“When somebody’s wearing a mask, he’s going to tell the truth. When he’s not wearing a mask, it’s highly unlikely.”
– Bob Dylan (while not wearing a mask), Rolling Thunder Revue
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I wonder sometimes whether it is possible to talk about pop music without invoking the concept of authenticity. Take a look at any academic study of popular music, any popular biography of a rock star, any article about music in a magazine or on a website. If you don’t encounter the word itself, or one of its rough synonyms – sincerity, truth, honesty, the real, integrity, and so on – then it is still likely that the author will invoke the concept in some form. The obsession with authenticity crops up in every corner of every room of the many mansions of popular music. It’s there in the discourses surrounding mainstream pop, rock, punk, blues, country, soul, grunge, rap, jazz, and pretty much any other genre you could name. Think for example of the silly debate of recent years about the merits of Rockism versus Poptimism, in which rock’s ostensible realness is opposed to pop artificiality – or in which pop’s forthright catchiness turns out to be “realer” than rock. Consider, too, the way that contested discourses of black cultural authenticity swirl around every musical form to emerge out of the African diaspora, from reggae and blues to Motown and hip hop. Or recall the way that in the 1970s the authentic self-expression of the singer-songwriter comes to be valued over the singer who interprets the work of professional songwriters – so, for instance, Carole King moves out of the Brill building and starts singing her compositions herself, goes from midtown huckster to heart-on-the-sleeve hippie from Laurel Canyon.
It is clear, even from these few brief examples, that the concept of authenticity is a big and baffling one. Michael Pickering has observed that authenticity “is a relative concept which is generally used in absolutist terms,” which makes it both a tricky thing to pin down and also a minefield strewn with the many emotional investments people have attached to it (213). Perhaps it isn’t surprising that the concept pervades pop criticism so thoroughly, since it takes so many different forms that one can use the term and mean any number of things, or use it to evoke a condition so vague that any reader can find herself in it. So in order to make “authenticity” a useful category, it is necessary to define both the term and the context in which it is being applied as precisely as possible. I’ll begin here by explaining what authenticity has meant in America over the last century or so, and how it is important for understanding popular music – in particular for understanding that music as it is used in the context of contemporary cinema. This will lay the groundwork for an investigation of the way that the Coen brothers use American folk music in their films O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Inside Llewyn Davis. I will argue that the Coens are interested in a version of musical authenticity that is linked in complicated ways to issues of national identity, ethnicity, and race. The films approach this authenticity with a kind of playful skepticism that enables them both to undermine and to tinker with this set of ideas that is so persistently bound up with conceptions of what America is and what America means.
The term authenticity has no definite meaning. Rather it exists only as the opposite of some notion of the “inauthentic,” and since there are many objects and trends that people have chosen to tar with that particular brush, there are many authenticities, too. In this way, authenticity – a term that is used to describe something positive, a desired state of being – can be seen as a purely negative concept, one that offers itself as the critique of, or alternative to, some large entity that is imagined as its inauthentic opposite: society, the system, the mainstream, modernity – some version of the dominant social or economic order.1 Authenticity, then, does not exist in any stable or definable way; it would be more accurate to say that it is the name of a desire for some way of being that is only vaguely understood but that is always imagined as better than the ways of being that are available to us.
So the concept is born out of a feeling that something has been lost, that something has been taken from us – and in the context of twentieth- and twenty-first-century America, that feeling of loss, that opposite of authenticity, goes by the name of commerce. In a cultural landscape that is defined by consumerism – which we associate with artificiality, the false, the fake – the definition of the authentic is that which cannot be bought or which should not be sold, and so authenticity and commerce operate as a dialectical pair of opposed and mutually dependent forces. Over the last century and a half, and especially in the postwar era, the kinds of spaces and experiences available to us have come to be produced and defined by consumer capitalism, and the desire for authenticity is an effect of that process, a reaction against a world that seems to have been made by consumer culture – a world where everything is for sale. In the American context, then, the discourse of authenticity arises as a response to the conflation of American identity with consumer culture, a process that emerges in the late 1800s and becomes dominant in the period after 1945. So this particular discourse of authenticity – the one I am concerned with here – always attempts to envision an “authentic” America that is separate from and opposed to the dominant consumer culture.2
Certainly this is a useful way to describe the discourses of authenticity that circulate around pop music. The pop scholar Jeff Smith observes, for example, that “the varied meanings of authenticity are typically mobilized to highlight the ways in which a particular artist is positioned outside of the matrix of commercial entertainment” (150). Here again authenticity is defined negatively; it is that which resists or opposes the commercial mainstream, that which is vaguely understood to be more than just entertainment. Lawrence Grossberg, discussing the example of rock music, also suggests that rock is always imagined to possess an “excess,” some cultural importance that exists over and above its entertainment value. But this authentic excess can be betrayed as well, and the name of that betrayal is “co-optation”: Grossberg writes that “the history of rock is always seen as a cyclical movement between high (authentic) and low (co-opted) points” (202). Co-optation can describe a whole range of ways that rock might accommodate itself to authority or mainstream popularity, but in the end they all describe some version of that most despised of activities: selling out, which is to say, valuing money over authenticity. To sell out is to lose that imagined excess that Grossberg posits, to be reincorporated into the commercial matrix that the music defines itself against, and to become – or to be revealed as – another product offered up for consumption.
Although pop music’s various kinds of authenticity tend to lack content – to exist solely as the opposite of the inauthentic commercial principle – part of the power of the concept, the power of its vagueness, is that it can serve as a kind of structural validation for other forms of ideology. In the context of the United States, anxieties about inauthenticity and consumer culture in the postwar era have often resulted in authenticity being used to shore up the ideology of the nation. So it is not surprising that the discourse of authenticity is crucial to the popular music forms that are marked as being uniquely American: the overlapping traditions of blues, country, bluegrass, and ballads that, in combination, used to be called “folk” and that now more often go by the name of “roots” music. (The change in name is, I suspect, a response to the sense that folk music is white people’s music; more about this later.) Calling it “folk” associates the music with rural people and rural life, that is to say, with “real” Americans; while the label “roots” music suggests that it is a solid base from which the branches of contemporary popular music grow, a source that we can all look back to. Carrying both of these connotations, this folk or roots music occupies a special place in American life, representing what is often imagined as the real or authentic version of the nation.
