Mormon LitCrit: Being Authentic

In August my wife and I went to see the rock band Rush in concert in Salt Lake City. For forty years Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, and Neil Peart have been making records and touring the world. Now in their late fifties, they played as well—or better—than ever. The concert, held in the outdoor Usana Amphitheater, drew middle-aged fans, teens with their parents, and one couple, I noticed, who clearly looked to be in their sixties. The band put on a great performance lasting nearly three hours, without an opening act. It was quite a night.

Few people are neutral about the music of Rush. Folks either love them or hate them. As I stood in the crowd, singing along with Geddy, I was struck more than ever by the peculiarity of the life’s work of three nerdy guys from Canada. Geddy’s high voice rings out as he sings Neil’s lyrics—some of the most meaningful lyrics in the rock canon. Geddy plays his bass and Alex plays guitar, while both of them enrich their sound with the occasional use of keyboards and pedal synthesizers. Meanwhile, Neil leans into his massive drum set, hammering away like a mad scientist. These guys are truly a singular phenomenon in the history of music, with a sound of their own. People don’t mistake other bands for Rush. And this is one of the things that makes them great—their unapologetic insistence on being themselves. Simply put, they’re a lesson in authenticity.

Back in the 1970s, Rush released their third album, Caress of Steel. The band was proud of its work, but the response wasn’t positive. Critics hated it, the record company didn’t understand it, and even their dearest fans came off a bit confused. Sales were low, and soon the band knew that if their next album didn’t sell it would be their last. The record company advised the band to make the next album more conventional, with shorter songs, a straight 4/4 rock beat, and lyrics everyone could understand and sing along to. This was the band’s last big chance. What did they do? They released 2112, a concept album with a title song that was twenty minutes long—just the opposite of what the record execs wanted. The lyrics to “2112” tell the story of a futuristic “utopia” without music, a society ruled by “priests” with “great computers.” In the story, an individual discovers a guitar in a cave, and along with it, discovers the gift of music. But the gift is rejected by the elders, who say, “It doesn’t fit the plan.” This was the band’s last-ditch offering: a story about the individual versus the collective. You might have seen the oft-reproduced album image—a naked man standing with arms held up in defense against a great red star. The record execs didn’t understand this album either (“Where’s the radio hit?” they wanted to know), but the album was a smash. Sales were phenomenal, buying Rush the creative carte blanche they’ve enjoyed since.

Why do I bring this up in an Irreantum blog? Because I fear that, as Mormons, we might spend too much time looking over our shoulders while we read and write. We want to do good. But where do we find our standard? By looking to others, or by looking within, where we have access to our consciences and the Gift of the Holy Ghost. Of course it matters what other people think. We learn a lot by observing others. And certain others—“true messengers”—give inspired guidance to be especially prized. But even then, we still should primarily rely on the confirming voice that speaks from within. It matters what others think, but not more so than what we know from within.

I’m not talking about thumbing one’s nose at others. That distracts one’s focus from the work. I’m not talking about being a rebel, either. Going against the crowd demands dependence on the crowd. Authenticity means walking a fine line—being oneself despite the temptations to conform or rebel.

When it comes to good art, let’s take a lesson from a rock band. As we read and write, let us each be ourselves, our quirky, subjective, unique, searching, idiosyncratic selves. Who knows, we might be a smash!

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44 Responses to Mormon LitCrit: Being Authentic

  1. I liked that a lot Jack, I have always felt the greatest danger to LDS lit was the fear of stepping outside the cookie cutter.

  2. And it’s important to remember that if we choose NOT to decide to be ourselves, we still have made a choice.

  3. Scott Parkin says:

    [quote]And it’s important to remember that if we choose NOT to decide to be ourselves, we still have made a choice.[/quote]

    <rim shot>

    In a similar vein, none of us will get wise with the sleep still in our eyes, no matter what our dreams might be (2112 b-side; Something For Nothing).

    We need to talk less about the challenges and hardships, and simply go do it. There was an upswell in the 1970s that led to some significant innovations and success in Mormon literature. With the changed publishing and technological landscape of the 2010s if feels time for another one that leverages new media and alternative forms.

    It’s National Novel Writing Month; anyone want to join me in the revolution and produce a Mormon novel in November? Don’t think too much; better to get writing and let it fall out as it will.

  4. Moriah Jovan says:

    [b]…simply go do it. {…} anyone want to join me in the revolution and produce a Mormon novel…?[/b]

    Three years ago, my husband asked me: Who/what is stopping you? Answer: No one. So I went and did it. Am doing it. Will continue to do it.

  5. Eric Samuelsen says:

    Great post. And I love Rush too; they’re so gutsy. Following their own weird light whereever it might take them. Tom Sawyer’s my favorite song ever of theirs–I know, big deal, their biggest hit, but it’s an awesome song.

