When Sarah went to the ladies room, I wasn’t entirely surprised when the next person who sat down next to me was Jordan Travers, who I gathered was also something of a regular at this hangout.
“Trav, awesome to see you.” We exchanged a complicated handshake I had almost forgotten about.
“How you doing?”
“Pretty good. Did you hear I signed a deal with Wenco?”
“You what?” Trav had grown a little goatee and had shaped his eyebrows to match, but had shaved his head again. The effect made his face seem extra long.
“For a solo instrumental album with their New Age division.”
“Awesome. So you’re keeping busy?”
“You could say that. Hey, can I ask you something?”
“Anything, my friend.”
“Is authenticity a lie?”
He rubbed his goatee thoughtfully. “I have a feeling you’re asking the wrong question. I’ll say this. The drive toward something we call authenticity as a measure of quality, i.e. the more authentic something is the better it is, is a false or inapplicable concept when it comes to commercialization.”
Jonathan probably would have got that on the first try, but I wasn’t sure I did. “Can you say that again in non-Ivy League terms?”
“Sure. For example. We’ll say universally that Leadbelly and the black bluesmen of the Mississippi Delta were better, more authentic, than the Rolling Stones. But we consider the Stones way more ‘authentic’ than, say…” He snapped his fingers trying to come up with a comparison and I knew what he was looking for: a white guitar-driven pop artist but even more sanitized and removed from the source.
“Bryan Adams?” I suggested.
“John Cougar?” he countered. “Well, except he’s starting to build an authenticity of his own, but you get the idea. Anyway. The point is the whole concept is kind of ridiculous. What makes the Stones great is Keith Richards’ originality, not their so-called authenticity, not their trueness to some legendary source. But there will be those critics–and consumers–who hold them in higher esteem because they meet some inner metric of authentic-ness.”
“Okay, but what about originality, then?”
“It’s kind of the same, isn’t it? We have a critical metric of comparison. The Police, U2, R.E.M., The Cure, all of them display very high levels of originality, but more importantly they are viewed by the industry as being wholly original.”
“So original they define a genre itself?”
“You mean ‘modern rock’? or ‘alternative’? Yeah, that’s the thing, though, if the thing that defines your genre is originality, what you’re saying is the thing that defines the genre is ‘not being any of the other genres.’ And that’s really not a definition.”
“But is it wrong to want to be judged on your own terms? If this whole thing is about self-expression?”
He asked what I think was a devil’s advocate question: “One can’t have full self-expression unless one is outside a genre?”
“Well, I mean, that’s the point of alternative, isn’t it?”
Jordan cleared his throat. “Just because the genres that were created by commerce are too narrow to encompass all expressions doesn’t mean that music that falls outside the narrow bands on the spectrum that are approved is better than the stuff falls within them.”
“But originality…?” My brain hurt.
“I understand the drive to originality, D. That drive to escape the well-trod path and distinguish yourself. But that doesn’t make it better music. Just more original.”
Oh fuck, I thought. “But isn’t it better not to be derivative?”
“If you’re not derivative, then how are you supposed to be authentic to your source?”
“By being your own source. By being yourself instead of sounding like someone else. Isn’t being yourself instead of sounding like someone else a form of authenticity?”
“So that would mean true authenticity and originality are the same thing.”
That sounded good to me. “Yeah.”
“Except think about it. The reason Leadbelly is revered as authentic by us is because he’s seen as the ‘original’ bluesman. But come on. Do you really think he wasn’t representing a genre? That there weren’t a ton of guys who sounded at least something like that sitting on the back porches of shotgun shacks playing for their neighbors? Leadbelly’s just the one we know about. How do we know if he was original? How do we know if what he did was authentic or if it was watered down to make it palatable to us? It’s all subjective to the those making the rules, those making the judgements.”
“I…” I think I was curled up in a ball on the lounge-y banquette at that point, with my knees in my face.
“No one ever escapes their influences,” Jordan went on to say. “It all goes into your ears and it comes out again in what you do. What’s original to the process is that you’re the filter it passes through. But it doesn’t come from you. It just comes through you.”
I looked at him suddenly. “You’ve given this pep talk before.”
“I’m a producer. Of course I have.”
I stared at him for a bit.
“At least this time we’re not over budget and past deadline in the studio and you’re not hiding in the men’s room refusing to record until you get your ego glued back together.”
That made me snort. “I like to think my ego isn’t so fragile.”
“I’ll tell you one more thing. I’ve given this talk to artists in just about every genre. Rap, rock, dance, you name it.”
“No shit,” he assured me.
“I feel like a fraud.”
“Like my whole life has been a lie? Okay, that’s too strong. Like my whole career has been operated under faulty assumptions, maybe.”
“You’d be far from the first. Let me buy you a drink.” He got up and I realized Sarah had been sitting on the other side of him for a while.
“I’m an idiot and I’m sorry,” I said to her.
“Apology accepted,” she said, and slid closer. “Hey, did I tell you my other big news?”
“Other than the apartment, the tour, and the Benneton endorsement deal?”
“Yeah.” She looked around and then put her mouth against my ear. “I’m seeing someone.”
“Yeah. She’s a grad student in women’s studies at Columbia.”
I didn’t realize it at the time, but that explained a lot.