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Friday, January 02, 2004  
In Authenti City
Increasingly it seems as though Mark Beaumont’s witlessly hyperbolic prose is the guiding voice of the NME. I guess this has something to do with him being head staff writer. Oh god. He came out of fanzine-land, didn’t he? No wonder every piece of two-bit garage rock he reviews bleeds with the holy ghost of rock n roll or sets fire to your cerebral cortex with white-hot guitar lines from the dusty basin of inbred Texas or shags your brain, smokes your fags, steals your soul and upsets your mother or lights up the night sky with incandescent psych-rock frenzy and terrifies old ladies with rabid wolf-howls or some such utter titwitch nonsense. I wonder just how much influence he has had over NME’s current utter terror of anything slightly technological or rhythmic?

Earlier tonight I listened to Odeley for probably the first time in three years. It was never a favourite of mine, probably more because of my slight distaste for Beck than anything to do with the actual record itself, but even I can’t deny that it’s a bloody fine record. Not experimental but… There’s a distracted sense of fun and exploration which is what I assume was mistaken for postmodernism by so many commentators back in 96; not at all avant-garde except in the narrow context of Oasis’ success over the previous 18 months, but idiosyncratic, explicitly contemporary and knowingly pilfering (stealing not just the beats of hip hop, the riffs of funk, the producers of Paul’s Boutique, the authenticity of country [a long-term quest of Beck’s, authenticity – a point which will be addressed later], the [illusion of] nihilism from grunge, but everything from everyone because A; it has no identity of its own, and B; for the next three or four years it would steal the credit from anyone who did anything even remotely similar). In 1996 it was NME’s album of the year (DJ Shadow being second and Orbital being third [what the fuck?! how did this ever happen?!]), following Tricky’s epochal Maxinquaye which claimed the top spot in 1995. And now, in 2003, we get Elephant

Dan Emerson told me he suspects that Jack White isn’t so much obsessed with the blues because he loves the blues, identifies with its emotional clout, feels the struggle of the wronged black man, or whatever, but because he sees it as a signifier for the authentic.

The White Stripes' take on the blues and such isn't self-expression at all. [Jack White] is a man who doesn't love the music he claims to in any meaningful way; it's possession, not love. He's interested in authenticity and self-expression; but has decided that only certain forms of music are capable of facilitating it. So he's moved beyond liking music because it's real and genuine, to liking certain types of music that he identifies with these characteristics. And then he goes further, and creates music of this sort, because he reasons that this is Good Music; and what he creates has nothing to do with who he is, only to do with imitating a twice-removed facsimile of authenticity.
Dan Emerson

To be honest I’ve never given The White Stripes much thought (I don’t like them on a basic, musical level and that was [almost] enough) but I agree wholeheartedly. I see Beck in a similar light; with Odelay and his earlier material he appropriated the aesthetic of country music, the white-man’s blues, a short-cut to authenticity, but as soon as his evasive lyrics and too-ostentatious showmanship had him labelled a postmodern pastiche-merchant he had to flee. First away from the samples and referentialism and to the acoustic pastures of Mutations, and then to the perceived honesty and authenticity of swing, soul and funk with Midnite Vultures. Interviews around this time were conspicuously full of quotes about how Prince or LL Cool J or R Kelly were authentic in their brazen sexual and emotional honesty or something, as if saying you wanted to have sex with a girl all night long was the height of profound honesty (I’m not saying it necessarily isn’t), and thus Beck embraced the aesthetic of Prince (& co.) with open arms, cultivating a falsetto and lascivious (and ludicrous) lyrical motifs. Tellingly, Midnite Vultures bombed amongst the NME-crowd, where (actual real) sex is feared (how did Maxinquaye rank so highly?) and emotional honesty is perceived as equalling Starsailor’s histrionic and selfish high-end neediness, or Coldplay’s sappy, apologetic and virginal Hallmark schoolboy romance. It’s no stretch to see Jack White (who was dumped by Renee Zellweger because she realised she was seeing “a music nerd and not a rock star”) and Beck as being cut from the same cloth if you think laterally about the ontological arrival at their chosen musics rather than literally about the aesthetics.

So why is NME now so enamoured of Jack White’s bassless authenticity circus? How have they moved from Maxinquaye and Odelay to a two-piece historical review obsessed with using only vintage equipment, with having no bass, with sounding (and looking) as if they’ve been in a Blue Peter-esque time capsule. How has the alternative mainstream shifted so much in 7 years that we’re now seeing The Strokes, The Libertines, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and so on being praised where previously it was Radiohead, Chemical Brothers, Orbital, Massive Attack? Is an increasing proliferation of massively technologically innovative and accomplished music in the mainstream leading to the alternative mainstream's fearful and reactionary crawl back into a technological dark age? Possibly. Is this the whole ‘fear of the center of the body’ thing again? Drum n bass made it explicit that the bassline is the key rhythmic force when it comes to dancing because you simply couldn’t move in time to percussion that frenetic, so the answer for people ‘afraid’ of their bodies, and thus dancing, is to remove the bass completely. Thus Jack White, subconsciously eradicating the ‘inauthentic’ impulse to dance by removing the bass?

Authenticity as is understood in musical terms and circles (and I’m not talking Simon Reynolds, Dave Stelfox, Sasha Frere-Jones etcetera, but rather how the topic is so often broached in mainstream media and cultural contexts, because ultimately that’s where the average person-in-the-street gleans much of their cultural critique from) is fast becoming the absolute fucking bane of my critical life. I have mentioned Hediegger’s definition of the authentic many times before on AusPishFish and don’t want to have to go into it again, but it is the only one that actually makes any sense or has any qualifiable basis or flexibility. How is someone writing their own songs more authentic? How is someone avoiding using any equipment made after 1969 more authentic? How is ‘manufactured pop’ inauthentic when all and sundry can see every nut and bolt of the process of construction, when everyone involved is hyper-aware of what they’re doing? How is a love song more authentic than a lust-song? Why is slow and acoustic more authentic than fast and digital?

I can’t even think anymore right now. All I know is I don’t like The White Stripes and I’d quite like to shoot Mark Beaumont.


1/02/2004 01:53:00 am


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Nick Southall is Contributing Editor at Stylus Magazine and occasionally writes for various other places on and offline. You can contact him by emailing auspiciousfishNO@SPAMgmail.com

All material © Nick Southall, 2003/2004/2005