What is authentic music?

How do we determine what makes a song or a performance or worship experience authentic instead of commercial, fake,  entertainment, showy, etc? This seems to be a very important question especially to the marketing-savvy PoMos out there who are looking to “emergent” styles of worship. We want to be involved in real worship experiences that are not contrived from an attempt to force a worshipy moment to occur. This issue was the driving motivation behind the “Contemporvant” video that made the rounds a few months ago. Are we just faking it every Sunday? What is the culture looking for in our definition of “authentic” in worship?

Who defines authenticity?

This is the first question that we need to ask ourselves. Is folk music authentic? Does unplugging make things more authentic? What if you are playing Contemporary Gospel music? Is is more authentic to unplug then? Does informal attire, a lack of worship order, or popular style music define authentic? Does ancient prayers, iconography, candles and incense create authenticity? My questions should be leading you to see that the problem lies in the fact that “authenticity” is culturally determined. It’s not as easy to talk about what’s authentic when you are bringing many different cultures into a room. In the end, it’s always going to feel “faked” when a white dude like me attempts to lead a traditional black gospel tune. I’m not the “real thing”. Authentic gets determined by the culture in which the expression is coming from.

What about commercialism?

So another problem that comes up is the power of the almighty dollar. So much music is created just like any other commercially distributed product, with the bottom line as the primary motivation. If I write a song that sounds like Chris Tomlin, I will sell a lot of records because people want to buy more of what they already like. So, what might have been created (maybe by Chris Tomlin) as an authentic expression of an artist goes out into the world and becomes cloned by the business into a thousand versions of “How Great Is Our God”. This effect happens in every market on the planet. There is no musical genre or tradition that is immune to the power of the dollar to create clones. For every “The Beatles” there’s  “The Monkeys”.  This effect is even seen in the genres that people run to in order to get away from commercialism: folk, country, bluegrass, classical, hymns, jazz, blues, jam bands, punk, indy, metal, thrash all have bands or artists that are sell-outs and poseurs. What do we do to escape it? Do we reject any form of art that has any kind of market drive or value? How does a Christian artist both make money as a craftsman and at the same time preserve artistic integrity? How do we as worshipers choose music to use in our liturgies without just becoming the equivalent of a Top 40 radio station for our particular cultural predispositions?

Where does skill enter in to worship?

Here’s the place where skill starts to get tossed into the mix. Music that is performed with skill is by it’s nature commercially valuable in the same way that a well built chair or car will have value in a market where chairs and cars are in demand. A well written song or a skilled performer will be a commercial commodity. We all hate to see bad musicians become successful because they look pretty, and yet when a skilled musician plays in church, that can sometimes come off as too “showy” or “commercial” because they are playing at a level equivalent to that which we hear coming from the mass media. We might all agree that skill is good in God’s eyes, but in the practical execution, there seems to be an implied expectation in a lot of churches that a display of skill takes away from the glory of God some how. Many musicians adopt an “indy” or “hipster” aesthetic in order to reject what they deem to be commercial. They play songs without skill (simplistic harmony, minimal instrumentation, limited vocal range, intentionally bland vocal style, casual style presentation). I find it comical that there appears to be a hipster backlash that is sweeping the web and I supposed the culture in general. People are starting to see this as just another culture with the same rules of assimilation, popularity, and commercialization that go in to the formation of a tribal identity. But that’s a tangent…skill as it relates to authenticity is determined by the culture. There’s ebb  and flow within the culture as well as generational and class differences are taken into account.

Authentic vs. Accessible

In “Gather Into One”, C. Michael Hawn presents the problems of authenticity in relation to cross-cultural ministry. If I want an authentic experience of my worship music, I need to go to my tribal church. When I attend the church of a different tribe and they attempt my music, they will fail. Have you ever heard a traditional organist play a modern worship song? It always sounds lame (meaning lacking authenticity)and that’s not even a ethnic difference. So, when we blend tribes into one congregation, how do we create an authentic experience? The sending culture (let’s say Black, Pentecostal) has to adapt a song in order to make it accessible to the receiving culture (White Presbyterian). So what do we change and what do we keep? In the end, each culture has to sacrifice the right to authentic worship music in order to have something better: authentic relationships.

I rambled a lot and didn’t answer most of my questions. Can you help me to process this? Did this create any questions in your mind?

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  1. #1 by Justin Pickard on October 11, 2010 - 5:20 pm

    This is Justin from Tulsa who talked to you after the service yesterday.

    I can appreciate having more questions than answers on the subjects in this post!

    I like what you are heading towards with more “authentic relationships.” Can worship reflect authentic or reconciled relationships? I think of John 17 and how Jesus’ prayer that we would be one and how that would show the world that the Father sent Jesus and that the Father loves us even as he loves his Son. If the church is living out its calling and real reconciliation between people is evident, then it seems to result in worship, as in this passage it results in the acknowlegement of who Jesus and the Father are.

    It seems like you all at New City experience a reconciliation of worship styles that reflects this. My educational background is Philosophy and English, so I can’t help but ask if the question about “authenticity” is not the right question for people to ask. It is understandable that people ask it (and I feel its burden) because it is one of the few values that remains standing in our culture – “be true to yourself” etc. But I have the feeling it is like the fallacy of falsely limiting the options. Why should authenticity be the only musical value? Why could reconciliation in music not be just as valuable? You could even make an aesthetic argument that musical creativity and progress only happens when one pulls influences that are by definition beyond what is authentic to oneself.

    I could see how reconciliation and authenticity could both be bad if taken too far, i.e. reconciliation in worship where everything is a tasteless jumbled mass of all styles and where authenticity would restrict you to forever using only exactly what you have been brought up in. That’s why I like what you say about prioritizing authentic (and I’m adding reconciled) relationships – if the worship style follows the reconciliation of ages and cultures in the church, it seems like it would necessarily narrow the number of styles on the one hand and yet keep it from becoming stiff and stagnant on the other.

    • #2 by kirkwardmusic on October 14, 2010 - 12:05 pm

      Justin, thanks for the thoughtful comment. That’s the kind of conversation that I hope to create with my blog!

      What you mentioned about John 17 is actually the content of the morning devotional I give to summer teams. Unity, the fruit of reconciliation, is a result of the work of the Messiah shaking our lives up and making us into the new Temple and the new Israel. It’s a symbol of the kingdom that leads us to worship the Messiah.

      It seems that when we say “be true to yourself” then the natural question should be “who am I?” According to the Jesus and subsequently the apostles, we are now defined as sons and daughters, born again as heirs in the family of God. Being true to who I am as a son of God should now redefine what it means to be authentic in the music I use to express worship. Because I am the brother of Congolese Christians, I sing African songs. Because I am a fellow heir with Black folks in my community, I sing Black Gospel songs. Authentic, reconciled relationships are part of the victory won on the cross according to Ephesians 2, and so reconciliation is not just a musical option to spice things up, but it’s actually one of the markers of gospel-based worship.

      Your comments are right on, thanks for sharing and may the Spirit work in your cross-cultural worship services.

  2. #3 by Alex Cope on April 30, 2015 - 6:10 pm

    I love your take on authenticity here and your insight is very interesting. I am currently writing a dissertation for my Music Performance degree, with a section of it on musical authenticity. Would you mind if I quoted this article?

    Alex Cope

    • #4 by Kirk Ward on May 1, 2015 - 11:24 am

      Please freely quote with credits or links or whatever. Thank you for asking!

  1. What is authentic music? | Zvembira

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