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Everything Is Plastic – The Corrupting Ideal of Authenticity In Music

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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?

Subversion Is An Energy

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.

The man on the right was 60 years old when this picture was taken. The one on the left was 35.

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.

26 Responses to Everything Is Plastic – The Corrupting Ideal of Authenticity In Music

  1. Joseph Kyle November 14, 2011 at 11:15 pm

    I don’t think it’s that things are “inauthentic” in every case–but it’s when the inauthentic bits get mixed in with obviously contradictory facts that–at least for me–are a huge turn-off. LDR makes mention of her living in a trailer park in Jersey…which contradicts highly with her boarding school life or her less-than-white-trash background. Yeah, yeah, I know–can’t choose your family. But you can, however, choose to lie about it.

    To me, though, the more i think about LDR, the more I think that she’s the perfect example of the girl in “Common People.”

    Then again, that’s nothing new. For credibility’s sake, Jim Morrison would say his father was dead. For credibility’s sake, Dylan would fantasize about a mythical hobo background. For credibility’s sake, Lennon would claim to be working-class. Did these stories actually impact the music? Did they have anything to do with how the music was presented to the world? No, they didn’t.

    I’m more bothered that the Minor Threat shirt she is wearing probably sold for 50 bucks, and is a bootleg, with Dischord not seeing a cent of it…..

  2. Lucy Cage November 15, 2011 at 2:18 am

    The Minor Threat shirt belongs to someone else entirely, no?

    (Nothing to do with Lana Del Rey and only tangentially to do with authenticity but absolutely pertinent to your point re Minor Threat t-shirts and the Dischord cents: good piece here http://misterchristrout.com/i/#posts_2009_03_tale-two-t-shirts.)

  3. Princess Stomper November 15, 2011 at 2:51 am

    @ Joseph, I know what you mean. It’s like when Leona Lewis was on The X-Factor and kept banging on about “just being an East End girl”. It just translates as “I’m ever so ‘umble, Mr Dickens”, you know?

    Yes, mythology is very much part of rock ‘n’ roll – from Ozzy biting the head off the bat (he thought it was a toy, apparently, and wound up having a ton of rabies shots) to the legendary No Brown M&Ms In The Dressing Room story (actually an argument over structural stage reinforcement) to the mythology around The Residents, Cardiacs, even Slipknot.

    People accept that. It’s just class tourism and playing-dress-up-as-victim that grates on people, because that insults people who really have had a rough time. I’d much rather they were like Linkin Park who were always pretty open about being heavily packaged (if not outright manufactured) and fairly well-to-do.

  4. annaphallactic November 15, 2011 at 8:57 am

    While I wholeheartedly agree with your assertion that gender plays a huge, if not singular, role in how “authentic” artists are evaluated, the idea that the ends justify the means should be demolished. Both sides of the authentic vs. no such thing as selling out argument use it as a justification for their beliefs, in equally illogical ways. There’s a happy medium to be found if both sides just stopped giving a fuck and started listening to one another instead of working so hard to disprove each other’s points.

    I can’t ascertain from this piece if evaluating context and artistic process is being decried or hailed. For me, sometimes these elements are more important than the work itself. In the case of Del Rey’s “Video Games,” it’s the openness of interpretation within its context that makes it such a powerful statement, not the song itself. Reading her interviews and hearing her other songs, she seems to be disinterested in critiquing society with her work, which makes “Video Games” even more of a standout curio than it should be because her intentions with it are presumably blank. An opposing example in a different medium: I recently saw Antonioni’s Red Desert for the first time, which was intended as an indictment of industrial culture but resonates more as a display of the treatment of women. In a sense, it makes MORE sense when stripped of its original context and given a different reading.

    Pardon me, I’m feverish and probably in no shape to be attempting any discussion of anything at the moment. I hope this makes a modicum of sense.

  5. Al November 15, 2011 at 8:59 am

    I agree with the general gist of this article but this paragraph is hard to get behind:

    “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.”

    Because most of those things are widely known and discussed, and some them, like folks changing their names, are so ingrained in the fabric of rock’n’roll that surely no-one has complained about them in any context? I could be wrong, there are alot of idiots out there.

