Authenticity in Popular Music

The question of how ‘authentic’ a popular musical passage is cannot be gauged on a readily quantifiable scale. When one considers a piece of creative art’s authenticity, one inherently questions its origin as well as the origins of its producer: it is whether a homology exists that one is trying to ascertain. There are many factors bearing on the direction one might take, such as the lyrical content, the technical quality of the product, and even the musical styles involved. Some of these factors involve the feelings and opinions of the producer as well as those of the consumer, which brings a high element of individual values and personal judgments into the equation. These individualised considerations ultimately cloud judgment and in some cases, make it very difficult to determine the authenticity of a piece of popular music. However, if one were to persist and attempt such a feat, one would be advised to first consider some of the more rudimentary questions. One such consideration might be to define what constitutes popular music, as well as to understand why, if at all, the question of authenticity is an important one.

Popular music, as much as, or even within the more generalised framework that is popular culture, has long been the subject of critical analysis and endless debate. From Arnold’s early warnings about the commercialisation of culture in 1869, to 1939 when Leavis identified an inescapable capitalist agenda of cultural appropriation, there have been many attempts to define the popular aspect. Recent theorists such as Storey – whose definitions of culture are well established – Bennet, Delaney, and Hall in particular, all underline that culture – amongst other things – is a site where class struggle occurs. When considering this definition, the prefix popular – in culture generally, or in music specifically – would come to signify as belonging to the lower and lower-middle classes, and existing in a direct dichotomy with high culture – which in musical terms would refer to classical music. Renowned theorist Pierre Bourdeau corroborates this when he says that the consumption of culture is “predisposed, consciously and deliberately or not, to fulfil a social function of legitimating social differences“, (Bourdieu, 1984: P7). Many such theorists have themselves studied and regard Adorno’s views as important in this field of research.

Theodor Adorno was a leading theorist that emerged from the Institute of Social Research – or Frankfurt School – and was attributed with coining the term ‘culture industry’ in his critique of popular culture, and in so doing, differentiated between the popular and a higher art form that he deemed ‘serious’. Adorno suggests that the industrialisation of music results in high levels of standardisation at every possible stage of development and consumption. This, Adorno calls ‘pseudo individualisation’, a concept that he suggests is responsible for

“…endowing cultural mass production with the halo of free choice or open market on the basis of standardisation itself”, (1941: 79).

The listener’s predetermined comfort is not disrupted, even in such cases when there exists a level of difference in style between musical passages.

This labeling technique, as regards type of music and band, is pseudo individualisation, but of a sociological kind outside the realm of strict musical technology. It provides trademarks of identification for differentiating between the actually undifferentiated”, (1941:80).

The resulting product is hence reduced to an anesthetic: a relatable rhythmic pattern that provides cues for the ‘obedient’ listeners’ institutionalised lives. To consume this music within a predetermined and predictable reactive framework constitutes a socio-psychological function that runs parallel with how society operates at a personal and professional level. Alternatively, this pseudo–individualised music also offers the possibility for ‘emotional’ listeners to relate to the modern day dilution of values that resonates in such standardisation. The effect may be different for each type of listener, but the resulting behaviour is similar in that they both conform to the imposed socio-political expectations. This, Adorno suggests, is why music can be deemed as the ‘social cement’ that helps to solidify relations and coax interaction between members of a society.

There is then no question as to the importance of music in a modern society, regardless of any commercialisation. However, post-modernity has seen music also become central to the industry’s programme of individualisation through personal devices and consumption. This individualisation is but a product of technological determination, and one that Adorno might never have predicted; and yet through this individualisation comes a newly invigorated reliance. Music has perhaps also transcended into the social cement of our digital world. Although popular music has become diluted in as far as the artistic and technical qualities, it is precisely because it plays such an integral part in society – as traditionally, or within this newly found reliance – that the question of authenticity is an important one. If formulaic, at least let the stories that the songs convey not be altogether deceitful.