Greil Marcus, for example, sees these songs as the key to a lost or hidden national identity, one that is steeped in death, perversity, greed, and passion, but one that is also a genuinely democratic and free community, an America that is more true to American values than the one we live in. Marcus calls the version of the nation that this music offers “the old, weird America,” a place in the musical past that is imagined as authentic and one that is opposed to the new and unweird post-World War II “American way of life,” wherein the national identity is fundamentally aligned with, and expressed through, consumer capitalism. Marcus writes, “It was this purity, this glimpse of a democratic oasis unsullied by commerce or greed, that in the late 1950s and early 1960s so many young people began to hear in the blues and ballads first recorded in the 1920s and 1930s, by people mostly from small towns and tiny settlements in the South” (21). So in this body of music, a specifically American authenticity is supposed to reside: a secret, underground America that is discovered in the postwar ’50s and ’60s, at the moment when consumer culture has become the very definition of American culture. The folk revival that takes shape during these decades becomes a place from which to formulate an oppositional stance toward the culture of commerce, an authentic alternative to the degraded and disenchanted consumer economy.
Folk or roots music always seems to bear the burden of representing a version of America that is imagined as authentic and thus opposed to the culture of consumption. It is not surprising, then, that films that feature roots music prominently tend to participate in this logic, too, either by linking their narratives to the ethos of anti-consumerist American authenticity, or by interrogating and attacking that ethos. In her essay on the uses of country music in Hollywood cinema, for example, Barbara Ching shows how country – an offshoot or subgenre of roots music – represents “the supposed bedrock of American authenticity” (203). Ching argues that while films such as Michael Apted’s Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980) use that association between nation and authenticity to validate an American individual’s story, a more skeptical film like Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975) suggests that country music – and the American authenticity that it represents – has been entirely co-opted and sold out. In that film, Nashville is not the location of some truer American heart, but rather a glitzy show-business hub, with the music radically compromised by its associations with commerce and entertainment. Apted’s narrative is affirmative and romantic while Altman’s is critical and revisionist, but in both cases the logic that links up music, cinema, nation, and authenticity remains the same.
Which brings us to the Coen brothers, and specifically to two of their films, O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) and Inside Llewyn Davis (2013). Although the stories, tones, and subject matter of the two films are entirely different, nonetheless I’m going to suggest that they share quite a bit of structural and thematic DNA. To begin with, both films employ The Odyssey as a structuring element. Each film features a wandering character named Ulysses – even if in Llewyn Davis the character happens to be a cat. In O Brother, the parallels to specific elements from Homer’s epic are more explicit – the sirens, the cyclops, Tiresias, the suitors for Penelope’s hand, among others, all appear in altered forms in the film. In Llewyn Davis, the links are more oblique, but the odyssey form – a story in which a protagonist wanders through many adventures and eventually ends up where he or she started – describes Llewyn’s story all too well, as we will see. And the Coens are, as usual, up to something when they make Llewyn travel all the way to Chicago to audition at a venue called the Gate of Horn. This was a real-life club where many folk careers were launched, and its name is taken from The Odyssey, where the “gate of horn” is used as a figure for describing dreams that truly foretell the future.3
For my purposes, though, the most notable similarity between the films is that they both incorporate performances of folk or roots music within their narratives, and that they employ these musical performances in order to meditate on questions concerning American authenticity. Performing music is itself a cultural practice that is closely linked to questions of authenticity, because of the spontaneous, immediate qualities that we associate with live performance. Sarah Rubidge suggests that there are several ways to create a sense of authenticity in the performing arts, which boil down to two basic possibilities: on the one hand, accurate replication of, or fidelity to the spirit of, the text being performed; on the other, a model in which “the site of authentic performances is the performer” (223). Taken together, these two strategies suggest a paradox that defines the central place of the performer in definitions of musical authenticity. The performance must be faithful to the song that is being performed – usually a song that is familiar to at least some of the audience – and yet must be evidence of the performer’s artistic creativity. Our insistence on musical performance as a site of authenticity is in play, oddly enough, even in the most commercial contexts – people were shocked, shocked, to learn that the performers in Milli Vanilli were not actually singers – and is absolutely central in the case of more traditional forms of music. Philip Bohlman brings this logic to his discussion of folk music, where authenticity is defined as “the consistent representation of the origins of a piece” (10), so that the performer becomes the conduit for bearing forward a tradition that is supposedly unchanged since its origins, although those origins are – almost by definition in folk music – unknown. The performer is made into the site of authenticity to the extent that he or she produces a performance that is both virtuoso and imitative, and in doing so seems to disappear, allowing the music to proceed transparently from the past into the present.
The performances in the films – the American roots music of O Brother and the folk revival’s contentious recovery of that music in Llewyn Davis – evoke an imagined past that is being brought into the present, a version of Greil Marcus’s “old, weird America.” But the Coen films are not in fact nostalgic for a real America, nor are they suggesting, Altman-style, that the real America was always a lie. Instead, the two movies are ambivalent about the role of consumer culture in American life, and that ambivalence leads them to a skepticism about the oppositional logic of authenticity. Jeff Smith argues for one version of this ambivalence in his essay on pop music and authenticity in the Coens’ films, suggesting that their use of popular music is contrapuntal, with the authenticity represented in the American musical traditions that they reference acting as a foil to the ironic postmodernism of their filmmaking style and validating their position outside of the Hollywood commercial mainstream. The issues Smith raises are exactly the right ones, but I will be suggesting here that the Coens do not “buy into [this] discourse of authenticity,” as he claims (149), but rather that they construct their films as meditations on the logic that opposes authenticity to commerce, and that ultimately they insist that the opposition must be abandoned or undermined.
Not Bona Fide
The Coens’ ambivalence about consumer culture is visible everywhere in O Brother, Where Art Thou? The film is set in the rural Mississippi of 1937 – a place and a time that allow the Coens to portray a traditional and distinctly regional America – and follows the peripatetic adventures of three convicts who have escaped from a chain gang. This old, weird, and potentially authentic locale is beginning to be integrated into the national consumer culture, a cultural wave that precedes the sea change that will arrive in the forties. This very watery metaphor is appropriate here – because at the film’s climax, a flood occurs. And although it is a kind of deus ex machina that rescues the protagonists from a hanging at the hands of a satanic lawman, it is not an act of god. As the film’s central character, Ulysses Everett McGill, explains, the land is being flooded by the power company in order to bring hydroelectric power to the region. Rural areas like this one will now be put on a “grid” and a “paying basis,” homogenizing it with the rest of the country: “Yessir, the South is gonna change,” Ulysses tells his companions. “Out with the old spiritual mumbo-jumbo, the superstitions and the backward ways. We’re gonna see . . . a veritable age of reason – like they had in France.” Indeed, the film’s final shot begins with Ulysses and his family walking past an advertising mural for “Power & Light” that shows a Southern streetscape as it will look in the future, with electric streetlamps – an image that links the new consumer culture (in the form of this large public advertisement) to the new standardization of the South.
