Authenticity. Oh dear. It makes me wince to write that word. It is the most over-used and over-valued concept in popular music studies. And I stress studies rather than popular music itself. I’m sure that authenticity exerts a greater pull on scholars than it does on artists or audiences. In the UK, at least, there is a long-standing tradition of theatrical pop music. The country is home to cracked actors and pantomime dames. The focus in this instance is not on keeping things real.
This is not to say that authenticity doesn’t matter. It does form a part of popular music’s pleasures. Most regularly, it resides in a singer’s voice. It is here that we locate a purity of expression and artistic earnestness. Above all, singing is the prime means of measuring an artist’s soul.
But singing is a technical skill. What’s more, this skill is emphatically displayed in vocalists who come from the rhythm and blues world. They are making the voice do extraordinary things. And whatever it is they are doing, it is a long way from the vocalist’s everyday patterns of speech.
In this sense, singers have a lot in common with impressionists. They are able to imagine their voices into the places where they want them to be. They can manipulate them and mangle them and squeeze them somewhere new. In fact, there is a trade off between the two practices. Many of the best impressionists are also adept at singing: Rob Brydon; Steve Coogan; Jane Horrocks; perhaps even Mike Yarwood. Many great singers are good at accents. There was, after all, a whole generation of British vocalists who located themselves in the mid-Atlantic. And there are numerous singers whose singing voices bear little relation to their spoken ones. This applies as much to Prince and Amy Winehouse as music as it does to Geddy Lee or Bryan Ferry. There are also singers who have numerous voices. Marvin Gaye and David Bowie, for example, will assume a number of different characters on the same record.
And yet we rarely talk about the authenticity of impressionists. Mimicry is one of the few practices not to have been described as ‘the new rock ‘n’ roll’. Mike Yarwood attempted to show us why. In his programmes he would make a sharp distinction between his impressions and his singing. Breaking the fourth wall at the end of his shows, he would turn to the camera and say ‘and now this is me’. He would then sing a song. His impressions, he was telling us, were of others; his singing represented his true self.
Things are more complicated than this. On the one hand, the singer could be regarded as just another of Yarwood’s routines. On the other, are people really being false to themselves when they adopt a persona? Costume can be a way of finding something deep within. This is one of the legacies of minstrelsy. It’s also something that Barack Obama indulges in.
He’s one of the great orators. He also probably has the best singing voice of all US presidents. And he indulges in impressions. All three were in evidence in his eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who was gunned down in his church in Charleston, South Carolina, along with eight of his parishioners on 17 June. Obama delivered a powerful speech about race and about resistance, as well as about the symbolism of the confederate flag. He concluded with a decent version of ‘Amazing Grace’, bending the notes in the appropriate vernacular. What was most starting, however, was when this vernacular appeared in his speech. The eulogy was patterned on the rhythms of a minister from a black southern church. As he became more impassioned, Obama got more deeply into character. His accent became southern. This was most notable after he concluded his hymn and sermonised that each of those shot down had ‘found that grace’. As he wound up this litany it was almost as though he had to shake off the southern preacher in order to return to his everyday voice.
Was any of this false? I don’t think so. If anything Obama was more genuine when he was in character as the preacher than he was when playing the president of the United States. He was responding to the situation, feeding off the cheers of the parishioners in the assembly hall and the words of endorsement from the clergy who were lined up behind him. At the end of the speech, Obama looked almost surprised at what had happened to him. He had achieved some sort of transcendence.
We don’t find authenticity by keeping things real; we come closer to locating it when we let ourselves go.