Lana Del Rey and our obsession with authenticity
Ann Powers’ recent review of Lana Del Rey’s latest album Norman Fucking Rockwell for NPR has caused a bit of a stir on Twitter, not exactly because of the review per se but due to Del Rey publicly replying to it by stating “I don’t even relate to one observation you made about the music. There’s nothing uncooked about me. To write about me is nothing like it is to be with me. Never had a persona. Never needed one. Never will.”
The vehemence with which Del Rey perceived Powers’ writing as a personal attack of sorts — whoever reads the piece quickly understanding there is none — says more about herself than what she actually commented: not only Del Rey appears to ignore the fact that music criticism often discloses more about the person behind it than about the music itself since it ideally derives from constructed discourse, but she also seems offended by someone implying she might be anything less than “authentic”, which in this case transpires through her mentioning that she “never had a persona” — Tricia Romano promptly summarising the whole exchange by saying Del Rey is “clearly not very smart or self-aware”.
But why are we so obsessed with authenticity, particularly in music? If an über-lazy reference may serve us well and handy, the fact that people like Bowie often took personae never seemed to play against them; but nowadays the simple accusation of trying to take on physical or intellectual traits that aren’t “genuine”, as in not pertaining to the person behind the artist, is seen almost as criminal. The thing is, the very definition of authenticity — in music business or wherever — is sketchy at best, especially in this day and age of constant oversharing with the masks (or to a less dramatic extent, veils) we use in the digital world often transposing to real life and vice-versa. Who has the right to claim authenticity? And more importantly, does it matter?
The most immediate answer is yes, it does. Authenticity, in an era where everything and anything seems false and fabricated, is a valuable currency; whenever we go through tumultuous times, any glimpse of “realness” is immediately grasped without an afterthought due to its probable — emphasis on the probable — status of permanence. The feeling comes from a psychological stimulus very similar to another recurrent theme of our times — nostalgia. In her recent New Yorker review of the new 90210 reboot, Emily Nussbaum discusses the “fever pitch for reboots” by saying that “the eighties and nineties feel stable and sane compared with today.” Our instinctive grasp for nostalgia as a collective — as this has obviously always been very present in human nature as individuals dealing with our own mortality — is not exactly a recent trend, but it has grew considerably since the turn of the century, at least when compared to decades like the 60s, the 70s, or the 80s, when the tendency was to look for inspirations in the future instead of the past. But we have learned — and probably the hard way — that the uncertainty of what is yet to come can not only be unsettling but also terrifying: any Millennial that has contributed to ruin any part of the baby-boomers culture (be it diamonds, the housing market, or the credit industry) will tell you that anything with the remotest solid and honest allure will be especially appealing, as it will help stabilise the omnipresent feeling of insecurity that seems to hover over our society.
So enter authenticity. Enter an artist claiming they’re only writing about what they truly are and what they truly feel. That the thoughts they share on social media are “their own” and that they aren’t by any means a fabrication of the Big Bad Wolf industry — they’re “real”, “authentic”, “themselves”. But why is taking a persona or constructing a public image considered bad and fake? If we take into account Jacques Lacan’s Mirror Theory, the individual only begins to truly evolve once they learn that the reflection they see in the mirror is also themselves (“I am me, but I am also other”). This means that every projection of their own self will be real since it derived from the subject, thus rendering its existence impossible without it in the first place. So the question shouldn’t be about authenticity, but about purpose instead: are you aware of your projection and is it something you wanted to emanate (in French we use the word “dégager”, which literally means “to unfold”)? And if the reflection in the mirror doesn’t correspond to your desires, does it make it any less valid? Will you ignore it by saying “that’s not me, it’s wrong”, or will you try to understand that’s simply another possible perspective of the impressive multiplicity an individual is capable of — its origins always pertaining to you and you alone?
Because authenticity is not unidimensional; a common mistake we tend to make is believing something can only be valid or authentic if a point of view about it is shared by everyone. Not only is this impossible due to internal and external conditioning factors that range from physical limitations to cultural references, but it is also confining and dangerous, as we cease being tolerant towards perspectives different from ours. Authenticity is laudable in self-expression, but it is not limited to the romantic vision of “being oneself”; it comes from the maturity of accepting our own mutability and that our external projections will not always be perceived the way we wanted them to. It derives from intention, not reception — this being particularly true when it comes to creative endeavours. The fact that Del Rey felt insulted when called an actress (Powell says she “enacts her dramas just as the mind replays formative memories”, further likening her universe to a reality that is undoubtedly rooted not only on a past but on a remediated vision of that same past) doesn’t quite add up, especially if we have in mind that all hypermodern object is inevitably self-referential. The perception it gets shouldn’t be a concern of hers, but instead the fact that it is perceived at all. The object, just like what surrounds it, is subjective and elastic; its authenticity (and that of its author) resides exactly in accepting this elasticity as part of its original foundation.
Originally published at https://www.thefourohfive.com.