My least favourite thing about Christmas is something I've almost certainly made up. Every year, some awful DJ, after playing Fairytale of New York, adopts a pinched rock-bore voice and notes that Pet Shop Boys kept that song off the UK Christmas number one with their cover of Always on My Mind.
It wasn’t even the Shoppies’ own song. The guys on Bang FM are really in a fury about it. The implication is not just that The Pogues are a superior band. There is a further suggestion that the Anglo-Irish tea-tray abusers (that reference is going back a bit) are more “authentic” than the urbane, dial-twiddling Isherwood-quoters.
Just look at the state of The Pogues. Like all proper rock stars, they’ve allowed themselves to be dragged through a hedge backwards and have then gone on to smoke the hedge. Pet Shop Boys, when not wearing avant garde vegetables on their heads, dress as if they’ve got an appointment with the Duke of Snootington. What’s authentic about that? Stop going on about it, imaginary DJ. I am not buying it.
The myth of authenticity nags away at all art. Some people care that, before committing every unnecessary word of On the Road to unlucky paper, Jack Kerouac really did bore his way across the United States. He hammered the novel out in three weeks on one continuous scroll while living perilously on West 20th Street. On the Road may not be as good as Evelyn Waugh's precisely contemporaneous The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, but, as a posh bloke in a Somerset mansion wrote that book, it cannot compete in the authenticity stakes.
Pint of deisel, bartender
You want to be taken seriously as a painter? Live in a shed and drink diesel oil. Shoot your father. Spread paint using bits of wood you’ve plucked from skips. Congratulations. You have achieved near-perfect levels of authenticity. Die young and your reputation is fully assured.
The authenticity myth is, however, more pervasive in popular music than in any other art form. You will see this reflected at this time of year when the rock bores (often also at home to mid-level racism) give out about the presence of pop and R&B records in critics’ end-of-year lists.
That particular strain of cultural fascism reached a height last Christmas when Beyoncé's deservedly celebrated Lemonade topped so many such charts. The comments sections swelled with thick men pointing out that 567 people received writing credits on the LP. (It may have 75 or eight million. I honestly can't be bothered to check.) This was seen as an argument in itself against the record. Because authentic musicians write all their own material, you see. Respond with "um, Sinatra?" and incredulous texters will wonder if you're "really comparing Beyoncé to Sinatra". Why, it's almost as if some other, more sinister agenda is at work.
A fellow seeking authenticity in show business is as misguided as a fellow seeking restraint in Las Vegas
Every musician is authentic in the sense that every musician does exist. Poke Justin Bieber in the head and his skull will offer resistance. No act is significantly more authentic than any other. When Bruce Springsteen, a millionaire who rarely queues for coffee, pulls on a plaid shirt and sings about losing his job down at the refinery, he is being no more “authentic” than One Direction are when they wear nice suits and sing about being in lurve. In fact, Springsteen is, if anything, slightly less authentic than the boy band. They probably are in love. He hasn’t clocked in at the refinery since Richard Nixon was president.
Any collar you like
Both Springsteen and Harry Styles are adopting a look and an attitude. So were the Pet Shop Boys. So were The Pogues. Born in Tonbridge, Shane MacGowan, the band’s driving force, was raised mostly in England where he attended Westminster School (alma mater of Helena Bonham Carter, Andrew Lloyd Webber and notorious Paddy-annoyer Adam Boulton). The Pogues were as artificial a construction as were Showaddywaddy. That band was an updating of the 1950s rock ’n’ roll aesthetic. The Pogues were a cunning amalgam of punk attitude with the lock-in balladry popularised by The Dubliners.
None of which is meant as criticism. A fellow seeking authenticity in show business is as misguided as a fellow seeking restraint in Las Vegas. There’s nothing wrong with a rock star dressing as if he lives in the canal. Just don’t pretend you actually do live in the canal.
And don’t take that tone when noting that The Pet Shop Boys kept The Pogues away from the Christmas number one. The inauthentic synth band are at least as gifted as the inauthentic folk-rock band. Kraftwerk are as good as the E-Street Band. The Human League are better than The Manic Street Preachers.
Where’s everyone gone? Who am I arguing with? No DJs say this any more? Leave me to my delusions.