This parable of capitalist modernization and a national mass culture coming to the South is echoed throughout the film. Ulysses gets exasperated when he can’t find “his” Dapper Dan brand of hair pomade at a backwater store. When Ulysses and his fellow convict Delmar are banned from Woolworth’s, Delmar wonders aloud whether that means they are banned from just “the one branch, or all of ’em” – a question that invokes the network of linked and uniform commercial spaces that are creating yet another kind of national grid. Ulysses and his friends are saved again at another juncture in the plot, from an angry grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, because they have recorded a song that, unknown to them, has become a runaway hit in the new music-recording industry. As this last example indicates, O Brother is surprisingly sanguine about these cultural changes. By making the new consumer culture the vehicle both for rescuing the heroes twice and for challenging the tradition of Southern racism and the Ku Klux Klan, the film also seems to figure the new consumerist America as a potentially welcome development.
So it is not surprising that the scenes of musical performance tend to undermine the logic of authenticity as well. I have mentioned that in the performing arts in general and music in particular, accurate replication of the text and close alignment between the text and the performer serve as markers of authenticity. In translating these concerns into the realm of cinema, we should note that one crucial marker of the authentic in films that employ musical performance is fidelity. However illusory the effect, Hollywood cinema has tended to value the claim that the song that the audience hears is truly coming from the singer we see on-screen. Consider for example Singin’ in the Rain (1952), in which the villainy and hypocrisy of the actress Lina Lamont are linked to her inability to sing her own songs and by her insistence that Cathy Selden must sing for her without receiving credit. But O Brother, whose roots music, Depression-era setting, and desaturated colors would seem to demand a greater aura of authenticity than a Technicolor ’50s musical, deliberately makes the disjunction between singer and song visible.
This is particularly true of the performances by the convicts under the name of the “Soggy Bottom Boys.” Although Tim Blake Nelson does at one point sing in his own voice, the scenes of the Boys singing together and of John Turturro yodeling during “In the Jailhouse Now” create comic effects by making it clear that the actors are lip-syncing. When the Boys decide to make some money by singing “old-timey music” at a remote radio station, the professional musician Dan Tyminski’s modern arrangement and recording of the vocal on “Man of Constant Sorrow” plays while George Clooney, as Ulysses, performs a deliberately unconvincing imitation of singing while he lip-syncs to the song – an effect that is only exaggerated by the way his mouth is hidden by the large mic. Although Dan Tyminski’s wife was apparently quite pleased by the idea of her husband’s voice coming from George Clooney’s face, for the rest of us the overall effect is to emphasize the comical artificiality of the sequence (Robson, 214). Indeed, everything about the “Soggy Bottom Boys” is false, including their name (which is made up on the spot), their race (which changes depending on what the blind radio-station manager will pay for), and their beards (which are so obviously disguises that they emphasize the way the convicts are faking folk authenticity). Ulysses, the main performer, is himself a fake, leading his fellow convicts on a quest for treasure that he knows does not exist. When he finally finds his wife, Penny – the Penelope of the myth having been transmuted into yet another coin that the sellout Ulysses is chasing – her persistent objection to him is an accusation of inauthenticity; he is not “bona fide.”
The film makes it clear that already in the 1930s, the Depression music that would be hailed as authentic in the 1960s was looking back to styles considered “old-timey” and that it was this nostalgic aura that made them popular.4 The film shows us that what the convicts innocently describe as “singing into a can” is actually part of the process by which a musical performance is transformed into a commodity, a recording made in the grooves of a disk and reproduced for mass distribution and profit. When Harry Smith chose the songs for his Anthology of American Folk Music – released in 1952 and destined to become the bible of the folk revival in the ’50s and ’60s – he eschewed field recordings and instead used only songs that had been popular records in the ’20s and ’30s. The old-timey music in O Brother is made available for appropriation by commerce in this way, and is used to advertise any number of products, from political candidates to flour (on the radio’s Flour Hour, named for the state governor, Menelaus “Pass the Biscuits” Pappy O’Daniel).
Pappy himself, who is based on a real-life flour merchant and politician, passes the Soggy Bottom Boys as they leave the radio station, and he emphasizes the film’s focus on how technologies of music recording and radio broadcast are changing the South by disdaining to shake hands with his individual constituents. Pressing the flesh is no longer necessary, he explains, gesturing to the station and the broad sweep of the airwaves: “We’re mass communicatin’.” This conjoining of political power with commercial interests might seem to have sinister implications for those invested in the possibility of American authenticity, but by the end of the film Pappy (who wisely perceives the advantage to be had in associating himself with a band who have a hit record) is instrumental in saving Ulysses and his companions. In keeping with the film’s tentative suggestion that American commerce may have beneficial effects, the “old-timey” music that accompanies the film is marked as inauthentic, co-opted by commerce, even as it serves as a vehicle for promoting communal and racial unity.
Inside Llewyn Davis approaches this complex of issues from a different angle, but with similar effects. If O Brother could be summarized as the story of a group of characters whose willingness to sell out leads to happy endings for all, then Llewyn Davis is a kind of cautionary tale about the dangers of cultivating authenticity. The title character is a performer in the folk revival scene of Greenwich Village in the early ’60s, whose quest to achieve and maintain a personal authenticity that might match the authenticity of the songs he performs makes him frequently unhappy and frequently unlikable.5 His insistence on living outside the mainstream of American life and American consumerism drives him apart from friends, relatives, and a child he chooses not to meet, while also preventing him from achieving success as a folk singer.
Llewyn lives a hand-to-mouth existence, crashing on friends’ and acquaintances’ couches, borrowing money from anyone who will lend it to him, and firmly convinced of the absolute rightness of his countercultural way of life. He disdains the one commercially successful song that he performs; describes his sister’s lower-middle-class lifestyle as an empty “existing”; and when his lover and fellow folk singer Jean asks whether he thinks that wanting to have children and move to the suburbs is a bad thing, he says “if that’s what music is for you . . . it’s a little careerist, it’s a little square, and it’s a little sad.” In other words, Llewyn wholeheartedly embraces an ethos of authenticity that is contained in the performing of traditional folk songs – the evocation of the old, weird America. This authenticity places the performer outside of commerce and outside of the postwar suburban matrix that is associated with and enabled by the consumerist, car-centered American mainstream.