Ascribing Authenticity

Having established some fundamentals, such as what ‘popular music’ is, and why the question of authenticity is an important consideration, one can begin to look at what authenticity itself is, and how this authenticity – and thus value – can be ascribed to a particular piece of music. Questions of expression, sincerity and truth, in a socio-political setting as well as in a first person context, have a strong bearing when forming an argument on what might be deemed authentic. Such ambivalence as surrounds the basic definitions already touched upon, seems also to plague the notion of authenticity itself: for some, the authentic has come to represent experience and truth to something external, whilst for others, it lies within a certain adherence and fidelity to the self. In attempting to define authenticity and detach any ambivalence, Longhurst elaborates on the example afforded by black music, and highlights the historical dichotomy between black and white traditions within the popular. This dichotomy, and its inherent underlining of difference, might cast doubt over the authenticity of musical styles such as Blues and Soul, or even Hip Hop and Rap, which emanate from the very interaction between the black and the white. Rock music is similarly derived from the numerous styles that preceded it, and in similar fashion to Blues, Soul, Hip Hop and Rap, is for the most part deemed genuine and meaningful. Even bands as conventionally packaged as The Beatles contributed to this process of dilution.

“…their reappropriation of black music styles opened the way for a series of developments during the 1960s. Partly, they are important for the way in which they brought together different styles, integrating forms of black soul with rock and roll”, (Longhurst, 2007: 100).

In essence, this problem dispenses with the existentialist argument that suggests authenticity is an unchangeable status rooted in a fixed historicity, and instead proposes that authenticity is a dynamic attribute. In acknowledgement of this as fact, one denies oneself an uncomplicated method of categorically attributing authenticity. 

It therefore necessarily follows that authenticity itself can befit not only music that originates from, or is connected to, political movements from humanity’s darker periods of history, but also, subsequent sub-cultural movements that have flourished and duly come to be positioned against the mainstream. Keightley accounts for these evolved senses of authenticity by employing the concept of romanticism and modernism: the former when the music is representative of a historically rooted sense of truth, and the latter when it is defined by an urban populist landscape that breaks with tradition and the past. In ‘Reconsidering Rock’, he draws on the rich history and traditions behind folk music, and those of rock music, in order to establish such differences. In this light, he suggests authenticity is the tool that one might use to “police the boundaries of folk music against the mainstream of popular music”. (2001: 122). However, counter to this argument Keightley further suggests that “rock culture embraces authentic success as a validation of artistic quality”, (2001: 132). Modernism then, brings an element of irony into the discussion in that success is also the scale by which the mainstream – the one thing that rock fundamentally opposes – itself is judged. This second adaptation of the term ‘authentic’ seems rather more directly relatable to the Greek origins of the word, one that came to signify ‘self-made’.

Toynbee adds depth to the discussion when he directly characterises romanticism as coming from the inner self, and modernism as derived from the outer self. In as far as romanticism is concerned, he establishes the view that music may be derived “from within and is a direct product of the psyche of the creator”, (2003:162). This psyche – as appertaining to romanticism – would then be constructed from all the traditions and lived experiences that the composer would have been subject to during the course of his life. This view however, he refutes to a large extent. Alternatively, Toynbee acknowledges the theories proposed by Becker (1982) as more plausible, and in so doing, shows favouritism towards a modernist discourse.

“…even the most intense and solitary moments of creative passion depend on careful monitoring of choices from a (virtual) position outside the creator’s own subjectivity, and in the thick of the culture in which he or she works”, (Toynbee, 2003: 163).

This view, he bases on the pretext that modern music is forged “through the interaction of artists, co-workers, and audiences”, (Toynbee, 2003:163), which in itself brings a new element into the discussion – the consumer. This inclusion furthers the possibility to then consider romantic ideology within the political-economy model: one in which it seems further out of context with a modern cultural environment. Toynbee turns to Stratton (1982) when he underlines that,

“…romantic discourse about creativity ties together industry, artist, and audience. Or to put it another way, capitalist ideology built on insecurity and the profit motive suppresses the social nature of the creative process”, (Toynbee, 2003: 170).

In order for an artist to break from the inescapable, there must be willingness on his part, to embrace and interact with his surroundings – including his audiences – so that his work may be attributed some level of authenticity. This is a question of articulation, and one that was touched upon by none other than Karl Marx when in his ‘Early Writings’ he established the purpose of production as consumption.

My own existence is a social activity. For this reason, what I myself produce I produce for society, and with the consciousness of acting as a social being”, (Marx, 1963: 158).

With this sharp focus lying squarely on product interaction with an audience that is itself constituted as outer, the political economy of music then confirms this process as an inescapable characteristic of modernism. In as far as the product itself, Marx states that it is through its consumption that it acquires meaning.

