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March 15, 2012

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Authenticity can work for and against musicians

FROM the earliest days of hip-hop, MCs would brag about what they represent. This extended to ridiculous extremes, including the brand of jeans they prefer. "Is it Jordache Jeans?" hip-hop pioneer MC Busy Bee would gleefully call out from the stage. "Guess?"

That's because in music and culture, the general consensus is nothing is ever intrinsically valuable.

Minor key notes on the piano don't make us feel sad because we know that is the intended effect of playing them.

But if they make us feel that way, that is what the music represents.

Minor key music is sad music.

Audiences want music that represents something meaningful. It goes beyond that due to cynicism of the performers and audience.

After all, if artists can easily pull the heartstrings of a listener, what's to stop them from doing so for that most unsavory reason, strict commercial gain?

This is the source for the cult of authenticity, a hard-hitting but rickety gavel held by the shaky hand of public opinion.

People want the artists they listen to to seem real; they want singers who sing about dangerous situations to have lived through them.

That extends to two relevant things in the Shanghai music community this week.

The first is a show tomorrow at The Shelter (5 Yongfu Road) featuring hip-hop DJ Rob Swift. Swift staked his claim as a member of the X-Ecutioners, a collection of DJs who balanced their geeky prowess with street sensibility.

On his latest release, "Sketches of An Architect," Swift foregoes samples of Fred Wesley for Frederic Chopin. "I see why people devote their whole lives to classical music," says the New York DJ of his new source of inspiration.

That sort of openness is what makes Swift a world-class DJ, and his show a good one to check out.

The second is an e-mail I got from a manager of a southern US rock band. She inquired about the band having a successful tour in China.

As I investigated the band, I was surprised to learn the band plays in the style of southern rock - but is from the Netherlands.

My uninhibited reaction was simple: no matter how good this is, because the band is Dutch, the band will never get the draw they'd need to make money on a tour. Why? People "want authentic," and a Dutch southern rock band doesn't "feel" authentic.

So on one hand, an artist receives worldwide praise for expanding his palette beyond what his music and geography normally represents.

In the other, a band faces big obstacles because what they hope to represent isn't considered authentic enough.

Ideas of authenticity are sexy, but ultimately the goal should be to overcome them.


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