His desire to pursue his art finally leads Llewyn to travel cross-country to Chicago, where he manages to get an audition with the folk impresario Bud Grossman at the Gate of Horn. In this scene – as with all the other musical performances in the film, and very much unlike O Brother, Where Art Thou? – the actors do their own singing and guitar playing. So, as Llewyn Davis, Oscar Isaac sings the traditional ballad “The Death of Queen Jane,” and the authenticity suggested by the convergence of actor and voice is emphasized by the filmmaking as well, in which fidelity, personal integrity, and anti-commercial cultural authenticity appear to merge powerfully. During the first verse of the song, the camera slowly tracks toward Llewyn, and then alternates between shots of Llewyn and Grossman, moving slowly toward each of them in turn. The effect is to suggest that as the song progresses, we move closer to Llewyn, further inside, so that his deep and authentic self is expressed in and exposed by the song, while also creating a true connection between the performer and the listener: Bud Grossman – or us, the film’s audience. The final verse is sung a cappella, a gesture that appears to strip away the last layer of artifice, because there is now only the single unadorned voice, music returned to its most basic form, the voice a conduit through which this ballad of antique origin can emerge whole and pure and preserved. And the camera, now quite close to Llewyn, holds still in order to underline the climactic nakedness of the moment; we are now, the film suggests, “inside Llewyn Davis.” But the Coens create this cinematic illusion only to undercut it.
Given the markers of authenticity that the film has set up around Llewyn’s performance, Grossman’s reaction – he finally breaks the silence by saying “I don’t see a lot of money here” – seems to show the inability of crass commercial interests to appreciate Llewyn’s authentic immersion in American tradition and musical artistry. Llewyn himself presumably reads the situation this way, but the film consistently questions his values and assertions. The choice of the song “The Death of Queen Jane” is certainly a gesture of uncompromising devotion to the cultural authenticity of the folk tradition; but it also says something about Llewyn’s ambitions for his art and about why those ambitions will never be realized. The song tells the story of a queen who dies in childbirth, and ends with the tragedy of the queen’s death and the joy of the child’s birth. That story resonates with the place of the folk singer, who must die a kind of symbolic death in order to become the anonymous agent by which the tradition of the music is carried forward. But it also resonates with Llewyn’s particular story.
The failure to forge a bond with his audience is linked directly to his inability to connect either with the generations before or after him; Llewyn stands alone, with nothing to inherit and nothing to pass on. Having decided to rejoin the merchant marines, he goes to say goodbye to his father in a nursing home, where the scene of playing for the hoped-for father-figure Bud Grossman is repeated with even grimmer results. In an attempt to connect with his silent and senile father, a former seaman, Llewyn takes out his guitar and plays a moving version of the nautical ballad “Shoals of Herring.” Here again the Coens employ the familiar Kuleshov tricks, cutting between the singer and his grim-faced father, moving into close-ups of the old man as he closes his eyes, gazes out the window in what seems a wistful and crepuscular way, focuses finally on his son during the spare final moments of the song. The voice and the guitar hush and cease; father and son look at each other in what seems a moment of shared experience and true connection, as the old seafaring man watches the young man follow the same path. But again the moment is revealed to be illusory, as Llewyn realizes that all that has happened is that his oblivious father has soiled himself. Nothing has been communicated.
He fails to connect with his father, but the film’s real concern is his inability to be a father himself. His lover, Jean – who is also the wife of his best friend – is pregnant with Llewyn’s child and he arranges for her to get an abortion. (Llewyn’s chutzpah is most impressive here; he attempts to borrow the money for the abortion from the very friend he has cuckolded.) In making these arrangements, he learns from the doctor that the last time this happened, the woman chose not to have the abortion and instead moved away with their child. Later in the film, he considers making a turn off the highway to the place where they are living, but decides against it. Stuck on his path, locked into his vision of authenticity, Llewyn is unable to contribute anything to the future, to the next generation. He is the very opposite of Ulysses Everett McGill, who may not be “bona fide,” but who does reinstate himself at the end of O Brother as the “paterfamilias” in charge of a small herd of daughters. This generational impasse troubles Llewyn’s career as well; he takes in the tradition of folk music, but because he is entirely committed to an authenticity that he must enact in and for himself, he will not be able to pass it on; no one is listening. Jean’s angry suggestion that he should be made to wear two condoms wrapped up in duct tape provides an image of his inability to pass anything of himself on to the future that is both comic and entirely apropos.
Indeed, Llewyn is such a prickly and pathetic character that the film never musters much support for his point of view. He may not be entirely unlikeable, but certainly he is selfish, insensitive, monomaniacal, self-destructive, and – as Jean is at pains to point out – “an asshole.” He is uncommercial, but also perhaps unredeemable – a point that is made most powerfully in the film’s ending, which is also the moment when the narrative takes its strangest turn. Without warning, the events begin to mimic the events of the film’s opening sequence – shots, sequences, and dialogue are repeated verbatim. But just as we begin to think that the whole film was a flashback that will now repeat and extend this scene from the beginning, we become aware that there are differences. The events are rearranged in time slightly. The cat that escapes from the apartment at the beginning is stopped at the threshold this time around. A singer who did not appear at all the first time around provides the soundtrack for the beating that Llewyn takes in the back alley behind the folk club. What are we to make of all this?
I would argue, building on the film’s suggestion that Llewyn cannot pass anything of himself on to the future, that what we see here is the inevitable result of his quest for authenticity. The film makes it clear that this quest is a dead end, a journey that ultimately has nowhere to go and instead travels endlessly down the same narcissistic paths without any hope of development or resolution, so that the film’s end and beginning are the same and the story itself is a phonograph needle on a played-out record, forever circling the same worn-out groove. The many goodbyes that are inserted into this sequence are ultimately excessive and self-cancelling; Llewyn is saying goodbye, but he will always be saying goodbye, stuck in his never-ending loop. The last song he sings is “Fare Thee Well,” and he is immediately followed on stage by the unnamed but unmistakable Bob Dylan, beginning his career in New York by singing “Farewell.”6 And Llewyn’s last words in the film are “au revoir” – a puzzling line but one that is in fact appropriate for this ending that is also a repetition, since although “au revoir” is used in French for a final goodbye, it translates roughly as “till seeing you again.”
That appearance of Bob Dylan is a crucial marker of the film’s approach to authenticity. The film’s audience probably knows not only that Dylan became the breakout star of the Greenwich Village folk scene, but also that he caused outrage among folk purists in the mid-60s when he plugged in and began to play rock music, a shift that some considered a betrayal of the folk revival’s mission. Unlike Dylan, Llewyn cannot take the risk of inauthenticity. He will never understand or accept what Dylan always knew: that the folk troubadour is a persona, too, another mask to wear in the marketplace. Indeed, it is tempting to see Dylan as a mirror in which the Coens recognize themselves. Not just because he is another Jewish boy from Minnesota – although the outsider-from-the-heartland identity implied in that upbringing does perhaps say something about the way that both Dylan and the Coens have spent their careers immersed in American traditions (musical, cinematic) that they approach with both affection and irreverence. That complicated relationship to American culture and history has enabled both the singer and the filmmakers to walk the postmodern tightrope, building innovative and distinctive bodies of work that are at the same time cobbled together out of bits and pieces of the cultural past.7 Those bodies of work are also constructed as meditations on the notion of authenticity, and since the Coens, like Dylan, seem profoundly skeptical about that notion, it is worth thinking further about what kind of cultural position that skepticism leads them to. With that question in mind, the last section of this essay is a consideration of how the opposition between authenticity and commerce has organized the desire for a coherent American nation or community. This desire has had effects on the way that ethnicity and race are represented in revivals of folk and roots music, and in the Coen films as well.
