Life in the Stone Age 3

These images enjoyed long-term success in part because they suited the performers’ natural talents and temperaments. But it is pointless to think of scrutinizing them by the lights of authenticity. One reason popular culture gives pleasure is that it relieves people of this whole anxiety of trying to determine whether what they’re enjoying is real or fake. Mediation is the sine qua non of the experi¬ence. Authenticity is a high-culture problem. Unless, of course, you’re trying to run a cultural revolution. In which case you will need to think that there is some essential relation between the unadulterated spirit of rock ’n’ roll and personal and social libera¬tion. “The magic’s in the music,” the Lovin’ Spoonful used to sing. “Believe in the magic, it will set you free.” The Lovin’ Spoonful was an unpretentious teenybopper band if there ever was one; but those lyrics turn up frequently in Draper’s book. For they (or some intellectually enriched version of them) constitute the credo of the higher rock criticism.
The central difficulty faced by the serious pop exegete is to ex¬plain how it is that a band with a manager and a promoter and sales of millions of records that plays “Satisfaction” is less calculating than a band with a manager and a promoter and sales of millions of records that plays “Itchycoo Park” (assuming, perhaps too hastily, that a case cannot be made for “Itchycoo Park”). Theorizing about the difference can produce nonsense of an unusual transparency. “Rock is a mass-produced music that carries a critique of its own means of production,” the British pop-music sociologist Simon Frith has explained; “it is a mass-consumed music that constructs its own ‘authentic’ audience.” To which all one can say is that when you have to put the word authenticity in quotation marks, you’re in trouble.
The problem is more simply solved by reference to a pop music genealogy that was invented in the late 1960s and that has been em¬braced by nearly everyone in the business ever since—by the musi¬cians, by the industry, and by the press. This is the notion that genuine rock n’ roll is the direct descendant of the blues, a music whose authenticity it would be a sacrilege to question. The histori¬cal scheme according to which the blues begat rhythm and blues, which begat rockabilly, which begat Elvis, who (big evolutionary leap here) gave us the Beatles, was canonized by Rolling Stone. It is the basis for The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock V Roll (1976), edited by Jim Miller, which is one of the best collections of classic rock criticism; and it’s the basis for Rock of Ages: The Rolling Stone History of Rock V Roll (1986), by Ed Ward, Geoffrey Stokes, and Ken Tucker, which reads a little bit like the kind of thing you would get if you put three men in a room with some typewriters and a stack of paper and told them that they couldn’t come out until they had written The Rolling Stone History of Rock ‘n’Roll.
All genealogies are suspect, since they have an inherent bias against contingency, and genealogies to which critics and their sub¬jects subscribe with equal enthusiasm are doubly suspect. The idea that rock ’n’ roll is simply a style of popular music, and that there was popular music before rock ’n’ roll (and not produced by black men) that might have some relation to, say, “Yesterday” or “Wild Horses” or “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”—songs that do not ex¬actly call Chuck Berry to mind, let alone Muddy Waters—is largely unknown to rock criticism. The reason that the link between Elvis Presley and the Beatles feels strained is that we are really talking about the difference between party music for teenagers and pop an¬thems for the middle class—between music to jump up and down to and music with a bit of a brow. Even the music to jump up and down to is a long way from the blues: adolescents from Great Neck did not go into hysterics in the presence of Blind Lemon Jefferson. An entertainment phenomenon like Mick Jagger, with his mysteri¬ously acquired Cockney-boy-from-Memphis accent, surely has as much relation to a white teen idol like the young Frank Sinatra as he does to a black bluesman like Robert Johnson. Except that Robert Johnson is the real thing. Of course some of the music of Jagger and Richards and Lennon and McCartney appropriated the sound of American black rhythm and blues: that’s precisely the least authen¬tic thing about it.
This is not to say that rock ’n’ roll (or the music of the young Frank Sinatra, for that matter) doesn’t come from real feeling and doesn’t touch real feeling. And it’s not to say that there aren’t legitimate distinctions to be made among degrees of fakery in popular music. When one is discussing Percy Faith’s 1975 disco version of “Hava Nagilah,” it is appropriate to use the term “inauthentic.” But the wider the appeal a popular song has, the more zealously it re¬sists the terms of art. The most affecting song of the 1960s was (let’s say) the version of “With a Little Help from My Friends” that Joe Cocker sang at Woodstock on August 17, 1969—an imitation British music-hall number performed in upstate New York by a white man from Sheffield trying to sound like Ray Charles. On that day, proba¬bly nothing could have sounded more genuine.

Spiro Agnew thought that the helpful friends were drugs, which is a reminder that the counterculture was indeed defining itself against something. The customary reply to a charge like Agnew’s was that he was mistaking a gentle celebration of togetherness for a threat against the established order—that he was, in sixties language, be¬ing uptight. Agnew’s attacks were ignorant and cynical enough; but the responses, though from people understandably a little uptight themselves, were disingenuous. Few teenagers in 1967 thought that the line “I get high with a little help from my friends” was an allu¬sion to the exhilaration of good conversation. “I get high” is a pretty harmless drug reference. But it is a drug reference.

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