People who don’t particularly care for gospel music still feel moved by it. Why?
People of faith will say it is because of the power of the words. Scholars of rock music will assert that rock ‘n’ roll didn’t really become rock ‘n’ roll until aspects of gospel music were infused in it. Perhaps both assertions point to the real appeal of gospel music: its sincerity.
Opera singers can instill enough emotion into an aria to make you cry. Is it sincere? Is the diva really feeling the death of her lover? Does it matter?
Does good music need sincerity to be good?
Wave after wave of musical styles and genres have come and gone in the Western World over the last century. Most of them spawned talk about how the new style is “ours” because it addressed the concerns of a given subgroup of society. That subgroup has often been young people. Sometimes it is even narrower, singling out the disenfranchised, or those with hippie-like attitudes, or urban anger, or love of God and pickup truck, or dance-centric joy. Across all the genres and styles, one trait is usually held above almost all: authenticity. Questions always swirl around who decides what authentic means and who has it. Ask REM about the accusations of selling out, some coming right after their first EP! Ask the white groups like the Beastie Boys or 3rd Bass if the doors to the rap kingdom were easy for them to walk through, and how they were challenged in regard to their authenticity. (Don’t ask if 3rd Bass’s music holds up over time.) See what Sam Bush says about when his progressive bluegrass band New Grass Revival first gained popularity and traditionalists screamed about the amplifiers and long hair and rock sensibilities in the group.
Caveman Ugg banged on a big hollow log. The sound carried for a mile. It was noted and reported to Ugg, perhaps. Could it be used as a signal? Somehow, sound became communication, beyond vocalizations. Was it creative? Was it sincere?
Does music hold communication as its main goal?
Must all communication be sincere? That could quickly get tedious. What about levity? Does anybody remember laughter?
It’s hard for this Westerner to think of music’s distant past without it receding into a religious mist. So much of what I perceive as the earliest music was liturgical or religious chanting. Yet clearly, some of the earliest singing was meant to communicate ideas from other subjects. We know that The Odyssey, attributed to Homer, was recited or sung by traveling troubadours. This continued through the Middle Ages—think Beowulf. It continued into the Renaissance, yielding songs that still are sung, such as “Scarborough Fair” and “Greensleeves.” The secular and the religious diverged. Question: Considering how vital the role of gods and goddesses are to The Odyssey, should it really be considered a strictly secular piece of art?
It’s likely that the troubadour who was singing Beowulf was embodying the roles in the story to some extent. I always imagine the singing portion of these performances to be most similar to the sound and approach of recitative in opera. Sung to a simple melody, repeated phrasing, expository. It’s impossible not to visualize the troubadour not using his body to act like Grendel in the telling. There must have been some acting in the performance. So, is Dylan being an actor when he sings “Positively 4th Street”? It sure sounds like he means every pointed jab in the lyrics. Has Ozzy been acting all along? Alice Cooper, who golfs with Trump? Marilyn Manson or Glenn Danzig—actors all? Does this make them fake? Or just good performers?
A friend of mine was in a band full of theater veterans, actors mostly, and they showcased one year at the South by Southwest arts conference in Austin. He remembers one of his bandmates being struck by a group that seemed different. “Paul said, ‘This is strange watching them, because I am an actor and I recognize the work of acting, and this whole band is acting,'” my friend recalls. “He was absolutely right.”
How grievous of a crime was this performance? Surely one shouldn’t expect Joni Mitchell to relive the intense grief she felt giving up her baby daughter every time she sang “Green,” or Dylan to revisit his divorce during each performance of “Tangled Up in Blue.”
Jeff Mueller, best known as a traditional printmaker and as a primary element in the bands Rodan and June of 44, toured Italy in 2018 after having not played June of 44 songs with the rest of the band for years. He didn’t know how he was going to sing and play those songs, considering how much had changed in his life. “Once we finally got back together, being together wasn’t a problem at all. We are all dads and relaxed, and learning the songs again wasn’t hard. But putting my head into the music in a way that brought some kind of sincerity to the songs we were going to play was harder—not just playing for the sake of performing them. I had to dial myself back into Louisville situations, to where was I psychologically back then. [June of 44 was born while Mueller was living in Louisville, KY, in 1994.] I had to think about what it meant 20 years ago, what I was feeling of at the time the music was conceived. That was the hardest part of it. I didn’t want to be in a cover band, playing my own songs. I always wanted just a feeling to be conveyed, whatever that feeling was—frustration, beauty, anger, I want that emotion, and when that comes across in a song, it’s important to me. So I just sat for many hours with those songs, listening to them and practicing them. I would look at them and pull myself back into that headspace. What was I doing in 1997? How broke was I? What were the headlines then? What was the genesis of those songs?”
