Why Music Communities Fight to Define Authenticity in Pop
BY THE TIME SHE MADE HER WARBLED NATIONAL DEBUT on Saturday Night Live in early 2012, a thousand conspiracy theories had already bloomed about the singer Lana Del Rey. With looks reminiscent of a ’70s-era Bond girl, a backstory that includes a stint living in a trailer park, and a couple of lush-sounding, grainy-looking music videos, Del Rey had emerged in the summer of 2011 and quickly captivated the online tastemaking elite of the alternative-music scene.
You can see her appeal to the indie crowd in this video for her song “Video Games…”
But when it became clear that Del Rey’s promoters were using her awkward-yet-knowing indie-queen persona as a springboard toward mass-market appeal, hipsters lunged. A loose squad of self-designated fact police—unofficially led by the blog Hipster Runoff, which temporarily rebranded itself as The Lana Del Report—spread the word that she was bankrolled by a wealthy, marketing-savvy father, and that she had worked with professional songwriters, managers, and possibly even plastic surgeons to produce an image that, in its ineptness and unprofessionalism, was meant to look natural. Particular scorn was reserved for anyone in the indie world who had taken the bait and said nice things about her music.
For those without a stake in the fight, however, the spectacle was just ugly and exasperating. “Del Rey has managed, like a slow car in the left lane, to make everyone around her angry and over-invested,” wrote Sasha Frere-Jones in The New Yorker, in an essay that took wide aim at music fans’ frequently overweening obsession with authenticity. His frustration is understandable: any reasonably sophisticated consumer knows that pop music is, by necessity, produced and staged by teams of professionals. So why all the “gotcha” drama surrounding the revelation that a pop musician is a product? “Why is pop music the only art form that still inspires such arrantly stupid discussion?,” Frere-Jones asked. “No movie review begins, ‘Meryl Streep, despite not being a Prime Minister, is reasonably convincing in The Iron Lady.’”
So the question remains: Why do music fans obsess about authenticity? What’s at stake when a fan argues, with emotions riding high, that Taylor Swift is too pop to be country, or that Green Day isn’t authentic punk rock?
As a sociologist who studies music, I’ve spent the last five years trying to understand these authenticity debates—which, incidentally, span just about every style of 20th- and 21st-century music, from electronic dance to South Texas polka. And what I’ve learned is that, if you want to understand why authenticity disputes occur, it’s best to look first at when they do.