castrati singers, or a countertenor, which is a male singer who has trained his voice to be able to sing in this range).
Castrati were also used in musical situations in which women were not allowed to sing, such as the Catholic Church. Below is a recording made in 1902 of the last living castrato singer, Alessandro Moreschi (1858-1922), who was a singer at the Vatican. It provides us a real sense of how tastes and fashions change over time—this vocal sound was once all the rage and has now fallen completely out of favor.
Perfectionism and listener expectations
The ascendancy and primacy of recorded music in the 20th century has changed how music is heard as well as how it is made. Improvements in microphones, mixers, and the advent of digital recording processes and editing software have all made it much easier to produce music that sounds excellent: rich, clear, enticing, and beautiful. Compare these two recordings of Ludwig van Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp minor, Op. 131 (1826): the first was recorded by the Léner String Quartet in 1924—In addition to the omnipresent hiss of the recording technology itself, the sound is tinny, thin, and far-away, with very little audible dynamic or timbral contrast:
On the other hand, a live performance by the American String Quartet in 2013 is clear, conveys all the nuances and subtleties of the players, and has an overall rich or round sound quality:
The 1924 recording is more likely to be authentic—it took place closer to Beethoven’s lifetime, so the chances that one of the members of the string quartet knew someone who knew Beethoven aren’t impossible. That doesn’t mean it’s a better performance or that a listener would choose it over the 2013 recording.
The ubiquity of recorded music has two major effects on how we consume music and what we expect from it as listeners:
- Music should sound perfect; and
- Music should sound perfect all the time.
When a classical musician makes an album (except for recordings of live performances), the goal is a product that is worth listening to multiple times, one without glaring flaws and that is thoughtful and interesting to listen to. The process is comprised of obsessing over details: it is a painstaking marathon of recording every sound over and over again, sometimes playing the same 15 seconds of music (called a “take”) dozens of times to make sure that all aspects of the performance match with what the musician intended (timing, vibrato, intonation, coordination, tone quality). Then, the musician(s) will select the best takes, and the sound engineer will digitally stitch all these patchwork pieces of the performance together so that every single sound is as “perfect” as it can be.
When I recorded an album last year, and we took 55 takes of one nine-minute piece of music—this is quite a small number for most classical recordings. A few weeks later, I listened all the takes and told the engineer that I wanted the first 3 notes from take 4, followed by two measures from take 15, then two beats from take 1, etc. all the way through the piece. All the takes are my playing, but I’m essentially creating a Frankenstein performance of it, choosing the mini-performances in which I best executed my intentions. (The album is available here).
A shift in the way that music is released has allowed for an even-higher degree of perfectionism to creep into the pop music industry, as well. In the past when physical CDs were the primary form of music distribution, the process of releasing music took much longer than it does now. After writing music, recording it in the studio, mixing, and editing, it would take around 6 weeks for the audio to be encoded onto CDs, CD jackets and booklets to be printed, and the product to be physically shipped to record stores. During this time, there would be a press tour to amp up excitement for the release, followed by a release party and scheduled date that consumers could purchase the album in stores. Audiences had to be patient, and artists couldn’t go back an alter their work once the marketing timeline had begun. However, most artists today rely much more heavily (or even exclusively) on digital releases of their work: uploading music to SoundCloud, Bandcamp, Apple Music, Pandora, Spotify, or YouTube. This means that the lead time between finishing a recording and making it available to the public can be reduced to a few hours rather than weeks. It also means that artists don’t necessarily have to adhere to firm deadlines and can instead continue to alter their music as long as they like–if they push back the drop date by a few hours, a couple days, or a year, there isn’t an expensive pre-scheduled marketing campaign or tour that is thrown out of whack. An article by Joe Coscarelli in The New York Times (August 5, 2016) outlines the ways in which established and new artists use the Internet to release their music (and have the flexibility to continue to tweak their tracks to meet their perfectionist creative standards). He discusses primarily Frank Ocean but also Kanye West, Beyoncé, and independent artists: Coscarelli, the Sudden Digital Drop – The New York Times
So what does this perfectionism do to the live music experience? On the classical side, there is a general expectation that the live performance will be as flawless as the studio version. It’s an impossibly high standard! Some audiophiles (people who love recorded sound) find live performances frustrating because the sound is imperfect: musicians make mistakes in live performances, people in the audience cough or shuffle their papers, or the sound in the hall might not be as pure as it is on their home speaker system.