Mueller is still a revered figure in the alternative rock world, and he is still making music and visual art, along with growing a fine family. He escaped the dangers of sincerity (and lack thereof) in an often horrifying music industry. Not everyone does.
Charlie Hunter, a fine-art painter who has booked concerts and managed musicians over the years, has seen too many souls get crushed by the requirements of the job of being a musical artist. Much of the pain comes from the star-making machine, but plenty is allowed in by the artists themselves. He describes two successful self-confessional musicians—Aimee Mann and Shawn Colvin—as “both smart and very calculating…well-armored individuals. So they have a much better shot at surviving than the genuinely fragile souls. They also may have fragile souls, but they are fully armored.” Hunter goes on to point out that while ballads of past centuries told stories often true, songwriters today can be confessional or could be creating composites from many people they have met. There’s a truth in that, a sincerity in that. Right?
When people are embarking on a career in music—and we are talking about popular music here, because classical and religious musics have different challenges altogether—the artist starts out doing it for love of music and attention from others. They work on their songs, often for years, before their “big break” happens. This could mean simply graduating from coffeeshops to mid-sized venues, or it could mean signing with a label. They end up with a strong set of tried and tested songs. That gets them to the next level…where many are crushed. Signed acts are worked hard by the record industry. You go on the road. You fly into a random city for a radio promo, then fly to another place for a TV appearance, then to a festival, then to a small gig…. How is a musician supposed to keep imbuing every song with the utmost energy, day after day, hour after hour? The Hollywood cliché of a performer giving his or her all and feeling subsequently empty is a cliché based in truth. Enter drugs, or burnout, or, more mundanely, a lack of inspiration. “If you can portray opening a vein without actually doing it, you are much better off,” Hunter states.
The argument is often put forth that much of today’s popular music would not exist without the core influence of African-Americans and their roots in the Caribbean and in Africa. I don’t disagree. The banjo, a staple in traditional country, in bluegrass, and in the mostly lily-white acoustic music scene, came from Africa, in the process showing just how easily a music form can be co-opted by the ruling majority. Slaves were forced to perform for their white “masters,” and slaves also played for their own community. Louisville, KY, where I grew up, has been a party town since its founding. The city formed almost entirely because of the Falls of the Ohio, a shallow stretch of river that boats laden with goods could not traverse. The freight had to be unloaded, ported around the falls using horses, and reloaded past the falls. It meant spending a night in town, and spending money enjoying that night in town. Music, adult beverages, and enterprising ladies separated rivermen from their pay. The music was often minstrel. Jug bands, mostly consisting of black musicians, provided entertainment. What did these jug bands play? How could they be sincere to their experience, while pleasing the white audience sufficiently enough to get tips?
“They were playing to different audiences in the jug band era,” explains Michael L. Jones, the author of Louisville Jug Music: from Earl McDonald to the National Jubilee. “White audiences could expect one thing, and then for black audiences there was a little bit of code switching going on in the music. Black audience would get some of the references, but whites would not. The musicians couldn’t always express what they wanted to say. They couldn’t talk about actual circumstances, so they talked about their woman getting them down. But mostly, jug band music is the happiest music in the world—especially Louisville jug bands, which leaned more toward jazz, especially Dixieland.”
Plenty of the early blues musicians had a “right” to sing the blues, based on their biographies. But did Sonny Boy Williamson actually carry a black cat bone around with him? Likely not. The songs were stories—exaggerated stories with a kernel of truth, perhaps. The blues musician channeled the pain of life into joyful music. The blues musician took on the pain of the audience and transformed it into empathy, bravado, strength. How could one possibly judge the blues as authentic or not? We all know that is a favorite activity of many blues fans. Why? What is fiction, when emotion is communicated? “We wouldn’t dismiss Updike for writing fiction, would we?” Hunter asks. “We wouldn’t say he isn’t sincere. I think audiences are very good at figuring out if someone is bullshitting them.”
So is sincerity tangible at all? Is it like Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart’s famous quote on obscenity, “I know it when I see it”?
Sincerity is valued above technical ability by many listeners. Just consider the trumped-up comparison some jazz fans still engage in regarding who is “better,” Billie Holiday or Ella Fitzgerald. Ella had technique for days, but people loved Billie. In fact, Miles Davis said, “Everybody loves Billie.” Early in her career, she was only allowed to record songs rejected by white singers, and the material was accordingly weak. But Billie could turn dross into gold. When she began singing some stronger songs, such as “Lover Man” in 1941 and especially the heartbreaking “Strange Fruit” in 1939, the world found out the amount of emotion Holiday could pour into a tune. She channeled some of the pain in her life into her art. Like an actor would.
