The A.V. Club – The Big Questions The story of my life: Is there such a thing as an honest song?
“…I’ll admit that the question is fundamentally unanswerable. You might as well ask “How do you quantify honesty?” or “Is anything really honest?” Pondering such a conundrum forces you to assume way too much about the inner reality and deepest intentions of a songwriter. But that doesn’t make it any less fun to bat the question around, especially since music fans, critics, and songwriters themselves take the issue of honesty so seriously…”
Worth the read, but as usual when it comes to issues of black, white, and gray, the author can’t quite manage to get it right.
Nothing’s purely, perfectly honest in the way the author seeks. Nothing’s completely fake, either. (There’s the black/white fallacy.) Everything’s gray, but we can still make meaningful distinctions between lighter and darker gray (the fallacy of gray claims we can’t), and that’s all we need to do the critical work we’re trying to do.
Honesty and integrity are slippery buggers to nail down, but I suggest the real test is the presence, or absence, of a hidden agenda. An artist who is sending dog whistle messages, or using irony in a way most listeners don’t pick up on, or is presenting fiction as fact, is less authentic than an artist who is not doing these things. From this perspective, we avoid the issue of privileging either literal or abstract lyrics over the other.
Also, it separates the issue of honesty/integrity/authenticity from aesthetic value; it allows us to say a song lacks integrity and is amazing, or that an honest tune is rotten.