Furthermore, the function that is articulation, albeit with its inherent rejection of romanticism, itself brings other considerations into this discussion. As already stated early on: when one considers authenticity, it is the search for a homology, an ancestral truth evident in a musical piece that is being sought. Such abandonment of the romanticism concept need not negate this fact. Aside from ethnic and socio-political considerations, Frith identifies a strand of nationalism that runs parallel to the modernist lines of discourse already established. This is furthered by an industry that positions itself and operates at a national level. If, as the concept of articulation suggests, a piece of music acquires meaning through appropriation, then it follows that this meaning must be disseminated equally – in its entirety or to some degree at least – amongst other audience members, and as such, contribute to the creation of a national shared identity.

Music constructs our sense of identity through the direct experiences it offers of the body, time and sociability, experiences which enable us to place ourselves in imaginative cultural narratives”, (Frith, 1996: 124).

With a modern society consisting of, and constantly shaped by, the imagination of numerous individuals from altogether different ethnicities, cultures, and nationalities, it would then seem an almost impossible feat to ascribe authenticity through a romanticism discourse, to any creative product emanating from such a mixed and ever-shifting populace. Such differences are irrevocably intertwined in the very fabric of society, so rather than apportioning a level of authenticity to a piece of music in respect of its homology, one might be better inclined to understand the piece by accepting a shared homology and instead concentrate on how much it authentically contributes to the identity-formation process.

The history of British music offers numerous examples of the dislocated migrant-minorities adding to the socio-political and cultural diversity of a nation. The importation of Jamaican Ska, its fusion with Punk, and its subsequent appropriation by the Modernist subculture resulted in the Two-Tone stylisations of mainstream bands such as Madness, The Specials, and The Bodysnatchers. The London-Irish community brought similar mainstream success to bands such as Dexy’s Midnight Runners, who resolutely embraced their ancestral traditions within the broader cultural framework of a given place and time. Although purists and romantics might cast doubt on the authenticity of such movements and subcultures, and despite the artists themselves questioning their own sense of belonging through their art, the lines of discourse considered so far suggest that a modernist approach might deem their stories as genuine, and that the authenticity apportioned to the overall product, would itself remain as a testament to a generally recognisable truth. This sentiment echoes throughout all explorations of cultural authenticity.

The problem of who I really am is raised by the facts of what I appear to be: and though it is essential to the mythology of authenticity that this fact should be obscured by its prophets, what I appear to be is fundamentally how I appear to others and only derivatively how I appear to myself”, (Appiah, 1992: 74).

One final, yet very important consideration, addresses the attribution of authenticity to a piece of music, as regards its fidelity to a presupposed style or genre. When considering the culture industry and its innate capitalist tendency to commercialise and monetise, all that its components may come to produce – irrespective of the ethnically, socio-politically, and nationalistically diverse representation of society that comprises it – may thus become significantly diluted in artistic terms. In essence, what is being discussed is a compromise between commercial and artistic success. Further to offering his theories of romanticism and modernism, Keightley contemplated authenticity in this sense also. In his own exploration of authenticity in rock music specifically, he recognises how fans, musicians, and critics alike, guard against over-commercialisation, as much as all the negative qualities already discussed.

‘Authentic’ designates those music, musicians, and musical experiences seen to be direct and honest, uncorrupted by commerce, trendiness, derivativeness, a lack of inspiration, and so on”, (Keightley, 2001:131).

This brings us full circle to Adorno and his critique of popular music. His work was received with much negativity towards the end of his life and thereafter. Many theorists and composers had taken exception to his supposed narrow-minded pursuit of an outdated romanticism. However, Jay dismisses this point of view when he states…

The real Dichotomy Adorno contended, was not between ‘light’ and ‘serious’ music – he was never a defender of traditional cultural standards for their own sake – but rather between music that was market orientated and music that was not”, (Jay, 1973: 182).


Insofar as establishing the meaning of authenticity in popular music, whether measured by a romanticist or modernist discourse, important constituents from within the social and political realms have been considered: ethnicity, historicity and tradition, essentialism, production and consumption, articulation, and finally, commercialisation. The theorists that have been turned to for the most part, and in contradictory fashion to the views purported by Adorno, attribute a higher level of credibility to music through modernism. However, the focus on audience consumption and product articulation also calls attention to certain unequivocal truths in Adorno’s contribution. When considering authenticity as attributable to a piece that defies commercialisation, his interpretation of authentic as ‘serious’ music and inauthentic as ‘light’ popular music, is important. Thus, in as far as creative or commercial forms of popular music in a post-modern society, serious and popular seem equally sensible terms to differentiate between the ‘authentic’ and the ‘inauthentic’.

