Authenticity and the power of audience

‘He is neither a boy from the hood like Ice-T, nor a militant activist (…). Cube is a poser, a B-boy Wannabe son of the black middle class masquerading as a street tough.

     While Ice-T recounts tales from his life on the mean streets of south central, Cube must rely on artifice to compose his raps. Under ordinary circumstances, this would be a cause for applause; for it is in the nature of things that artists should rely on artifice. But in the case of hard core rappers, excessive reliance on imagination is anathema, because authenticity is central to the legitimation of their views.’

*(The Guardian, 11 March 1993)

Authenticity is a goal, a quest which shapes the tastes of popular music audiences since the very beginning of the recording industry. It seems that almost every contemporary artist tries to appear, or convince his audience that he is not, a pop star, self-invented artificial ‘persona’ or a ‘sell out’- compromised by money, but a real person and authentic creator. Why do fans of popular music, journalists and producers take so seriously the faked independence and so cruelly judge commercial artists and bands even though the openly commercial musicians are the ones with nothing to hide or fake? What exactly is the audiences role in shaping the culture and music industry?

The Audience

One of the first notions about the Listeners of Popular Music comes from a member of so called Frankfurt School, Theodor Adorno. He wrote:

          ‘(…) this whole type of music (i.e., popular music in general) maintains its hold on the masses‘1 , were by ‘masses’ he actually meant audiences, with no distinction at all. In his study Adorno referred to popular music and culture as ‘mass-culture’- a standardized and ‘pre-digested’ form of leisure (K.Negus, 1996). He explained:

            ‘The customers of musical entertainment are themselves objects or, indeed, products of the same mechanisms which determine the production of popular music.

            They want standardized goods and pseudo-individualization, because their leisure is an escape from work and at the same time is molded after those psychological attitudes to which their workaday world exclusively habituates them.’

            ‘Listeners are distracted from the demands of reality by entertainment which does not demand attention either‘.2

In his critique of music for the masses and audience for which it is created he goes even further, suggesting that:

Most listeners of popular music do not understand music as a language in itself. If they did it would be vastly difficult to explain how they could tolerate the incessant supply of largely undifferentiated material.3

According to Adorno the public had little or no freedom of choice at all due to the way the entertainment industry created, promoted and propagated repetitive, standardized music (Negus, 1996,). Sounds familiar? Adorno believed that industrialized, popular music lead only to passive, de-concentrated listening and maintained this point of view in his later publications. In early 1990’s he introduced a new type of listener:

‘(…) the eager person who leaves the factory and occupies himself with music in the quiet of his bedroom’4

Shy and lonely Adorno’s music fan indulged himself in music to avoid social confrontations and find his own illusion of intimacy. He was poorly socialized and unprepared for life as an adult. This model of behavior is till this day often used by media or concerned parents to illustrate bad influence of music on vulnerable individuals. Yeah, that sounds familiar too, doesn’t it? Adorno created a depressing and gloomy image but even now it would be hard to disagree completely with his observations. But that’s mainstream. What about the ‘so called subculture’?

In 1950 David Riesman introduced a distinction which had a great influence on later studies, especially on subculture theory. He divided music listeners into majority and minority groups where members of the majority had undiscriminating tastes in music, similar to Adorno’s masses. The music industry and production weren’t their concern and their favored ‘the hit parade’ and most popular radio stations (Negus, 1996). The minority group, on the other hand, was seeking something more. They appreciated music and the way it was composed and produced, and expected higher standards giving more serious meaning to music creations. Understanding of that meaning was reserved for the minority only. They were a critical and questioning audience.

The distinction Riesman made was between an active, hip and rebellious minority and passive, undiscriminating and conformist majority’5

This led to further distinctions between music listeners and their attitude. ‘The Subculture’ published in 1979 by Dick Hebdige was covering the phenomenon of punk and its subcultural ancestors. Hebdige developed his theory by looking on music culture as a broad range of behavioral styles and special meanings and values known to the audience of the particular music genre. Music was, in his view, a way of expression of feelings and beliefs, and it provided a variety of social activities connected to the specific subculture. In his view audiences have their own different ways of living their lives, which should be considered in order to explore the kind of music they favor.