  6. tokyowitch November 15, 2011 at 9:49 am

    I’d say it’s more about how seriously you take your authenticity. So an artist who knows it’s all just a game would play it like it’s all a game and doesn’t try and pretend that it’s all for the fans or all real. How honest are you to yourself about it. The problem is you get a lot of insincerity on the stage and off. You’re off the stage stop pretending. That’s why Madonna is actually quite cool because there is something about her that just can’t pretend. That’s why a lot of English indie bands are not authentic because they have this crap attitude that what they are doing is real and everything that isn’t posing a guitar isn’t. We all know it’s an act come on.

  7. tonny November 15, 2011 at 12:02 pm

    I had the same reaction as Al, two comments up. All the things in the “People gloss right over…” paragraph have been discussed so often that they’re quite well known.

  8. sheila November 16, 2011 at 2:33 am

    Thank you for this editorial. This is been bothering me for awhile too: so many negative music reviews’ main thrust is the artist or band are insincere. How does this reviewer know whether or not they’re faking it? Do they hold an extra key to the musician’s diary? It seems to suggest this cynical backroom scenario in which the band consults with an industry rep dressed in red and wearing horns to decide the emotional slant of their songs. Yes, as you say, it speaks less about the band and more about the critics. Crying insincerity is just weak, lazy, emotionally clumsy music criticism. I doubt that bands I really, really dislike are not being sincere, that they’re not pouring out their hearts into their music; I’m just not feeling them or their songs.

  9. Daniel November 16, 2011 at 5:27 am

    Scott’s thesis is spot on. Some audiences don’t want an attractive young woman that attended boarding school to have written a great song like “Video Games”, and so (to them) she didn’t.

    Authenticity is a creative cul de sac that nothing brilliant ever escapes. In this instance (and most others) it *IS* a gender thing. The hand is tipped when someone says “she didn’t write that” because the implication is that a man did.

  10. Joseph Kyle November 16, 2011 at 9:39 am

    Scott’s thesis is spot on. Some audiences don’t want an attractive young woman that attended boarding school to have written a great song like “Video Games”, and so (to them) she didn’t.

    I don’t think it’s that inasmuch as it is when she plays up a “trailer-park lifestyle” persona, when it’s apparent she never lived that way a day in her life.

  11. Scott November 17, 2011 at 7:19 am

    Please, Joseph. Everyone knows that Florida is pretty much a huge trailer park regardless of how much money you have. (I speak from personal experience).

    And when your dad made his money doing something as skeezy as speculating on web domain names, as Lizzie’s did, well…. I think she’s entitled to a little working-class cred.

    And by the way, isn’t it weird that we know what Lizzie Grant’s dad did/does for a living? How come we don’t know anything about Bradford Cox’s family?

  12. Joseph Kyle November 17, 2011 at 7:39 am

    But she’s not from Florida, she’s from New York.

  13. Everett True November 17, 2011 at 8:22 am

    As Kevin Rowland once almost sang, “Not being from Florida, it doesn’t apply”.

  14. Scott Creney November 17, 2011 at 1:36 pm

    Huh. I could’ve sworn I read somewhere she was from Tampa. But further research says she’s prep school New York. This is just crazy. Next you guys are going to tell me that Tupac didn’t spend his teenage years in a gang.

  15. Joseph Kyle November 17, 2011 at 2:39 pm

    Close again–more like boarding school Connecticut.

  16. Wallace Wylie November 18, 2011 at 1:19 am

    As I’m pretty fond of pointing out, Townes Van Zandt wrote his first song “Waiting Around To Die” in his apartment which was paid for by his parents to ensure he didn’t have to work. His family were so very rich, richer than LDR’s parents. TVZ did the occasional odd job so him and his wife could buy more drugs and beer. Sounds like a tough life. Now, find me the rock critic who thinks Townes Van Zandt is insincere? Throw rich kid Gram Parsons into that equation too.

  17. Joseph Kyle November 18, 2011 at 8:16 am

    The difference is, he didn’t go around in interviews talking about his hard, hard life, or being a part of “trailer park” culture, which is something LDR has pretty steadily brought up…

  18. a.grey November 18, 2011 at 9:08 am

    @Joseph Kyle

    the minor threat shirt kristen stewart is wearing was given to her by joan jett, who got it directly from ian mackaye. same goes for those specials and joy division shirts she’s been photographed in multiple times, joan gave them to her when she was filming the runaways movie (btw, i’m not a fan of hers, but i just figured i’d set the record straight… from what i’ve heard, she actually is a fan).

