Nothing irks me more than when people in pop music use the word “authentic” to describe an artist’s worth. Mention of the word poisons any well I might be drinking from at the time, as was the case when it cropped up in the new movie “Begin Again.”
“Begin Again” tells the story of the resurrection of a decidedly alcoholic indie label owner (Mark Ruffalo) who is on the skids until he meets his muse, a plaintive waif with a guitar played by Keira Knightley. Problems created by evil record industry types plague them, but in the end, they make a record which redeems them both.
In other words, “Begin Again” buys into the same old fairy tale that has enhaloed rock ‘n’ roll forever and which plagued Liz Phair when she made a record called Exile In Guyville that defied what the world had decided was “authentic.”
“Begin Again” is a fun little movie, if you’re in the mood, but where I part its vision is not with the notion that alcoholism is easy cured by Hard Work (or that a working female music journalist, played here by Catherine Keener) lives in a giant house in Chappaqua, but on its naked insistence on the same male-created rock canon and ideological perspective that has made classic rock music sound so stodgy and backward; that has made women’s roles in it so often so boring, and the perspective that uses ‘authenticity’ as the yard stick for musical worth.
I hate that standard, in part because it is so elusive, but also because there is something both raced and gendered about it. Authenticity is often claimed for certain types of sounds, but more frequently, it is a euphemism for an artist’s socioeconomic, racial and ethnic background. In classic rock, for example, it is considered automatically authentic to be an African American artist, or an upper class white male from England, or a lower class white male from Aberdeen, Washington. Inauthenticity is the province of women, especially middle class white women, unless they are singing about being crazy, or crazy in love.
“Begin Again” doesn’t quite go as far as that, but it certainly shores up the idea that an ‘authentic’ artist is a scruffy white male. Early in the film, for instance, Ruffalo derides Knightley’s ratty clothing and says she’ll have to pretty herself up to be successful. She immediately draws herself up like Elizabeth Bennett facing down Mr. Darcy in “Pride and Prejudice” and rages about how music isn’t about fashion and that no one should be looking at what she’s wearing because that would not be “authentic.”
Who does she think is authentic, asks Ruffalo.
“Dylan,” she replies. “Randy Newman.” Had she been given more time, she would have added Nick Drake, Syd Barrett, and Leonard Cohen, but she doesn’t have to because Ruffalo has already high fived her.
Having affirmed that they both believe in rock music as a vital, live, and authentic medium, Knightley and Ruffalo decide to make a rough, lo-fi record using ProTools on the streets of New York, the better to capture the authentic sounds of the City. Later on, Knightley and Ruffalo wander the streets listening to their favorite old music, classics by Frank Sinatra and Stevie Wonder. Later still, they co-opt two Julliard students as string players, who agree to join the band as long as they don’t have to play “fucking Vivaldi.” Plus, out of the blue, Ruffalo’s untutored daughter plays a brilliant guitar solo with one finger, because, as the scene argues, you don’t really need to learn an instrument to play in a rock band.
And so it goes, a long string of myths about rock being what Simon Frith once ironically titled, “the magic that can set you free.” In this movie, rock can be played by anyone, anywhere, and authenticity is a quality of emotion rather than skill, as well as being the quality that elevates it above all other forms of music. Anyone who violates that – in this case, Adam Levine, playing a thinly disguised version of himself – is a phony: Knightley, though female, is allowed to be an authentic artist, because she upholds the selfless creed that it being a rock star is a bad aspiration and .
Add to this a few new digital musical tropes – that it shouldn’t cost much ($1 a download) and Protools is god – and you have, in my opinion, a dangerous stew of nonsense about what is valuable in music and, more importantly, who gets to decide that. According to “Begin Again” music is crafted by men using other men’s manly standards of male rectitude and their canon of values. Again and again in the film, Knightley and Ruffalo utter gendered truisms about what is (and is not) Great Rock, and the gaze that they is invariably male.
In other words, meet the new boss, same as the old boss. That is, those who judge, produce, and set the m Moral, ethical, and musical standards are set by men; women are allowed to play along if they ape the same sentiments and sing soulfully about lost love. In the film, Greta (Knightly) is clearly meant to be the soulful artiste. But her work is so compromised by a male vision of who she is and what she should sing about, it is hard to take her seriously as an artist or work seriously as a personal statement.
Greta begins this story as the much put upon girlfriend of a budding rock star, played by Adam Levine. Granted, the rest of the story is revenge fantasy at his expense, but her original place in the world (that is, as an appendage) is the most realistic thing about the movie – and the most demoralizing. Why can’t Greta have shown up in New York on her own, and not on the arm of a successful guy? Why can’t her idea of authenticity have been from some unapproved, slightly riskier source – like Abba, or Ricky Nelson, or Journey, or the Starland Vocal Band? Must she appeal to an unappealing male producer who wants to shape her career – and then does so? Why can’t Ruffalo’s role have been played by, I don’t know, Carrie Brownstein, Queen Latifah, or Kim Gordon?
Oh, wait – I remember why – because female label owners, though they certainly exist, don’t read as realistic to a world that has steeped itself in stories like this one, where Svengalis discover Trilbys and “authenticity” is a quality more talked about than enacted.
The situation of Greta is also interesting because – minus the boyfriend part — it is so close to that of two real life musicians, Liz Phair and Lana Del Rey. Phair – whose story I tell in my book – made a record on the 1993 equivalent of ProTools (that is, a lo fi record in a non slick studio). In so doing, she remained true to her (extremely quirky) vision of music, with mixed results: on the one hand, Exile In Guyville was (and is) lauded as a remarkable document and fantastic musical production; on the other, she was hounded out of her home town Chicago by the Authenticity Police, who felt she violated their code of honor by appearing on magazine covers, “pandering to the rock press,” etc. etc.
Del Rey has done better, thanks to the magic of downloading and the loosening up for gate keeping standards the internet has allowed for. But she too has been accused of disingenuity and phoniness, due – oddly – to her apparent inability to perform slickly.
Del Rey’s looks rival those of an international movie star – someone like, say, Keira Knightley – and her videos and music have a particular timbre and lonesome emotional tone that Greta seems to aspire to (albeit in a folkier genre.) Also like Greta, Del Rey fetishes Bob Dylan.
I bring these women’s stories up because they too are rock truisms, albeit less well known ones: they are each living out the rock ‘n’ roll mythos in ways that are peculiarly confined to women. Phair, with awkward yet assured songwriting skills about the vicissitudes of love seems more like the real life model for Greta, but Del Rey’s trajectory is the more likely one for Greta to play out in the end.