My Pastiche or Yours?

By  |  May 30, 2013

When Hegel observed, “The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk,” he wasn’t talking about musicology, but he may as well have been. Knowledge, when it comes at all, comes in retrospect. By the time conversations about “curation,” “preservation,” and “authenticity” are taken up in earnest, the form in question can be said to have reached a mature stage, if not an exhausted one.

In a certain sense, we live today in a golden era of music: never before has more of it been known and accessible to so many. And yet, it is one of the ironies of our time—seemingly late-stage in all categories and genres, even hip-hop—that as everything has been celebrated, indexed, and recorded, as everything has been made widely available by the digitization and compression of sound, the consequence has been that nothing has ever seemed less authentic.

It no longer surprises me, as it once did, that the best Detroit techno and Chicago house comes out of Berlin. These two distinctive black sub-genres of electronic music have been kept alive and strong largely by German DJs and their overwhelmingly white audiences, without the vast majority of American blacks—who long ago checked out of the forms—even noticing, let alone bothering to care. Whether this is a good or a bad thing depends not only on how much you think about dance music, but also on whether or not you believe culture should or can be proprietary in the first place. I’m of the mind it wouldn’t make much difference either way.

In his recent essay, Duncan Murrell defines the authentic as “a pure thing that conveys history, membership, and meaning upon the maker and the collector alike.” That’s as good a definition as any, but can the concept hold in an era in which the astute epigone is no longer constrained by time and space, and has been at his pastiche of choice long enough to not only blur the line with but in many cases surpass the originator? Authenticity today is more than ever rooted in process, not in point of origin. The measure of the quality of a Japanese single malt, after all, is in the sipping, not in the approval of the Scottish drinking public.

To say that something is being preserved is by definition to concede it might otherwise perish. And if the question animating Murrell’s essay boils down to Who has the authority to authenticate?—and therefore to preserve—the only convincing answer is: whoever might care enough to inform themselves and try. Murrell notes that the mayor of New Orleans had it out for any music that hadn’t been safely historicized, entombed, and transformed into advertising jingles. Metal, punk, noise rock, bounce, and hip-hop would naturally fall into this category of the inscrutable. Of course the mayor wouldn’t know what to make of his constituents Juvenile and Lil Wayne, for instance, nor what they might mean by “Back That Azz Up,” and the directions contained therein:

After you back it up and stop
Then drop, drop, drop, drop it like it's hot,
Wobbody wobbody wobbody wobbody wobbody wobbody,
Drop drop it like it's hot,
Wobody wobbody wobbody wobbody wobbody wobbody
Wobody wobbody wobbody wobbody wobbody,

That’s New Orleans music through and through, and it would have been easily recognizable as such by Louis Armstrong, who was a world-class ass hound among other things. Even so it’s easy to imagine the confusion in the mayor’s office, and the subsequent conclusion that what they were hearing in “Back That Azz Up,” one of the great bounce compositions, was mere noise.

And Murrell is right to suggest it doesn’t matter what the mayor—or, for that matter, the makers of the jazz-centric show Treme, which he also cites—think or don’t think is real New Orleans music. Not in the long run. As soon as enough people believe and proclaim that bounce music is the real deal—and there are plenty who do—then it is, period. (Which, of course, is not the same as saying it is of the same caliber as Louis Armstrong’s jazz—that is another debate.)

Does that make musical curation and preservation an interactive pursuit, less a passive academic science than its own distinctive form of art? The answer might be yes. In the end, as Warhol knew, it all comes down to what you can get away with.

Return to the  Against Authenticity symposium

Thomas Chatterton Williams has written for the New Yorker, the New York Times, n+1, and other publications.