  6. Wm Morris says:

    Obligatory reaction from a Gen X slacker:

    Over-produced, over-long, self-serious, self-indulgent prog rock is authentic!? It’s like punk never happened! *sigh*

    • Surely nobody’s still here thinking about this thread, but I was away when it was first written, and Jack just visited, so I’m thinking about this stuff again. I think it’s a mischaracterization to think of Rush as self-serious. They’re tremendously humorous and self-deprecating. I could see how you might get the wrong idea, but even listening to “Tom Sawyer,” their best-known song, you’ve got to wonder about a band singing “Catch the witness, catch the wit; catch the spirit, catch the spit.” No? Anyway, check online for their intro videos from the Time Machine tour. Self-serious? I think not.

  7. Eric Samuelsen says:

    Yes, over-produced prog rock is authentic! Greatest prog band of them all, Gentle Giant, also did punk albums, three great ones. And come on, punk’s not pretentious? When Green Day’s on Broadway?

  8. Wm Morris says:

    I’m just teasing you and Jack. But my point is — what do you mean by authentic? I don’t buy Rush as an example. You don’t buy Green Day as an example (of course, neither would a hardcore punk — Green Day is pop punk for surburbanites [that easy put-down is complicated, though, by the fact that the guys from Green Day have some real working class and punk lifestyle bona fides]).

    Which is to say: I don’t believe in authenticity as a useful or even true aesthetic concept.

    • Jack’s not advancing authenticity as an aesthetic concept, but as a narrative one. Rush’s authenticity was shown by their response to the pressures from their record company to produce a hit single. Make a case for Green Day’s authenticity, and I’ll listen. I don’t know their backstory at all.

  9. Scott Parkin says:

    [[Sorry for the over-long riff; I just can't help myself.]]

    Obligatory counter-reaction from another (admittedly edge case) Gen X-er and over-the-top Rush fan:

    If over-production, over-length, self-seriousness, and self-indulgence accurately represents the artistic vision of prog-rock bands, then it is indeed authentic. It tells the story they want to tell in the form and by the means they consider good, which is the very definition of authentic.

    I think Jack’s point is that they kept doing what they thought was right despite what the industry experts told them. They stayed true to their own identity despite market pressures–and still saw massive success (if only a half-dozen radio hits).

    The interesting thing about Rush is that despite the use of electronic instruments and MIDI control, their sound is actually produced live in every show by the three members of the band–not by rolling tape and lip sync, or by offstage musicians playing extra instruments. It may be more layered or ornate than some care for, but it is real musicianship rather than studio production effects.

    To each his own. But 40 years later Rush is still doing its own thing its own way when a great many others either changed or simply walked away. Their measure was internal, not external. That sounds authentic to me.


    On the storytelling front, Rush was always a troubling group for me despite my deep and evident fandom. I’m a relatively new fan, having discovered them only in 1976 with the release of the 2112 album.

    As a 12-year old Mormon kid, the story told on the front side of that album really wanted to appeal to me. It was Satan’s plan in action, with the oppressive priests of the Temple of Syrinx controlling everything that everyone saw or heard to help ensure that they only made right choices. It was the evils of communism blending with both religious fervor and generic artistic oppression.

    Certainly not a perfect analog of Satan’s Plan (more secular in the details than religious), but close enough to pique interest. Enough to engage me in conceptual analytics and deciding how much of the artist’s presentation I personally accepted, and how much didn’t make sense to me. (It turns out the whole 2112 concept was actually adapted from Ayn Rand’s novella, "Anthem.")

    As Jack mentioned, the fundamental science fiction story is a future earth where technological man (the "Elder Race of Man") has left the planet and those left behind fall under the governance of a theocratic elite who control the media and the courts to ensure that all commerce and communication reinforce their rule. A man finds an artifact of the old world (a guitar) and discovers the joy of making his own music, is roundly condemned by the priests, and eventually commits suicide when he realizes that his hope of free exploration and expression is impossible under the priests’ rule. In a final irony, the album side ends as a powerful invader announces that they have now assumed control over everything–including the priests.

    As a Mormon kid this album side troubled me. Specifically, the idea that POV felt that suicide was the only answer, that there was no way to repair or expand the system and so his only real choice was to exit completely. The suicide follows an oracular dream where he sees what the world might have been like had not the Elder Race of Man left and turned them over to the priests.

    At one point, POV says something like (I’m doing this from memory, so I apologize if I miss a word or two): "The sleep is still in my eyes, the dream is still in my head; I heave a sigh and sadly smile, and stay a while in bed."

