October 20, 2009

Who's more authentic Tom Waits/Bob Dylan or Britney Spears?

Musician Jack White thinks out loud:
"I don't know if Tom Waits and Bob Dylan are as authentic as I think they are. Perhaps they're not."

..."Sometimes you start thinking that maybe Britney Spears or someone like that who's doing exactly what they want to do in the way that they best know how, is more authentic than any of those people you could mention."
Think about it.


Paddy O said...

What is authentic?

Is it doing whatever you want to do in the moment, following every whim as it comes?

Or is it being truly your own self? Being "you" to the fullest without regard to the influences of others?

Dylan is probably a lot more authentic in this respect. He found a certain success and can be happily eccentric. Britney Spears seems like she can do whatever she wants, but she isn't allowed her own children, she's apparently unhappy and makes decisions based on the influence of a whole lot of others.

Frankenstein did what he wanted. But he was a mishmash of other people's parts, animated but not authentic.

Gordon Freece said...

White is usually worth listening to when he talks about his job.

Waits is not "authentic". He's a brilliant cabaret performer who stays in character offstage. His lyrics have always been self-conscious and "writerly". His schtick has always been self-conscious and theatrical. Waits is a genius at making new and sophisticated art out of old stuff that was authentic.

What originally struck me about White, when I first heard him a few years ago, was that he made me realize for the first time just how contrived Jon Spencer's faculty-brat blues revivalism was, back in the 1990s.

Dylan's thing is a bit like Waits, but not to such an exaggerated degree.

So, what about Nick Cave?

Henry said...

This reminds me of Henry Rollins' contribution to Rolling Stone Magazine's list of best albums one year. He was one among a slew of pop artists to contribute.

After complaining about the lack of authenticity, he ignored everything from the current scene and listed 10 re-releases of old standards.

What a poser.

Salamandyr said...

I'm not sure that what Spears is doing has anything to do with what she'd like to do.

She's always struck me as a not-to-bright, basically decent person, easily led into being a gravy train for those around her.

rhhardin said...

Christian Schutze "Stenciled Speech for All Occasions", quoted by Adorno in _The Jargon of Authenticity_.

Hey it's online, look inside and search for President.

Amexpat said...

Britney can't do whatever she wants musically. She's finished as an artist if she strays too far from what her fans expect or has a few poor selling albums.

Dylan has plenty of leeway to do what he wants - it's almost expected that he will do the unexpected.

I agree about Waits doing schtick. Dylan has his various schticks and disguises, but he can be very open and "authentic". A lot of his Christian songs, especially "Shot of Love" sound very authentic.

ricpic said...

When Waits sings a song with a simple refrain that I can understand without straining - Let It Rain for example - he's the greatest. But most of the time I can't get past his ruined vocal chords.

traditionalguy said...

He is commenting that there are several different authentic Bob Dylans, so that a Britney doing her one thing well (as a talented superslut) seems to be real in comparison. To me that Dylan is unpredictable is a feature and not a flaw.

Bissage said...

It was just the other night Mrs. Bissage and I watched this documentary.

Tal Farlow earned his living as a sign painter. He said the goal of sign painting is to get everything to fit together so the sign has “snap.”

He said he tries for the same thing in his music.

peacelovewoodstock said...

God forbid we should think an artist authentic who is not.

But what if it is a core part of an artist's personality that he or she feels the need to pose?

Can't appearing phony be authentic?

White always struck me as a bit self-absorbed. He's a reasonably talented guitarist in need of a strong producer.

IMHO, Meg was his Yoko .. at least Jack had the sense to divorce her early on. Or did she divorce him?

Skyler said...

I have to admit that I'm struggling with the idea that Dylan is an artist, let alone being "authentic," whatever that might mean.

Penny said...

Maybe Oprah thinks she can pull off "authentic" and still be in show business. For me? Authentic entertainer is an oxymoron.

ricpic said...

All art should be snappy. Lacking snap it's all blah.

MadisonMan said...

This seems very navel-gazingish to me.

Does it matter if someone is authentic or not? Does my appreciation for the beauty that is a Britney Spears song change based on her authenticity?

The only thing authenticity will change is (IMO) how an artist (or an artiste) will change with time. Solution: Listen to (and enjoy) many different artists, so you don't have to worry about how they evolve.

TMink said...