Subcultures created by members of working class, were contesting the dominant system of values and creating their own contra-culture with music and independent, non-commercial artists in its centre. It was music that made young people group together and create a style. Depending on specific time and place subcultures differ from each other and their members create their own identity in opposition to mainstream, the majority, the establishment, etc., It is a critical reflection of social problems. But Hebdige’s theory lacks an important notion: subcultures are transcontinental, internationally recognized and used in different countries to express views and feelings of their members. Is there anything spontaneous in adopting somebody else’s style of dressing in order to express a yourself? Does the meaning remain authentic if it’s brought into other social circumstances, or does it change in order to express different views and believes?

‘The sounds and images of punk were transformed and expropriated by many musicians and audience members in Stalinist states of Central and Eastern Europe during the 1980s. Punk noises and visuals were used to register a sense of distance from and opposition to political repression and to challenge state-promoted culture (such as officially sanctioned rock bands). Punk styles of music and dress were adopted to register opposition in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland and the German Democratic Republic’.6

In Western Europe, in those times, Punk was something quite different. Honestly. Misinterpreted. Maybe due to the language difference, partially because of the Iron Curtain. For people who experienced real oppression from the government punk style was ideal to prove a point. In late 1970s and early 1980s in Poland Milicja (Military Police) hunted and imprisoned anyone who’s appearance differed from the norm. Young people were thrown into prison cells and often severely beaten, for being a threat to social order (special ‘care’ was given to students by the Milicja forces as every government knows students ARE dangerous). You can visit, if you want, a staircase of a house in the heart of my city- Krakow, where a young, innocent student has been beaten to death by the Milicja forces. These government repressions affected mainly students, considered dangerous, and it was student communities that took over the subculture of punk from British working class youths. Band gigs were made in secret so that Milicja couldn’t assault everyone involved, especially that Milicja itself was often the main subject of punk lyrics. Fan-zines and independent, underground labels were often non profit formations, giving the audience something more than music itself – the feeling of being involved in a real oppositional movement, even if the only real activity was dressing up and listening to music.

So what is the proverbial ‘Message’ canceled in music? Most importantly: do all people acknowledge the same meaning when confronted with the same cultural texts?

In 1980 a model of encoding/decoding in media industry was formulated by Stuart Hall, to answer this kind of questions. Hall distinguished tree types of interpretation of meaning made by the television audience: they accept the dominant meaning (as intended by the producers), negotiate with it or develop a completely different, independent interpretation.

‘Production (…) constructs the message. (…)Of course the production process is not without its ‘discursive’ aspect: it, too, is framed throughout by meanings and ideas: knowledge-in-use concerning the routines of production, historically defined technical skills, professional ideologies, institutional knowledge, definitions and assumptions, assumptions about audience and so on (…)’8

The encoded messages are transmitted to the audience witch receives them and decodes using similar means as the ones used during production; their own knowledge, interpretation skills, life experiences and their own ideologies.

‘The codes of decoding and encoding might not be perfectly symmetrical. The degrees of symmetry- that is, the degrees of ‘understanding’ and ‘misunderstanding’ in the communicative exchange- depend on the symmetry (…) established between the positions of the ‘personifications’, encoder- producer and decoder- receiver’9

That basically means that no matter how complicated or simple a cultural text might be its real meaning is created through audience’s interpretation of it. Semiotics. I will not devour on this subjet as it would make a greate post in its own right. But let me just state that the meaning of a cultural text, being it music or film, is created by the audience, not the author. The audience decides what is popular- what is understood. No wonder that in order to make a living many artists compromise the act of creation with standardized ‘plans’ or ‘recipes’ for hit songs.

‘The stronger the position of the industry become, the more summarily it can deal with costumers’ needs, producing them, controlling them, disciplining them and even withdrawing amusement: no limits are set (…) Even when the public does- exceptionally- rebel against the pleasure industry, all it can muster is that feeble resistance which that very industry has inculcated in it.’10

