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On the Worthlessness of “Authenticity” As A Criterion of Value

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I think our commenter Bob sums it up well:

If authenticity mattered Billy Ray Cyrus, born into a Pentecostal family in KY, would be a much better musician than Ingram Cecil Connor III, better known as Gram Parsons, who was driven to prep school by a chauffeur, but I’ll be damned if Hickory Wind isn’t an infinitely better song than Achy Breaky Heart.

Game, set, match.

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  • Cyrus is a better musician than Parsons, but the whole musical industry has raised technical standards so much, that it’s not obvious until you compare them side by side. And “Achy Braky Heart” is an entirely successful, intentionally funny song. It’s not lyrical poetry (and “Hickory Wind” is so full of faux sentimentalism and forced romanticism that I could barely listen to it once) but it’s a fantastically written and perfectly performed piece. The problem most people have understanding Cyrus’ work (and I’m not a huge fan, honestly, but this kind of stuff drives me buggy) is that they don’t understand that country (like folk music) has a deliberately and broadly humorous side and doesn’t actually take itself as seriously as the authenticity-hounds (or their mindless rejectors) seem to think.

    • BillCinSD

      are you Michael Kinsley in disguise?

      • bph

        Now now, there is no reason to resort to name calling….

    • djw

      This certainly sounds very authoritative and knowledgeable, but if you boil it down a bit all that seems to remain is the “But it’s supposed to be terrible!” defense. Ray Stevens’ music is goofy and terrible because it’s supposed to be funny, too.

      • Scott Lemieux

        I mean, the Cyrus thing is a fun enough little throwaway single (which I don’t think he wrote), but it wouldn’t make it anywhere near Gilded Palace of Sin

        • Not the right comparison. Different goals, different goalposts. Is “Gilded Palace” that dreary thing posted above, or a different dreary thing?

          • Scott Lemieux

            I would have to say that the force of your attacks on Parsons is diminished rather substantially by the fact that you haven’t heard — or apparently even heard of — his greatest album.

            On the broader point, if you want to evaluate music by certain narrow standards of technical skill and slick production values, that’s your privilege. Since these criteria would compel the conclusion that Winger were a vastly better band than the Clash, I certainly won’t be using them myself, thanks.

            • I’ve now heard three Parsons songs (though I may have heard others in cover versions), and enjoyed one of them (“Cash on the Barrelhead” which would, in fact, be a much more reasonably comparison to “Achy Breaky”), so I’m not so much ‘attacking’ Parsons as I am unconvinced by the original statement which pitted a single song by Cyrus against a single song by Parsons. The question was who was a better musician: on the evidence I have available, I say Cyrus is.

              In terms of which song is more successful, I’m arguing that there’s not one single standard of quality which should prevail, but rather that “Achy Breaky” succeeds at being amusing and lively to a greater extent than “Hickory Wind” succeeds at being evocative or emotional or beautiful, and therefore the “infintely better” line is patently absurd.

              • Cash on the Barrelhead is a Louvin Brothers song that Parsons covered (quite well it should be said). But the idea that one can make any judgment about Parsons after having listened to 3 songs–and for that matter compare him unfavorably to Billy Ray Motherfucking Cyrus–means that you should stop digging that grave before it’s too deep to get out of.

      • Nice attempt to shift the goalposts on me so I have to defend Ray Stevens on ‘quality.’ Not buying it. Tom Lehrer, perhaps, or Gilbert&Sullivan, but not Ray Stevens. Not the point, anyway.

        Is someone going to actually defend Parsons, or are you going to just sneer at songs you heard once on the radio or in a bar and never really listened to?

        • djw

          I haven’t heard Parsons music in years, and although I dimly recall finding it enjoyable (which alone would put him many miles ahead of Cyrus’ cloying, grating music), my point had nothing to do with his music. I was merely observing that the observation that Cyrus’ music is meant to contain a moderate amount of humor is a) perfectly obvious to my untrained ear, and b) doesn’t constitute a defense of his music in any obvious way.