  19. Conan Neutron November 18, 2011 at 3:54 pm

    Dang son, well played. Well played indeed. It matters, it really does.
    For me that authenticity is usually vital to the music, but that’s my taste… which tend towards the niche-y to be sure.

    I will also say this:
    Victory and Associates wrote a song in defense of sincerity itself.
    It’s called For Serious, and the fact that the idea even occurred to begin with definitely gives a pretty clear indicator of where we’re at as a society.

    Again Scott, you prove yourself to be one of my more favorite contemporary music critics. Keep ‘er up.

  20. Sara November 18, 2011 at 11:10 pm

    I really appreciate that you pointed out the gender differences in public perceptions about authenticity. It’s annoyed me off for years that Bruce Springsteen is viewed as this “authentic man of the people” and journalists never say anything about his obvious obsession with his musclebound body and his obvious reliance on plastic surgery, hair plugs, Botox, and god knows what else to freeze his face in time, yet Madonna is regularly ripped apart for doing the same thing.

    Every artist adopts a persona. Just because you like that persona doesn’t make it authentic. Just because you don’t like an artist’s persona doesn’t make it inauthentic.

    Lots to mull over here.

  21. Nick Tann November 20, 2011 at 3:46 am

    With you on most of this but I think the Elvis Costello dig was a bit low. There have been thousands of artists who have changed their names as well as a few civilians, it doesn’t mean they are to be derided as a result. My dad (Ron to Jim) did as did my mum (June to Stephanie) , a driver and hairdresser respectably.

  22. Al November 22, 2011 at 9:20 am

    Yeah the #1 hokey thing about Elvis Costello is clearly his singing voice, not his name.

  23. Tommy Dski January 24, 2012 at 9:37 pm

    Well said that people should not judge LDR for her appearance etc. People should be judging her on the art she participates in making and to a lesser extent, how it reaches us.

    Personally I find her music to be vile and the manner of its presentation to be nauseous.

  24. Golightly January 25, 2012 at 2:45 pm

    I love Lana Del Rey. I think she has an original and appealing voice. I also like her image which makes her all the more inspiring. I did wonder if her lips were natural, but I also considered her a natural 60s looking singer and very beautiful in an unconventional refreshing way. But the music video that caught my attention was all that super8 footage and the music she makes that literally caught me mid-conversation and I stopped listening to my friend while becoming captivated by the sound I was hearing. She’s my new favourite.

  25. Wild Eye January 25, 2012 at 5:34 pm

    Good article, and I think that you are right to point out the sexism involved (a point that I had not considered much, if at all, before).

    Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music (9780393060782): Hugh Barker, Yuval Taylor

    Not read it myself but probably a very good read. And the blog –

    http://fakingit.typepad.com/

    I think that people get confused – what they are searching for is an honesty which can come with irony, glamour and theatrics as much as it can a scruffy bloke (natch) with an acoustic guitar. Facelifts do not automatically mean someone has nothing to say. Whilst it is easier for someone who grew up poor to sing honestly about a tough life, some privileged people can emphathize and express themselves well and having no money does not automatically give you and insight or a talent to express it.

    What is more honest than the way SAW churned out hits in the late 80s?

    And people say they want authenticity but really they want to see people they like who meet their expectations of what is real, and if they like them then they will assume authenticity. People do not want to see racists singing authentic, anti-immigrant nonsense.

    And arguably the only authentic thing about the sex pistols was that vicious was a scumbag – I’m no fan but the Sex Pistols lack of authenticity did not alter the fact that they made some valid points, and made them well.

    And another thing… this argument seems very closely linked to the way the media treats Katie Price / Jordan and Jodie March. Two people, both women (not coincidentally) who try – part of the time at least – to be honest, to reveal their true selves, to help and inspire people by sharing their experiences. But no, the media (who will plaster up close-up photos of any lines /cellulite the moment they appear) are happy to label them artificial and false and shallow and ignore anything they say.

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