    One of the things that makes Rush a fun band for me is that I think they specifically intend to engage a conversation–something they actually do among songs on the same album. In this case it appears that Neil also had a problem with the idea of the suicide, because on the flip side of the album the song Something For Nothing directly engages the underlying premise.

    The lyric goes "You won’t get wise with the sleep still in your eyes, no matter what your dream might be." A direct contradiction–or at least a continuation of the exploration–of the idea presented in the 2112 theme.

    The album represents a conversation, with each song as an argument of a point of view. They do that a lot, and that’s part of what makes Rush interesting for me. Though I have fundamental disagreements with some of Neil Peart’s ideas, his lyrics invite an argument rather than pretending to bestow the pure truth from his lofty heights. He wants you to engage and question, not just swallow it whole.

    Which has nothing to do with being authentic, but it does make it possible for someone like to me to love the sound, admire the artistry, disagree on some points of philosophy, and still respect everyone involved.

    I think that’s kinda cool.

  10. Moriah Jovan says:

    From smack-dab in the middle of the baby bust generation (that some mistakenly categorize as the leading edge of GenX):

    [b]if only a half-dozen radio hits[/b]

    Rush was accessible to me, in the ghetto, with only an AM/FM radio. Punk wasn’t. Punk has *never* been accessible to me in any way. So I can’t attest to its genuineness. I can only attest to its utter absence.

    Even U2 was accessible to me via an underground Christian college radio station on the way low end of the FM dial.

    Authenticity means nothing if it’s inaccessible.

    [b]The interesting thing about Rush is that despite the use of electronic instruments and MIDI control, their sound is actually produced live in every show by the three members of the band–not by rolling tape and lip sync, or by offstage musicians playing extra instruments. It may be more layered or ornate than some care for, but it is real musicianship rather than studio production effects.[/b]

    Yes, and seeing them live is seeing master craftsmen at their work. It’s beautiful to behold (besides listen to).

    [b]It turns out the whole 2112 concept was actually adapted from Ayn Rand’s novella, "Anthem."[/b]

    I’ll save my Howard-Roark-as-Messianic-figure-in-an-atheist-wrapper treatise for another time. Equally true of "I" in [i]Anthem[/i]. Galt…not so much, IMO.

  11. Moriah Jovan says:

    Also, although I’m about to break up with them, Motley Crue. Speaking of them as BUSINESSMEN, they did it on their terms–retained all their intellectual property rights. As an author watching all her authorly type friends get screwed over on their rights, this is *significant*. Okay, yeah, they were on the leading edge of glam metal and all that, but they did it on their terms.


  12. Wm Morris says:

    "It tells the story they want to tell in the form and by the means they consider good, which is the very definition of authentic."

    I’m sorry but standing up to the record label doesn’t strike me as any great blow for authenticity. In fact, it’s such a cliche in rock music that I don’t see how it can be authentic. Rush’s issue wasn’t an artistic one — it was a marketing and management one. They were free to create whatever album they wanted — that they wanted to have their artistic vision and do it while still in the embrace of their record label turned out to be a good desire, but I fail to see how it has much to do with authenticity. But again…

    If someone can explain to me how authenticity is a useful aesthetic concept rather than a bludgeon and apologia for one’s own aesthetic preferences and artistic myths, then. This is not to fault Jack — I engage in the same behavior. Just get me talking about synth pop, for example, and how it has more artistic merit and even authenticity to it than it’s been given credit for.

    I guess my point is this: an artist is always under the influence of and struggling with various forces — aesthetic, personal, familial, market-based, ideological, etc. — I don’t think that engaging with them is a bad thing. I don’t think that worrying about them is necessarily a bad thing. I don’t even think that being somewhat naive about them is a bad thing (or at least a thing that can always be avoided). I do think, though, that pretending they don’t exist and that one can fully go inside oneself and create solely out of the artistic ego is a romantic notion that elides the complex realities in which art is made. Or to put it another way — I very much like the notion of walking the line between conformity and rebellion, but I don’t think being able to do it (and one can only do it in relation to certain communities/consumers — one artist’s rebellion is another’s conformity) means that one is being authentic.

  13. Wm Morris says:

    Oops — incomplete thought: "…aesthetic preferences and artistic myths, then I’m all ears." Which is true because I have come to distrust the discourse of authenticity through experience with applying it.

  14. Wm Morris says:

    You know, it occurs to me that this is getting (almost literally) in to rockism vs. popism territory, which debate covers some similar ground in relation to the notion of authenticity and art. I don’t know a lot about it, but Jody Rosen’s Slate piece is a decent place to start:

    The amusing thing in terms of my response to this blog post is that I am at heart a rockist.

