Authenticity For The Masses? This Is Pop
Currently streaming on Netflix, the first season of "This Is Pop" is an incisive and wide-ranging look at many aspects of popular music, including the question of authenticity.
Is there anything about pop music that is authentic? What does that word even mean anymore?
Popular music is a big subject, and in its first season, the series "This Is Pop" examines that question from eight different angles. Each of the initial eight episodes is 44 minutes long and contains vintage clips, present-day interviews, and a story to tell.
The Texan songwriter and singer Townes Van Zandt is widely quoted as having said that "there are only two kinds of songs; there's the blues, and there's zip-a-dee-doo-dah." "The blues" denotes music of integrity and depth, and Van Zandt's other descriptor might mean pop music. Is he right?
I would say that I know what he means, and I agree with him. Certainly, the music that I like has qualities that set it apart from the rest. Otherwise, why would I like it so much? I think everyone feels that way. In the end, though, it's all melodies, rhythm, tone, and lyrics. It all comes from the same great source, whatever that may be.
When Country Goes Pop
"This Is Pop" examines this notion of authenticity in the episode titled "When Country Goes Pop." Here it's not "the blues," but rather "country music" declaring itself to be concerned with "authenticity." Country singer Orville Peck hosts this episode, and he repeatedly brings the word "authenticity" to our attention. Nashville has always believed that the rural and working-class country audience needs to have singers and players that they can trust are just like them. Pop music is too slick, too concerned with artifice to be authentic.
The Nashville establishment has historically resisted everything from Dolly Parton seeking a larger audience, to Willie Nelson singing American songbook standards with an orchestra, to Steve Earle rocking too hard. The most recent example of this is their uncertainty about Lil Nas X and his country rap song "Old Town Road."
As one commentator explains in the episode, "It's a country song if country people say that it is, and if country people listen to it."
Like many musicians, Earle doesn't like being restricted by boundaries. He says "I see it all as pop music. It was always aimed at as big an audience as it could reach." Orville Peck, who himself is in the vanguard of modern country music performers, concludes that "Authenticity...is itself a kind of artifice...(It's) just different ways to get at the truth."
Orville Peck is a Canadian musician who identifies as gay. Based on interviews and other clues, it's surmised that he was a punk musician before he came up with the "Orville Peck" persona. There's as much "cowboy pop" in that persona as there is country music. Peck is like an alt Gene Autry or Roy Rogers.
In the "Hail Britpop!" episode we learn how in the early 1990s the struggling band Blur toured America just as Nirvana was changing the direction of music. They saw that American rock was marginalizing what bands were doing in England. Blur's response was to invent Britpop, rock music unapologetically reflecting authentic British culture.
The "Stockholm Syndrome" episode suggests that it was the authenticity of American rock music that saved Sweden (and Europe) from the previously dominant music known as "schlager"- simple, catchy, sentimental pop tunes (zip-a-dee-doo-dah, in other words.) The worldwide success of ABBA led to a new generation of bands, songwriters, and producers who would export a new Swedish influence.
The story of Boyz II Men is told in an episode detailing the R&B group's rise, success, and eventual influence on the "boy band" phenomenon. Boyz II Men honed their vocal prowess as friends in high school in Philadelphia. They were not brought together by a producer at an open audition. It's the authenticity of their incredible, tight vocal harmonies that set them apart.
Of course, Boyz II Men were Black, and the boy bands that later capitalized on their success (NSYNC, 98 Degrees, Backstreet Boys) were white. In the episode, the point is made that 98 Degrees aspired to be an R&B harmony group, and even had their records released on the Motown label. The producers who created the boy bands wanted a New Kids on the Block look, with a Boyz II Men sound.
The human voice is at the heart of what is authentic in music, and the alteration of the voice using the pitch control processor called Auto-Tune is the subject of another episode. Introduced in 1997, Auto-Tune was intended to be used to correct off-key vocals in the recording studio. That alone would seem to make the singer's performance somewhat inauthentic. Then it was discovered that the extreme over-correction of pitch using Auto-Tune would result in the "robot voice" that has since become a widespread vocal sound in popular music.
My own opinion is that I don't like Auto-Tuned vocals. I want to hear the artist's voice just as it is. British record producer and engineer Ken Scott is interviewed in the "Auto-Tune" episode. He points to David Bowie as an example of the kind of vocalist who would routinely record a song in one complete vocal take, no correction needed. I nodded in agreement, having never fully considered that aspect of Bowie's talent.
Cher's 1998 song "Believe" introduced the Auto-Tune vocal effect to the world, and by the late 2000s hip- hop/R&B artist T-Pain had achieved great success using Auto-Tuned vocals. Despite T-Pain not being taken seriously as a vocalist, many other hip-hop artists (as well as artists in other genres) followed his lead. The strong negative reaction many people have to Auto-Tuned vocals is made clear in this episode, but in the end the conclusion is reached that this audio processor is a tool like any other, and it's all a part of music's evolution.
T-Pain describes performing an NPR Tiny Desk Concert where he sang his songs without Auto-Tune enhancement. It was rather harrowing for him, and he didn't think it was working. Afterward, the social media reaction was "Hey, this guy can really sing!" T-Pain was disturbed by that reaction, because to him it showed that many listeners had never noticed the quality of his songs, but only the novelty of his Auto-Tuned vocals.
The lyrical truth of music is highlighted in the "What Can a Song Do?" episode. Music can be a vehicle to move people to demand social change. Hozier articulates this point regarding his song "Take Me To Church." Chuck D talks about Public Enemy's "Fight The Power." And Arlo Guthrie tells us about his father Woody Guthrie's views on what folk music can do.
Pop music that didn't address the social issues of the day, but nonetheless had lasting impact was created in New York's legendary Brill Building, particularly in the 1960s. The episode on the Brill Building focuses our attention on the talent and craft of people like Neil Sedaka and Carole King.
Finally, the "Festival Rising" episode explains how the idea of the music festival arose in the 1960s in San Francisco, and points out how necessary these events are. There's a communal vibe that arises from simply being at a music festival together. Together with thousands of others who love the music. It's an authenticity of the masses, celebrated in "This Is Pop."