Because most audience members come into contact with pieces of music first through recordings (perfect recordings!), their ears are primed to expect that every time they hear a given piece it will sound as perfect as their favorite recording. In turn, performers try to give the audience what they want: a flawless performance that matches a great recording. The problem with a flawless performance is that in order to play flawlessly, you must practice flawlessly–over and over and over again, until every sound comes out exactly the same way every single time and matches audience’s expectations. Performers are far less likely today to try something new or unprecedented on stage than they were in the 19th century or first half of the 20th century.
The expectation that a live performance will match the crisp, coordinated, and sumptuous sound of a recorded album affects how many non-classical musicians perform, as well. Since the 1960s, the use of pre-recorded backing tracks for all or some of the sounds that comprise a “live” performance has become nearly ubiquitous (including vocals, backing vocals, instrumental tracks). There are many possible permutations of this, described here and here. To some degree this makes sense, since performers can’t dance and sing well simultaneously (think about what happens to your voice when you try to talk while jogging or doing jumping jacks). Sometimes “live” performances are completely fake, as with this list of examples from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Beyoncé, Eminem, Nirvana, Milli Vanilli, Ashlee Simpson, and Jay-Z. And “Lip Sync Battle” was so popular on Jimmy Fallon that it’s now its own spin-off show hosted by LL Cool J—it’s as if we love the energy and illusion of performance but not necessarily the music making.
Smoke and mirrors
When we talk about authenticity, sometimes we’re referring to the heartfelt “self-expression” a singer exhibits—but what if the sentiments being expressed are really someone else’s creation? So much happens behind the scenes in pop music that comprises an artist’s public identity or image: making them sound the way they do by writing lyrics and producing tracks, making them look the way they do through fashion and styling, making them have a particular persona through interview coaching, scheduling appearances at certain events, creating beefs with other artists, or selling photographs to tabloids. An “artist” is oftentimes actually an army of several dozen people working together to create a coherent marketing product (that happens to include music). For example, Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, Rihanna, Kelly Clarkson, Beyonce, Miley Cyrus, Kesha, Pink, Nicki Minaj, David Guetta, The Weeknd, Fifth Harmony, Maroon 5, Ace of Base, Backstreet Boys, and Britney Spears are all pop artists who present distinctly different personas and musical identities to the public, but much of their music is all written by the handful of song writers: Max Martin and Dr. Luke, often working together, or Karl Martin Sandberg. Max Martin’s writing credit discography ranges from Bon Jovi to Ariana Grande; Dr. Luke’s is similarly prolific, including Three 6 Mafia and Weezer. Other ubiquitous songwriters who have created the musical identities of headlining artists over the last 30 years include Babyface, Pharrell Williams, RedOne, Rick Rubin, and Sia.
The idea of authenticity is often front-and-center in hip-hop: staying true to oneself, not selling out, or remaining true to one’s home, origins, and community.
“Will the real Slim Shady please stand up?” —Eminem, “The Real Slim Shady” (2000)
“I rap and I’m real / I’m one of the few here.” —Jay-Z, “Real As It Gets” (2009)
“First things first, I’m the realest.” —Iggy Azalea, “Fancy” (2014)
But, Iggy Azalea is liar. She has never been in “da murder business,” and she adopts an accent that places her in a very different country, ethnic group, and socio-economic class than the one she comes from. Much of the frustration with Azalea’s posturing is that it’s an example of cultural appropriation: she wears the accent like a coat, taking it off whenever she wants, and doing so without having to bear any of the burden of the lived experiences that create that traditionally black sonic identity. When she takes it off, she gets to return to the privilege of being a white Australian woman.
But it’s also possible to view Azalea’s behavior as fundamentally the same as how other musicians approach music making. Musicians use different sounds in different settings to fit audience expectations. Is the true measure authentic identity in hip-hop—or any of these genres—not to convey one’s lived reality, but simply to entertain?