How is authenticity constituted in the contemporary music industry? What is its purpose? Please illustrate with a case-study of a particular genre, artist or group.

In today’s music industry, notions of ‘authenticity’ are not necessarily acknowledged or questioned, given the context of mass ‘commercial’ music. Yet, for some musicians their key selling point is their authenticity; their originality, real talent, and genuine belonging to their given subculture, proven by their display of habitus.  I will be arguing that authenticity can never be definitively ascribed to an artist, and that it does not necessarily need to be in the context of the contemporary mass-market music industry (at least in the mainstream). I will be looking at the case study of rapper Rick Ross, and will problematize this study with a re-evaluation of the concept of authenticity in hip-hop.

 

An authoritative definition of authenticity is that by John Fiske in his discussion of fandom. He writes that ‘authenticity…is a criterion of discrimination normally used to accumulate official cultural capital’[1]. In other words, the distinction of authenticity is something that fans use to characterise themselves as true fans. Yet, this arouses the question of whether this authenticity, then, is something subjectively attributed by the audience rather than inherent in the artist. Indeed, as will be explored through this essay, authenticity is hard to conclusively define.   

 

Hip-hop rapper Rick Ross is a prime example of where fabricated authenticity, or indeed public inauthenticity, presents a viable and successful product in today’s music industry. Born William Leonard Roberts II, this popular rapper is rumoured to have been a prison guard at the penitentiary in which notorious drug lord, Rick Ross, was incarcerated in the 1990s. The ‘Freeway’ Rick Ross makes claim that this public figure stole his name and identity in order to create a hip-hop persona, thus infringing on ‘publicity rights, false advertising, unjust enrichment, and unfair business practice’[2]. This case begs the question of why, with this public information of inauthenticity, this musician continues to gain success.

            Certainly, Gilbert and Pearson write that ‘artists must speak the truth of their (and others’) situations…[The singer’s] fundamental role [is] to represent the culture from which he comes’[3]. This denotes a kind of honesty from the artist, which is lacking in the case of Rick Ross who makes claims to a drug empire that seemingly aims to impress his fans. Grossberg corroborates this when he speaks of ‘honesty to experience’[4].  He articulates the concept of authenticity as how fans can ‘find some sense of identification and belonging, where they could invest and employ themselves in specific ways’[5]. In other words, authenticity signifies the resonating with their common desires, feelings and experiences. Within hip-hop fandom, such canonized figures such as Biggie Smalls and Tupac represent true authenticity in the scene. Biggie reached out to his community by dedicating his song ‘Juicy’ to ‘all ma n***as in the struggle’[6], and goes on to talk about having to ‘hustle’ in order to ‘feed his daughter, thus denoting a perceived authenticity. There has been a shift in values for many of the biggest hip-hop stars of today; Ross raps about his lavish lifestyle. In his song ‘Street Life’, he raps: ‘ain’t nothin’ but the street life, that’s money, cars and hoes, it’s the only life I chose’[7]. Apart from being fairly simple and unimaginative, it also appears decidedly inauthentic to characterise ‘street life’ through displays of wealth.  However, such exhibitions of prosperity and hedonism also find their way into the lyrics of esteemed rap stars, so how does one distinguish between the authentic and the inauthentic? This leads us on to the importance of discrimination and distinction in the discussion of authenticity.

Fiske’s thesis that ‘fans discriminate fiercely…the boundaries between the community of fans and the rest of the world are…strongly marked and patrolled’[8] is extremely relevant here. Indeed, ‘true’ hip-hop fans obtain enough cultural capital by being able to distinguish either side of the authentic/commercial paradigm. Fiske observed that Dr. Who fans in the Tulloch and Alvarado study (1983) ‘frequently used official culture criteria such as ‘complexity’ or ‘subtlety’ to argue that their preferred texts were as ‘good’ as the canonised ones, and constantly evoked legitimate culture- novels, plays, art, films- as points of comparison’[9]. Certainly, ‘authentic’ hip-hop fans attribute such features to the work of Biggie, denouncing ‘mainstream’ figures such as Ross as ‘simple’ and ‘derivative’. In contemporary discourses, it has become a real hip-hop versus ‘shit-hop’ feud.  

