The Importance of Being Authentic
As I prepare to leave Champaign-Urbana in a few weeks and move to Minneapolis for the summer, I’m faced with a number of difficult decisions vis-à-vis how many of my belongings will fit in my car. My furniture, by and large, won’t be making the trip. My audio gear will have to be packed carefully, but I think I have room for it. My television is a toss-up. However, one item that most definitely will be accompanying me on the trek from the Old Line State to the North Star State is my copy of Let It Be, the fourth and (in my opinion) greatest Replacements record and, as far as I know, the best piece of music to come out of Minneapolis, Purple Rain notwithstanding.
Ambassadors of the Twin Cities, the Replacements were among the drunkest bands of all time. But they had a kind of endearingly sloppy bravery—who else would name their album Let It Be? (Incidentally, I would note that critic Robert Christgau scored the Replacements’ offering higher than the Beatles.) The album is abundant in “authenticity,” a trait prized in rock and roll above almost all others. Whenever I listen to it, I take the opportunity to consider what we mean by “authenticity”—and whether it actually matters.
The Beatles’ Let It Be was produced by Phil Spector and George Martin, two of the very first “over-producers.” Even though the tracking and mixing were undertaken with the finest-toothed combs that 3 Savile Row had to offer, there’s nothing qualitatively inauthentic about the record. In fact, when Let It Be…Naked (more or less a mix/master using Martin’s tapes but without Spector’s wall of sound) was released a few years back, I found it sort of underwhelming compared to the rich, baroque “original.” The Replacements record, on the other hand, is a noisy, out-of-tune, yowling, tempo-fluctuating mess. It’s an epitome of musical un-studiedness (although not of studied musical un-studiedness, which wasn’t perfected until the first Pavement LP). Peter Buck’s guitar solo on “I Will Dare” is probably the most technically accomplished thing on the entire album, and he wasn’t even in the band.
The bottom line, though, is that both pieces—and, for our purposes, these albums are indeed “pieces”—consist, planet-like, in layers upon layers of sedimented craft, of collective knowledge in the areas of songwriting, performance, engineering, and production, enclosing a magma mantle of abstractions like rhetoric and proportion. The distinction between the outermost crusts of these planets is substantial, but distance of both crusts from their cores of inarticulable human expressive impulse, super-rotating balls of metal that even move at different speeds from the surrounding strata, floating within but independent of the CDs in my glove compartment, is about the same.
Which record is more authentic, the Beatles’ or the Replacements’? I think it’s all an illusion. They’re both great pieces of work, and whether that greatness is deliberate (as in 1969) or accidental (as, perhaps, in 1984) is immaterial.