There is also a rather more direct approach to the problem. Most of the modern thinkers turned to, consider music as actively contributing towards identity formation. They might then, also agree with Marx’s theory of articulation and hence, that it might then be best left to those influenced by the music itself to ascribe value. However, if music creates identity, then who is to say that a piece of music lacks authenticity if the identity of the producer himself is partially forged through such influence in the first place, and how can it even be proven. This approach then, also carries ambiguity…

At the outset, the ethic of honesty and sincerity is an externally imposed constraint. One is born to it and formed by the conditioning mechanisms of its educational institutions. Success in conforming to the letter of this ethos is amply rewarded. But the outward or behavioural honesty of those who are successful, and their verbal sincerity, tell us nothing about their authenticity. How can we know that behind compliance with that ethic lies an authentically honest and sincere person?”, (Golomb, 1995: 23).

As society and its culture have evolved first to a post-modern society, and then to the current information age, the concept of romanticism also evolved to modernism. They are different notions that serve well at different points in history. The world lies in a constant flux, and the masses that constitute an audience are themselves subject to movement and dislocation. The search for homology might then be confined to the homology of the producer, not his ancestors, thus working to identify the honesty in the message, not necessarily in the artist’s provenance.

Christian Gadd (2976 words).

Semester 5 (September – December 2015) : Music, Media and Culture.


Adorno, Theodor, (1941), ‘On Popular Music’, in Storey, John, (ed.), (2006), ‘Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: A Reader’, Third Edition, Harlow: Pearson Education Limited.

Adorno, Theodor, (1991), ‘The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture’, London: Routledge.

Appiah, Kwame, A., (1992), ‘In My Father’s House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture’, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Arnold, Matthew, (1869), ‘Culture and Anarchy’, ed. Dover Wilson, J., (1932), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Becker, Howard, S., (1982), ‘Art Worlds’, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Bennett, Tony, (2006), ‘Popular Culture and the ‘Turn to Gramsci’’, in Storey, John, ed., “Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: A Reader”, Harlow: Pearson Education Limited.

Bourdieu, Pierre, (1984), ‘Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste’, tr. Nice, Richard, USA: Routledge.

Delaney, Tim, (2007), ‘Pop Culture: An Overview’, in Philosophy Now, issue 64, November/December 2007.

Frith, Simon, (1996), ‘Music and Identity’, in Hall et al., (ed.), ‘Question of Cultural Identity’, London: Sage.

Golomb, Jacob, (1995), ‘In Search of Authenticity’, London: Routledge.

Hall, Stuart, (1981), ‘Notes on Deconstructing ‘The Popular’’, in Raphael, Samuel, ed., “People’s History and Socialist Theory”, London: Routledge.

Jay, Martin, (1973), ‘The Dialectical Imagination: The History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research 1923 – 1950 ’, California: University of California Press.

Keightley, Keir, (2001), ‘Reconsidering Rock’, in Frith et al., (ed.), (2001), ‘The Cambridge Companion to Pop and Rock’, pp. 109-142, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Leavis, Queenie Dorothy, (1939), ‘Fiction and the Reading Public’, London: Chatto and Windus.

Longhurst, Brian, (2007), ‘Popular Music and Society’, Second Edition, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Marx, Karl, (1963), “Early Writings”, Bottomore, T., B., (trans. and ed.), New York: McGraw-Hill.

Storey, John, (2012), ‘Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: An Introduction’, Sixth Edition, Harlow: Pearson Education Limited.

Stratton, Jon, (1982),”Reconciling Contradictions: The Role of Artist and Repertoire in the British Record Industry”, in Popular Music and Society, Volume 8: Issue 2, pp. 90-100.

Toynbee, Jason, (2003), ‘Music, Culture, Creativity’, in Clayton et al., (ed.), (2003),  The Cultural Study of Music: A Critical Introduction’, pp. 102-112, London: Routledge.

About Christian Gadd

Christian Gadd
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