The Authenticity Debate, Revisited

Kanye West, Eric Church

There’s been much discussion lately on the subject of authenticity in country music, particularly among its male stars.

To quickly recap, CMT.com’s Chet Flippo took issue with Eric Church for appreciating high thread count sheets and Justin Moore for his self-appointed “outlaw” status, then The Tennessean’s Peter Cooper followed declaring that all the redneck posturing simply wasn’t believable. The subject has prompted numerous strong reactions on both sides, so here’s mine.

This weird obsession with country music’s authenticity, both from the artistic community and from critics, borders on preposterous.

I’ve been a big hip-hop fan for some time. Lately I see country music beginning to mirror hip-hop’s growth in some interesting ways, and I’m not just talking about Jason Aldean spitting a few bars in his current single.

An artist should be free to believably inhabit the characters in his songs, and not have that persona confused with his offstage life. And it probably goes without saying, but an artist should also sing about something.

Which brings me to my first point.

There are a group of artists, mostly male, who seem to think if they can spout off more country cliches than the last dude that it somehow magically conveys an air of authenticity. There have been so many songs in the last few years referencing dirt roads, tailgates, bonfires, and every other “country” trope that I’m starting to get them all confused.

As a fellow small-town southerner (Arab, Alabama: Pop. 7,500) I agree these things are, to some degree, part of life. In younger years I spent more than one Friday night drinking in a cow pasture (sorry Mom!), and Saturdays boating on the Tennessee River. And yep, I hung out in the Food World parking lot after dark. When you grow up in a place where there everything closes at 6, you improvise.

But here’s the problem: these songs aren’t about anything. Small town life is quite complex, a rich tapestry of joy, heartache, community, sin and salvation. The offending songs actually do it a great disservice by making it appear completely one-dimensional. So songwriters, can we stop doing that? Please?

On to the second point.

People in the listening world, particularly critics, insist on projecting this myth that an “authentic” country artist needs to work on an assembly line, kill deer with his bare hands, and live out the tales in his songs. He should probably also sleep on a dirt floor in a shotgun shack with no running water, if he’s worth his redneck salt.

Which is totally absurd. I can say with a pretty high degree of certainty that Johnny Cash did not, in fact, shoot a man in Reno just to watch him die. But accusing the Man in Black of not being authentic, well that’s blasphemy and I don’t want to be near anyone who’d ever suggest such a thing (you know, in case the lightning strikes).

I’m reminded of a period in hip-hop, following the all-too-real murders of Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. New face 50 Cent was being touted as the realest rapper on the scene, presumably because he’d been shot multiple times. Jay-Z and Nas were having an epic feud through their songs about who was bigger, better, more real and true.

It was a strange time to be a fan, because there was so much to love (like Outkast putting Southern hip-hop on the map or Missy Elliott’s brilliantly weird pop hits) and so much to hate (most every P.Diddy song that sampled an FM rock standard or knifeplay at the Source Awards) at the same time. Many artists were releasing songs that varied thematically between chest-beating ‘realer-than-thou’ proclamations and misogynistic, booty-obsessed fare. (Speaking of which, is Juvenile’s “Back That Azz Up” really all that different from “Country Girl (Shake It For Me)” and the like? Just saying.)

The good news is hip-hop in 2011 has (mostly) gotten over itself. I don’t know that there was some great watershed moment for the genre, but people now seem to no longer be so obsessed with an artist’s street credentials so much as they just want a banging song.

For an example, see Kanye West. He may have drawn the ire of country fans for the Taylor Swift kerfuffle, but he’s one of the biggest artists in the game and nobody doubts his artistic credibility. What’s interesting is he didn’t grow up in an inner city slum surrounded by violence and poverty, nor does he pretend that he did. He grew up in a middle class, suburban setting outside Chicago. He wears skinny jeans and understands high fashion. No one seems the least bit bothered, long as he can crank out innovative jams like “Monster” or “Stronger.”

Hip-hop got over it, and so too will country music. Come at us with a great song, not one listing things that sound country. Create an artistic persona, and sing about the human experience with all its beauty, tragedy and utter strangeness. We’ll stop making such a fuss over your life outside music.

And for the record, I’m with Eric Church on high thread count sheets.

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