The thing about Neil Young and Dylan is that they have followed their muse up and down the charts. That strikes me as authentic. It seems to come from inside passion rather than outside expectations.

Jack White is a cool goofball, lots of Detroit smack talk. I saw "It Might Get Loud" and before the meeting with the Edge and Page he was saying how he was going to trick those guys into revealing all their guitar tricks.

There is a scene where he and the Edge are two feet away from Page as he plays "Whole Lotta Love" that is telling. Jack is grinning like an embarassed school boy. That was authentic Jack White in my book.


bearbee said...

Ditto Paddy O: What is authentic?

I suppose it depends on the view of the generation growing up with each and the segment to which each holds appeal.

Beth said...

I don't like White's imprecise use of the modifier "authentic." Is he making a distinction between being something and doing something? Britney may be the very best Britney she can be, but what she does isn't musical. She's a successfull entertainer, but not any kind of musician.

I like so much of Tom Waits' music, but I also tire of his act, so maybe I get what White is saying, to some degree. I can only take so much growling and rasping, especially when I can hear Waits' authentic voice in my head.

So maybe they're all three entertainers, with a schtick. That's authentic enough.

Drew W said...

I think trying to divine who's musically authentic or inauthentic is a fool's errand.

Also, so what? Jack White isn't really breaking any new ground here. There have always been members of the rock critical establishment who said that commercial pop artists deserve equal respect to the more critically-endorsed artists.

Also, trying to determine the dividing line between commercial and noncommercial music becomes an exercise in pointless hair-splitting.

Robohobo said...

Gee, let's go to Althouse's blog and look at a post where she quotes a talentless hack, Jack White, questioning who is "authentic".

I know I just found the end of the internet. ....... Turning around and leaving, now.

Michael Haz said...

Johnny Cash was authentic. In her own way, and it gags me to say it, Taylor Swift is authentic. Warren Zevon is authentic.

Bob Dylan is always interesting, but has become a Bob Dylan tribute act.

If Tom Waits was truly authentic, he'd have died by now.

John Stodder said...

A word often associated with Dylan is "mask." I think part of his artistic strategy over the course of his career is to don different masks at various times in order to create confusion, so that he can be very honest and authentic at times but his audience is not quite sure if that's really Bob talking now or another assumed identity. In this way, he could tap into his own life and sorrows while maintaining privacy and freedom to move. Sometimes these shifts have enraged and alienated fans, but Dylan has won out in the end, every time.

Tom Waits' career is interesting to bring up in contrast. I think his early stuff, the music that got him attention, was quite authentic. He was a "nighthawk at the diner," who drank and smoked with other derelicts and dreamed of better things. Beginning with "swordfishtrombones," however, Waits abruptly evolved into more of a narrator of stories and presenter of theater pieces. His songs became about people in his imagination, not himself. In doing this, he created some of his best music, but his younger persona, the guy we thought we knew, all but disappeared. Except not really, since the old stuff is still available and leaves such a strong impression that you listen to his newer stuff and think, "This is a story written and sung by that 'Closing Time' guy. Wow, he's really taken things to a different level."

Britney Spears, as others have already said, does not have the permission of her fans or financiers to change her approach as dramatically as Waits and Dylan did. I don't think her artistic ambitions are the same. She started out as a kid who could dance, sing and look pretty and wanted to turn that into a chance to be famous and rich. But as she gets older she might aspire to becoming someone like Madonna, who is another manipulator of masks. Far less compellingly than Dylan, but still part of Madonna's appeal nonetheless. The only problem with Spears going this route is, is she really that smart? You don't get the feeling she is.

And maybe that's what Jack White, an overthinker if there ever was one in rock, meant. Authentic equals dumb. It's perhaps more interesting to him when a dumb person can produce popular music.

traditionalguy said...

Jack White is a psychological phenomena in that he clearly appreciates Britney's inner slut as the great performance art it is. I suppose that historically, The Whore of Babylon has always been a much more popular performance artist than any wandering Hebrew Prophet.

Penny said...

Dying was a lot more "authentic" for Sid Vicious.

Bushman of the Kohlrabi said...

If Tom Waits was truly authentic, he'd have died by now.


Michael, I love Tom Waits but that was a great comment!

Michael Haz said...

@Penny - And Janis Joplin.

KCFleming said...