        • Paul Campos

          Ooooh that’s, like, transgressive. Double-reverse snobbery is so very pomo. Billy Bob Cyrus is a better musician than Gram Parsons! Dan Brown is a better writer than Tolstoy! McDonald’s is a better restaurant than el Bulli! The Elephant Man is prettier than Salma Hayek!

          • “Billy Bob Cyrus”

            Well, I’m not practicing, “Double-reverse snobbery,” but it may look that way to actual snobs. Hegemonic single-dimension metrics of quality are the epitome of modernism; if that makes me ‘pomo’ then fine.

            I’m not really trying to be a populist snob, but articulate something which allows for a wider range of pleasures and moods.

            • Paul Campos

              I have nothing against Achy Breaky Heart which if nothing else helped spawn a funny South Park episode, but Gram Parsons is one of the most influential American musicians of the last 50 years. Firing off sweeping generalities about contemporary country and folk music while not knowing anything about him is just sad. Doing so while claiming that Billy Ray Cyrus is a superior musician is preposterous.

              • Hmm. I’ve done a little reading, and your view of Parsons’ role in recent musical history seems orthodox. Though I’m not convinced that the homogenizing effect of blending rock and country was a net benefit (at least not to the extent that it actually happened; the lack of actual country influences in most contemporary country is pretty sad, and the positive effects on rock were short-lived, at best), and I’m still not sure he ever wrote anything I’d like, clearly he was important to the master narrative of popular music.

                It’s not clear to me that you actually know anything about folk or country music, yourself, beyond some obligatory hero-worship. I don’t actually care one way or the other: I’m not wrong about the range of modes in contemporary country, or about their roots in folk and bluegrass traditions, and I’m not wrong about the vastly over-rated (apparently) “Hickory Wind.”

            • Paul Campos

              “It’s not clear to me that you actually know anything about folk or country music, yourself, beyond some obligatory hero-worship. I don’t actually care one way or the other: I’m not wrong about the range of modes in contemporary country, or about their roots in folk and bluegrass traditions, and I’m not wrong about the vastly over-rated (apparently) “Hickory Wind.”

              This is kind of like claiming to have a deep understanding of contemporary American fiction while admitting to not having read any Philip Roth. I mean it’s possible but it’s not helping your credibility any.

              Also it takes some balls to admit to thinking Achy Breaky Heart is a much better song than Hickory Wind. That, and really horrible taste in music.

              • What’s funny about this is that I’m an historian: normally, I’m quite amenable to arguments from origins, but there are limits to their utility.

              • Incontinentia Buttocks

                Shorter Ahistoricality:

                “I am aware of all country music traditions.”

    • John

      This, my friends, is how you troll. Sit back and watch a master at work.

    • The problem most people have understanding Cyrus’ work (and I’m not a huge fan, honestly, but this kind of stuff drives me buggy) is that they don’t understand that country (like folk music) has a deliberately and broadly humorous side

      Hee Haw wasn’t a bleak commentary on brain-damaged yokels?

      • jackd

        Not intentionally.

    • Bob
  • Don’t know Parsons, so can’t comment on him or his music.

    OTOH, comparing Cyrus’s dismal output to something like “Ahab the Arab.” is transparently fatuous.

    Achey-Breaky heart is an absolute piece of shit, both lyrics and music, and if there is any humor expressed or implied, it is of very unworthy sort, leveled at the expense of whoever the hell might be Cyrus’s fans. They think it’s GOOD!

    Stevens’s music is transparent absurdity, and he was, at least, honest enough to be up front about it. If Cyrus is tongue in cheek (an assertion I am not willing to accept) then he is not only a performer of tripe, but a big prick, as well.

    Which, I suppose, makes him a Republican.

    It is what it is,
    JzB

  • BillCinSD

    and just to be clear Cyrus did not write ‘achy Breaky Heart”, Don Von Tress did; it was originally called “Don’t Tell My Heart”. The best version is clearly the Alvin and the Chipmunk version

  • Davis X. Machina

    I didn’t know there was a human behind “Achy-breaky”.

    I assumed, listening under compulsion to the piece numerous times in its heyday, that it was the spectactular, if sinister, result of a merger between cutting-edge market research and the latest in AI software.