  15. Scott Parkin says:

    (sorry for the steady stream of tomes; this is what happens when you lose your job and you have too much time on your hands as you wait for responses to job applications…)

    I guess I’m struggling with the terms, because if I get what you’re saying, William, you’re suggesting that there is no such thing as authenticity. I’m not sure I’m ready to accept that.

    I think I might actually agree with large parts of that idea. We are all influenced by a wide variety of things, many of which you mention above. Any working writer who wants to actually sell gives something up (or integrates that thing into their own view) in order to do so. Arguably, anyone who actually learns from anyone else has replaced their own ideas with someone else’s ideas.

    I don’t think that has anything to do with authenticity. Defending your innate preconceptions (artistic, aesthetic, social, intellectual, et al) against all comers may also be authentic, but it’s not the definition of the thing itself. To my view one who defends against change is no more authentic than one who actively seeks new input with the explicit intent of changing themselves in order to reach their goal.

    To me the only question is whether your vision is your own, and that evaluation can only be made inside one’s own head. How do you measure that? I don’t know.

    The best I can suggest is a slightly edited version of the words of the philosopher Jim Rome: Have a take <and don’t suck>. While I would remove the bracketed part of that, the idea that authenticity is having a take makes a lot of sense to me.

    Which says nothing about whether anyone else agrees with that take, whether it’s productive (aka, sellable), whether it’s esthetically pleasing, or whether it’s even rational. But I believe a fair number of people don’t even have a take, and I think the number of take-less people is increasing.

    I admit freely that I could be wrong. Which I suppose puts me in danger of being one of the take-less, but I don’t think so. Allowing for a change of your take is very different from not having one in the first place. One should have an opinion–and know their reasons for it–even if the opinion is that you don’t care.

    For example, my own post of last week seeking input on how to be more successful on this blog was not an attempt to be told what to believe, but rather an attempt to understand how to package what I believe in a way that would be more useful and appealing to a readership or to the goals of the sponsoring organization.

    It turns out that my takes are not particularly iconoclastic, so I have to hope that authenticity is not equal to eccentricity. I don’t know how to be eccentric, and I have no special interest in becoming so as an affectation. If I become eccentric, that’s authentic; if I put on an eccentric suit as a fake designed to fool, that’s inauthentic. If I put on an eccentric suit as a role and let readers in on the fact that I’m wearing a suit (and I know it), hope returns.

    Maybe authenticity is simply truth in advertising.

    That’s been a slight burr under my saddle. For years, LDS literature was only considered authentic if it was Western, rural, and eccentric. Later one class of critics argued that unless you deconstructed the Church you were inauthentic, which led to the counterargument that unless you bore witness of its truth you were inauthentic.

    (speaking of the punk vs. corporate rock vs. new age vs. new metal vs. prog rock vs. Prague rock vs. industrial vs. gothic vs. pop vs. easy listening vs. folk, etc. etc. etc.)

    I think they’re all missing the point. It’s not about conformance to an arbitrary standard, or to an audience expectation. If you mean it *and you know why you mean it* (and can presumably explain it) then I think you just might be authentic. Having those reasons will affect how (and where) you then seek publication.

    Or at least that’s how I think I see it. I’ll let Jack explain his own thoughts.

    On Rush…I think they’re a fine example of a group of artists who know what they think and who make a fine living sharing that with others–just like huge numbers of other bands. The fact that I like them doesn’t make them authentic, but the fact that they’re authentic definitely helps me like them.


  16. Wm Morris says:

    "I guess I’m struggling with the terms, because if I get what you’re saying, William, you’re suggesting that there is no such thing as authenticity. I’m not sure I’m ready to accept that."

    It’s less that there is no such thing as authenticity and more that what one views as authentic is always situated in relation to ones aesthetic, political, social and ideological beliefs, which means that any advice to be authentic strikes me as a reification of the artistic process or a Romanticization of it.

    Or in other words: maybe in order to be authentic some artists should look over their shoulders at their fellow LDS and how they might react to their work. And maybe those who love the work of Celine Deion are really having an authentic experience with it (even if I personally find the notion unimaginable).

  17. Mark Brown says:

    I thought the moral of the story is that we should all write stories about priests living in caves with computers.

  18. Scott Parkin says:

    Write them and send them to me. If they’re authentic enough <grin> (and good enough, and there are enough of them) I’ll publish them as an e-book under my new ArcPoint Media brand.

  19. I find this interesting, because I’ve been batting around an idea for a post over at A Motley Vision related to authenticity. Not surprisingly, my take is entirely different from Jack’s (though I’m not necessarily disagreeing with his basic point).