I have one rule about the music I listen to:
Avoid learning anything at all about the musician.
I break that rule rather often, but still.

People are, inevitably, disappointing. The ability to create beauty says little about that person. Be they authentic or sell-out, eccentric or plastic, gregarious or bore, genius or dullard, they cannot live up to their creation.

Except for determining quality, analysis is like killing a mockingbird.

T.K. Tortch said...

I used to torture my artiste acquaintances by suggesting that the likes of Brittany Spears and her fans actually experienced art & music more immediately, deeper and keenly than they did, and thus didn't have to spend so much time thinking about it and being clever. But I definitely think she's "authentic" -- what you see is what you get. It's what she has to say, and I don't think she's got the artistic instinct or performance talent to change her spots, without massive producer manipulation.

I agree what Gordon Freece said about Jack White compared to Jon Spencer -- who I tired of pretty quick. A shtick not from the heart. Relic of the over-ironic '90's.

Jack White, on the other hand, took a well-tread, even worn out genre, the Blues, stripped it down and made it sound new again. He's cultivated his image, but I think he really feels it. On the early White Stripes records, his covers of older blues tunes aren't there just for show -- he plays them like they're fresh, like he means it, and those songs still have something to say and he's going to channel it. He's also developed a pretty distinctive song-writing style, he's lyrically interesting, and the scope of his musical interests keeps expanding. He'll be around for a while.

I haven't seen that movie with Page and the Edge -- two blues guys and a sonic tactician!! Gotta be interesting.

bagoh20 said...

Caring about things like "authenticity" just ruins what you could enjoy.

There are real things to differ on about art, but authenticity is made up. It's the bigotry of art.

Mark Daniels said...

I take White's point. Let's face it, all artistic expressions, even those we may not personally think of artistic expressions, are inherently artificial. There's a level at which art is completely unnecessary and no matter how hard artists may strive to be authentic, it's all functionally superfluous and crafted with some recognizable artifice.

But who would want to live in a world without art?

I think he's also right in saying that Spears, who is in many ways simply imitating Madonna, is more authentic by doing the "art" she knows than is someone like Dylan, maybe, who has been an experimenter in various musical genres and deliberate fuser of them, over the course of his career. Still, I'd rather hear Dylan sing, "If You Ever Go to Houston," than hear Spears sing anything.

By the way, as a Christian, I believe that the impulse to create reflects the image of God in which the Bible says we were created. All of creation must be, at a functional level, superfluous to God. Yet God creates, shouting, "Tov!" (Good!) along the way and finally, "Tov! Tov!" at the sight of the masterpiece, humanity.

So, let us pray to God, "Hit me baby, one more time.

Joe said...

If authentic means "sucks to bad you want to shoot yourself", then yeah, Dylan is authentic.

Ah Pooh said...

I had a book,The Search for Authenticity, stolen from under my desk in university - disturbing.

the quietist said...

What is authentic? That's easy.

Authentic is not caring what the cool kids say is authentic. There is nothing more inauthentic that worrying too much about authenticity.

Shouting Thomas said...

Art is fake.

When Mary Travers died, I was reminded of a column by Mark Steyn.

Travers, of course, was a commie. One of her great hits with Peter, Paul & Mary was "If I Had a Hammer." This song was written by America's most successful communist, Pete Seeger. It was intended as a sort of battle hymn for the workers of the world.

Steyn's comment, paraphrased: In that old worker's paradise, the Soviet Union, you were hard pressed to find a hammer to buy in any store. In the United States, which is of course the capitalist hell, hammers can be purchased by the dozen cheap at Home Depot.

I can remember how moving and exciting that song was to sing when I was in high school chorus. But, unfortunately, the message was a complete fraud... or perhaps the better word would be artifice.

When I think about that now, I feel as if I've been duped.

And, doesn't that say a lot about art in the last century and a half? It's all fakery.

Think about the worst pop song every written, which has to be "Imagine" by John Lennon. Dumbest piece of adolescent pap ever penned. And, yet, it does move you when you hear it, doesn't it? Doesn't matter that the ideas are the stale whimperings of a spoiled brat.

Our emotions are more often than not stupid and easily manipulated.

AllenS said...

Let's face it. If marijuana hadn't become fashionable at the time, Dylan would't have amounted to much.

Where's my harmonica?

A.W. said...

