News Column

The Free Lance-Star, Fredericksburg, Va., Jonas Beals column

August 8, 2013


Aug. 08--In the 1980S, the Memorex cassette tape company had an ad campaign that asked "Is it live, or is it Memorex?" The magazine copy was accompanied by a photo of a man seated in front of his stereo, his hair and clothing blowing like he's caught in the jet wash of a 747.

As Memorex touted the quality of its blank tapes, it opened a very large door on one of music fandom's all-time favorite arguments: what is "real" music?

Most of the music we listen to is not "real" in the sense that it's being made live in the moment. Even a recording is real in its way, and loudspeakers are capable of manipulating our eardrums just as effectively as guitar strings. But there's always been a quest among listeners to validate their taste via authenticity.

I've been down this road before, and my conclusion remains the same after each trip. Authenticity in music is a red herring, and a concept usually invoked to bolster a back-and-forth of petty one-upmanship.

I bring it up again because it might be worth expanding that conclusion to include other forms of entertainment. I'm thinking of sports here, baseball specifically.

Now that Alex Rodriguez is the poster boy for cheating, or "inauthentic" success, it might be worth asking what we expect from our entertainers, and whether professional athletes are entering the realm of the pop performer.

There is a rich history of cheating in popular music, from the appropriation of "race music" by Elvis Presley to the fabricated careers of Rob and Fab in Milli Vanilli to Beyonce's 2012 presidential inauguration performance. The practice of sampling other artists' music is viewed as outright theft by some, and most people would be shocked to find out how many of their favorite live performers lip-sync or sing to pre-produced backing tracks. In some cases, it's just easier that way. In all cases, the performer is giving the audience what it wants.

Technology has allowed musicians to record sounds that would never be possible in a live setting. Even the addition of electricity to instruments is a step beyond raw sound creation, so bad-mouthing one innovation can cause a century of great music to unravel. Obviously, that's an argument too far.

Instead, most musicians have embraced technology to make compelling music never before heard or imagined. The incentives are self-evident: if popularity is what you're after, chasing new sounds is a good way to achieve it. Call it cheating if you like, but it's hard to argue with success.

Athletes can be understood in the same way, and individual athletes have the same incentives to experiment and push boundaries. Cheating can mean very different things in art and athletics, but the concept is blurred when both pursuits are considered entertainment.

Just as Beyonce had every incentive to use technology to make her national anthem rendition as flawless as possible, so A-Rod had every incentive to make his body and his game as flawless as possible. People are watching, and those people want to be impressed.

There is nothing remarkable about any of those impulses. The problem, if there is one, is on the side of the audience. We demand perfection, then we want more. When we get more, we rise to our feet and stare in amazement, mouths hanging open.

But we tire quickly, and it's soon time to sit back down and wait to see what happens next. What was once lively is live no more, and all we have is our fading Memorex.

JONAS' IN-TOWN PICK: Mark Doron at The Kenmore Inn. A local music mainstay and veteran of many great bands gets his own evening to entertain. Thursday at 7:30 p.m.

OUT-OF-TOWN PICK: Richmond Jazz Festival at Maymont in Richmond. All kinds of great acts including Jill Scott, Dr. John and Michael McDonald. Saturday and Sunday.

LISTENING TO: "Get Out of My Life Woman" by Solomon Burke. One of the greatest soul voices, suffering heartaches by the pound.

Jonas Beals: 540/368-5036 --


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