    Mostly, I see artistic authenticity as a characteristic that is judged in terms of how accurately an individual is perceived as representing the characteristic experience of a particular group. In short, I see authenticity as being related to identity, in common usage. That’s problematic for a number of reasons. But as I said, I think that meaning of "authentic" is largely different from what everyone has been talking about here.

  20. Scott Parkin says:

    The struggle I have is how you define characteristic experience and where you put the hedges.

    That was my struggle with so much "classic" Mormon literature when I started reading–it was either pioneer experience (not part of my shared experience) or it was rural Utah and featured Jack Mormons.

    Those stories were defined as authentic, but can hardly be defined as either exhaustive or authoritative. They may have authentically represented their characters, but the characters were selected from a microcosm and I don’t believe they authentically represented either broader Mormon identity or experience.

    Meaning that authentic remains in the eye of the beholder.

    I know I’m in the deep minority on that one, but I don’t see any way declaring one story authentic and another inauthentic under that rubric. Alan Mitchell served a mission in southern Germany only a couple of years earlier than I served one in northern Germany. His novel was absolutely alien to me in all respects–wonderful and interesting, but not even remotely representative of my own experience relative to Germany, a mission, or Mormonism.

    I would never dream of declaring Angel of the Danube inauthentic, but I can say that though I belonged to each of those groups, very little of it could be identified as characteristic experience.

    It’s a difficult word and a more difficult concept. If the hedges around identity or characteristic experience are placed too close, the set of qualified judges of authenticity drops toward zero; if the hedges are placed further out the specificity of detail become sufficiently vague to make judgment of authenticity as a function of group identity a point of diminishing value.

    Having just survived an election season where group after group defined the authentic viewpoint of real Americans in an infinite variety of fundamentally conflicting ways, I begin to despair at a useful definition of authentic.

    I guess it’s a good thing I’m not blogging that topic on AMV; I wish you the best of luck with it.

  21. Scott, you’ve hit on part of why I find "authentic" problematic on a number of levels. This is one of the reasons why I used the words "[i]perceived as[/i] representing" (emphasis added).

    The concept of authenticity, as I see it, resides in a messy shared zone between the concept of realism and the concept of identity. Things are realistic because they resemble reality. That’s a statement that can be critiqued on a number of levels, but it at least points to some theoretical ground outside the writer. But in order for something to be authentic, it not only has to be realistic, but it has to be realistic in a way that somehow reflects the writer’s interior identity. Who can judge that?

    If you’re not Mormon, it doesn’t matter how realistic your Mormon novel is; it’s not authentic (as the term is generally used). Conversely, if you’re Mormon enough, then your novel may be authentic even if it’s not entirely realistic — in the eyes of some. On the other hand, even if you’re a Mormon, if your experience isn’t somehow characteristic of other Mormons, then your novel may not be authentically Mormon even if it’s authentically a reflection of who you are. All of these statements, I think, reflect how "authentic" is typically used — but from a logical perspective, they’re a nightmare.

    I’m not even going to try to resolve this problem (in my as-yet-unwritten essay). Rather, what I’m planning to write about it what I think causes readers to think of texts as authentic. That’s a target that I think can be defined, even if it’s in pursuit of a category (i.e., authenticity) that may well be an illusion.

    And having written all that, I have no idea whether it makes any sense to anyone but myself. I think I’ll stop now…

  22. Moriah Jovan says:

    I’ll take a stab at defining it, coming as I am from Romance, which is often accused of being "inauthentic" by any definition conjurable:

    *I* think "authentic" means a) you’re not just phoning it in, that there is thought and effort involved in the work and b) you leave some bit of your personality behind in the work, your true self, the deepest part of you (even if it’s just your fun-loving side) and c) you have passion for your work as a whole and for each piece.

  23. Wm Morris says:

    "I begin to despair at a useful definition of authentic."

    There’s no reason to despair — there’s no need for a useful definition of authentic. Which is not to say the work of literature can’t be situated in relation to Mormonism. But doing so requires providing context and establishing relationships to personal experience and other texts. It doesn’t matter whether the work is authentic or not, but rather how it relates to itself, to its marketing, to its reception, to its critics, to its author, to the institutional Church, to the Mormon and American and World literary canons and a whole myriad of other artistic works, movements, genres and theories.

    For example, I fully acknowledge that the ending of the Angel of the Danube may ring false to some readers both in terms of genre expectations (it swerves hard in to romance) and Mormonism (wait, what does the fact that he and she end up together like that mean?) and feminism (a whole lot of complicated things to discuss in that regard). I really need to reread the novel, but the passage of time and reflection has made the ending seem the right one to me because it both unravels and reinforces certain notions of Mormon couple formation. It seems authentic to me even as initially it appears to be very inauthentic almost verging in to fantasy.

  24. Wm Morris says:


    It makes sense to me. I look forward to more.


