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Pop music notes on the decade: Authenticity takes a holiday

Emotions were fed through Auto-Tune, and downloading wrecked the industry. But things appear to be changing for the better.


Click here for Ann Powers' best of 2009.

Recently asked what the word "authenticity" meant to her, Lady Gaga -- the last major pop star to emerge during the decade we're now departing -- tried her best, at first. "Integrity, intention," she said, furrowing her neatly plucked brow. Then she gave up the pretense. "I can say this . . . to you all day," she harrumphed. "It's not gonna reap anything."

She's right. Of all the aspects of pop that went into fatal mutation mode in recent years, the cult of authenticity was hit perhaps the hardest. The advent of downloading wrecked the music industry as we've known it, and along with many jobs and old-fashioned rock star dreams, core assumptions about what makes music meaningful have been changing, too.

One major one has to do with what we think is most real, most able to embody sincere and powerful emotions. We have come a long way from the '90s, a period that saw the commercial triumph of credibility-obsessed subcultures like indie rock and hip-hop, and the rise of artists like Kurt Cobain and Tupac Shakur, who were undone, partly, by inner conflicts about crossing over and selling out.

Other important figures, including Lilith Fair leader Sarah McLachlan, R&B-hip-hop fusion pioneer Lauryn Hill and country maverick Garth Brooks, also sought to change the mainstream in the 1990s but were ambivalent -- and retreated artistically once they did so. 

Ann Powers: Best of 2009

Authenticity was a major concern for these standard-bearers. But by the end of the '90s, that value was fading. The princess Lolitas and the boy bands brought back the dressing-for-prom spirit of teeny-bop, and Beyoncé, still in Destiny's Child, began formulating her plan to reinvent R&B as a wicked combination of hip-hop boasting and Broadway style pizazz.

The most fascinating personalities of this new era would never present themselves as unwashed or genuinely unplugged. They're show people who are able to dance, crack jokes and work all the knobs that power their multimedia extravaganzas. Eminem and Britney Spears, will.i.am and Kanye West, M.I.A. and OutKast, Rihanna and Lil Wayne: In nearly every niche, millennial artists have shown a marked preference for artifice over raw expression, costume and theatrics over plain presentation and foregrounding the tools they use to make music over pretending that it all comes "naturally."

Let's take two not-so-obvious examples. Eminem was the best-selling album artist of the decade. Who's more serious than that tortured rapper? But recall his emergence at the end of the last century. The Real Slim Shady was a comedian whose very act was based on playing around with the idea that, as a white guy meddling in hip-hop, he couldn't be "real."

Then there's Radiohead. It's impossible to find a more earnest embodiment of that central unit of authentic rock, the band, today. Yet no matter how scruffy the image of Thom Yorke and company, Radiohead's music runs on the illusions and nightmares of the post-millennial world. Using club beats and the fragmented compositional structures of contemporary classical music, Radiohead writes little operas for paranoid androids and mutant fishes in the information stream.

As the decade ends, pop grows ever more bent on making inauthenticity ring true. Every indie kid seems to be writing a musical or sewing her own superheroine cape. Billie Joe Armstrong, still committed to mascara, kept Green Day alive by becoming a rock opera librettist. Adam Lambert turned "American Idol" glam, and great, again. And then there was "Glee," the first real musical to work as an American television show, reminding us all that even life's most daunting problems can be lightened, if not solved, by a choral version of classic rock.

There are obvious reasons for this abandonment of solid-feeling values -- not just "authenticity" but also "purity" and "rawness." Novelty and sonic shine are primary values in a music business powered by catchy ringtones and downloads instead of albums. Technology also has profoundly changed the way music is made; kids are learning how to play synthesizers before they bother with guitars, and tools like Auto-Tune and Pro Tools have made "natural" sounds passé.

But even as the dire economics of music-making (and, by the way, music journalism) call for a lament, I celebrate the return of glitter and weirdness and fakery in pop. It's opening up the doors to those who didn't fit more constrictive paradigms of authenticity: more women, more gay and lesbian faces, more multiracial and international voices. In general, it's making for a fuller reflection of life in our fragmented, hyper-accelerated time of struggle.

