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.