Music and Mixture
Coen brothers films often employ verbal motifs to create meaning: repeated words or phrases, often obscure ones, that are uncommon in daily speech and that therefore draw attention to themselves. As a result, those repeated words and phrases suggest places where the films are considering a theme or idea, turning it over, examining it from a variety of perspectives, and often these verbal motifs are versions of authenticity or, even more often, its opposite. They are interested in the “bona fide,” but also in “proxies” and “ringers,” and that interest signals the extent to which their plots are frequently about the tension between the real and the fake. In her essay on The Big Lebowski, Diane Pecknold observes that “the pervasive flux between ersatz and authentic . . . underpins the narrative of the film” – a statement that could be made, accurately, about almost any Coen film (276). In Pecknold’s reading, it is music, once again, that organizes the film’s thinking about authenticity, and the verbal motif that condenses these concerns is “credence.”
In tracing The Big Lebowski’s use of Creedence Clearwater Revival – both as music on the soundtrack and in the material form of the Dude’s lost Creedence tapes – Pecknold moves beyond the question of musical performance to consider the role of pre-existing popular music in constructing authenticity on film. She argues that these soundtracks construct what we might call a “positive” version of authenticity. Unlike the model I have been working with – authenticity as negation of an inauthentic consumer culture – this positive version imagines authenticity as having actual content, at least potentially. It suggests that musical genres such as “rock” are places where listeners can imagine themselves as part of a community, one that is constructed through the collective nostalgia that the music mobilizes. Pecknold concludes that Lebowski does not ever truly enable this sort of community; instead the film invokes the desire for that community: “Although it continually references the impossibility of constructing or communicating an authentic identity, or of forging a meaningful connection to others or a shared past, the film nonetheless ratifies our desire for that elusive confidence in our sense of self and social place” (293). I would like to push Pecknold’s argument one step further, to suggest that it is not just Lebowski that cannot construct an authentic identity; nothing can. Authenticity is the name we give to the desire for an ideal community that cannot actually exist.
In the world of pop-music studies, the “positive” model – one that claims that there is some actual content to the category of authenticity – finds its champion in Lawrence Grossberg. As we have seen, Grossberg argues that rock music as a cultural formation has historically contained an “excess” over and above its status as entertainment or commodity. This excess, he argues, is what makes rock “matter” – by which he means, roughly speaking, that it creates a space within which rock listeners feel themselves to be part of a community. The terms of this mattering are apparently quite difficult to define, as Grossberg’s tortured and deliberately circular constructions suggest; rock, he writes, “is empowering because it makes mattering matter again,” but “it is not a question of whether rock still matters. . . . The question is, does it matter that it matters?” (200, 201) Aside from its unintentional echo of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Ruddigore, all this talk of mattering seems to boil down to the claim that rock “offered a celebration of affective investment based on the historical impossibility of ideological investment” (200). This “affective investment,” in the final movement of Grossberg’s essay, is rendered as “the desire for authenticity” (205) – which is to say that we discover again that authenticity as a positive quality, one that has actual content, does not exist.8 This jibes with Pecknold’s discussion of Lebowski, and with Michael Denning’s characterization of Theodor Adorno, for whom “music is not a sign of community but of the desire for community” (11). The desire for authenticity is always only a desire; the closest that rock music can come to enabling community is to reveal a shared desire for some imagined opposite of the “inauthentic” commercial matrix. The real reason that authenticity might matter, in other words, is because as a condition of desiring something that is outside of the commercial matrix, it attaches itself to other desires for ways of being, other kinds of imagined communities.
That desire for community and rejection of commerce actually begin, not with rock music, but with folk, in which the desire for authenticity was linked to conceptions of the American nation and the American people. As the famous case of Bob Dylan “going electric” suggests, ’60s rock was initially regarded as suspiciously impure and perhaps as a kind of selling out by (at least some elements of) the folk revival community. Michael Pickering has pointed out that “the promotion of rock in the ’sixties as a communal expression of the counter-culture drew, ironically enough, on . . . folk aesthetics,” that the folk music revival of the ’50s and ’60s provided the model of authenticity that Grossberg identifies in rock (208).
That model emphasized a return to folk music traditions and styles as a way of resisting the postwar tide of consumerism in order to forge ties to an idealized past. A number of scholars have made this point; Grace Elizabeth Hale, for example, argues that “romanticizing ‘the folk’ was a form of rebellion against mid-century middle-class values and what people then called mass culture. . . . Mass culture asked people to make a purchase. The folk revival asked people to participate” (86). This ethos of “participation” suggested both a community made possible by practicing American musical traditions and also an engagement with the present concerns of the nation. The logic of the folk revival suggested that this subculture would be the true nation, because it was founded on a conception – inevitably, a romanticized one – of “the American people.”9
But if the folk revival is dedicated to locating a particular kind of American identity, then it is worth remembering that those folk songs are not “American” in any sort of uncomplicated way. Indeed, the folk song tradition is a place where one observes the process of “American culture” being made, and to follow the tradition back in time is to watch the culture unmake itself, as the apparent purity of the tradition is revealed to be made up of many mongrelized traditions. Blues and gospel, hillbilly and bluegrass music, jazz and ballads and yodeling: all are part of the tradition and have “roots” in places beyond the United States. What we call the American tradition is the unstable and contingent history within which these forms are translated, transformed, mixed, and made new. That making new, the making itself, happened not through some organic process, but through a merging that was enabled by commerce and by the technologies it set in motion: the radio and the recording industry, the money to be made from race records, old-timey records. Remember that Harry Smith’s Anthology, the Bible of the folk revival, was made from commercially released and recorded popular music, and so produced a deliberate mélange of styles and traditions, all together recognized by the revivalists as American music. This whole inauthentic mechanism, abhorred by Llewyn Davis and embraced by O Brother, Where Art Thou?, is the process by which the American music tradition comes into being.10
In order to see how the Coen brothers’ films are dedicated to exploring this process, how they are committed to dramatizing the way that Americanness is made through music, consider the way music works in the Coen soundtracks. Every one of these soundtracks has been composed by Carter Burwell, whose collaboration with the filmmakers has often seemed to be a seamless blending of visual and musical visions. In fact, Burwell had no intention of becoming a composer for film when the Coens asked him to score Blood Simple, so it is likely that his compositional style developed specifically to match the Coens’ postmodern-magpie approach, in which elements from the cultural past are borrowed and put in the service of an original narrative. Burwell’s scores frequently work this way, employing songs or themes and building his compositions on and around them, so that the play of references that organizes the visuals, narrative, and dialogue is matched by a similar play in the musical accompaniment. But although the Coens have set every one of their films on native soil, each one exploring a particular corner of American geography and experience, Burwell’s music – as well as the music chosen for the films, either by the Coens or by their sometime “musical archivist” T-Bone Burnett – often employs songs from “old world” sources that gesture to the ethnicities of the American characters who populate the films.