    All those definitions ascribe authenticity to the psychology of the author. I’m not sure that it follows that readers will derive the same authenticity with the same level of intensity as the author did.

  25. Moriah Jovan says:

    [b]All those definitions ascribe authenticity to the psychology of the author. I’m not sure that it follows that readers will derive the same authenticity with the same level of intensity as the author did.[/b]

    Then perhaps we’re just talking about the difference between those who like a work and those who don’t.

    A bunch of us love Rush and thus, to us, they are authentic. But you don’t seem to like them so much and have offered up punk as authentic. I haven’t seen anybody say they don’t like punk (and I couldn’t say one way or another), but perhaps it just comes down to simple like versus dislike/ambivalence.

  26. Thinking about it further…

    It seems to me that authenticity is almost always invoked as part of an extraliterary attempt at definitional politics. In this respect, I think Scott’s example of the last election is spot-on.

    For example, it seems to me that the notion of authenticity in Mormon art is one that really only matters to those who have a stake in what gets defined as "Mormon." Those politics may be inward-directed (e.g., trying to include or exclude someone from the group — or to mold what people think of themselves, to the extent that they think of themselves as Mormon) or outward-directed (e.g., trying to get people not to associate Mormons with polygamy or confuse us with Quakers, something I saw all the time during my mission to Italy).

    One of the reasons why some critics invoke authenticity as a category (as opposed to realism) is because it’s seen as a way to wrest definitional power out of the hands of outsiders and into the hands of the group that’s being defined. If the definition of good Mormon art involves authenticity, then we as Mormons are in a privileged position as readers and critics of Mormon texts. There’s some degree of justification in this. Certainly I’d be very uncomfortable in letting non-Mormons ignore the experience of real-world Mormons in deciding if a particular work of Mormon literature is realistic or not — something that happens far too often, if past discussions on AML-List and other similar venues can be trusted. But Scott has also pointed out some of the pitfalls in this. Who, among Mormons, gets to decide what the "authentic" Mormon experience is? Tricky stuff.

  27. Th. says:


    I’ll add that most punk is as fake as it gets. And I’ve never knowingly heard a Rush song.


  28. Jack Harrell says:

    Hey, folks, I’m really glad that tossing out that word "authentic" sparked so much discussion. Maybe it is pretty hard to pin down exactly what the word means.

    Part of what I was thinking in writing that post was informed by a recent rereading of Wallace Stegnar’s book Mormon Country. Yes, and this comment might only further muddy the waters on the definition of "authentic."

    Writing in 1942, Stegnar said, "A Mormon’s whole training incapacitates him for recklessness; adventurous as the pioneers were, bold as they were, indomitableas tehy were, they were adventurous and bold and indomitable in pack, on orders, and their story has not been, until recently, very well remembered" (347).

    I guess this is one of the tensions we have to resolve–when to be ourselves and when to move with the pack. At least in art, I think we should try to be our individual selves.

    The punk v. prog rock discussion is interesting too. As some of you know, I’m sure, Johnny Rotten of The Sex Pistols used to go onstage wearing a tee shirt that said "Pink Floyd Sucks."

    When I was 18, I owned Never Mind the Bullocks and Darks Side of the Moon on 8-track. What does that mean? For me, it means there’s more than one way to say the things we need to say in art.

  29. Scott Parkin says:

    Jonathan, you nailed the nature of my "despair" on the value of defining and using the term. The term itself tends to be used (as Moriah suggests) to define what I like versus what I don’t. It’s authentic (if not accurate) because it resonates to me–unlike that stuff I didn’t like, which didn’t resonate, and which therefore inauthentic.

    A whole lotta subjectivity going on there. Great conversation starter, but less useful as a generic definition.

  30. Wm Morris says:

    "Then perhaps we’re just talking about the difference between those who like a work and those who don’t."

    That’s exactly what I’m saying — in my experience it’s impossible to separate out authenticity from ones personal and political (using that term broadly) aesthetic. As Jonathan says: "It seems to me that authenticity is almost always invoked as part of an extraliterary attempt at definitional politics."



    I think Stegner didn’t know what he was talking about or if he did, it was prior to the outmigration of Mormons and the semi-assimilation in to American society and culture and no longer applies. Very few artists (or individuals of any type for that matter) are truly reckless. I also don’t think we can ever "be ourselves" and I think that actually we are always "moving with a pack" — it’s all just a question of which pack (or more often packs) we are moving with. How that manifests itself in Mormon cultural production, especially in relation to the institutional parts of the LDS Church, is an interesting dynamic that needs to be further explored in Mormon literary criticism.