    “Formulaic” doesn’t do it justice. That’s like calling Casablanca-era Bergman ‘cute’.

  • BillCinSD

    As near as I can tell, Cyrus plays a barely audible acoustic guitar and does not seem to change the chord he plays — although that is an observation from his video, than from listening solely to the audio, as I have a difficult time finding the acoustic guitar in any mix I have heard

    Parsons wrote his own lyrics and music and could change chords while singing. Well he first joined The Byrds after after being recruited as a jazz-style pianist and then switching to rhythm guitar. Game, set, match Parsons.

    Further, A, the point of the post was that authenticity doesn’t matter, so referring to the post as from an authenticity-hound makes no sense

    • I was trying to agree with the point about authenticity – there are situations where it matters in music, but not many – but make a point about the common misunderstandings about the breadth of country music.

      I’ll have to defer to people who know something about Parsons: I can’t tell what he’s playing, but none of the tracks I’ve listened to represent any kind of virtuosity or even life (with the exception of “Cash on the Barrelhead,” which is lively and funny, if a little stiff in construction) that really gave me a sense of it.

      I still don’t get the Cyrus-bashing, though.

      • BillCinSD

        well I don’t get your Cyrus praising. He didn’t write the song, he didn’t play the song, his only contribution is singing and his pretty face.

        I would guess much of the Cyrus bashing is due to radio and video airplay being more related to prostituting yourself to the record label, who then buy your airtime and your success is in how pretty you are not your talent. Which I guess is another way of saying Cyrus was successful mostly due to taking someone else’s work and adding a pretty face to it rather than any musical talent on his part.

        • djw

          He didn’t write the song, he didn’t play the song,

          If anything, this is to his credit.

        • I would guess …. Which I guess ….

          Is this one of those “attribute your own views to vague ‘others’ so you don’t have to own them” things?

          I don’t buy the popular=sellout=bad music equation: even if it’s sometimes true, doesn’t mean that it’s always true, so you still have some burden of proof.

          That Cyrus didn’t write the song is irrelevant (unless authorship is a measure of authenticity, which means we have to restart the entire discussion) because there were two separate propositions in the original statement: that Parsons was a better musician and that “Hickory Wind” was a better song. If you want to concede the second to try to claim the first point (though Cyrus, like Parsons, plays both guitar and piano, apparently), that’s your call.

          • BillCinSD

            No when I say I guess, I mean I am synthesizing view from several people I know. I don’t care about whether you think Cyrus is better than Gram Parsons.

            What I do care about is the tenor of the argument. I initially thought you were going for some kind of Slate-style counter-intuitive hypothesis, but your argument isn’t even that good. As near as I can tell Cyrus didn’t play any of the music on his big song (or really on any song of his I know — which isn’t too many). Thus, how one can say he is a better musician than Parsons is a mystery to me, since he didn’t actually play much music, unless you think Parsons music ability is some sort negative.

            You could claim Cyrus is a better singer since they both did that, but you didn’t claim this. You could say he was/is prettier and I doubt anyone would disagree. You could claim you like Achy Breaky Heart better than anything by Parsons. No one can disagree with that as it is your opinion. You could claim the musicians on Achy Breaky Heart are better than Parsons, but that does not include Cyrus, so again your argument does not hold water.

            • I also take it as obvious that when discussing talent we are including songwriting. How often do the songs of BRC get covered…

              • Goalpost shifting. “Musicianship” and “song” don’t equate ‘songwriting’ and ‘influence.’

                Thanks, Lemieux. I have to get into this kind of pointless cultural throwdown about once a year to remind myself not to comment on other people’s de gustibus non est disputandum handwaving discussions. Usually, it’s Dylan or Cohen, so this was a nice change.

              • mark f

                Jumping in late here . . .

                From your link: if you find Dylan’s singing incomprehensible, I don’t know how anyone is supposed to take you seriously. Particularly since you’re talking about “Don’t Think Twice . . .” and his folk era, when his enunciation couldn’t have been clearer. I mean, it’s one thing if you don’t like his voice compared to a polished one like Baez’s. But to say his singing on “Masters of War” or “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” is “incomprehensible” is frankly bizarre.

