New Kids, Sellouts, and Celebrity Suicides

At the 2010 NC State Graduate Symposium in Graphic Design, Dan McCafferty and I moderated a panel on the rhetoric of authenticity in popular music. Our panelists were Maggie Fost, Art Director at Merge Records; Elliott Earls, Artist-In-Residence and Head of Graduate Studies in 2D Design at Cranbrook Academy of Art; and Kenneth FitzGerald, Associate Professor of Art and Graduate Program Director at Old Dominion University. What follows are the comments Dan and I delivered to open the panel. Further posts feature discussion prompts that we considered in the leadup to the panel.

New Kids, Sellouts, and Celebrity Suicides

A panel for designers on the rhetoric of authenticity in music, and the value of keeping it real

We thought we’d take a few minutes at the outset to say a few things about our reasons for convening this panel. Considering authenticity in music is probably interesting and rich enough territory for a symposium of its own. But what does authenticity in music have to do with design? That’s really why we’re here now. So we’re going to attempt where we can to look for connections and glimmers of light as we consider what the discourse of authenticity in music might have to say to us as designers.


We think there are two main ways in which the relationship between design and popular music might indicate some important aspects of this idea of the rhetoric of authenticity.


First, the contemporary experience of popular music for decades has been almost entirely mediated by design. From record covers to promotional material and photography to the interfaces on our iPods, computer screens and social networks, to stage and lighting design at shows, design shapes the ways in which we receive impressions of particular artists and groups, as well as provides the frameworks for our encounters with music writ large. 


So, our impressions of the “realness” — or lack thereof — of any particular song or band we encounter is probably on some level the product of an intentionally constructed (designed) representation meant to give us a particular understanding of its origin, history, values and relationships to other musics.


Second, music, as a cultural production, seems to have an interestingly reciprocal relationship to design. It is true that a number of famous (and not so famous) designers became first interested in design through their relationships with album covers. But music and design, as creative cultural practices, are similarly situated in terms of their ubiquity and resonance, and their relationships with notions of authenticity may echo one another. Part of our hope for this panel is to take stock of the ways in which the notion of authenticity in music  might shed light on notions of authenticity in design.


What does it mean, then, to talk about authenticity in music? As Yuval Taylor and Hugh Barker frame it in their book Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music, it means a lot of things. But primarily it points to the idea of “keeping it real” (as opposed to “faking it”). The importance of “keeping it real” varies from genre to genre and artist to artist, but for most of the last half century most musicians have gone to great lengths to prove just how real they are. At times, this has meant adherence to perceived historical or cultural roots, such as in the folk and blues idioms. For some, it has meant making music that reflects their deepest felt emotions and real life experiences — this personal notion of “realness” has dominated hip hop, and heart-on-sleeve emo tendencies have defined much popular rock in the last few years. Finally, there’s a kind of authenticity in music that relates to it being what it says it is — even though KISS is clearly an act, their consistency in image counts for something.


Then, of course, there are compellingly ambiguous cases of artists like David Bowie, Bob Dylan, Bjork and Lou Reed, who have sometimes subtly, sometimes overtly blurred autobiography and fiction, authenticity and illusion. In hip hop, the business of being in music is commonly called “the game” — players in the street, both literally and metaphorically, glide back and forth over the line hazily separating real from fake. Clearly, it’s important to artists and fans alike that their music is “real”… but what does “real” mean when so much of the art is artifice, subterfuge, and play? 


In a recent NYT article on the rapper and impresario Rick Ross, Jon Caramanica describes the artist’s intentional creation of a zone of “productive ambiguity” — a space wherein he may simultaneously be and not be the gangster he claims. Perhaps all music ultimately best operates within this zone. We want to venture to say the same may be true for design, which must both be and not be of the community and audience for which and to which it speaks.