What makes music authentic is a debate spouting since humanity first banged on drums.
While we could define authentic music as being that which reflects a composer or artist’s unique creativity, even this is subjective.
Still, others base their answer on genre, as if somehow their favorites are shoulders above other musical styles.
To better understand this dilemma, we’ll need to examine some musical history and music industry background.
In short, whether a song or composition stands the test of time and reflects the artist’s integrity is what makes a musical style authentic. While the music industry plays a part in this, ultimately, music fans determine the best music.
So keep an open mind, and let’s explore this intriguing question in more detail.
What Makes A Music Style Authentic?
Before diving into what constitutes good music, we must explain what doesn’t determine musical authenticity.
While it’s one thing to be proud of whatever music genre you prefer, one genre isn’t more authentic than another. And yet, this debate rages.
Classical and jazz music lovers boast that theirs is more authentic due to the complexity of the compositions. Fans of folk and blues counter that the simple chordal structure and heartfelt lyrics set them apart. And on and on, the debate goes.
The truth is that every genre, even the most popular music genres, has authentic and inauthentic music. We’ll explain how to differentiate between the two shortly.
While it’s quick to point out every genre’s weak link, we urge you to explore these amazing musical genres. We guarantee you’ll discover composers, artists, and musicians you never would have considered adding to your playlist but will soon be your favorites.
The other argument critics use in the war on musical authenticity is popularity. The idea goes like this: if a song or composition becomes popular, it’s not authentic.
Somehow the stigma of making money or being loved by the masses is grounds for dismissing the song or artist as inauthentic.
Such a viewpoint is misleading and not always true. A short music history lesson will shed some light on this fallacy concerning classical music.
Classical music owes its longevity to royalty and wealthy patrons. Kings hired composers like Mozart to write music for the royal court. While such a position was prestigious, it limited a composer’s creativity.
Even Mozart had to find the tipping point between creating fresh and authentic music that the king cherished. Mozart’s music not only pleased the king but the masses as well.
In time, his music and notoriety crossed borders and oceans, making him comparable to pop icons like Prince and Michael Jackson.
So applying the popularity argument to today’s symphony, they play the “pop hits” of bygone eras, which means they play inauthentic music. In this context, we hope you see how silly this reasoning is when used with any music genre.
Another misnomer is that authentic music requires exceptional musicianship and professional training. Critics use these criteria to label folk, blues, country, and bluegrass as inauthentic.
Here’s the pushback to this argument. Musicians spend years or even a lifetime learning how to make a country song sound and feel right.
Blues musicians undergo the same rigors as do folk and bluegrass musicians. While simple in form and technique, the artistry necessary to master such genres takes exceptional skill and experience.
The same can be said for a masterfully created pop hit or an in-your-face metal song. All genres require players to be good musicians and adept at what makes their genre “work.”
Every generation creates music to rebel against their parent’s music. Romantic composers like Wagner replaced Mozart.
Bebop jazz master Charlie Parker gave way to the cool sound of Miles Davis. The same is true of pop, country, hip hop, jazz, and blues.
While it’s easy to snub former music styles as outdated, it doesn’t mean they didn’t have authentic music. Wagner is still a musical genius. Cole Porter remains iconic. The Beatles will forever remain song masters.
Music will constantly evolve; it’s the life cycle for all things musical. Era or age doesn’t mean we dump such music into the bin of inauthenticity.
Imitation is another caveat music critics use to dismiss a song or artist as being inauthentic. This is a slippery slope. Remember: “imitation is the best form of flattery.” Here, too, there must be balance.
While we cringe when we hear cookie-cutter acts, even the most avant-garde musicians have musical influences.
If you’re a student of a particular genre, you’ll notice nuances (imitations) of past groups or players yet played fresh.
Great examples are The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and Cream, who were influenced by blues artists like Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, and Robert Johnson.
These bands incorporated riffs and songs from these famous musicians into their rock music. Muddy Waters sums it up best: “The blues had a baby, and they named it Rock And Roll.”
Today, contemporary artists like Jack White and Kings of Leon cite Led Zeppelin as their influence. And on and on, the cycle evolves. But their songs and sound are uniquely their own.
So imitation is a natural part of an artist creating a unique sound and persona. The trick with imitation is not becoming a clone.
So if genre, popularity, musicianship, era, and imitation don’t determine whether music is genuine, what does?
We tipped our hand in our intro to the answer, but for more clarity and a better overview of what authentic music is to us, here are our thoughts in more detail.
The Test of Time
There’s a reason why Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” is performed every holiday. It’s a classic that has (and will continue) to please fans worldwide.
The same is true of Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water.” Sure, you can roll your eyes that these are ancient relics, but they’ve weathered the years.
If you’re like us, you’re drawn toward musicians and bands that are the real thing. The success of Nirvana in the Grunge Era is a great example. They revolted against the sound and look of glam bands from the 80s.
Kurt Cobain wrote songs from the heart that connected with his generation. One could argue that Nirvana’s passion was creating authentic music, even if the music industry didn’t notice. But, of course, they did, which changed Nirvana and Cobain forever.