For Adorno industrialization leads to standardization of music and music creation processes. Music becomes a commodity but who decides if a band or an artist is good enough, commercial or authentic enough to become such a commodity and earn millions of pounds? Who decides that one music piece is more worthy or important than the other, one artist more talented or more sellable? Hit charts, were majority finally can have a vote, and illusion of control, are for musicians the very end of a struggle to be heard, noticed and accepted by the music business. The business itself isn’t free from assumptions made by people employed within it. Companies are struggling with uncertainty of the market and the impossibility of predicting what type of music, artist or band is going to be a success. They apply a variety of marketing strategies and their own knowledge and experience to determine what is going to be commercial. The real nature of connections between independent and major labels (as you probably know they are one and the same) does not, in my opinion, reflect the public attitude towards artists. It is common for journalists and music television presenters to cherish creativity and distinguish it from commerciality. It is common for the fans to turn away from their favourite bands for ‘selling-out’. In 1976 Simon Firth wrote, after carrying out a research of a specific fan group, that:

‘Their tastes weren’t just a matter of identification, they also reflected a different- more serious, more intense- relationship to music. The hairies thought of themselves not as just another teenage style, but as people who had transcended the trivialities of teenage style. Their music meant something, and when one of their acts ‘sold out’, become part of mass taste, there was great bitterness’17

But who is to say that only independent musicians are creative. How do people define independence and creativity in the world where every idea could be turned into profit? And every idea is derived from something older? What is the creativity the originality, the authenticity? It seems that music journalists, audience and even musicians themselves are confused when trying to define a boundary between commerce and creativity. Simon Frith rejects this idea calling it a cliché, but even for musicians as successful as George Michael the tension between commercialism and art is absolutely real.  In 1994 George Michael appeared in British Court room accusing his recording company, Sony Corporation, for being interested only in his commercial potential (Longhurst). Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor in their book ‘Faking it’ went even further and suggested that desire to remain authentic could have contributed to Kurt Cobain’s premature death. Kurt Cobain was considered to be one of the most authentic creators in the history of rock.  His songs were full of personal pain and reflected his disturbed state of mind. No wander that his absolutely genuine attitude towards his music and his own uncompromised style were so attractive for young and passionate audience, tired with contemporary music scene. His lyrics and his emotional, raw voice on top of simple but extremely loud guitar cords created sensational mixture of primitive passion, disappointment and pain. By his fans he was seen as the only real thing in the fake music business, but his own desire to remain authentic and his fans’ expectations were at odds with his long standing desire for success. He despised his own achievements while still continuing to strive for more (H. Barker, Y. Taylor). In the interview for ‘Rolling Stone’ (on the cover of which he was photographed wearing ‘Corporate Magazines Still Suck’ sign on his T-shirt) he said:

‘I don’t blame the average 17-year old punk-rock kid for calling me a sellout. I understand that. Maybe when they grow up a little bit, they’ll realize that there’s more to life than living out your rock & roll identity so righteously’18

He then criticized Perl Jam and other, more ‘commercial’  bands:

‘I would love to be erased from my association with that band and other corporate bands like the Nymphs and a few other felons. I do feel a duty to warn the kids of false music that’s claiming to be underground. They’re jumping on the alternative bandwagon.’19

Cobain was more successful than others yet he tried so hard to remaining fatfull to his alternative roots. With more and more fame he felt more and more compromised by the music industry. Faking it, pretending. A great, shameful lie. In his suicide letter addressed to his fans he wrote:

            ‘The fact is, I can’t fool you, any one of you. It simply isn’t fair to you or me. The worst crime I can think of is to rip people off by faking it and pretending as if I’m having 100% fun’20

But doesn’t every alternative artist, once he is successful, come finely to a point when his message is sent to the wrong crowd? Instead of his small, but faithful, audience his message becomes universal and confronted with mass audience who doesn’t understand it and simply follows the commercial trends. With the great help of media industry the myth of authenticity becomes stronger than the desire to appreciate music in itself. The same can be said about originality. But this problem would be best saved for my next blog.

Authenticity and the power of audience

2 thoughts on “Authenticity and the power of audience

  1. Have you been reading my private book collection, Adorno, Hebdige to name a few, I can see so much of “culture theory” and “Aesthetics” in your blog, it was a pleasure to read given it’s intense content. Is this a piece of your academic work ? (reference numbers on quotes) pure genius. Lets have more of this please.

    1. You’re right. It has been based on something I wrote for Uni, yes. The piece was about music indusrty so I have edited it to fit my blog post idea. This work is originaly so long I’ll be posting pieces of it for weeks. Glad you’ve enjoyed reading it.

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