Authenticity traps

by Rob Horning

23 April 2007


Via Julian Sanchez, a link to a New Statesman review of Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music. The book apparently chronicles the long history of the music industry turning authenticity into a product, and various folk musicians into mediums for authenticity’s distribution. As reviewer Jeff Sharlit explains, this reification of authenticity promotes “what Barker and Taylor call an authenticity ‘trap’—the harder you try to ‘keep it real’, the more artificial you become.”

The thing about authenticity is that, much like spontaneity, it can’t be self-aware. It’s only something that others can recognize in you, and the more you are aware of your reputation for it, the more likely it is you will lose that reputation. Pop music, like pop culture generally, packages ready-made lifestyles with nothing authentic about them. Some people, however, like “authenticity” (the product) in their lifestyle mix, hence the efforts to sell certain musicians—blues men and Appalachians in past decades, gangsta rappers more recently—as epitomizing realness. I tend to fall into a corollary trap where, after recognizing that contrived authenticity is worthless, I revel in gleefully inauthentic music, like bubblegum, thinking in part that this proves my piercing insight. But this is obviously no better. The real desideratum is to enjoy pop culture without deriving part of your enjoyment from the self-image you it helps you project. Ideally, when you start down this road of critical thinking, you want to consume the music, not some version of yourself, not some vicarious fantasy. You long for a route to the thing itself, an experience in which the thing ceases to function as a sign and just is. But this too would merely cater to a vicarious fantasy: by apprehending the music, in itself, we would see through to how we too can exist for ourselves, without needing to worry about grooming our identity and how we come across. I listen to, say, Tony Burrows, and for a minute I can fool myself into thinking that I don’t care what anybody else thinks, I’m just enjoying this song for what it is and nothing more. But at best I’ve bought myself a moment of self-forgetting. If there’s a distinction to be made between pop culture and “high culture”, it may rest in the way pop culture encourages you to consume yourself consuming—to revel in the image of yourself it foments—while high culture presents a challenge, demanding you apply some knowledge you’d acquired previously in order to try to understand a thing, and in so doing to forget yourself, lose yourself in the effort.

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