Grunge music was rooted in rebellion against the status quo and financial success. With Nirvana’s international success, some grunge purists probably burned their Nirvana albums. So to these purists, Nirvana was a sellout, a purveyor of inauthentic music.
Many critics hold to this mantra. That musical authenticity must always be shackled to poverty and void of financial gain.
However, while fame and wealth will impact a band or artist’s ability to create original music, it doesn’t mean they are entirely stifled.
A case in point is the band Genesis. During the 70s, they had a cult following and lacked hits on the radio. That all changed when “Misunderstanding” hit the charts in 1980.
Many Genesis fans wrote them off as sellouts because this hit was nothing like their prog classic “Supper’s Ready.” And yet, Genesis molded chart-topping songs that retained their unique sound. Today, their hits from that era are quickly identifiable as having that “Genesis sound.”
Our best songs of all time playlist is an excellent resource for authentic music. Check it out and see if there are songs you deem authentic or inauthentic. We’d love to hear your feedback!
Now that we’ve defined what makes music authentic let’s explore what makes it inauthentic.
Since we can’t categorize inauthentic music based on genre, chart success, or age, how do we rank it? While it’s like trying to pin the tail on a moving donkey, here are some criteria and examples.
One of the earliest scandals in pop music was The Monkees. The band became famous on television before their songs aired on the radio.
When their songs hit the airwaves, the consensus was that the group played and wrote their music.
While they sang on most tracks, The Monkees were the brainchild of other songwriters and producers. Even session musicians played all the parts fans assumed they had played.
The backlash was heated, and The Monkees spent the rest of their lives trying to prove that they were good musicians, singers, and entertainers. Nowadays, this is standard practice for most pop artists.
Another example is the ill-fated duo Milli Vanilli. The German singers had stylish good looks (which doesn’t make one inauthentic) but never sang on their albums. And when they were exposed for lip-syncing on live television, they were stripped of their Grammy Award.
Rap music has its share of fakes, too. Some rappers who crafted material about their inner-city struggles have been exposed as fakes. According to rapper Lil B, “A lot of the rap artists that are in it, they’re not truly authentic.”
From the onset, cookie-cutter artists and fake bands look the same. The critical difference is that cookie-cutter artists know they’re a clone.
Their focus isn’t on creating new music or trying to reshape society with their words and music. Instead, they’re only interested in becoming rich and famous.
And since the music industry’s goal is monetary success, one can’t blame the biggest record labels in the world for this approach.
But in the end, such artists, bands, and singers fade away. Years later, you may hear their song in an elevator, but chances are you won’t remember their name.
What Makes A Music Style Authentic?
Debates rage within each genre about what makes a particular music style authentic. Jazz purists site that real jazz consists of acoustic instruments only.
Rockers claim that anything post-1980 isn’t “real rock and roll.” Even classical music aficionados have varying opinions on the topic.
We’ll give some basic guidelines on what makes music styles authentic. For the sake of time, we’ll limit our answers to the following categories: popular music, country music, and hip-hop/rap.
Pop music is a vast category with subcategories like alternative, rock, Bubble Pop, and dance, to name a few. Because of this wide variety, our answer will be just as broad.
Authentic popular music will have a solid rhythmic groove, a catchy melodic, lyrical, or rhythmic hook, and reflect the band or artist’s creative authenticity.
Katy Perry’s “California Gurls” is a great example. The song’s strong groove, catchy melody, and clever lyrics reflect Perry’s fun spirit and her life in California.
If you’re unsure what a hook is in a song, our hook vs. chorus article explains everything you need to know.
Country music today sounds nothing like what crooners Cash and Twitty cranked out in the 60s.
Yet the core principles of the genre remain the same. Authentic country music has a “fat groove” (as quoted by Nashville players), simple lyrics, and a catchy melody.
While some argue that today’s country music sounds like pop with a twang, other artists lean on traditional genre elements.
Singers like Chris Stapleton, Margo Price, and Jon Pardi are great examples. Pardi’s “Last Night Lonely” captures all the nuances of an authentic country song.
Check out our top 10 Country Singers with Deep Voices list for a mix of past and current authentic country artists.
Rappers and Hip Hop artists are in a unique category. Sampling famous people’s music is the norm and lyrics reign supreme over melody.
Genuineness comes with creating a deep rhythm track (“groove”) and artists’ talking about real-life experiences. Regarding sampling, the more creative it is in the track, the better.
It’s crucial for the rapper or artist being true to their culture and lifestyle. This aspect and perspective are critical in defining this art.
While it’s palatable for some artists to sing a song that doesn’t align with their values, doing this in rap or hip hop is detrimental. And as we’ve already pointed out, rappers like Lil B would concur.
To wrap this up, what makes music authentic is not determined by genre, popularity, era, or musicianship. Instead, longevity, the test of time, and an artist’s integrity determine authentic music.
Music is constantly changing, reflecting our social and economic times. Emerging in these seasons will be artists and bands who dare to be authentic and voice their emotions—all for the sake of their music.
What makes music authentic, in your opinion? Leave a comment below.
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