John Prine is a 63-year-old songwriter who got his start in 1971 with a self-titled debut that had his record label pushing him as another in a long line of New Dylans. It was a fallacy, though: Prine never quite had the edge that Dylan had. He was never mean, his jokes were generally meant only to make you laugh and rarely to shed light on any injustices other than the ones we all suffer just by getting out of bed in the morning. He's flirted with unbearable hokeyness at times, and with drippy sentimentality at others, but he's also packed as many heartbreaking, plainspoken truths into song as anyone I've ever heard. He writes about barely getting by, about taking great pleasure in small things, about loving people deeply and being loved deeply. He doesn't do irony, he doesn't do existential crisis. He doesn't roll his eyes, and he doesn't wink. Nothing about his simple approach has ever been particularly cool, and so it comes off as completely authentic.
This isn't supposed to matter anymore, but it does.
At some point during the past decade or so, music critics far and wide accepted as gospel this notion that the search for authenticity in music is a fool's errand—that for any number of reasons, it's a flawed method for determining what we like and don't like, or what has artistic merit and what doesn't. Some argue that authenticity is unquantifiable, intangible, subjective, and thus not useful in critical discourse, while others argue that it's simply unimportant—that the degree to which an artist is or is not telling the truth should have no bearing on how we feel about their work.
This has always struck me as almost complete bullshit, and I'd be willing to bet that, assuming you don't make your living as a music critic, you agree with me, even if you've never actually thought about it before. And, frankly, you probably haven't. More likely, you subconsciously hold different types of music to different standards, based on things like your age, your location or your socioeconomic background. If you're a 26-year-old creative professional living in Williamsburg, you probably demand that an up and coming indie rock band specializing in swirling keyboards, tribal rhythms and group harmonies display some proof that they were doing it before Merriweather Post Pavilion came out, but at the same time, you're also probably able to get drunk and enjoy the shit out of "Over" without worrying about whether Drake ever really paid his dues. It's a double standard, and while the game of raising and lowering expectations based on external factors certainly borders on condescending and dangerous, I don't think it's ever quite as sinister as that.
It simply means that, to most people, in the areas of their life that they care about most, authenticity still matters a great deal, probably more than anything else. To pretend otherwise is to be willfully ignorant, and to demand otherwise is to be woefully unrealistic. It's hard to imagine this being more evident anywhere else in the world than right here in Brooklyn, where for better or worse, there is no such thing as an aspect of life that's not worth obsessing about. The amount of time we spend carefully curating our existence is shocking and probably somewhat wasteful, unless you consider the alternative, which is simply to carry on without any regard for what you may or may not have the right to appropriate or, worse, without any regard for what makes you look like an idiot with bad taste. From the restaurants we eat at and the bars we drink in to the jobs we'll allow ourselves to have and the neighborhoods we'll live in, every single thing we do speaks volumes about us, and we know it. So, while it's a given that a certain amount of fretting over authenticity is just part of the deal for any reasonably intelligent adult who feels, or wishes to feel, some connection to a counterculture in the year 2010, the great secret of all of this—and it's really no secret at all—is that the very act of trying to seem authentic necessarily makes one inauthentic. It's a bummer, but it's the truth. And it is fucking exhausting.
Which is why it still feels nice, sometimes, to have somewhere to hide, some aspect of your life that is wholly unpretentious—a safe haven from our perpetually high-stakes surroundings. Maybe it's the townie bar you drink at when you visit your hometown, or maybe it's just your living room, where you secretly, unironically watch Glee or Parenthood or something. It's a ribbon around your finger, a reminder that there is life outside Brooklyn, outside of indie rock, outside of whatever race you signed up for when you moved here, or when you decided to stay. It's not a guilty pleasure, but the exact opposite: the kind of pleasure that reminds you what pleasure is supposed to feel like.
This is what John Prine's records are for me, and it's why for years I've wanted to write critically about him, about how he's one of the greatest storytellers I've ever heard, about how his melodies manage to seem sophisticated and childlike at the same time, about how despite all his constant joking about only knowing a couple of chords, he's as expressive a guitarist as almost anyone, about how the degree to which he's grown into his songs rather than out of them over the years speaks volumes about the kind of talent he had even at a young age. I want to say all these things, but I know deep down that none of it means nearly as much to me as the very simple fact that he's the fully realized opposite of everything I'm a little bit worried we've become. In one of his best-known songs, "Spanish Pipedream," Prine relays the advice of a woman: "Blow up your TV, throw away your papers, move to the country, and build you a home/Plant a little garden, eat a lot of peaches, and try to find Jesus on your own." It's like he's daring us to just stop doing all the things that make us so crazy all the time, to figure out a new way of living that might ultimately lead to greater happiness. Whether you're as tempted by the premise as I am is beside the point: this is what music, what all art, is supposed to do for us. It's supposed to open us up to new ideas, and it's supposed to change our lives, even though we've been trained, by years of jokes about the movie Garden State, and by scores of earnestness-hating critics and bloggers, to roll our eyes at the very notion.
If we're going to give music the power it wishes to have, the power it deserves, then it's not only acceptable to use authenticity as a measure of what's valuable and what's not, it's imperative. We have to demand from our art what we can't find in our real lives, so that one day we might be able to. It's not supposed to matter anymore, but it does.Prine's new live album, In Person and On Stage is out this week. The tribute album Broken Hearts and Dirty Windows: The Songs of John Prine, featuring Conor Oberst, My Morning Jacket, Drive By Truckers and Bon Iver among others, is out on June 22nd,