Everything Is Plastic – The Corrupting Ideal of Authenticity In Music
By Scott Creney
Before we go any further, let’s be clear on something. ALL music is fake. That’s why they call it a performance; that’s why they call it an act.
The act of performing a song in front of people is a profoundly strange and unnatural thing. It is ALWAYS pretentious. There is ALWAYS some degree of artificiality to it. People don’t normally get up in front of a bunch of strangers and express themselves melodically. It is, whether the artist is aware of it or not, an act of creation that — while it may share some, or no, similarities with the artist — is not the same thing as the person doing the creating.
This is something we probably don’t think about often enough.
Now, I will grant you that there are different levels of reality — though sincerity is probably a better word — within any given performance. Some performers put more of their ‘self’ into their work. But to dismiss a musician for being ‘fake’ or ‘inauthentic’ is similar to not liking Harry Potter because magic doesn’t actually exist. No shit. It is art, and all art is a performance. It is an artifice. It is artificial. Just ask Art Garfunkel.
We can question how sincere a performer is being in a given moment, but to accuse them of being insincere — and think that it actually means something, to think that it is some kind of damning criticism — is misguided. It’s one of those things that say a lot more about the accuser than it does about the accused. If someone is singing a song that sounds like it is meant to tug on your emotional heartstrings but instead you feel nothing, that doesn’t mean they are ‘fake’ or ‘insincere’. It just means they aren’t very good at their art. Note: It probably goes without saying that your reaction is entirely subjective, and someone next to you might be weeping their eyes out at the very same song.
If I told you about a performer who radically remade their body to conform to mainstream American standards of sexiness, allowed their manager to speed up their latest single in order to make it more commercial, started getting plastic surgery as they got older, has written countless songs that bear no actual relation to his real-life experiences, and actually went back and wrote & recorded a new song after finishing their album because the manager/record company insisted that the album needed a hit and couldn’t be released the way the artist had recorded it, you’d probably think that artist had pretty much zero artistic integrity, right?
Ladies and gentlemen, meet Bruce Springsteen.
Bruce turned his scrawny 70s body into an 80s muscular behemoth. He allowed ‘Hungry Heart’ to be sped up for radio play. His plastic surgery work is unconfirmed, but obvious. He has written most of his songs about situations and feelings that he didn’t experience first-hand (just ask my Vietnam vet father), and very few songs about being a successful millionaire. He wrote ‘Dancing In The Dark’ because he was ordered to. And that’s just the information I can recall from the copy of Dave Marsh’s Boss-bio Glory Days that I found in an El Cajon thrift store back in 1995-ish (note: Marsh is married to one of Springsteen’s co-managers, so the book wasn’t exactly Albert Goldman territory). And did you know it was his manager (Jon Landau, who previously had been a critic for Rolling Stone) who gave him all those books by John Steinbeck, Flannery O’Connor and Raymond Carver? The ones that influenced nearly all of his writing, post Born To Run?Again, the point isn’t to denounce Springsteen as a fake. I just want to know why he’s held up as some kind of paradigm of rock authenticity.
Or how about a guy whose record label chose his name for him because they thought it would help sell records? (Needless to say, he went along with it.)
Ladies and gentlemen, Elvis Costello.
Next I’m going to tell you about an artist who engineered their own path to success. They got their record deal by approaching the head of the record company directly, with no management. At every step of their superstar career, they’ve chosen their own producer, wrote — or chosen to sing — songs that reflect their own personal experiences, and created the records and performances that they wanted to make. In return, they’ve been denounced as a talentless media creation for most of their lives.
Ladies and gentlemen, Madonna.
As you may or may not have noticed, I was playing a pronoun game earlier, deliberately leaving out the “he’s” and the “she’s”. That was no accident. When people discuss authenticity in music, it’s fascinating to observe how deeply rooted their ideas are in stereotypes and conventional wisdom. I don’t think people even realize they’re doing it.
Rock is always, by its very nature, more likely to be authentic than pop. Dance music is less real, less substantial, than Rock. And males are always, by their very nature, more likely to be authentic than females.