The result is a deliberate tension that is also a narrative: while we watch the (usually hapless and futile) doings of these Coen Americans play out onscreen, their ethnic pasts maintain a ghostly presence on the soundtrack in the form of traditional musics, the folk songs from elsewhere that will, in some new version, become American folk songs. In Miller’s Crossing, Burwell’s composition is built around a traditional Irish ballad, while another, “Danny Boy,” is used to score the virtuoso violence of the assault on Leo O’Bannon’s house. In this film about an urban war between Irish and Italian gangs, the traditional music serves both as counterpoint to the violence and also as its true accompaniment and explanation; the lush, romantic music and the operatic bloodletting both tell the old story of scrappy and impoverished Europeans duking it out in the capitalist free-for-all of the New World. The score of Fargo uses a similar strategy, integrating a Norwegian folk song to accompany a story about the absurd sorts of violence that persist among the polite and repressed Minnesotan descendants of the Vikings. But the point is driven home most forcefully in another Minnesota story, A Serious Man, in which the film’s central tension between Jewish traditions and the goyish American heartland is expressed on a soundtrack that alternates between Jewish liturgical music and Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow. While the cantor-singing suggests the heavy presence and mystery of old-world tradition that pervades the film, the emblematic ’60s rock of “Somebody to Love” – accessible, liberatory, yearning after secular hedonism – offers the possibility of assimilation into a universal and deracinated Americanness.
The logic of these musical choices is taken one step further in the soundtrack of Raising Arizona, where the piece of music that organizes the film is Pete Seeger’s 1955 “Goofing-Off Suite.” Here the Coens have turned once again to the folk revival, and again in a way that refuses to endorse authenticity, at least as it is encoded in ideologies of purity. The choice of music points to folk not as a pure form, but as a form that is both mixed and playful. Critics of the folk revival often use Pete Seeger as a strawman to represent the most purist and naïve tendencies in the movement; there are even assorted apocryphal stories about him responding violently to Dylan playing electric music at the Newport Folk Festival – Seeger trying to pull the plug on Dylan, or take an axe to the amplifiers, that sort of thing. But “The Goofing-Off Suite,” giving us Seeger at his least dogmatic, is either a refutation of these critics or at least another side of the story. Combining dynamic banjo playing with whistling and yodeling, the suite is joyfully mongrel, mixing traditional songs and themes from a variety of traditions with professionally written pop songs and classical pieces as well. The commercial and the folk, the high and the low, all are mashed up, and in its radical inclusivity and unexpected coherence Seeger’s piece seems to represent the whole folk-tradition process, the combinations and metamorphoses by which an American music comes into being.
The Coens then use this evocation of folk music between the old world and the new as the soundtrack for a film set in and even named after Arizona, a place that serves not, as in the case of Minnesota or Texas, as a distinct locale, but rather as an anonymous and generic rural American setting. The central couple, Hi and Ed, have no discernible ethnic identity at all, and nothing is encoded in those flat monosyllabic names – there are no Gopniks, Gundersons, or Lebowskis here, and no nonwhite characters to speak of. The flatness of the names is matched by the flatness of the landscape, as well; while the similarly spare topographies of Fargo, No Country for Old Men, and Blood Simple always contain particular and localized brands of bloody awfulness – while they are always loaded with dread and meaning – this Arizona is an America as empty and unspecific as the abstract backgrounds in a Road Runner cartoon. The film even ends with a joke whose premise is that it is impossible to tell the difference between Arizona and Utah. That joke is also the final twist in a conclusion that is properly Coenesque: a utopian ending that also contains its own undermining. Hi, whose dreams have shaped the story of the film throughout, dreams an idyllic future for himself and Ed in which they are no longer childish and childless screwups, but rather beloved parents and grandparents, celebrating the most American of holidays, Thanksgiving. The many strands of song and culture represented in the Seeger suite have dissolved into a generic vision of America from which all the elements of the old and weird have been eliminated – indeed, Burwell’s score in this final sequence is a sentimental and uninspired synthesizer piece that emphasizes the generic quality of the scene. It is, quite literally, an American dream, and the literalness reminds us not to confuse the dream with the American reality.
But although the Coens skillfully evoke the mongrelization that underlies the making of white ethnic American identity, their films often struggle, or fail, to show how this process works when it comes to race. In a sense, what their films show most vividly is the creation of American whiteness: the process by which Italians or Irish or European Jews came to the United States and eventually became none of those things, became white Americans instead. James Baldwin has famously called this creation of white identity “the price of the ticket”: “The price was to become ‘white.’ No one was white before he/she came to America. It took generations, and a vast amount of coercion, before this became a white country” (178). The Coens are always aware of that price, but are less attuned to the obverse side of the coin: the way that the creation of white Americanness depends on the belief in an undifferentiated and inferior blackness: the racial politics that is at the heart of American identity and culture, including its music.
In the context of the folk revival, this racial politics has taken the form of a denial about the permanently mixed and miscegenated quality of American music. As Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor observe in their study of Mississippi John Hurt – a black singer and guitarist from the ’20s who sounded, some thought, like a white hillbilly and who was nonetheless categorized as “blues” – American folk music has created two twinned versions of authenticity. One, white, was linked to the creation and maintenance of national ideology, and in the ’20s and ’30s had been instrumental in shoring up ideas of white racial purity. The other, black, suggested another kind of purity that was connected to racist conceptions of blackness as that which is primitive, untouched by white civilization or commerce. Record companies had a hand in this process, too, categorizing white music as “old-timey” and referring to African American recordings as “race records.”
