Solange Knowles and Travis Scott have been garnering praise recently for returning to their Houston roots, both artistically and physically (Scott kicked off his Astroworld festival last November in south Houston near the grounds on which the original Six Flags Astroworld theme park once stood; Solange “quietly rented a home in Third Ward”—Houston’s most historic black neighborhood—to write much of When I Get Home).
The implication in many reviews of these two albums is that, by being rooted in their creators’ hometown, they are especially personal, expressive, and “authentic”. In other words, if we can plausibly hear music as representing a particular place, and if we can associate that particular place with the artist that made the music, then we can say that the music is an expression of a special connection to that place. Moreover, if we can show that the artist’s music demonstrates an influence of other (preferably older) music that has a legacy in that place’s musical culture, then it is even more personal, expressive, and authentic.
Why is that, exactly? It’s nothing new, of course. There’s a rich artistic and historiographic legacy of coveting thoughtful and powerful (and accurate) artistic representations of specific places and regions: we have lauded artists as diverse as Béla Bartók and NWA for their music’s capacity to capture the essence of their homeland, whether it be the Hungarian magyarság or the brutal realities of minority over-policing in Compton.
Under this kind of rubric, though, we must question the representational potency of (and the legitimacy and value of our responses to) a song like “Take Me Home, Country Roads”, the writer of which, Bill Danoff, had never even stepped foot in West Virginia when he wrote it, and had toyed with using the word ‘Massachusetts’ instead of ‘West Virginia’, since they share the same number of syllables. And for John Denver, who recorded the most famous version of Danoff’s song, a trip ‘home’ could have included at least New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, and California—but not West Virginia. If we assumed the song was ‘rooted’ in West Virginia, can and should we enjoy it in the same way now that we know it was written and performed by mere charlatans, misrepresenting (or at least not disclosing) their roots for the sake of good music? Should the fact that “inauthentic” West Virginians popularized the song compromise our equation of it to the place of West Virginia? The state of West Virginia doesn’t seem to think so, since it adopted it as an official state song. What about actual West Virginians (of which I am not)? Would they be justified in feeling emotionally and aesthetically duped by a song so gushing about their state’s place as “home” by people who had never been there?
Or perhaps the more interesting questions come in the form of an alternative history thought experiment: If Danoff and Denver were both native West Virginians, would this song be more authentic? If it were deemed more authentic, does it follow that it’s necessarily better music?
Many recent reviewers of When I Get Home and Astroworld would have to answer both questions in the affirmative. Of the reviews I’ve read (which number in the baker’s dozen range—admittedly very few relative to the whole), none have so unabashedly concerned themselves with authenticity as I’m doing here. But while the word itself is often occluded in the popular discourse, its presence as an arbitrator of artistic merit is palpable.
Works’ authenticity levels are typically verified according to a fairly simple three-step process: Step 1: Is the city being referenced the city in which the artist grew up? Step 2: Are there explicit references to the city’s culture (neighborhoods, streets, zip codes, restaurants, artifacts, fashion, cars), present or (preferably) past, that may not register as such to many (preferably most) listeners? (This is especially enticing to us critics, since we can legitimize our own intellectual acumen merely by informing our readers about these name-checked items.) Step 3: Are there once under-appreciated, but now recognized as culturally-formidable artists from the city’s musical past that we can claim as undergirding influences in the new work?
If we can make the case that all criteria are met, then we certify that the new work and its artist are displaced from the opinions and directives of major corporate record labels and the homogenized tastes of mass culture, since anyone that falls within those camps is (so we think) unaware that the criteria are being met at all. Thus, we have vouchsafed the authenticity of the work and its artist; and lucky for you, philistine listener and reader, we critics are here to make your listening experience truly authentic, too, by bringing you into the “back to their roots” covenant of artistic judgment.
I’m being a bit sarcastic, of course, but not entirely. This conflation of inside knowledge with privileged aesthetic experience works for fans and critics alike. Most of us revel in getting inside jokes, and most of us are annoyed when we are the only ones that aren’t in on the joke; we get legitimate emotional responses when we recognize layered meanings and foreshadowing during the third viewing of Game of Thrones that would have been impossible to intuit during the first viewing; when Justin Verlander of the Houston Astros gets a bases-loaded strikeout with a changeup, our knowing he throws that pitch three percent of the time makes the moment exhilarating rather than ‘merely’ impressive. Our deference to detail can and should give rise to more enriching experiences of art.