Well, i won't say on authenticity, but i know who i don't want to hear singing a christmas album. have you heard any of the clips from the dylan christmas album. the only nice thing you can say about it, is it is for charity. I think the charity organization's plan is to go into neighborhoods paying it on the loudspeakers. This would continue until everyone ponies up $20.

Synova said...

I think the whole concept is silly.

I think that "authentic" is something people say when they want to sound a certain way for a certain sort of audience, friends, etc, or when there is a need to justify liking something that just isn't particularly good but you have to "like" to be part of the "in" crowd.

"Authentic" saves you from the taint of crass commercialism. (Producing *or* consuming.)

bearbee said...

Think about the worst pop song every written, which has to be "Imagine" by John Lennon. Dumbest piece of adolescent pap ever penned.

Ugh, double ugh

And, yet, it does move you when you hear it, doesn't it?

No and triple ugh.

bearbee said...

Well, I guess it DOES move me....to triple ugh.

Henry said...

Shouting Thomas wrote: I can remember how moving and exciting that song was to sing when I was in high school chorus. But, unfortunately, the message was a complete fraud.

Not at all. Motivation isn't art. Idealism, separated from policy, can appeal to anyone. Freedom, justice, brotherhood. How can you argue with that?

Sonny Terry, the great country harmonica player and a fairly apolitical person, called Pete Seeger one of the finest human beings he knew. That goes a long way in my book. Seeger was a self-deceiving moron when it came to politics, but he seems to have been a decent person and sincere in his ideals.

As for Imagine? That is crap. And it sounds like crap. Lennon should have hung it up when Paul and George weren't around to make up for his whiny treacle.

TMink said...

"If authentic means "sucks to bad you want to shoot yourself", then yeah, Dylan is authentic."

You obviously heard his Christmas disc.


Synova said...

Imagine: "And, yet, it does move you when you hear it, doesn't it?"

I thought it was great until I listened to the words and thought about it.

After that not even a brain scrub with drain-o could make it sound good again.

traditionalguy said...

Authentic to me means interacting regularly with the same the person over 6 to 12 months until along the way he/she is no longer able to hide their blind spots and their emotional reactions to various events. The you know them.Or you can speed this up by playing golf with them. Then you will either accept this now authentically exposed person or run for your life.

A.W. said...

Btw, on imagine, i can't even listen to it anymore.

It is not a set of ideals that makes me feel all warm and fuzzy. In fact it struck me as pretty lame when i first heard it and pretty horrible the more i think about it.

Imagine there's no heaven? So what? we blink out of existance when we die. yeah, what a cheerful thought.

Imagine no possessions. Well, i like having a car, ps3, ps2, psp, computer, cell phone, so imagining having none of that seems like a bad thing.

Nothing to kill or die for? That means nothing in your life has value. again, horrible. i would kill or die to protect my freedom, my wife, my family, etc. If i either 1) don't have those things, or 2) no longer care enough about them enough to kill or die for them, that is not a good thing.

And given how many possessions he had, it was inherently lame to say imagine no possessions. you give up yours first, you poser.

Diamondhead said...

"As for Imagine? That is crap. And it sounds like crap. Lennon should have hung it up when Paul and George weren't around to make up for his whiny treacle."

I love to watch jaws drop when I tell people I think My Sweet Lord was the best post-Beatles song (yeah, yeah, I know the tune was cribbed).

Diamondhead said...

And Dylan has never given a shit what the fucking arbiters of "authenticity" thought of him. That's why he could put out a pre-rock Christmas album, do an Escalade commercial, allow a bank to use "The Times...", release Self-Portrait. I think he would laugh at the whole fucking discussion.

Shouting Thomas said...

I'd never seen the Dylan Escalade ad.

Went over to YouTube to watch it.

Shit! Reading advertising copy.

Dylan knows who he is. I don't know whether that means he's authentic, but he knows he's just a guy trying to enjoy life and make a buck.

I can't stand to listen to him sing, but I like a lot of songs he's written.

The Cadillac ad... well, it's a reason to respect the guy. He's just doing his job.

Just doing your job is pretty authentic... whatever that might be.

Diamondhead said...

I loved how politically incorrect it was: guying driving a gas-guzzling SUV without any passengers for the fun of it. That's the kind of thing that would get a person the finger in Seattle...

Gordon Freece said...

