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.