However, even such hailed artists subscribe to inauthentic strategies. Biggie’s image was consciously doctored in order to speak to and for his demographic. His mother relates that lyrics referencing the lack of food to eat, having to eat ‘sardines for dinner’ in his ‘one-room shack’[10] was a ruse, part of his on-stage persona. Certainly, Biggie, born Christopher Wallace, attended private school, and was always provided for by his mother.  Furthermore, when he was first signed, his manager P. Diddy insisted on the input of popular music as ‘hooks’ that would be palatable for a mass audience. This relates to Shuker’s case study of Bob Marley and the Wailers, who were ‘watered down for white consumption’[11]. In both cases, it seems that there exists authentic talent, while their public personas are altered, possibly explaining why such inauthenticity is forgivable for such revered artists.

         Indeed, there is a potentially excusable argument. Forman Murray writes, ‘successful acts are expected to maintain connections to the ‘hood’ and ‘keep it real’ thematically, rapping about situations, scenes and sites that comprise the lived experience of the ‘hood’. At issue is the complex question of authenticity as rap poses continually strive to reaffirm their connections to the ‘hood’’[12].  However, there exists the difficulty of ‘keeping it real’ and also appealing to a mainstream audience for maximum profit. Additionally, since the rap scene has preconceived standards of what makes an authentic artist, then rapper are forced to adhere to such a mold, even if that means deviating from their true, authentic self. 

Interestingly, Mickey Hess implements theories of W.E.B. DuBois to add a new perspective, writing: ‘A theory of hip-hop’s seemingly conflicting concerns of authenticity and marketability may work to reframe W.E.B. Dubois’ concept of double-consciousness in commercial terms as artists work to produce marketable music for mainstream listeners yet at the same time to maintain a necessary level of authenticity to a place of cultural origin’[13]. Therefore, even the truly authentic have to find that balance as, in a capitalist society, their art must be commodified and profit-driven in order to be continued. Shuker corroborates this with the assertion that ‘such views of mass art forms…as compromised by its association with capitalist commodity production, are flawed’[14]. He speaks of the prevalence of artists with concerns of profitability, and claims that ‘a concern with marketability is not necessarily at odds with notions of authenticity and credibility; indeed, the latter are themselves marketable commodities’[15]. Thus, authenticity cannot denote disregard for profit margins, but instead must be what is attributed to the act by the audience.

Fornas’ argument helps to define why hard-core fans may continue to canonise these figures that have elements of inauthenticity. He claims that authenticity is not intrinsically opposed to artificiality, as authenticity is essentially a construction we ascribe to what we perceive[16]. Therefore, as a construction attributed by the audience, authenticity can be whatever the audience wants it to be. It could be viewed that Biggie earned his authenticity by becoming complicit in gang culture that ultimately left him murdered- definitive proof of his affiliations to the culture he sought to stand for.

 

Steven Feld asserts that ‘authenticity only emerges when it is counter to forces that are trying to screw it up, transform it, dominate it, mess with it’[17]. Therefore, it seems that it is because of the rise of the manufactured pop star that causes these discourses of authenticity. However, this evidence ultimately seems to conclude that, although revered in niche subcultures and fan communities, authenticity cannot be conclusively defined, nor does it need to be in order to be enjoyed. Particularly in a contemporary context, mass market does not demand authenticity, as mainstream audiences are able to connect with inauthentic artists because they do not belong to the social group to which that artist is supposedly trying to stand for. In today’s industry, the purpose of authenticity is merely to distinguish between different fan communities and the selling point of different musicians. 

 

Word count: 1,414

 [1] Fiske, John, “The Cultural Economy of Fandom,” in The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media, ed. Lisa A. Lewis, (New York: Routledge, 1992), p. 36.

[2] Eriq Gardner, ‘Judge Rejects Warner Bros. Records’ Motion to Dismiss Ricky Ross v. Rick Ross Lawsuit’, HollywoodReporter, 7/18/2012 [accessed 18.04.13], http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/thr-esq/rick-ross-freeway-ricky-warner-bros-sue-maybach-music-351204.

