Truant Boy: Art, Authenticity and Paul McCartney

Written by Martin Shough
Category: · Arts & Photography · History

If there’s one thing that admirers and critics can agree on it’s that Paul McCartney is a complex contradiction and hard to know. Sometimes in interviews he has come across as defensive, self-conscious, vague, a bit awkward; at other times he is sharp, articulate, modest and generous. One mirror shows him as an ambitious control freak, whilst another reflects him as ingenuous, childlike. The detractor knows not which McCartney to hate more, or the admirer which to love.
Is the unassuming artlessness of ‘Ram On’ really a product of clever artifice? Is the languid sophistication of ‘Distractions’ merely a charming accident? Yes and No to both. Is ‘Silly Love Songs’ naive sentiment, or sly rhetoric? With McCartney, adding up the sum of the parts is what mathematicians call a non-commutative operation: it gives you a different answer depending on where you begin.
So where should we begin? Who is he? Can someone so hard to see, so bafflingly multifaceted, possibly be authentic? Where is the ‘real Paul’?
Or is this a question as silly as asking which of the characters in Vanity Fair is ‘the real William Thackeray’?
Various negative characteristics have become part of the McCartney myth, and not only among his outright detractors: self-promoting; jealous of his legacy; shallow; pollyanna-ish; inclined to revise history; sustained by the reflected glory of a past that truly belonged to his martyred partner; a man who has turned into a tribute act to his own past. At times it has seemed to be almost a bred-in-the-bone reflex among music journalists to nod in the direction of such a portrayal before bestowing praise. By means of this protective deflection the reader is given to understand that whilst the writer can’t avoid admiring a man whose post-Beatle incarnations alone have generated sufficient success for several top-flight careers, it is admiration given grudgingly and against one’s better, cooler, judgement.
. . . His forays into orchestral composition have brought forth many a weary sigh from the ‘classical’ critics, popular success again notwithstanding. And here, perhaps more than in any other form, he has been criticised for self-importance. Here he also attracts most criticism for poor judgment of his own limitations . . . There are many who agree that some pieces – for example, the ‘Gratia’ and ‘Lament’ from ‘Ecce Cor Meum’; or parts (at least) of the ‘Liverpool Oratorio’, co-realised with conductor Carl Davis – are very effective, if not formally ground-breaking; and a little suite like ‘A Leaf’ on Working Classical is rather convincing. But although ‘A Leaf’ may sound like the real thing, isn’t it an illusion? When one skilled musician has assisted McCartney with the piano notation, and another has scored an orchestrated version, how can such a committee-piece possibly be the real thing?
What exactly is ‘the real thing’? What is authenticity in a work of art, in an oratorio or in a popular song? Why do we care about it? And can the answers help us to gain a better perspective on McCartney’s cultural legacy after The Beatles?

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