    Finally, let me be clear that I’m not a punk apologist (although I do like The Clash, The Ramones and Social Distortion) neither for its aesthetic or its politics (although I very much admire the DIY spirit it engendered in English and American youth in the late ’70s and early ’80s). As a listener, I much prefer post-punk. And I also like prog — but only in some of its metal manifestations (High on Fire, Isis, Zu, Jesu). I simply deployed punk (and what my knee-jerk reaction to prog was when I was 17) because it is a genre that has typically been obsessed with authenticity and, as Jack notes, very much defined that authenticity in opposition to prog rock and disco (although, of course, good post-moderns that they were, the punks who became post-punks were already appropriating disco sounds by the time punk became big in America).

  31. My knee-jerk reaction is that obsession with authenticity is a sign of an insecure sense of identity. It’s like claiming that you’re telling the truth: the main rhetorical impact is to heighten or even create doubt where it might not have existed previously.

    That said, I think we shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss the notion of authenticity, problematic though it may be. Who of us has not read some work of fiction (or other literary art) and felt that we were hearing a voice that could hardly have been more real if the speaker had leaped out of the book and punched us in the gut? There’s something to that experience that deserves recognition, even if different readers will have that experience with different works. (Frankly, I’ve yet to find any criterion of literary quality that isn’t subject to individual variation among readers/critics.)

    On the importance of authenticity, as opposed to realism: I think of the case of prophetic texts. Authentic prophetic texts require genuine prophets — at least, in the Mormon tradition. Calling a prophetic text "realistic" (as opposed to "real," "authentic," or "genuine") is as much to say that it [i]isn’t[/i] a truly prophetic text, but rather merely a good imitation. But then, sorting out true from false prophets unquestionably brings us into the realm of extraliterary definitional politics.

  32. Scott Parkin says:

    Jack, I think that more insular, top-down, Mormon-only community of 1940s Utah has changed more than a little bit over the years, to the point where many of Stegner’s observations are, while still fundamentally true, less purely definitive than they use to be.

    In other words, I think as a people we have become significantly more individuated and adventurous, though as a group I think the point is well taken.

    I know I will do anything if I can get someone to do it with me; at the same time, I do not require any institutional approval before either considering or setting out on a venture. Still, many seem to require explicit top-down approval that their venture is at least acceptable, if not individually approved, before either starting a project or consuming a product.

    If the definition of authentic then becomes (institutional) Church-approved and/or endorsed, then I think the conversation here shifts radically.

    I believe in presenting stories about individual people, not institutional representatives. I’m working on novel for NaNoWriMo that explores precisely that tension–the distinction between individuals working in a common cause, and the external perception of that community as a faceless (and mindless) mass.

    Fun stuff.


    I’m a bit of a musical gadfly as well, and my iPod confuses people. The biggest whiplash occurs when people see MoTab, Marilyn Manson, Rush, Devo, Enya, Godsmack, Primary Children’s Songbook, Abba, Amon Amarth, Eurythmics, Korn, and a silly number of J-pop anime titles–often mixed within the same playlists. The number and variety of artists and musical styles that I appreciate is huge, though I still haven’t embraced country and western yet.

    But I do own all (or at least the vast majority of) Rush albums (including Geddy’s solo album), and several of the videos. Still need to get the books. Missed the last show, but I’ve still managed to see Rush in concert six times so far.

  33. Jack Harrell says:


    You’ve got some Amon Amarth? Cool! Do you know Opeth? They’ve been my favorite band this year. Of you don’t know them, watch their live version of "The Drapery Falls" on YouTube.

  34. Scott Parkin says:

    I’ve heard of Opeth but hadn’t looked into them. Did watch the video. They seem of a type with Isis and the new prog rock movement; hints of Rush, Pink Floyd, and Amon Amarth without really being *like* any of them.

    That style hasn’t grabbed my interest the way I would have thought. On paper I should be a dedicated groupie, but in practice it hasn’t happened; I enjoy them, but haven’t made the turn to fan yet. It’s a style I find funner to play than listen to.

    Vectoring off of Amon Amarth I tend to like Viking metal more than prog metal–Mastodon, for example–or quirky thrash like Black Elk or even Static-X (I know, they sold out back in 2003, but what can I say–I like ‘em anyway, even if I listen more to the older stuff).

    I have a certain weakness for German industrial/goth (Rammstein, Megaherz, Eisbrecher); the tongue-in-cheek approach keeps the spirit of punk alive while still embracing a polished sound. Rammstein is just plain funny, if more than a tad nasty. They’re certainly authentically…something.