                The nasally mumble that Dylan gets mocked for was his voice from Street-Legal through Under the Red Sky. After that it gave out totally and turned into a bit of a croak, but before 1978 it rough-hewn but totally clear. And, for that matter, displayed a fair amount of technical skill that made up for whatever lack of natural range he had.

                From reading this thread it sure seems like you don’t really know what you’re talking about. “The only Billy Ray Cyrus song I know is awesome!,” “The only Gram Parsons song I know is terrible and anyone whoever heard of Gram Parsons?,” “Dylan only made one song where you could undertsand his singing!”

  • Jager

    Why don’t you guys get into a discussion of Chuck Berry’s biggest seller, “My Ding-a-Ling” vs “TV Eye” by the Stooges. That should take care of your Saturday night.

    • BillCinSD

      I’m currently unable to play My Ding-a-ling.

      Wait that didn’t come out right.

  • Scott Lemieux

    I don’t think I really registered this hyperbole about one of the countless catchy-annoying novelty hits Nashville churns out every year:

    but it’s a fantastically written and perfectly performed piece

    At this rate, Cyrus’s daughter will be cited as one of the great artists in the history of western culture. “‘Hoedown Throwdown’ is a marvelously written song performed with a truly staggering level of virtuosity that puts no-talent hacks like Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash to shame. Anyone who doesn’t agree must not understand the innovative combination of broad humor, hip hop, and country that defines the Disney Channel aesthetic.”

    • DocAmazing

      And what has Gram Parsons’ daughter done lately?

  • Anonymous

    Musical taste is subjective.Billy Ray Cyrus’ music isn’t objectively better or worse than Gram Parson’s music. Personally, I prefer Buck Owens or Merle Haggard to both.

  • rickhavoc

    Sin City plays equally well as sincere and as parody. Its a whole ‘nuther thing. Beyond that, one’s taste is in one’s mouth, so to speak.

    Parsons was only influenced by Harvard for a semester. Yes, he was rich by Waycross standards, but it was a dark rich, he was no dilettante.

  • Jager

    Easy onn Harvard, the school owned FM station has the longest running country/bluegrass/traditional/americana music show in the nation. “Hillbilly at Harvard…it is so esoteric your ears bleed.

  • Gram Parsons is one of the most influential individuals in the history of country music. He was arguably the single most influential person for the alt-country movement. He brought rock and country together in ways few had before. He also discovered Emmylou Harris. I don’t care in the least about authenticity. However, I do care about quality. Particularly in country music, which I love dearly.

    And that leads us to Billy Ray Cyrus. This no-talent hack had big hair and a decent voice to place over the top of a slick Nashville production. That it was a big hit in the early 90s is almost totally meaningless for judging his quality. Anyone who owned all the albums that #1 songs appeared on would have the worst record collection in world history. It caught a moment in a particular time of suburbanites holding on to some sort of quasi-rural identity where they could go line dance and vote Republican and enjoy their megachurches. This all might be culturally important but it says nothing about Cyrus’ skills, of which he has none.

    Also, music taste is not strictly subjective. Objectively, Gram Parsons is better than Billy Ray Cyrus. This is the equivalent of saying that Miles Davis is better than Yanni and that Chuck Berry is better than Pat Boone. We can measure quality on innovation, songwriting, singing technique, musicianship, or any number of other categories. Gram Parsons defeats Billy Ray Cyrus in each category.

    What you can say in favor of Achy Breaky Heart is that cheesy Nashville songwriters and executives can create a successful product. That’s the talent behind that song. Are they better at mass marketing than Gram Parsons? Yes.

    • Gram Parsons is one of the most influential individuals in the history of country music.

