“First things first, I’m the realest.”
So begins the current number one song on the Billboard charts, Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy”. This line, and the recent resurgence of interest in the origins of singer Lana Del Rey (pictured above), got me thinking about the concept of authenticity in music. So here’s my question:
Why do so many music listeners put such a high premium on supposed “realness”? Why is genuineness the ideal that artists are expected to strive to? What is with this cult of authenticity?
The way I see it, pretty much all music artists are inherently fake. And that’s not a bad thing. Let me explain, with three different points.
1. Every artist presents themselves in a certain way. Image is an essential aspect of music, and often, it’s what makes music fun to listen to. Even album covers and band names represent attempts at grabbing your attention, and not necessarily staying true to the integrity of the artist, whatever that means. David Bowie went through a series of identity changes and played several different characters (Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke, etc.) throughout his career. And he receives loads of praise for revolutionizing music. Bruce Springsteen, one of the supposed pinnacles of authenticity, also plays characters in his songs. And what about Jay-Z, who presented himself as some kind of mafioso early in his career? Yet, when Lana Del Rey or Lady Gaga come onto the scene with carefully calculated public images, they come under heavy fire for their perceived phoniness. Something’s fishy here. Ageism? Rockism? I don’t know, but if there’s one thing I refuse to discuss, it’s “isms”.
2. Every song or album that you listen to was thought of by an artist and/or their production team, went through some kind of publishing medium, and was then delivered to the general public. The second step is what’s important here. An artist cannot release music unless it goes through that medium, so music cannot come directly from the artist’s mind straight into yours. Think of it like a trip to Chipotle. The artist is like the person behind the counter who lays out the tortilla and puts the chicken, rice, salsa, beans, and guacamole on it. The record label is like the employee who wraps up the tortilla into a burrito, and then puts that burrito in the foil wrapping and gently places it in a basket for your purchase and consumption. Damn. I don’t even need to explain that. That was a tight metaphor.
3. This one is sort of trippy, but bear with me. Every artist is bound by the constraints of the tools they use to make their music. Does the English language really contain all of the necessary words to perfectly express every possible emotion? No. Can guitars, drums, and synthesizers immaculately express what’s going on in someone’s head? No. Therefore, feelings can never be fully realized outside of someone’s mind. They can be adequately expressed, but never perfectly expressed. This is one of the hardest things about blogging, and writing in general. So, to some degree, all art is fake. This means that even raw, confessional albums like Joni Mitchell’s Blue do not precisely represent what is going on in the artist’s head at the time. And not all artists do, or should, write confessional music. Sometimes, it’s just about creating something catchy, with words that sound good together. Music can come from the heart without being personal.
So, when people ask, “Is Lana Del Rey fake? Is she just acting?”
I answer, “Well, yeah, duh. But that’s part of what makes her such a compelling artist.”
What makes her so captivating is not only the smoky, sensual, mysterious nature of her music, but the fact that she is exposing and questioning mainstream notions of authenticity in celebrity culture. By playing the part of a classic Hollywood star, she is evoking actresses and singers such as Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland.
Or, should I say, Norma Jeane Mortenson and Frances Ethel Gumm.
Judy and Marilyn were both small-town girls who were picked up by talent agencies, changed their names and identities, had immense fame and success, turned into sex symbols, became heavily depressed, turned to drugs, and died at tragically young ages. Lana Del Rey (a.k.a. Lizzy Grant) is putting forth all of that at once: the fame, the identity alteration, the exaggerated beauty (those lip implant rumors will not be going away anytime soon), the image obsession, the devastating sadness. It’s all very meta. Presenting a surreal, sensational image is part of her image. To me, that’s a pretty cool concept, using artificiality as its own artifice. Yup, she’s fake. And that’s sort of the point. She’s giving herself to the world, and saying here, take me, analyze me, and dissect me any way you want. Use my pretty face to get more clicks on your blog article.
Here’s another example of society’s false notions of authenticity, this time from the world of rock: Green Day. Green Day have been called out by many a pretentious music fan for straying from the ideals of punk, which were never clearly defined in the first place. “They’re not a punk band, they’re a pop band!” Yes, their songs are ridiculously catchy, and the band has had tremendous commercial success. They even wrote a conceptual rock opera that made it to Broadway. Does this mean they’re not true punks? Or did they just happen to make it big? Do those things have to clash? Are they real? Are they fake?
My answer: Who cares when their music sounds like this?
The Beatles did this as well. They took all of the exciting developments in the musical landscape of the 60’s, such as the development of psychedelia, and synthesized them to make a whole bunch of albums full of perfect pop music. They innovated by borrowing. Taking interesting ideas and giving them mass appeal, as Green Day did, doesn’t have to mean dumbing down things that were once challenging, or becoming fake and meaningless. It can be a great thing. Even a revolutionary thing. Commercialism is not the enemy of quality.
Besides, who would one label as true, genuine, authentic punks anyway? The Ramones? You mean the guys who changed all of their names to make it sound like they were from the same family, and adopted a carefully constructed image of leather jackets, T-shirts, and jeans? Right.my review of Courtney Love’s new single, which was based on the idea that Courtney is a true punk. Oh well, you live and learn.
Or consider the fascinating case of Blondie, a band which started off playing in Manhattan’s CBGB club along with classic punk acts like the Ramones and Television. Blondie was more new wave and commercial than the more punk-oriented acts at CBGB, and they had many hit singles and albums in the late seventies and early eighties. The band even ventured into disco. They also called themselves Blondie, to emphasize the fact that they had a hot, blonde, and talented lead singer, the legendary Debbie Harry, a former Playboy bunny.
Yet no one calls them “fake” or “sell-outs”, or questions Debbie Harry’s rock roots. Why? Because their music was extraordinarily entertaining. If a band has the music to back it up, they can be as fake as they want.
Even bands who have loads of indie cred and shy away from commercialism use public images. Take Belle and Sebastian for example:
They’re saying, “Look! We’re sensitive, just like you. We read books. We think about stuff. Buy our music.”
The fact is, music is built on image and artificiality. I could name a hundred more examples of great artists using “phony” images to their advantage. It’s part of what makes music, and other art forms, as great as they are. My favorite pieces of art are generally ones that are based in reality, but present reality in a surreal way. Think Trainspotting, Skins, or Salvador Dali. Be warned: this clip is graphic.
I propose that people stop evaluating artists based on some arbitrary measure of authenticity. Instead, be honest with yourself, and recognize that artists present themselves as different people in their music. Let’s judge music like we judge film. Ask, “Does the artist effectively portray this character?” and “Do I like the character that the artist is portraying?”
We have to live in the real world every day. Why would you want to listen to music that precisely reflects the world you already have to deal with all the time? Trust me, it would be boring as hell. Music offers an escape to a world that is different from our own, and in the process makes up a valuable part of people’s lives all over the planet. In a way, that’s the realest thing there is.
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