Diamondhead, the best post-Beatle solo recording was Ringo's "It Don't Come Easy".

Sure, Harrison was better than Lennon, but so's a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. Everything the Beatles did was complete garbage. Paul did a bunch of cool stuff with Wings, though: "Spin It On", "Junior's Farm", "Uncle Albert"... Good stuff.

Michael Haz said...

The Cadillac ad... well, it's a reason to respect the guy. He's just doing his job..

You've got serve somebody.

Michael Haz said...

You've got to serve somebody.

Diamondhead said...

Gordon, just my opinion, but I don't think you're giving George enough credit. Taxman, Something, Here Comes the Sun, While My Guitar Gently Weeps - those are all great songs. And his output after the band broke up was, for my money, much better as a whole than Paul's has been.

William said...

In the way poverty is considered more authentic than wealth, homely looks are considered more authentic than good looks. Add to this, the fact that gravelly voices with limited range are considered more authentic than pretty voices--see Johnny Cash, Louis Armstrong, Dylan, and Waits. (Shane McGowan of the Pogues has the most authentic teeth in show business.) If Dylan had the good looks and vocal range of Robert Goulet his career would have died stillborn.......It is a historic inevitability that Britney will someday be bankrupted by her husband/manager and will gain at least fifty pounds. At such point people will notice the tremulo in her voice and declare her a great blues singer. Her template isn't Madonna, but Rosemary Clooney.

Gordon Freece said...

Michael Hasenstab: That's what the Donner Party thought.

Diamondhead: I guess George's stuff just never floated my boat. He's the Beatle I ought to like, but Paul's the one I keep getting stuck with.

Dana said...

Tom Waits, Bob Dylan and Britney Spears in the same sentence? Seriously, that's just wrong on so many levels.

Michael Haz said...

@Gordon Fleece - LOL!

Ronnie Schreiber said...

Think about the worst pop song every written, which has to be "Imagine" by John Lennon. Dumbest piece of adolescent pap ever penned. And, yet, it does move you when you hear it, doesn't it?

Yes, it moves me to wonder how someone who wrote Jealous Guy and She's Leaving Home could write such nihilistic dreck as Imagine. Arguably the worst lyrics in rock n roll. The Frost's "Rock n Roll music" has deeper meaning.

Let's face it. If marijuana hadn't become fashionable at the time, Dylan would't have amounted to much.

Marijuana didn't really become widely popular until well after Dylan released his first few albums. In 1964 and 1965, pot smoking was not really that widespread (certainly not as widespread as in the late 60s and early 70s when there were kids getting high in the parking lot before classes at my high school).

Dylan's success is mostly due to the fact that he's a great, great songwriter and an emotionally expressive singer.

Ronnie Schreiber said...

I love to watch jaws drop when I tell people I think My Sweet Lord was the best post-Beatles song (yeah, yeah, I know the tune was cribbed).

Sheesh. That's your best pick from All Things Must Pass? It's a cute song but What Is Life and Beware of Darkness are great songs.

Imagine a band where the guy who wrote Something was the third string songwriter.

BTW, on the Dark Horse tour back in the 70s, I heard Harrison cover In My Life after he dedicated it to "my friend, John Lennon, who wrote it."

Ronnie Schreiber said...

release Self-Portrait

Hey, I like that album. In fact, I persist in liking it just to annoy my fellow Dylanophiles.

I particularly like the fact that Dylan covered a Paul Simon song, The Boxer. Simon is a first rate songsmith who's gotten short shrift from some critics and elitist music fans because he writes pop music and because he isn't Bob Dylan.

davis,br said...

Think about it.



Largo said...


"""All art should be snappy. Lacking snap it's all blah."""

Assuming you really mean all art, and are not speaking only of popular 20th century song, would you consider Samuel barber's Adagio for Strings "snappy", or "blah"?

(For a work of classical music, I think it makes a virtue of being as far from snappy as one might fairly wish for.)

Jay Vogt said...

It's SHOW business! Who gives a rip if it's authentic.

In any event, authenticity is too hard of a metric to measure. Substituting talent as the measure, you get; Dyan > Waits > Spears = each of them is a talented person.

w/r/t Lennon, he was a very, very talented guy and in collaboration with McCartney he was downright brilliant. "Imagine", though is simply awful. Yet, slightly worse is that dumb "War is over" Christmas song.