Barker and Taylor go on to argue that the mysterious quality that people like Harry Smith and Bob Dylan have found in old recordings is produced by the experience of hearing music that does not fit into either the “white” or “black” categories. Greil Marcus’s “old, weird America” is then a product of “the oddness of blacks sounding like whites and whites sounding like blacks. . . . The ‘mystery’ that so many have argued is at the heart of American music is in large part the result of our inability to fully grasp the ease and confidence with which that music was created in spite of and across racial boundaries” (77). Given the historical and institutional forces that employ the logic of authenticity to segregate American music, the actual history of our music – a history of mixture, miscegenation, impurity, mongrelization that is racial even more than it is white-ethnic – can seem simply illegible. These forces still operate in the marketing and consumption of popular music, policing the racial boundaries. A black artist who sounds too white is inauthentic; a white band that sounds too black is engaged in “cultural appropriation,” borrowing an authenticity that it cannot own.
One could argue that the Coens are at least touching on these issues in O Brother. In general, their films have not dealt much with African American culture or characters – a major omission in a body of work that is otherwise incisive and wide-ranging in its critical exploration of American culture. (The one exception, their remake of the English comedy The Ladykillers, is also perhaps their weakest film, and it fails to do anything interesting with its black characters.) But in O Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens do consider the question of racially mixed music. At a Soggy Bottom Boys performance, a Ku Klux Klan leader denounces the group (whose guitarist is black) as “miscegenated.” Likewise, the radio-station scene makes us aware of how the recording industry insisted on segregating “race” music from “old-timey” songs, and of how absurd that segregation was; the station manager insists that the group must be one or the other, but (as a blind man) he is unable to tell the difference between the two just by listening to the music. So the film does link its celebration of inauthenticity to the theme of racial mixture. However, the actual presence of black characters in the film and in the Soggy Bottom Boys is minimal; the black guitarist, Tommy, has a small role and a small impact in a film that is devoted to the adventures of the three white convicts. And the naïve liberal utopianism of the film’s racial politics – white Southerners love the music, and therefore they will abandon racial prejudice and embrace racial mixture – is a glaringly simplistic element in an otherwise complex and nuanced comedy.
Inside Llewyn Davis, by contrast, keeps the Coens on the ground where they are more comfortable and confident: exposing the absurdities of white men who are committed to some version of musical authenticity, whether it is the white folkie Llewyn or the white jazz musician Roland Turner. This undermining and demystification of white American identities is what the Coens do well, and it is unlikely that they will change tacks at this point in their career and begin to explore the African American experience in a complex and meaningful way. But their exploration of white mongrelization and its relationship to the shared national culture, to music, and to authenticity contains insights that could easily be extended to begin thinking through questions of race. It is certainly possible to imagine other filmmakers building on the ideas contained in the Coen films in order to confront the questions about race – and about African American identity, community, desire, and authenticity – that are central to the history of American music.
Put that way, it might sound like I am describing a group of critical essays, rather than a group of films. As filmmakers, the Coens do have an unusually analytical style; they tend to use their fictions as tools with which they can open up the American machine and tinker with the gears. Although they take different approaches, both O Brother and Inside Llewyn Davis are perhaps best thought of as essays on authenticity, meta-commentaries in which the relationship between authenticity and commerce in American life is examined and considered. Music is the site where the opposition between these two principles, these two possible versions of America, is staged. The musical performances in the films are explicitly presented as moments that are sublime and sellable at the same time, moments where the logic of folkie authenticity is undermined or where the successful marketing of an old-timey song is given a wink and a nod. Americanness, in their odd little fables, is always a site of becoming, always as unfinished as a piece of Unpainted Arizona furniture, always mixed-up and inauthentic, like the tradition of the American folk song itself.
Baldwin, James. “On Being ‘White’ . . . and Other Lies.” In Black on White: Black Writers on What It Means to Be White, ed. David Roediger. Schocken, 1998.
Barker, Hugh and Yuval Taylor. Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music. Norton, 2007.
Bohlman, Philip. The Study of Folk Music in the Modern World. Indiana University Press, 1988.
Ching, Barbara. “Sounding the American Heart: Cultural Politics, Country Music, and Contemporary American Film.” In Soundtrack Available: Essays on Film and Popular Music, ed. Wojcik and Knight, 202-225. Duke University Press, 2001.
Cohen, Lizabeth. A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America. Random House, 2003.
Denning, Michael. Noise Uprising: The Audiopolitics of a World Musical Revolution. Verso, 2015.
Dussere, Erik. America Is Elsewhere: The Noir Tradition in the Age of Consumer Culture. Oxford University Press, 2014.
Fox, Richard Wrightman, and T. J. Jackson Lears, eds. The Culture of Consumption: Critical Essays in American History 1880-1980. Pantheon, 1983.
Grossberg, Lawrence. “The Media Economy of Rock Culture: Cinema, Postmodernity and Authenticity.” In Sound and Vision: The Music Video Reader, ed. Frith, Goodwin, and Grossberg, 185-209. Routledge, 1993.
Hale, Grace Elizabeth. A Nation of Outsiders: How the White Middle Class Fell in Love with Rebellion in Postwar America. Oxford University Press, 2011.
Horowitz, Daniel. The Anxieties of Affluence: Critiques of American Consumer Culture, 1939-1979. University of Massachusetts Press, 2004.
Kaufman, David. “‘Here’s a Foreign Song I Learned in Utah’: The Anxiety of Jewish Influence in the Music of Bob Dylan.” In The Song Is Not the Same: Jews and Popular Music, ed. Zuckerman, Kun, and Ansell, 115-136. Purdue University Press, 2011.
Marcus, Greil. Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes. Henry Holt, 1997.
McAvan, Em. “Boring Is the New Interesting: September 11, Realness, and the Politics of Authenticity in Pop Music.” In The War on Terror and American Popular Culture: September 11 and Beyond, ed. Schopp and Hill, 90-102. Rosemont, 2009.
McGovern, Charles. Sold American: Consumption and Citizenship, 1890-1945. University of North Carolina Press, 2006.
Moore, Allan. “Authenticity as Authentication.” Popular Music 21:2 (2002): 209-223.
Pecknold, Diane. “Holding Out Hope for the Creedence: Music and the Search for the Real Thing in The Big Lebowski.” In The Year’s Work in Lebowski Studies, ed. Comentale and Jaffe, 276-294. Indiana University Press, 2009.
Pickering, Michael. “The Dogma of Authenticity in the Experience of Popular Music.” In The Art of Listening, ed. McGregor and White, 201-220. Croom Helm, 1986.
Robson, Eddie. Coen Brothers. Virgin Books, 2003.
Rubidge, Sarah. “Does Authenticity Matter? The Case For and Against Authenticity in the Performing Arts.” In Analysing Performance, ed. Patrick Campbell, 219-233. Manchester University Press, 1996.