      I don’t know if I’d go that far. Granted, I know we’re supposed to hold people who actually listen to mainstream country radio since Waylon Jennings quit doing blow in utter contempt, but you ask the average fan of the music who Gram Parsons was and what songs he did, and I’ll give you a nickel if you get anything but a blank stare. Sure, there’s a solid chunk of big-time musicians who were directly influenced by Parsons’ music – Dwight Yoakam, Steve Earle, Hal Ketchum – but by that same token, the massive influence Nick Lowe’s Jesus Of Cool had on country production techniques would make him one of country music’s most influential people. The only mainstream country artist I can think of that covered a Gram Parsons song, besides Emmylou Harris, was Dwight Yoakam. He and k.d. lang covered “Sin City” on Yoakam’s ’89 greatest hits comp Just Lookin’ For A Hit, which also contained an AWESOME version of The Blasters’ “Long White Cadillac”. Buy it.

      On the other hand, some four million copies of Some Gave All were sold in 1994, the song itself went Multi-Platinum and spent nearly six weeks at Number One on Billboard’s country charts. As someone who listened to little else but country radio in the early ’90s, believe you me, folks dug that song. I’d argue the hard tune to Dawson’s Creek look-a-likes in mainstream country music was a direct result of Cyrus’ success. This is mainstream country and its fans, mind, not what “No Depression” decides what is and what isn’t country music. These folks like the “crap” coming out of Nashville like Big & Rich and Zac Brown and “Honky Tonk Ba-donk-a-donk”.

      And furthermore, Gram Parsons wasn’t country. His music isn’t country, it isn’t arranged as country, and it isn’t played as country. His music’s great and influential and multi-layered and reveals new depths every time one exposes oneself to it, but it ain’t country no more than Doug Sahm or The Band or Wayne Hancock is country. It’s rock music, visionary rock music that serves as a bridge for a whole lot of people who’d never otherwise give a steel guitar a shot, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

      Fun fact: Gram Parsons loved Merle Haggard and wanted him to produce Grievous Angel, so record company big-wigs arranged a meeting. The Hag noted Parsons’ writing talent, but considered his “long-haired wild boy” stance a sham, calling him a “goddamn pussy”.

      • But what does influence and popularity have to do with each other? Parsons is only not influential if you completely ignore the entire alt-country tradition, which you can only do if you define country music as narrowly as possible.

        • rcobeen

          The idea that Gram Parsons “is one of the most influential individuals in the history of country music” would be laughable if it wasn’t a canard of people who only know about country through the likes of Uncle Tupelo. Just off the top of my head: Bob Wills, Bill Monroe, Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, Merle Haggard, George Jones, Patsy Cline, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash. Parsons’ influence doesn’t come close to any of them, or a couple dozen more I could name in another two minutes. Parsons’ talent was real and it is sad to think what was lost with his early demise, but let’s not make more of him than is there.

  • bdbd

    interesting thread and contrast (between Parsons and Cyrus). Parsons could afford to construct a style composed largely of gestures and broad winks. Cyrus at the outset was making a living (and he stumbled into a nice one). “Authenticity” and the commercial context are orthogonal in many ways. Is this commercial or authentic (certainly it’s humorous like Acky Breaky)– note Clarence White on guitar, along with brother Roland on mandolin and with the rest of The Country Boys.

  • dave

    Good god, how bitchy is it possible for you guys to get when someone questions your taste in music? Take a pill or something.

  • Matt T.

    I’d say popularity has a very strong connection to popularity, especially in the field of pop music, which is what mainstream country is. George Jones, Merle Haggard, and Dolly Parton were all massively popular and massively influential. That’s what hoi paloi wanted to hear, what the labels went for, and what young singers tried to sound like. Alt-country has had almost no impact on mainstream country and, to a very real extent, it isn’t country music. It’s a subgenre of rock because of its largely suburban as opposed to rural/small-town roots, lyrical theme and structure. People who listen to mainstream country are barely aware of it, if at all, and Nashville could care less. Hell, alt-country musicians really aren’t going for that market anyway. That don’t mean The Bottle Rockets don’t kick the shit out of Jason Aldean, but it’s still apples and oranges.
    Fact is, Parsons’ influence on mainstream country is significant if you consider who he directly influenced: The Eagles. He’s the patient zero for the whole cosmic cowboy thing of the ’70s, and The Eagles especially had a massively influence on the direction of country music in the last 20 years.

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