the child grows enormous but never grows up
On “authenticity”: Bob Dylan vs. Joni Mitchell

austinkleon:

In a 2010 LA Times interview, Joni Mitchell said this about Bob Dylan:

Bob is not authentic at all. He’s a plagiarist, and his name and voice are fake. Everything about Bob is a deception. We are like night and day, he and I.

There were a slew of “oh snap!” type articles posted after that (I only found one that questioned whether it was really an insult at all) and I quickly forgot about it, as Mitchell’s claim was completely true—Dylan has always been an actor and a thief:

Steal a little, they throw you in jail
steal a lot they make you king

The question, of course, posed by the book Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music, is: Who cares? He’s also made some of the greatest pop music of all time. 1

Then I started thinking: maybe Mitchell gave us something else in that quote (“we are like night and day, he and I”)—maybe Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, two friends and peer songwriters, give us two models of the artist, or at least two ends of a spectrum: the artist who gleefully thieves and borrows influence and the artist who tries to avoid thievery at all all costs in the quest for personal authenticity.

Now, I really don’t know that much about Joni Mitchell (I love some of the tracks off Blue, and I’m not all that knowledgeable about her output. (As opposed to Dylan, whose work I’ve studied and listened to endlessly…) But in Mitchell’s 1979 interview w/ Cameron Crowe, I kept noticing how much she talked about her aversion to imitation and copying:

There’s only a certain amount of fine work in any idiom. The rest of it is just copyists. Regurgitation. Obvious rip-offs. Mingus has a song, “If Charlie Parker Was a Gunslinger, There’d Be a Whole Lot of Dead Copycats.” Sometimes I find myself sharing this point of view. He figured you don’t settle for anything else but uniqueness. The name of the game to him—and to me is to become a full individual. I remember a time when I was very flattered if somebody told me that I was as good as Peter, Paul and Mary. Or that I sounded like Judy Collins. Then one day I discovered I didn’t want to be a second-rate anything.

She then mentions that the previous work that she doesn’t care for is the work in which she doesn’t feel that she was being herself. (Supposedly, David Crosby once said, “Joni Mitchell is about as modest as Mussolini.”)

The things that I look back on and sort of shrug off, maybe in a weak moment grimace over {smiles}, are the parts when I see myself imitating something else. Affectations as opposed to style. It’s very hard to be true to yourself….I find it now kind of irritating to listen to, in the same way that I find a lot of black affectations irritating. White singers sounding like they come from deep Georgia, you know? It always seems ridiculous to me. It always seemed to me that a great singer—now we’re talking about excellence, not popularity—but a great singer would sing closer to his or her own speaking voice.

And yet, when Crowe asks about her reputation as a “confessional” songwriter (what Ry Cooder slagged off as “this white, middle-class introspective stuff—people elevating their neuroses to mythic heights”) she responded:

I usually use “I” as the narrator in my songs, but not all the “I’s” are me; they’re characters. It’s theater.

I don’t have all that much in way of a conclusion here—I’m just riffing, collecting ideas. I guess I’ll leave off with this quote by Bill Collins, that somehow didn’t make its way into Steal Like An Artist, and yet nicely summarizes the first chapter:

…gradually you come under the right influences, picking and choosing, and being selective, and then maybe your voice is the combination of 6 or 8 other voices that you have managed to blend in such a way that nobody can recognize your sources. You can learn intimacy from Whitman, you can learn the dash from Emily Dickinson…you can pick a little bit from every writer and you combine them. This allows you to be authentic. That’s one of the paradoxes of the writing life: that the way to originality is through imitation.

(Emphasis mine.)

UPDATE: wanted to include a paragraph on authenticity from this piece on Bob Dylan by John Roderick:

the idea of “authenticity” having anything to do with pop music is one of the bloodiest lies in modern history. Authenticity has NOTHING to do with pop music. That’s a belief system propagated by German music writers and humorless teenage assholes. I’ve known a lot of musicians, and after a while you realize they’re all authentic, all equally authentic. It’s hard enough to write enjoyable songs without also trying to put over some scam on people. I guarantee that if you put Katy Perry and Leonard Cohen in the same room, they’d feel like members of the same tribe. It’s only music fans who need to call one thing “real” and another “fake.” What the fans treasure as honest and real is almost always just a question of taste. Either you like it or you don’t—trite, but true.

Filed under: authenticity.


  1. From a blog post by Scott Warmuth on the subject: “Joni Mitchell’s comments regarding Dylan’s authenticity brought to mind a 1939 Billboard article that Nick Tosches included in his book Country. It points out that, “synthetic hillbillies are as a rule more desirable in a night club than the real ones.” The article begins with this wonderful passage: “Real hillbillies rarely have good night club acts, says Meyer Horowitz, who ought to know. Jewish and Italian hillbillies usually outshine all others on showmanship.”