Pop today might seem like a big charade, but it's teasing out deeper truths. Authenticity's bound to make a comeback; after all, Brooks just came out of retirement (not that he doesn't have a showman's flair!) and Lilith Fair returns next spring. But after this decade, even the most sincere expressions of self will have to be multiple and complicated.

We've finally all learned the lesson of the disco prophet Sylvester: only by admitting that nothing is straightforward can we feel Mighty Real.

--Ann Powers


Ann Powers: Best of 2009

Rosanne Cash, Justin Townes Earle, Miranda Lambert and the rest of 2009's most notable country releases

The decade and year in review

Photo, top left: Eminem. Credit: Getty Images
Photo, top center: Lady Gaga. Credit: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times
Photo, top right: Britney Spears. Credit: Getty Images

Comments () | Archives (14)

if u want authenticity and talent not gaga britney man donna who lip synch live show , go into Kylie Minogue her last live album a soprano voice a warm artiste whose spectacular show is superb amazing

Once again Ann pines away for the 90s back when "music mattered".

Powers celebrates "the return of glitter and weirdness and fakery in pop", which she thinks benefits women artists, gays/lesbians and presumably, non-whites. Huh? There are plenty of artists in those groups who have succeeded precisely because of their claims to authenticity, black artists particularly. The Blues, Jazz, R & B, Hip Hop are all premised on being the real deal. And there's no weirdness and fakery in white male pop? David Bowie? KISS? Hair Metal? New Wave and the entire 80's? Authenticity is not based on gender, race or sexual orientation. It's based on intention, talent and honesty.

You are right... pop music is terrible. That stated, the indie scene ruled the decade, and many bands from smaller labels made this decade (some even after transitioning to the big labels). I think music was better this decade than last, and that 2009 was the best year of the decade. Too many good albums to name, and I am not a twenty something hipster.

Very trite essay. But its exposition is as deep as the music it seeks to expose. You've focused on the circus acts and tried to clump all artists from the last 10 years together with them instead of pointing out the triumphs of those who didn't fit the mold. You've grouped Radiohead with Brittany because of a concept album--but that was once the only way to write an album. Likewise, you've attacked showmanship which is what musicianship has always been about, from the swagger of the Rolling Stones, the hair cut and suits of the Beatles, to Bono's shades and stadium rock shows. Authenticity will always be challenged, but instead of challenging authenticity you're challenging preference. Only history will validate an artist's creativity. We still listen and praise songs from the 70's that my generation turned its back on in the 80's as irrelevant and passe and last-decade. Time is the great judge--let's discuss the artists of the new millennium 20 years from now. For now, let's celebrate and party to their hits. They may be attached to a high school reunion slide-show ten years from now--or they may just go down in the annals of history as some of the most ground-breaking work of our time.

It seems to me that you're taking authenticity to be synonymous with untheatrical. I don't think the use of extended metaphors either in the lyrical, structural, or visual presentation of a piece of work can be construed as meaning that the work itself has nothing 'real' to say. If anything it signals to me that we're returning to a narrative mode of expression in music rather than the emotive mode we've been stuck in for so long.

I welcome a change from the "I feel this ..." and "It hurts so bad ..." compositions. Angst-y psychoanalytic pablum that is rife in the circles of the 'authentic' artist. To call on the adage often given when dispensing writing advice "Show, don't tell."

Actually there is more and better accessible music than ever but like the fat in the government, that fat no longer exists in the music biz. I once was a member of that business. I got into it because I LOVED music and had a passion that existed every hour of the day. The music business almost wrecked that passion so after leaving it, I was able to discover much more than was served up by a select few.

Great music is out there and after loading maybe a hundred thousand songs onto a hard drive (mostly from my own CD collection), I now hear much more in the digital world (obscure tracks and so on) than I have hear from my own collection over the previous twenty years.

It's all good. But not so good in the top 100.

and the problem is that the best music, the authentic music is hardly played for us to hear. We need to search it out.