“It is acting to some extent,” agrees Hunter. “You couldn’t always be feeling the level of grief that is in a really good heartbreak song. If you really were so lonesome you could cry, you would be a basket case by the end of the tour. Performers have to muster the approximation of the emotion surrounding the narrator of the song. It becomes what they do for a living. We don’t object if an actor isn’t feeling everything they are doing on stage; we accept that isn’t the real life of the actor. We don’t extend that same courtesy to a singer-songwriter. Who knows why? Why must it be sincere, rather than just a really good act? That seems pretty unfair to me.”
Some of the strong emotion present in a musical performance may be exaggeration of a very real feeling. Does anyone really know if Prince was every bit the sex-crazed enigma he presented to the world? How could anyone pin down David Bowie’s real self, and, therefore, how do we know he wasn’t Aladdin Sane, or Ziggy Stardust? And wasn’t Major Tom a metaphor… or was Bowie a psychonaut?
Consider Little Richard. He didn’t become famous worldwide by focusing on his black audience. But how could a gay (or at least non-heterosexual) black man honestly express his experience to the white establishment of the mid-1950s? It appears that more than anything, more than expressing what it means to be sexually different or black in America, Little Richard wanted to be acknowledged as being utterly unique and impossible to pigeonhole. “In his autobiography, Little Richard says he did not want someone like Pat Boone to be able to cover his music,” says Jones. “He wanted to be the original, Little Richard. He was trying to do things that white performers could not do. You can see the same thing when you go back to the minstrel shows. They amounted to accidental vehicles of black culture. The minstrels were usually white northerners—they were the first whites to master the banjo… and they were looking at what black performers were doing. Eventually the audience wanted to hear real black people doing it—the real thing. That’s when you get black vaudeville and the chitlin circuit coming around.”
Little Richard wanted to be the best. He was confident—confident enough to have reportedly taught Paul McCartney how to do some of his trademark vocalizations when the Beatles opened for him in Europe on a few dates in 1962. McCartney utilized the master’s well-known “hooooo!” very effectively live and on a few studio recordings, but he was no Richard Wayne Penniman. Little Richard made sure he was impossible to duplicate, effectively preventing white—or any other—musicians from trying to bite his style.
Another hero of the Beatles, Bob Dylan, offers a different kind of challenge when considering the artist’s sincerity in writing and performing. In protest songs like “Masters of War,” the listener can positively hear Dylan seethe as he spits out the lyrics indicting war hawks, and his anger toward a lost love in “Idiot Wind” is a bucket of ice water in the face. And yet, Dylan squirmed whenever anyone tried to define him or pin down his thoughts and beliefs on half the topics in the world. John Lennon was paying attention. The legend is that Lennon wrote “I Am the Walrus” specifically to stymie efforts of Beatles fans to parse out the meaning in Beatles songs. Is it sincere to purposefully mislead the audience, to intentionally sing nonsense? It’s an honesty of another kind, perhaps.
Punk’s idea of sincerity amounted to angrily pointing out the ills of the world, even as the primary message was one approaching—if not living in—nihilism. New wave added more irony. Sincerity slipped. Hair bands nearly killed sincerity completely, although I do believe that many of the ’80s hair bands were very sincere in their dedication to sex and drugs and what they felt was rock ‘n’ roll. How much different is it for some spandexed LA band to sing about “cherry pie” and early rap’s fixation on the ladies and the Benjamins?
But soon, singer-songwriters such as Billy Bragg and Ani DiFranco reminded us what deep sincerity is, and Public Enemy meant every rhyme they spat. Even with performers like them, who are almost universally considered to be sincere, it is questionable that they are feeling every word of every pointed lyric. Says Hunter, “The technical aspect of performance is what’s going on while what looks like the storytelling is going on. I would posit that when you are seeing a performer in concert, they are not feeling the actual lyrics. They are mostly thinking about all the technical aspects of their performance. If the performer is good at his or her craft, the convincing delivery of the music is part of that. If the backing band is simpatico, the band becomes one beast. And that is totally sincere, but more on a technical level rather than in terms of lyrical content.”
In short, the performance is earnest, with real sweat and tears (and occasionally blood) flowing from a concerted effort at delivering effective music. The lyrics give shape to the music but aren’t the whole of it, much like
“If you can fake sincerity, you can fake anything,” Hunter adds. “As George Burns said, ‘Sincerity…if you can fake that, you’ve got made.'” Ω