Does it really matter whether a great work of art is created, sui generis, from the mind of a solitary creator? Does one’s enjoyment of a thing diminish if it turns out the thing was the product of several loosely affiliated individuals, working largely independently, for the purpose of creating a popular thing to sell for money, rather than due to any particular artistic inspiration?
Consider the realm of popular music. From the 1960s through the 1990s, the field was dominated (or so we are led to believe!) by various bands, mainly consisting of a bunch of people who met each other in a specific geographic area (before the band was famous/successful) and created everything themselves. They wrote the lyrics, the musical instrumentation, performed them, etc. There was a sense of authenticity about this work that seemed to matter.
But, of course, that’s not all there was. Throughout this entire era, the “pop music by committee” model kept churning right on along as well. The Monkees, widely derided for neither writing their own songs nor “playing their own instruments,” actually outsold the Beatles and the Rolling Stones combined in the year 1967 (which was the year that saw the release of Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band and Beggars Banquet). They were insanely popular among actual consumers of music, if not among the critics.
The critics; however, influence our historical and cultural memory more than archives of the Billboard Charts do. And the critics seem to (still) care about authenticity a great deal. A quick view of the latest version of Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time lists “authentic” albums (which I loosely define as “album where listed performer holds primary songwriting credit on all songs”) in each of the Top 11 positions. The highest ranking “committee” album would seem to be Thriller at #12 (which seems high, but is 11 spots lower than it would be on a “highest selling albums of all time” list).
Which begs the question, was the “era of authenticity” nothing more than a passing fad? You can trace the “music by committee” model all the way through modern music history, from Frank Sinatra to Elvis to The Monkees to Katy Perry. Is the death of the modern rock band a new shift to something never before seen – or just a reversion to historical norm? It certainly seems to be more of the latter.
Added bonus – if you really want to feel old, get ready, because in another two months, we’re about to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Nirvana’s Nevermind. That’s right – Smells Like Teen Spirit is approximately as old today as Stairway to Heaven was… in 2001.