This last one is the biggie. People are more likely to assume that a woman didn’t write her songs, or that she must have had help. People are more likely to assume that a woman had her clothes picked out for her. People are more likely to assume that a woman has someone planning her career for him. And in EVERY case, people are more likely to assume that any of this matters.
People gloss right over the fact that Anita Pallenberg dressed The Rolling Stones. Or that someone else gave The Sex Pistols their name along with their wardrobe. That someone dressed The Clash. That Joy Division didn’t have any say over how their first records sounded. That Nirvana reluctantly allowed Sub Pop to release a cover as their first single. That Elvis Presley never wrote a song in his life. That Bob Dylan changed his name. That the manager of The Beatles insist they trade their leather jackets for suits. That The Velvet Underground were managed and influenced by Andy Warhol. That Berry Gordy controlled every single thing that came out on Motown until 1970. That The Byrds, or The Eagles for that matter, didn’t play on their early records. All of those artists are, aside from a minority of dissenters, seen as authentic and real.
People need to recognize how much their biases — received through a lifetime of clichés and conditioning — inform their opinions. If Courtney Love gives Kurt Cobain a copy of Patrick Suskind’s Perfume and he turns around and writes ‘Scentless Apprentice’, somehow he still gets to be a great artist. But if he helps her with a chord progression, she automatically becomes a talentless fraud?
I don’t know where this idea got started that if somebody told you about something then you must not really like it, but it really needs to stop. I didn’t discover The Smiths. But they didn’t mean any less to me because of it. Even in the case of Springsteen, I don’t doubt that reading Flannery O’Connor blew his doors off creatively. And I don’t believe that his influences should somehow be tainted just because someone handed him the book as opposed to him, what just picking it up off the shelf at random?
Just what the fuck makes you so certain that Kirstin Stewart doesn’t love Minor Threat as much as you do?
It’s galling how quick we are to assume that a female artist must have had help. That someone must be pulling the strings. That she may not have written her own songs. Especially when we don’t make the same assumptions about male artists (modern day example, there have been several people — just that I know of — who assumed that I wrote all the songs in Tunabunny; there has never been anyone, ever, who thought Laura Balance wrote all the songs in Superchunk). And in the cases where male artists didn’t come up with everything themselves, we don’t seem to think it really matters.
I challenge you to find an article/video/interview with Lana Del Rey that doesn’t have assloads of comments beneath it speculating on whether she’s had plastic surgery. It seems to be very important to people, definitely more important than whether or not her song is any good — let alone what the song might be about. It’s hilarious to see how proud people are of themselves for denouncing Lana Del Rey as shallow based on how she looks. As if criticizing a female’s appearance somehow makes you profound and interesting, and not just a smug tabloid columnist with a better record collection.
Let’s just say that none of the comments beneath this guy’s YouTube videos mention plastic surgery.
Again, I’m less interested in Lana Del Rey than I am in the double standards that surround her. And the crowing triumph on the part of people who think that criticizing her image is the same as criticizing her music. Why should it matter if Lana Del Rey is a puppet? For that matter, what kind of puppeteer chooses someone like Lana Del Rey in the first place, someone who is uncomfortable onstage and doing interviews? And since those qualities are pretty much the EXACT OPPOSITE of what puppeteers look for, then maybe she got chosen because of her music (god knows there’s enough performers out there who can, you know, ‘look pretty’). And if you still think she’s a puppet in spite of her liabilities, then doesn’t that just mean you’d see her as a puppet no matter what she did?
You start to see what I mean when I say that calling someone inauthentic says a great deal more about you than it does about the performer.
The authenticity of an artist has NOTHING to do with the quality of their music. If it did, then Fugazi would be the greatest band in history. Actually, no. The greatest band in history would be a band you’d never heard of, because they never even left the garage. Anyway, I don’t want to live in a world where people think the Dave Clark Five are better than The Monkees, unless that person actually prefers the DC5’s music.
I don’t care whether Lana Del Rey wrote ‘Video Games’ or not. I just hope that whoever did write it continues to make art that is every bit as moving, profound, and relevant to the times we are living in. Because god knows, and I think we can all agree on this much, we need more of it.