  35. Wm Morris says:

    I’m with you on Mastodon and Opeth. I didn’t like at all what I have heard of Static-X, but it may be all post-2003 stuff. My local library has a surprising amount of metal albums on CD, which is great but means that my exposure to the genre has been rather piecemeal and sporadic. I actually posted about this process elsewhere:

  36. Scott Parkin says:

    Static-X is definitely a quirky sound that simply doesn’t appeal to many; not unlike Oingo Boingo or the Ramones that were huge hits with relatively small audiences.

    Pandora is your friend. Seed a channel with a band you like and you can get a reasonable number of related bands. One or two hops later you’ll have a nice list of bands and titles to search out. That’s how I discovered by Eisbrecher and Megaherz.

  37. Christopher Bigelow says:

    Sorry, I only skimmed some of the comments, so maybe this has already been said, but I like the dictionary definition for authentic that says "true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character." I think Mormon lit is often authentic to the IDEAL, but not to the mortal/earthly reality. For me, authenticity also includes being true to one’s own experience and portraying it fully, not censoring or sanitizing it in order to propagandize the ideal. I overall consider nearly all Mormon lit I’ve encountered to be inauthentic, either too whitewashed/brainwashed or too secular/agnostic.

    Also, I think "authenticity" and "originality" can be two different things. Rush has been fairly authentic, at least during their first decade or so, but I wouldn’t say they’re terribly original. In other words, their "personality, spirit, or character" is largely influenced by others, but they’ve internalized it and made it their own. I think this is why Rush has never really achieved the critical praise and stature that goes to groups like Led Zeppelin and the Beatles. Yes, those two are also inspired by earlier music forms, but they have a spark of pioneering originality that Rush largely does not. Rush became extremely skilled musicians and created their own sound to some degree, but they are not seen to have broken much new ground.

    I’ve probably listened to more Rush than any other group in my life–it was the constant soundtrack of my Dungeons & Dragons years–but I’ve also had to delete a lot of their music from my iTunes, pretty much everything after "Signals" because they tried to go New Wave and I think it sux. However, I still listen quite a bit to everything "Signals" and earlier, and I enjoy some of their more recent albums (especially "Counterparts") because I think they’ve gotten more authentic again, true to their own personality and spirit, however much that was originally inspired by others. The oversynthesized New Wave-ish crap of their middle period was neither authentic nor original.

  38. Wm Morris says:

    My problem with Static-X wasn’t quirkiness, Scott, but rather that it seemed to be rather generic uses of ambient and industrial sounds layered over lame lyrics (I like my metal lyrics to either go ahead and be over the top bombastic or to be truly harrowing). But the only album I’ve heard is Cult of Static which I believe is post-2003.

    The problem with Pandora is that you need an internet connection. I listen to most of my music during my commute on an MP3 player or at night in bed with a portable CD player. But I agree that it’s a beautiful thing for discovering music.

  39. Scott Parkin says:

    Quality of lyrics is a significant problem for music in general and metalloid bands in particular. While a fan of the sound of bands like Soil and Godsmack, I find the lyrics between pointless and actively stupid, and I make no effort to either hear or understand them.

    As a matter of personal morality that’s probably a mistake. If I find the lyrics to be dumb or simply wrong, I probably shouldn’t listen to the songs. But the fact is that (with the exception of Rush) I stopped listening to lyrics back in the early 1980s.

    Which is where the Viking metal stuff is oddly interesting. They’re simple stories, but the songs do tend to tell a story and when they preach an issue it tends to be something around fundamental honesty, honor, and work–ideas I can work with.

    I’m still old-gen on music; I use Pandora to explore musical affinity, then I either buy the CD and rip it, or buy it off iTunes for offline listening. It’s a tool of exploration, not a primary destination for me.

    (agreed on Static-X both in terms of lyrics/talent, and in production technique; they were a one-idea band that pretty much used up that idea in the first album; I like them anyway because while both lyrics and music are trivial, Wayne Static’s sense of humor [and hairdo] amuses me; irrational, but there it is)

  40. Scott’s comment about not listening to the lyrics reminds me of a conversation my wife, oldest son, and I had a few years ago about what it was that drew our attention in the music we listen to. I think it would be interesting to have a discussion (here or somewhere else) about that. I suspect that (as with reading) we’d find that one of the reasons for differing musical tastes is that different people have different modes of listening: i.e., they attend to different aspects of the music. For example, I’ve learned that I tend to be drawn more to an emotive melodic line (if that makes sense), as opposed to — I don’t know; conceptually interesting effects? I lack the musical vocabulary to spell out the possibilities, but I’d love to see someone post on this sometime.

  41. Moriah Jovan says:

    [b]not listening to the lyrics[/b]

    I personally cannot imagine such a thing. However, before my proofreader said she doesn’t see stories in her head when she reads, I didn’t know people did that, either.

  42. Th. says:


    Me, I can’t understand the lyrics.

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