Smith, Jeff. “O Brother, Where Chart Thou? Pop Music and the Coen Brothers.” In Popular Music and the New Auteur: Visionary Filmmakers after MTV, ed. Arved Ashby, 129-156. Oxford University Press, 2013.
Trilling, Sincerity and Authenticity. Harvard University Press, 1972.
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Unless otherwise noted, all images are screenshots from the films discussed.
- A version of this argument is made in one of the most influential accounts of authenticity, Lionel Trilling’s Sincerity and Authenticity. For Trilling, authenticity is constructed as a response to the alienations of modernity – it is a purely negative concept, an imagined opposite of the inauthentic world. [↩]
- There is a vast scholarly literature on the rise and hegemony of consumer culture in the United States, but to begin with see Charles McGovern, Sold American: Consumption and Citizenship, 1890-1945; Lizabeth Cohen, A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America; Daniel Horowitz, The Anxieties of Affluence: Critiques of American Consumer Culture; Fox and Lears, eds., The Culture of Consumption: Critical Essays in American History. See also my book America Is Elsewhere: The Noir Tradition in the Age of Consumer Culture. The analysis of authenticity that I use in that book to structure a discussion of noir film and fiction has strongly influenced the work here, but of course a discussion of popular music and film raises its own particular questions and comes attended by its own set of discourses. For an excellent popular overview of those questions and discourses, see Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music, by Barker and Taylor. Allan Moore provides a more academic overview of the topic and of the scholarly literature on pop music and authenticity in his essay “Authenticity as Authentication.” [↩]
- When they have been interviewed about either film, the Coens have always gone out of their way to say that they have never read The Odyssey, which raises the question of another sort of inauthenticity. We might describe the Coens as instinctual poststructuralists, because they seem to be committed to the idea that the text does not begin or end with the film itself but includes the filmmaker’s statements about the film and all the other apparatus that surrounds it. They have always made an effort to treat venues like interviews and commentaries as extensions of their film texts, using them to complicate, rather than to explain. (Consider, for example, the ninety-minute fake critical commentary that they scripted for the DVD release of Blood Simple, or their coy reversals in interviews concerning whether the film Fargo is based on a true story or not.) We might see their claim not to have read The Odyssey as another deliberate gesture of inauthenticity, separating the text from the authority of both its antecedents and its authors. [↩]
- In The Study of Folk Music in the Modern World, Philip Bohlman writes that “Revival relies heavily on new symbols masquerading as the old. . . . The implied age and authenticity of revived folk music are often shifted to such external, nonmusical aspects as the naming of pieces or styles. The rubric ‘old time,’ with its transparent assurance of age, is one of the most prevalent symbols of such a nonmusical aspect in American folk music” (131). [↩]
- The Llewyn Davis character is very loosely based on Dave Van Ronk, a major figure on the Greenwich Village scene. He was by all accounts both convivial and generous, unlike Llewyn, and had a successful if small-scale career. But like Llewyn he had a middle-class background, which he eschewed by embracing a hard-drinking, bohemian lifestyle, and his deliberately rough vocals and repertoire of traditional ballads and blues might possibly indicate a desire to attain the kind of folk authenticity that Llewyn aspires to. The cover for Llewyn’s album Inside Llewyn Davis is directly copied from the cover of the 1964 album Inside Dave Van Ronk, the one difference being that Van Ronk’s album features a cat; in the film, the cat appears to have escaped from the album cover and become part of the plot itself. [↩]
- In fact, the Coens, always attentive to such details, have loaded the soundtrack of the film with farewell songs. Even those that do not explicitly include a goodbye or farewell in the lyrics are nonetheless songs of distance and leave-taking: “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” “Five Hundred Miles,” “The Last Thing on My Mind,” “The Storms Are on the Ocean,” and so on, even including the novelty song “Please Mr. Kennedy.” [↩]
- For more on Dylan’s Jewish identity as a source of his intertextual borrowings and his position as a permanent insider/outsider, see David Kaufman’s essay “‘Here’s a Foreign Song I Learned in Utah’: The Anxiety of Jewish Influence in the Music of Bob Dylan.” [↩]
- Grossberg does suggest that this is a historical development, that the “end of authenticity” is brought about by a turn to the postmodern that increasingly privileges the visual. This new “media economy,” of which music videos are the emblem, undermines the authenticity that rock had made available roughly since the end of World War II. But although he doesn’t quite say so, Grossberg’s argument here seems to suggest that this undermining was always contained within the logic of authenticity itself. His vague historical argument operates as an alibi for a more convincing possibility: that the postwar formation of rock authenticity was always really the desire for authenticity, and there never was a time when it meant more than that. There is another popular argument that serves as a corollary to the “postmodernism killed authenticity” narrative, one that claims that after it had been killed by postmodernism, September 11, 2001 brought authenticity back, and in the process killed both postmodernism and irony. This argument is profoundly unconvincing and always rests on some very selective reading of the cultural data, and on an apparent ignorance of the essays and commentaries that had already declared postmodernism and irony to be dead or out of fashion years before the towers came down. For a suitably problematic example of this argument that is focused on pop music, see Em McAvan’s “Boring Is the New Interesting: September 11, Realness, and the Politics of Authenticity in Pop Music.” An example of the selective-data problem: McAvan claims that in the 1990s popular music was dominated by bubblegum pop acts that embraced artificiality – Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys, etc. – somehow ignoring the fact that ’90s music was largely defined by the popularity of “grunge” and the mainstreaming of indie-rock, both of which expressed a doomy anxiety that was linked to an expressive ethos of authenticity. [↩]
- This rendering of the folk revival is a radically simplified one – and like Hale and many other scholars who have written about the folk revival, I am perhaps guilty here of attributing too much naïveté to the movement. Certainly there was earnestness, romanticization of the folk (and particularly of the black folk), and Llewyn Davis-style pompous counterculturalism in the folk revival. But there was also irony, self-criticism, and plenty of internal parody. The Smothers Brothers, the Chad Mitchell Trio, and many other acts performed folk songs “straight” while also poking fun at the pieties and earnest politics of the folk movement. Non-folkie contemporaries such as Tom Lehrer contributed pointed parodies as well. [↩]
- As Michael Denning argues, folk revivals around the globe have always been ways of defining their nations, and “the paradox of these revivals was that the commercial vernacular musics of the 1920s . . . were now reimagined through rhetorics of folk authenticity” (221). This is how those commercial recordings from the past (such as the ones in Harry Smith’s Anthology) came to serve as the basis for the anti-commercial folk revival. They were translated – by the performers and scholars of the revival era – into folk music and thus purified, their commercial taint removed, made authentic so that they could do the work of representing the popular spirit of America. [↩]