The music of this past decade is difficult to summarize, and shouldn't be reduced to a bite-size cultural snapshot, analogous to cell phone ring-tones. I believe many of us listen to a wider variety of music, crossing many genres... and our ipod playlist rotations are not always reflected in what the music business/media perceives to be popular. Authenticity continued throughout this decade, except that many of us simply enjoyed it in the comfort of our own space. This decade was not simply about facades, and the examples of Lady Gaga and Adam Lambert are poor choices, in particular, Lambert, who has garnered a lot of attention with his provocative acts, but has not yet created music worthy of the same attention. Within each genre, you can find standouts that continue to produce great musical work. Music listeners have moved on to having a more eclectic taste--radio and media has yet to catch on to this, and instead, celebrate the few remaining acts that the industry has chosen to play on the radio. Even stations like KROQ, that used to pioneer emerging rock acts, have limited themselves in their playlist rotation, perhaps acknowledging that that the station no longer has the influence that it used to in the past. In the same manner that they've played Kate Bush and New Order in the past, they could be playing Bat For Lashes and Justice now--artists that push the boundaries, but create music that is still very accessible. Instead, KROQ seems a bit stuck on the 90s... new music by Offspring and Green Day just aren't as relevant as they were back when they first started. It could be argued that the 80s could have also been perceived as a decade of music that's not considered authentic, with its synths and funny hairdos, but 25 years later, we consider new wave as an important phase in modern rock, in some ways, reflecting the mainstreaming of punk through the ingredient of dance beats. If anything, the post-grunge late 90s was a forgettable period, when pop focused merely on melody, and rock churned out mid-tempo ballads that can be replicated over and over again (Matchbox 20/Rob Thomas anyone?). Lilith Fair should not be used as a highlight for authenticity. Instead, that movement merely lumped all female singer songerwriters into the same category and removed each artist of their own distinct flavor. During this time, the leader of the pack, Sarah McLachlan had chosen a much more commercial route with "Surfacing," taking a distinct turn from the previous progressive work, "Fumbling Towards Ecstasy." Lilith Fair actually died a pretty quick death and did nothing to contribute to the rise of female artists in rock after 2000. In summary, authenticity is still happening... it's simply difficult to describe and capture in a snapshot.

As I heve read on website: rayal - magic .webs .com , so the secret of Britney's srange behaviors (2 years before) was "the connection" with one Lithuanian magican. After this she have got very interesting and "broad" psichology:)
It is possible that something "stupid" (for manyone) have a very interesting and compilcated "explaining's core".

The pop music scene has always been like this...most of it has never been authentic. When Kurt Cobain and Tupac were getting popular, New Kids On The Block were huge, so lets not act like the 90's were immune to bad pop acts. For every 1 artist with credibility, there's 10 that are junk. Even if it wasn't "pop" - there's always been more bad commercial music than there has been genuine music.

As someone who is into modern/progressive rock (my band plays rock), I actually think pop music has advanced much further than rock has this past decade...especially in the past 5 years. Whether it's good or not, you hear pop artists trying new production techniques and effects. Other than a few exceptions, you don't hear much "new" in rock. This is in part because of the current state of the industry...pop is just getting a lot more attention because it's one of the few money makers left.

I think the recession has made people want to escape.

I find Ann Powers to be an astute listener of music and an interesting writer. However, I'm a bit confused by this article. I don't find the music of the '00s any less authentic than the music of the '90s or any other decade. While grunge seemed on the surface to be a pull to "authenticity," I always found that underneath was greasy hair, plaid shirts, sneakers and just as much "acting" as you find in other types of music. Grunge was a style, like dance music is a style. There was a code to what clothes to wear, how to act, what attitude the music suggested. And the only thing that distinguished one act from another was the quality of their music. And that holds true today. If a song/album/download/EP is to stand the test of time, quality is the only requirement, not merely the appearance of authenticity. My iPod carries all kinds of music, none of which I find disposable. It's the best jukebox in the world. And Radiohead is most prominent because their songs sound like nothing else I've ever heard before. It's like music made on some far-away planet. And that's what's authentic to me-- pure originality, passion and being true only to oneself.

Ms. Powers, I have a few words for you:

The Animal Collective
The Temper Trap
Bat For Lashes
Bon Iver
The Decemberists
Mute Math
Yeah's (x3)
Mason Jennings
Regina Spektor
Washed Out
Bear In Heaven
Passion Pit
The Antlers
Neon Indian
Black Dice
Brandi Carlile
M. Ward

Need I go on?

Authentic music for authentic people.


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