What Does It Mean to Be “Authentic”?

What Does It Mean to Be “Authentic”?

Short of a war, natural disaster, or other extreme tragedy/crisis, on a global scale celebrity deaths are one of the most reliable barometers for what people prize and value. Whitney Houston’s recent untimely passing prompted the expected heartfelt R.I.P. Tweets, embedded links to “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)” and cheap jokes about no longer needing to wait for Whitney to exhale – but there were also little memes that sprouted up like mushrooms questioning the authenticity of each others’ fanhood.

Speaking as someone born in the early ’80s who was just barely old enough to absorb and appreciate Whitney’s Golden Age as it happened, it does seem a little weird to see people born a full decade after me mourning someone they weren’t of an age to experience. But it’s equally as odd and counterproductive to question the “realness” of their response. There’s no way to conclusively measure or prove it – and even if you could, aside from a half-second of feeling superior, what would you stand to gain?

Authenticity is, by its very definition, kind of a slippery beast. We don’t exist in a vacuum, and neither does the art we create. We’re a composite of influences from past experiences, things we’ve absorbed during our lives. So arguably, no one, no art, no whatever is truly authentic because it’s impossible for a person or a society to separate themselves from their backlog of experiences. You’ve got a personality that’s unique to you, of course – but that isn’t an essential quality. How on earth could you possibly filter what makes you you away from all your memories and accumulated experience?

We still have a highly attuned sense for what’s “authentic” – which is kind of weird (but also understandable) considering we’re constantly bombarded with advertisements. Ads function on a weird plane: they mimic “real” situations, but they’re just off enough that we can detect they’re operating on false premises – and moreover, are underpinned by mercenary motives. They’re inauthentic situations designed to motivate you alter something about your real life, whether that’s getting you to buy something or getting you to buy into something, emotionally. And in spite of the fact that the internet has made it easier than ever to research the hell out of something and get all the information you need in a matter of minutes, the internet has also made it easier to create a persona to hide behind. Paradoxically, we’re savvier about all the ways we can get tricked – but we’ve also got many more ways to trick one another.

Speaking of the internet, the last thing it needs is another piece spilling virtual ink about Lana Del Rey – but it’d be an oversight not to bring her up in a 2012 thinkpiece discussing our reaction to authenticity in art. Whether it’s her own doing or with the assistance of Interscope’s luminaries, she created a persona and it bunched the internet’s panties like precious little else in recent memory. Contrast that response with our response to Rick Ross, a former corrections officer who named himself after a legendary drug trafficker and created an equally outsized, outlandish personality as a drug kingpin. Ross vehemently denied this fallacy for a while before owning up to it – and the evidence definitely caused a stir, but in the long run it didn’t diminish our appreciation for Ross’ persona and it never caused the internet to cry “FAKE” in the way that Del Rey did.

While I do think that Del Rey being a woman has a lot to do with the eagerness to tear her down, that’s another piece for another time. More to the point at hand, it seems the more outlandish and over the top your persona is, the more forgivable your inauthenticity. And it’s no coincidence that the song Del Rey’s label set free on the internet was the one that least resembled a wounded would-be starlet’s Spencer’s Gifts-deep analysis of Lolita. Any insecure person in a kind-of-awful, neglectful relationship could have conceivably written “Video Games.”

In his year-end Pazz + Jop essay for the Village Voice, Tom Ewing referred to Del Rey’s brand of artifice as “uncanny valley pop” – that is, resembling the real thing in a way that’s close enough to be almost convincing, but is enough of a fake that sets our internal alarms to “unnerving.” Conversely, Ross’ cartoonish boasts (selling dope straight off the iPhone, etc.) are so unbelievably over-the-top ridiculous, they don’t raise our mental hackles. To revisit the uncanny valley metaphor, if Del Rey is a highly-advanced android, Ross is a Kewpie doll – a persona so far removed from anything resembling an actual human story that it no longer bothers us. Both Ross and Del Rey speak to us in the language of shrewd advertisements – but only Del Rey did it in the way that truly effective advertisements do: by not asking us to suspend our disbelief.

Ultimately, the whole authenticity issue taps into our own social anxieties over being called out on our lack of knowledge. We live at a time when almost everyone has access to enough information and cultural trends (whether within their own social networking microcosm or on a larger plane) to make ourselves dilettantes and present ourselves as experts. Close proximity to both information and experts means we should be harder to fool – but also that we’re one withering “@you” away from being “Del Rey”’d ourselves when we do get fooled. It’s a weird, delicate situation, having to prop up our own advertisements for ourselves. Did we listen enough to “I’m Every Woman” to be justifiably, authentically sad? Does it matter?

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