Authenticity and Racism in Popular Music

By Caellin Rodgers

Spread The Word

Authentic. It’s a word we toss around a lot when describing our favourite bands and artists

But it probably doesn’t really mean what you think it means: where it used to be a term used to be thought of as describing intrinsic properties as to a music’s worth, it is now recognised as one of the main perpetrators in exclusion on the basis of gender, sexuality and race.

You can see this reoccurring throughout reviews of black musicians by critics – Motown, for example, a style largely dominated by black musicians was labelled “a wholly mechanical style and sound that roared and purred like a well-tuned Porsche” by The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll – fine as it may be, it is still made out to be solely a commercial product. In making this statement, critics remove the value of authenticity from Motown Musicians’ work.

It is perhaps ironic, that white musicians are favoured as being ‘authentic’ when most white music was (and is) heavily influenced by black style and culture. Elvis Presley was arguably the first to do this, the majority of his songs being direct covers of African-American songs he had heard at school. And his success can largely be attributed to the fact that he brought black music to white audiences – yet Elvis is considered to be quite ‘authentic’. This authenticity is granted from the devaluation of black people and music, whereby black songs could be taken and remade without any issues of copyright or authenticity. The Beatles too, bought black music to white audiences, claiming it as their own, and as such, are often attributed with a faux authenticity. Arguably, they began the influx of British Invasion bands, all using this idea of black music as a building block to write white material. Even today, this is still occurring – check out the lyrics to The Eminem Show, where Eminem himself acknowledges this practice.

You can read this idealisation of white (male) musicians and comparable lack of appreciation for black (female) music occuring in The Beat Goes On (Campbell, 2011). In the accompanying instructor’s manual, The Beatles’ ‘greatness’ is defined through their range, their ability to create different sounds and styles between compositions while still retaining their individual identity. In comparison, Arethra Franklin’s similar review, two pages later, she is described as “the only singer of the rock era who is equally at home in James Brown-like music and tender ballads”, and yet the conclusion of her ‘greatness’ is nowhere to be found.

Authentic, therefore is a loaded term that doesn’t really mean anything, and is frequently used to exclude already marginilised groups from popular culture and history. Hopefully, attitudes are starting to change, and more black, female and LGBTQ+ musicians can get their authenticity back.

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