by Brad MacDonald
Throughout the past couple of months, the integrity of prominent musical artists has been a topic of much public debate. In a Los Angeles times interview with Joni Mitchell that ran April 22, journalist Matt Diehl drew a parallel between Mitchell’s and Bob Dylan’s mutual use of stage names only to be inundated with Joni’s ensuing stank spew: “Bob is not authentic at all. He’s a plagiarist and his name and voice are fake. Bob is a deception. We are like night and day, he and I.” Further, in a highly contentious article in a recent issue of The New York Times, Lynn Hirschberg attacked the credibility of the artist, M.I.A. This act was particularly unsettling because Hirschberg presented herself as an
impartial observer keenly discerning M.I.A.’s true character rather than admitting that her piece was basically a character assassination. Finally, in a recent interview for The Guardian, Joanna Newsom let it be known that Lady Gaga was an overrated “Arty Spice” with little true talent. Clearly, there’s a strange trend happening here in which the value of an artist’s work is predicated on a vague, undefinable sense of realness.
What makes this practice so troubling is that it’s based on outdated and tired notions of artistic integrity. To my mind, authenticity isn’t an end in itself, something we all must strive for by cutting ourselves onstage or biting the head of a bat and/or midget in front of an adoring audience, but rather a fluid means of self-expression, an instrument that can
be played upon like any other.
Take Bruce Springsteen for example: He represents the American everyman, he wears jeans, he puts on 4 hour shows that exhibit his intense blue collar work ethic yet, at the same time, many of his songs exude a theatricality on par with musicals (especially Cats, fuck I love cats. Think about that musical for a second.
It’s fucked. I’m working on a musical called Giraffes. Watch for it), his vocal delivery is often completely over-the-top even on his most acoustic, low-fi songs, and, in general, his on-stage demeanor is that of a master showman; Remember during the Superbowl when he slid onstage and slammed his crotch into the camera? I thought his dick was going to burst through my tv screen, 3D Avatar style – it was fucking awesome. The point of this is that none of these aspects of Springsteen imply a damning contradiction in any way but rather a talented artist bobbing and weaving his way through various social constructs of authenticity and artifice in order to create an image/aesthetic/artform that is expressive and unique. There’s a far cry from Milli Vanilli’s utter fraudulence and The Boss’s complex self-fashioning.
Another artist that incorporates this kind of subtlety is Jack White. In the White Stripes’ recent documentary, Under Great White Northern Lights, White mentions that his favorite review of the band described them as both the fakest and the most authentic band in the world. What makes White such an admirable figure, is that he evokes his dedication to his craft through his most overtly artificial forms of image-making just as much as he does so through amazing songwriting. For White, both are the work of a thoughtful artist. He plays various characters: white boy blues virtuoso from a by-gone era of Americana, brother to Meg White, as well as a ghostly, gothic troubadour wandering through desolate landscapes. Each serves to exhibit his conviction and allegiance to all facets of what it means to be an artist – singing lyrics while strumming a guitar and creating a role for yourself are both forms of creativework and, when done effectively, shouldn’t provoke a backlash concerning sincerity.
One of the greatest examples of this kind of nuance, is the career of Morrissey. I fucking love Morrissey for many reasons but what he does best is effortlessly blend notions of satire and genuineness (Sidenote: By “genuineness,” I’m not referring to Morrissey’s ability to be like the famed R&B singer Ginuwine. Of course, I mean no disrespect to Ginuwine. “Pony” is a timeless classic which will always have a place in my heart as well as in the annals of music history. Sorry for the digression). In response to The Smiths, many listeners will say that its sadsack music for emo-wuss-pansies to wet their beds to yet these same people will still, despite their misgivings, enjoy the band. Why is this the case? Because even as Morrissey’s lyrics, when combined with Johnny Marr’s ingenious chord progressions, evoke melancholic nights of loneliness, they can also be hilarious. Simultaneously. In the exquisitely beautiful and strangely perverse “There is a Light that Never Goes Out,”
And if a double-decker bus
Crashes into us
To die by your side
Is such a heavenly way to die
And if a ten ton truck
Kills the both of us
To die by your side
Well the pleasure, the privilege is mine
Whenever I hear that chorus, I feel an intense satisfaction at the perfect blending of real feeling with self-deprecation. The pain of the song is all the more affecting because Morrissey winks at us to let us know that maybe he shouldn’t be so indulgent – the two sides are working in tandem, harmonizing rather than at odds. But does Morrissey really mean it or not? Not only is such a question unanswerable but its very indecipherable nature is part of the enjoyment of the experience – which is why when people presume to have such answers, to have determined whether an artist fails to reach a pre-determined
zenith of creative integrity, it points to an archaic form of musical criticism that has never offered any useful insight into the nature of artists or their craft. On that note, let’s turn to the three examples I mentioned.
Dear Joni Mitchell, you’re crazy. Bob Dylan is a fake and a plagiarist? Good god
Joni, are you a “square” reporter from the 1960s with a crew cut and a deadline and no knowledge of Robert Zimmerman whatsoever? Do you want him to suck on his glasses? Do you want to ask him if he cares about his songs like the schmuck from “Don’t Look Back”? Holy shit. First off, it seems pretty safe to say that the goal of Dylan’s entire career has been to shape-shift. Not in a crappy Madonna “I put on a cowboy hat and cut-offs and have thus acquired an entirely new image” kind of way but in a manner that is
actually reflected through aspects of his work. That’s why he records so quickly so he can move on to his next album, that’s why he had his 60s afro removed and reshaped into his weird New Morning beard, that’s why he embodied the counter-culture and alternative lifestyles of the 60s and then turned into a born again Christian bigot/asshole, that’s why he can come off like the biggest fucking jerk in the world yet still charm you, that’s why he’s an infamous womanizer yet also known as a dedicated family man. Of course I’m blending art and artist here, biography and discography, but the fact remains that Dylan’s a slippery, slippery fella. And, in perhaps the only moments in which the man has been direct in his life, he has told us so. Had he ever accepted the images the public has tried to heap upon him, then Joni would have, at the very least, some basis for
her claims (even so her perspective would still be stiflingly dogmatic), but this has never happened. All Dylan has ever wanted was to avoid accepting one of his identities as more authentic than the other. He perfectly embodies these lines from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself:” “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” I respect Joni Mitchell’s work but, in the case of this interview, she is small and contains dung.
The charge that Bob is a plagiarist is also off the mark given that he has spoken openly, especially on his radio show, that he comes from a folk tradition which thrives on the borrowing and re-appropriation of melodies and words to create something entirely new.
This is not unlike the way that hip hop has used samples to rework old soul and R&B classics. If Dylan was a mere plagiarist, then no one would be listening to him; we’d all just go straight to Woody Guthrie. But we don’t, mostly because no one on earth but Dylan could do what he has done – “Visions of Johanna” is not the song of a fake or plagiarist not only because it is a masterpiece of music and lyrics but also because those two terms don’t even offer a relevant means with which to judge the work of the man.
In Part 2 I defend M.I.A. and rip Joanna Newsom a new one for attacking my beloved
Gaga. You gotta read that shit!