[3] J. Gilbert and E. Pearson, Discographies: Dance Music, Culture, and the Politics of Sound (London: Routledge, 1999), pp. 164-5.

[4] L. Grossberg,, We Gotta Get Out of This Place (London: Routledge, 1992), p. 206.

[5] L. Grossberg,, We Gotta Get Out of This Place (London: Routledge, 1992), pp. 204-5.

[6] Biggie Smalls, ‘Juicy’, youtube.com, [accessed 18.04.13], www.youtube.com.

[7] Rick Ross, ‘Street Life’, youtube.com, [accessed 18.04.13], www.youtube.com.

[8] Fiske, John, “The Cultural Economy of Fandom,” in The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media, ed. Lisa A. Lewis, (New York: Routledge, 1992), p. 34.

[9] Fiske, John, “The Cultural Economy of Fandom,” in The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media, ed. Lisa A. Lewis, (New York: Routledge, 1992), p. 36.

[10] Biggie Smalls, ‘Juicy’, youtube.com, [accessed 18.04.13], www.youtube.com.

[11] Roy Shuker, ‘”Every1’s a winner”: The Music Industry’ in Understanding Popular Music, 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 2001), p. 47.

[12] Murray, Forman, “Represent: race, space, and place in rap music” in Popular Music and Society (Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 72.

[13] Mickey Hess, “Metal Faces, Rap Masks: Identity and Resistance in Hip Hop’s Persona Artist” in Popular Music and Society (Taylor & Francis Group, 2005), p. 298.

[14] Roy Shuker, ‘”Every1’s a winner”: The Music Industry’ in Understanding Popular Music, 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 2001), p. 34.

[15] Roy Shuker, ‘”Every1’s a winner”: The Music Industry’ in Understanding Popular Music, 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 2001), p. 35.

[16] J. Fornas, Cultural Theory and Late Modernity, (London: Sage, 1995), p. 275.

[17] C. Keil, and S. Feld, Music Grooves (Chicago: Sage Publications, 1994), p. 296.

Bibliography:

Fiske, John, “The Cultural Economy of Fandom,” in The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media, ed. Lisa A. Lewis, (New York: Routledge, 1992).

Fornas, J., Cultural Theory and Late Modernity, (London: Sage, 1995).

Gardner, Eriq, ‘Judge Rejects Warner Bros. Records’ Motion to Dismiss Ricky Ross v. Rick Ross Lawsuit’, HollywoodReporter, 7/18/2012 [accessed 18.04.13], http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/thr-esq/rick-ross-freeway-ricky-warner-bros-sue-maybach-music-351204.

Gelder, Ken, The Subcultures Reader, 2nd ed, (USA and Canada: Routledge, 1997).

Gilbert, J., and Pearson, E., Discographies: Dance Music, Culture, and the Politics of Sound (London: Routledge, 1999).

Grossberg, L., We Gotta Get Out of This Place (London: Routledge, 1992).

Hess, Mickey, “Metal Faces, Rap Masks: Identity and Resistance in Hip Hop’s Persona Artist” in Popular Music and Society (Taylor & Francis Group, 2005).

Keil, C., and Feld, S., Music Grooves (Chicago: Sage Publications, 1994).

Moore, Alan, ‘Authenticity as Authentication’ in Popular Music, Volume 21/2, (UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002), pp. 209–223.

Murray, Forman, “Represent: race, space, and place in rap music” in Popular Music and Society (Cambridge University Press, 2000).

Thornton, Sarah, ‘Exploring the Meaning of Mainstream’ in Club Cultures, (Hanover and London: Wesleyan University Press, 1996).

Shuker, Roy, ‘”Every1’s a winner”: The Music Industry’ in Understanding Popular Music, 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 2001).

Smalls, Biggie, ‘Juicy’, youtube.com, [accessed 18.04.13], www.youtube.com.

Ross, Rick, ‘Street Life’, youtube.com, [accessed 18.04.13], www.youtube.com.

Rubidge, S. ‘Does authenticity matter? The case for and against authenticity in the performing arts’, in Analysing Performance, ed. P. Campbell (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996.), pp. 219–33.

Willis, Ellen, Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music, ed. by Nona Willis Aronowitz, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011 [1981]), p. 221.

 

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