The problem with the kind of criticism to which I have been alluding is that writers are making these particular albums’ Houston-centrism the primary locus of their artistic validity and authenticity. Moreover, these claims often entail a disconcerting trope of invoking DJ Screw—whose mixtapes are the unequivocal sonic paragon of ’90s Houston hip-hop culture—as a standard-bearer sonic influence for legitimate Houston music.
Here are a few examples of what’s been going on: In a recent article titled “Houston’s Signature Brand of Hip Hop is Fading into Nostalgia” (Byline Houston, 15 Feb 2019), Carlos Brandon bemoans the fact that new artists like Scott are not making explicit reference to Screw’s sound, implying that whatever merits such music might embody, it can’t be said to sufficiently represent Houston (and thus is less-preferred to music that does, so the script goes). Another article titled “The Voices of Houston’s Screwed Up Click are Sampled All Over Travis Scott’s Astroworld” (Genius.com, 3 Aug 2018) ostensibly reverses the view of the former article, and thus hears the same music more charitably for that reason. So one reviewer hears Screw’s sonic imprint on the album, and as such hears the album as more definitively representing Houston, and therefore construes it as more aesthetically potent (and, excuse me again, “authentic”) than those who do not hear that imprint.
If we claim to hear Screw’s sonic imprint on the album, we are imbuing the music with a more definitive representation of Houston, and therefore we are construing the album as more artistically robust (and, excuse me again, “authentic”) than the reviewer who does not hear that imprint. Both reviewers agree that a Screw influence makes the music more authentic, they just disagree on the degree to which that influence is discernable.
In the case of When I Get Home, the most egregious reference to Screw I’ve read so far (which is actually a transcript from a 2 March 2019 segment of NPR’s wildly popular radio show All Things Considered) is from music critic Rodney Carmichael: “[E]ven though this Solange album is classified as an r&b album, it’s essentially Screw music.” Wow! Essentially? I’m somewhat sympathetic to many other articles that make benign associations between the musical surface on When I Get Home and Screw’s well-known techniques of backspinning, chopping, and slow tempos. But claims of essentialism need more nuance and evidence than Carmichael offers, and—as is the case with many essentialist arguments about art—this kind of reductionism flattens the vibrancy of the album onto a single plane of “Houston-only Screw-essence” (or something…). It’s as if these megastars can only (or more expediently) get their authenticity badge if they go back to their ‘geographic’ roots; and since their geographic roots are Houston, they can only be said to truly express the ‘spirit’, or ‘essence’, or ‘culture’ of those roots if they are in some way indebted to Screw.
It should be clear by now that I’m not just interested in a debate about to what degree any of this music shows a Screw influence— I’m not even entirely sure what a debate like that would sound like, nor what it would accomplish. I also understand that to name-drop Screw in any commentary on a Houston artist has grown into a compulsive platitude that many find harmless. And on a larger scale, I’m not sure that I disagree. Rather, it’s the unchecked giving in to that compulsion that troubles me, for it demonstrates an apathetic tolerance for inadequately supporting one’s musico-cultural pronouncements. This nonchalance implies that aesthetic matters are not worth thinking as critically about as, say, political, economic, or ethical ones. While the real-world consequences are drastically different, the intellectual stakes are the same: flawed arguments and the implicit reasoning through which they are made should not be tacitly accepted but actively interrogated.
I’m also not charging contemporary music criticism with being responsible for birthing a preoccupation with finding authenticity at any cost. This trend ramped up (in the Western “art music” tradition) at least as far back as the mid-19th century (especially among advocates for Absolute Music such as Karl Franz Brendel and Eduard Hanslick), and—to jump ahead 150 years—has been exacerbated since the early ’90s in response to anxieties over unrelenting cultural and aesthetic media coercion. Popular tastes seem to have grown increasingly homogeneous, and we are starved for art and artists that we can safely feel are expressing themselves and not diluting their product for the sake of “mass appeal”. But by setting up the terms of validity based on those anxieties and ex post facto placing works along the continuum of authenticity based on how they align with those terms, we in fact compromise our capacity to meet art “on its own terms” (to use a loaded phrase), and thus we risk subverting the very artistic qualities we claim to hold so dear.