Long Live the Monkees! (or, Why “Honest” Music is Overrated)

Does pop music have to be heartfelt and authentic to be good?

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I’ve always attributed my fondness for pastiche-pop at having been the right age and in the right place to absorb with maximum impact the Britpop explosion that gave the world Blur, Oasis, Pulp and countless other bands that cherry-picked from — and, in some cases, outright copied — the best of pop music from days gone by, from the Beatles through the Specials and then some. When you’ve opened your musical heart to anything by the Brothers Gallagher, it’s hard to deny the lure of the Rutles.

That said, I’ve never been a fan of the snobbery that demands authenticity over everything, and sees copycats or “calculated” music as somehow inferior or less “artistic” or worthy than the impassioned output of someone who “really feels it, man.” I’ve got nothing against the idea of self-expression, but when it comes to music, what’s most important to me is how it sounds. Does it make me feel something? Does it make me want to shake my booty in a way that reinforces how ridiculously old and white I am (thereby making the fact that I used the word “booty” that little bit more embarrassing)? If the answer to either question is “yes,” then what does it really matter whether or not it was cynically constructed for maximum effect — or a happy accident like Paul McCartney waking up with “Yesterday” almost fully formed in his head?

The Beatles, of course, are a fine example in why inauthentic music can be great. When they started, they weren’t even a proto-Greatest Band of All Time, but, rather, four guys trying to capture the vibrant energy of music produced by a country and culture they didn’t know, let alone understand. What made them great wasn’t their authenticity—a fact underscored by the various tell-alls written about the band after their split, that reveal just how many of their latter songs were attempts to keep themselves interested—but their willingness to experiment and expand.

This is one of the reasons why dismissing the Monkees as an artistically worthless Prefab Four gets absolutely nowhere with me, because… well, listen to the band. The near army of people working behind the scenes to create the Monkees created all manner of greatness that transcended whatever concerns many had about the band’s origins.

In The Manual (How To Have A Number One The Easy Way), the must-read tongue-in-cheek how-to book by Jimmy Cauty and Bill Drummond (a.k.a. the KLF, a.k.a. those two guys who burned a million pounds in the name of art), the authors took a stand against the idea of authenticity translating into either credibility or quality in pop music.

“Demands are created and appetites stimulated,” Drummond and Cauty set up the fallacy, “Pop music is the worst example of this. There are wicked music moguls cynically manipulating the hearts and minds of young teenagers so as to get them to part with their pocket money.” And knock it down. “This is a worthless argument pursued by those unlucky one who have never really been moved by the glories of pop music. They may as well have never been teenagers.”

On the surface, it’s a shallow dismissal of genuine concerns, but I can’t help but feel as if there’s more there than meets the eye, and that it actually speaks to the most important thing about pop music: When you have been moved by it, when you have that love affair with a song that lives in your head for days, you don’t care about how it was made or learn the circumstances behind its creation. The art, at least for several minutes, is all that matters.

Of course, such concern about authenticity and pastiche may mark me as an old man. Thinking about the most recent earworm to have dominated airwaves, Internet streams and people’s hearts, it strikes me that Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” is nothing but pastiche — lovingly crafted, stupidly catchy, and addictive pastiche — and was lovingly embraced by all and sundry.

It’s tempting to put that embrace down to the greatness of the Nile Rogers’ guitar work, but I suspect that what’s actually happened is that decades of sampling in music (and a general cut-and-paste culture) have resulted in a generation that finally really doesn’t care about the authenticity or intent behind a song, as long as it sounds good. If that’s the case, then perhaps it can be said: The Monkees were ahead of their time.

8 comments
Gokeefesings
Gokeefesings

Thanks, Graeme, for so eloquently putting this intangible into words. The bottom line for me is that if a song truly resonates with you, nothing else in the world should matter. Don't question why, don't be concerned with took place behind the scenes - just accept it as one of life's all-too-precious gifts and embrace it.

I've been embracing the music of the Monkees since I was 9-years-old (a good 14 years after their heyday) and a friend played the song "She" for me. It sent chills down my spine, made me see "stars" during the chorus and, overall, invoked some sort of chemical reaction that can't be explained or denied. Turns out that song was no fluke.

More than 30 years later, the music of the Monkees still has that same effect on me...as does the music of so many other pop artists the rock "elite" (Jann Warner?) may be inclined to turn its noses up at.

Who cares. The song is good.

RandyBurbach
RandyBurbach

Nesmith was a genius on par with anyone that era produced.  his lyric structure was tighter than anyone save Dylan.  "The seeds of doubt you planted/have started to grow wild/but I feel that I must yield/before the wisdom of a child."  right out of the box - POW!  and it rocked harder than most other music of the day, with Nesmith's production sounding different than pretty much anything

MrSchneider2013
MrSchneider2013

From the mock countdown for You Told Me to the end of Randy Scouse Git, there is an energy & drive that is absolutely thrilling & inspiring to listen to. Headquarters by The Monkees is indeed one of Pop Music's finest moments, period.

bigdowner
bigdowner

In 1967 when the Monkees became the biggest phenomenon in U.S. pop culture dominating radio, T.V. and records competing only with the Beatles that year, respected avante-garde jazz rock fusion artist Frank Zappa became friends with Monkee guitarist Michael Nesmith – a literal meeting of the high I.Q. minds. The Monkees were the only complete band to ever be invited to Abbey Road Studios as guests of Brian Epstein and The Beatles. It was the most coveted invitation imaginable during those parochial days of pop culture - and the Monkees were the recipients. 


Frank Zappa and The Beatles. As far as artistic endorsements went in 1967 - 68, that was the zenith. Not too bad. Not too bad at all.

 http://pinterest.com/bigdowner/the-monkees/

zetetic25
zetetic25

"Twist and Shout" was a cover.

Carly Simon and Neil Diamond penned tunes for The Monkees. "Pleasant Valley Sunday" still sounds good.

Robbieo
Robbieo

The Monkees could play, it's just that their producers, who invest the money, didn't want to take a chance. HEADQUARTERS proves they could as it was only them but gossip did them in. NOTE: I also love the Beatles but it true, they were not the only ones playing on their songs.

BorisIII
BorisIII

One of the best things I like about my self is I am 42 years old and still get blown away by new songs coming out.  The last one was Radioactive.  6 decades of rock and roll and still counting.

RandyBurbach
RandyBurbach

@Gokeefesings it's Jann Wenner, a man who has blocked not just the Monkees, but the likes of Mitch Ryder, Stevie Ray Vaughn, ELO, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Yes (ok, virtually ALL prog rock),Deep Purple, The E Street Band (yet the Blue Caps - Gene Vincent's back up band - are in) and Brian Epstein from even getting a vote.  In each case, there is a source of animosity between Wenner & one or more of the people involved.  He took the Monkees as a personal affront, Stevie Ray Vaughn and Keith Emerson both derided RS, Little Steven chided him for being a band-wagon jumper and Epstein - who knows?