When I was just out of high school I played bass in a short-lived hardcore punk band called Remedial Attack. As with many other people into punk rock at the time, I was heavily influenced by a DC band called Minor Threat. Even then I realized that the name Remedial Attack itself was a barely disguised variation of Minor Threat, but given how tough it is to come up with a name for a punk band that doesn’t seem like an homage to an established band or self-parody, I will give myself a pass on that. Indeed, calling ourselves Remedial Attack still feels like an honest assessment our skills and our potential impact on the world, and I’m fine with both of those things. However, a song that I wrote called “Traitor” causes some embarrassment when I think back on it. The music is fine, but thinking about the lyrics now makes me cringe. This is not because of my wordsmithing (e.g., “Take a knife, stab at me, friends again, we’ll never be”), but because the lyrics had absolutely nothing to do with own life. I don’t know that I have ever been treated in a way that merited such a visceral response. Rather than working through the psychic and emotional scars of being stabbed in the back (¡Que horrible!), I was more or less aping countless other hardcore songs that air grievances about friendships lost and trust betrayed.
Now it is certainly true that the lyrics of a song should not be mistaken to be an unmediated expression of the songwriter’s or singer’s feelings, so I suppose you could say that the protagonist of the song was expressing those ideas, rather than me. However, I don’t remember there being any sense that a hardcore punk song would use that kind of distancing structure as a literary technique. I think for many people it was assumed that when it came to punk rock, anything you were hearing was real in some vague sense of the term. Indeed, part of the appeal of punk was cutting through the shiny surfaces of commercial pop music to speak to something deeper, more honest or purportedly authentic. That is why calling someone a poseur was intended to be such a cutting insult. The essential question was, in the words of Greg Sage of the Wipers, “Is This Real?” Indeed, when I listen to Sage performing my favorite songs of his (here’s one example, here’s another), I don’t think of him singing from the point of view of a protagonist, rather, I read him as wrestling with things about his own experience he feels driven to communicate. I have heard stories about people being literally in tears at their shows back in the day and I’m not surprised – I might have been too had I been lucky enough to see them live.
This concern with being real is often associated with punk rock, but it can also be seen in hip-hop and the blues – both genres that attract fans who have been known to fetishize ideas of authenticity (along with holding attendant ideas about the beauty of the ‘raw’ or ‘primitive’ historically associated with problematic perspectives on race). Of course, the appeal of the real is not limited to those genres. Recently, I fell down a Beatles internet rabbit hole, and I ended up spending time reading up on Beatles historiography. Much of it was an analysis of how various histories deal with the collapse of the Lennon/McCartney partnership (“take a knife, stab at me…”). Apparently one school of Beatles’ history places a lot of emphasis on the fact that Lennon couldn’t stand what he called McCartney’s ‘granny music’ (e.g., “When I’m 64” and the like). In some accounts, Lennon criticizes McCartney for writing impersonal tunes and reportedly noted that in comparison, he focused on writing about himself because that was what he cared about. Interestingly, Yoko Ono has suggested that Lennon’s overtly misogynistic songs (e.g., “Run For Your Life”) do not represent him and are actually inauthentic (her words). This would mean that Lennon was guilty of what he accused McCartney of doing and was simply crafting a protagonist that was a violent misogynist, rather than detailing his own experiences with being one. Given his self-reported history of perpetrating domestic violence, I am willing to take him at his word that he was writing about himself and that his guilt is legal rather than artistic. When I hear those songs (e.g., “Jealous Guy”) and ask “Is this real?”, I believe the answer is ‘yes’ – and it makes me queasy.
I also get a bit uncomfortable when listening to so-called “outsider” artists who are celebrated for being unschooled, unvarnished and real. My first taste of this world was Daniel Johnston. He used to pass out free cassette tapes with his home recordings, but he would also try to sell them. I bought a few (not directly from him) in order to check him out. Other than a song or two (Speeding Motorcyle comes to mind), the music was a mess. It certainly seemed that he meant what he was singing about, but that alone didn’t make the songs compelling to me. Indeed, I am not alone in believing that some of his fans exoticized him and thought his mental illness was “cool” because it was real compared to artists who might act more damaged then they actually are (see the documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston). In some ways, this was the height (or depth) of 90’s detached irony. When I hear Johnston sing one his songs that suggest his mental illness is getting the upper hand and ask, “Is this real?”, the answer is yes – and I wish he could get the help he clearly needed to lead a happier and healthier life.
For the last few years I have slowly been collecting recordings of sermons. I had previously been fascinated by the work of by Rev. J.M. Gates, who was a recording star of the mid-20th century. Now I’m picking up vinyl by other figures, such as Lela McConnell and Rev. O.L. Holliday.
As an agnostic, I think I avoid the risk of being called a poseur, but there is always the chance that I could be seen to treat these sermons as a spoken variation on the Shags. However, I do not listen to these records from an ironic standpoint. I was a Religious Studies major as an undergrad, and I remain interested in the use of rhetoric in sermons and denominational nuances in theology, even though I’m not a believer myself.
I also listen to a lot of gospel music. This video of Sister Rosetta Tharpe might be my favorite performance of all time. When I hear Blind Willie Johnson sing I am deeply moved in ways that I cannot articulate. I do know that my response is not religious, and it brings to mind something a minister said once at a gospel show I was at – “You want to hear gospel, but you don’t want to listen to it.” He’s not wrong. I do want to hear gospel, and I appreciated the ways the singer’s profound and sincere expressions of belief is an essential aspect of the performance. See, for example, the famous song “Jesus is Real To Me.” A lot of gospel answers Sage directly – yes, this is real, and that is part of the beauty of it. I can understand why people cry at powerful gospel shows, but given the fact that the beliefs are not my own and the experiences are not my own, when I sing along to gospel that moves me, is it real?
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Links in Order
- Is This Real? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aO6IhSL11Uk
- The Chill Remains https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6GBBg7bN5kE
- On the Run https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xKaROVnpBc8
- Speeding Motorcycle https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o7hxi4Cq4gE
- Philosophy of the World https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hxPsXPCR5MU
- My Mother Smokes Crack Rocks https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HPftjJlqDdQ
Rev. J.M. Gates
- Did You Spend Christmas Day in Jail? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AChLeNC4jns
Sister Rosetta Tharpe
- Down By the Riverside https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4xzr_GBa8qk
Blind Willie Johnson
- I Just Can’t Keep From Crying Sometime https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3On4rAJdeKg
- Jesus is Real to Me https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QjzSfOb3DfQ
 He actually loves wrestling, so that turn of phrase is perhaps a bit too on the nose.