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Fake It ‘Til You Make It: The Grey Area in Pop Music and Authenticity

Justin Bieber doesn’t make real music”. “THIS is real music”. These type of comments litter the videos of pop singers and musicians in general. You could replace “Justin Bieber” with any pop artist of the moment. When it comes to pop music, there are many who cry out it isn’t real enough for them. But what does “real” even mean? For some, real means there must be a band, and physical instruments involved. For others, they believe real music should be soulful and written in honesty. And for another group, real means that their roots have to match their style. For them, if you’re a gangster rapper, you damn well better come from the projects, or your music is irrelevant. The only thing these different schools of thought have in common? Music that isn’t real, is not good music. Although all of these type of individuals make valid points in their own right, this criticism of “reality” is irrelevant when it comes to pop music.

Music serves different functions. Some songs are great for closing your eyes, and letting yourself get lost – to just allow you to disconnect from the world. Other songs are great for making your feet (and, if you’re feeling it enough, your booty) move to the beat – or off-beat for the rhythmically-challenged among us. Others are meant to overwhelm you with emotion. Pop music is meant to fulfill some of these functions, but in pop, the creative process is what differs from the more independent musicians. It’s not necessarily created as a bleeding heart art piece, but a carefully calculated product. “Realness” has nothing to do with it. Music can be “fake” and still be good. Well-renowned bands and artists have been primmed and plucked into pop perfection, and are still great artists.

While we see inauthentic pop music as a recent plague, there have been signs of it even from the beginning of pop. Pop music how we know it began in the Western world around the 1950s and 1960s. The pop darlings at the time: the late, the great, The Beatles. They are a band held in high regard, but for all intents and purposes when they began to gain notoriety they manipulated their image and style to sell to the masses. They were initially a group of guys, playing in clubs – strictly rock n’ roll – wearing a look that emulates the forever swoon-worthy James Dean. Thus, by most standards, their initial style of bubblegum pop would be considered inauthentic, since they changed their sound and style completely to market themselves. And yet, their music is still listened to and remembered as great music.

Before They Were Famous

The original Beatles before their signature preppy look and bowlcut hairstyle.

This is true of other bands and musicians that we take as the pinnacle of authenticity. The Rolling Stones not only made music about sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll, but lived it as if it were their gospel. But, even that aspect was exaggerated. The possibly immortal Keith Richards, said it best: “Your persona…is like a ball and chain. It’s impossible not to end up being a parody of what you thought you were”. See, in his autobiography, Keith Richards outlines exactly how they were told to act and how they were marketed. At first they attempted the Beatles route, where they cleaned up and wore matching marching jackets, with minimal success. Then, when their manager saw that they were slightly rowdier than the Beatles, they began marketing them as the type of guys you’d never want your daughter to date. Of course, this proved to be an instant success. And ever since, although there was a nugget of truth in it, the band played it up as much as possible. In this sense, their beginnings were not all that authentic either.

Now, this does not mean that there isn’t a problem with producers making singers out of people who can’t sing, or songwriters out of people with no writing ability, but inauthenticity doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be awful. One of the most popular and well-regarded artists of our time, Beyonce, is the definition of pop stardom. And, of course, this means that every single move of hers, every outfit, every song, is completely calculated. During the Grammy’s this year, Beyonce lost to artist Beck. Because of this, people began bringing up statistics that were meant to discredit her, such as how many individuals were credited on her album (74), to the number of producers (16), to number of instruments performed by Beyonce herself (0). These claims were presented as if they were shocking, but it really shouldn’t be. Beyonce is a product for the masses, while Beck is a mainly independent artist that simply wants the world to hear his craft. As a product for the masses, of course she has the equivalent of a small town helping her and working on her image and music. Expecting anything else is naive.

You have to take pop music for what it is. Pop music is meant to sell and appeal to as many people as possible. Every aspect of it will be tweaked for this. This doesn’t mean pop can only be a product and not art – look at Lady Gaga, or her predecessor Madonna. Pop can be controversial or shocking and still wholly orchestrated. It’s part of the business. If personally you lean towards the indie, the folk, the blues, rock, or even metal, then all the better for you. There are many ways to tear pop music to shreds with critiques, and many ways in which it falters. But please don’t just resort to “it’s not real music”. Pop isn’t always meant to be an artistic representation of the artist or band or a visceral portrayal of their true selves, it’s meant to be easy, and fun to listen to. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that.

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