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The Argument for Authenticity in Popular Culture

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Is authenticity, or the quest for it, a sign of our times?

Perhaps. But can you recognize authenticity when you see, hear or read it?

We live in an age when people are moved less by spectacle and more by what they consider to be actuality -- what feels real. Thus, the constant fact-checking of politicians' statements during the last campaign season; the brouhaha over whether the film Zero Dark Thirty fudged the facts on U.S. and CIA interrogation techniques and was either too pro or too insider-y, depending on one's point of view; and the long-lasting effect of any kind of journalistic sleight-of-hand, as with the now-disgraced science reporter Jonah Lehrer.

Authentic-or-not discussions have even slipped into pop music. Popular music is hardly an area where authenticity should even be considered as a serious subject. Sure, there used to be talk about what constituted "real" rock 'n roll, as opposed to pop -- or that old preference, Beatles or Rolling Stones (neither of which groups, by the way, ever claimed to be authentic about their musical sourcing). But those are dorm room arguments and really are a matter of taste rather than standards.

But authenticity is a word that is surfacing more, and it shows that we care about what is real (or what appears real).

I came across an interview the other day with Johnny Marr, the heralded guitarist for the cult-fave 1980s British group, The Smiths. In the interview, tied to the release of his new album, Marr regretted, with reason, the over-emoting of many pop singers, the tendency that, "unless one is singing from the very, very depths of your soul, as loudly as possible, using every note in your limited range, then it's not authentic. That made me want all the more to sing from my mind, my analytical mind. I thought: Well what's wrong with singing from the brain? It doesn't make it any less authentic."

This makes a lot of sense. As anyone has noticed who's watched even a portion of the many televised singing-competition shows on air, contestants are singing their hearts out. But that doesn't mean they're singing well, or that their feelings, however earnest they seem, are genuine, or that they can convey genuine emotion. Loud and lamenting doesn't equal real and raw.

Contrast the typical wailing of a music-competition contestant with some performances during the latest Oscars broadcast: Barbra Streisand sang that schmaltzy chestnut, "The Way We Were,'" as an homage to the late composer-songwriter Marvin Hamlisch. Streisand's voice has faded with age but she sang quite well and was in total control, conveying real tenderness and feeling, imbuing a sentimental standard with honest human emotion. The same was true for Shirley Bassey, whose voice has also lost power, but whose rendition of the Bond song "Goldfinger" popped with professionalism and humor. And Adele, whose music takes freely from 1960s-era Motown and soul, gave a heartfelt rendition of her Oscar-winning "Skyfall." It isn't a great song -- but that didn't stop her from being Adele -- that is, singing the song with fervor and real presence. Authentic? Maybe not. Real? Yes.

Sometimes the discussion of whether a song, a movie, a performer -- anything -- is or is not authentic is a way for a person to dismiss something for not being whatever his or her pre-existing idea of something is supposed to be. That isn't a question of authenticity, but of personal views of culture.

But at least the notion of authenticity is out there. It means we are looking for what we want to be true. That authenticity, however we define it, is important to us. It demonstrates a shift from earlier in the decade, at the tail end of an era. As I point out with my co-author Roy H. Williams in our book Pendulum, society changes every 40 years, and attitudes toward what is acceptable -- what feels right -- change too. In our current era, which we call a "We" Cycle, meaning people think in terms of community and, yes, authenticity, we'll hear more and more from people who want what they experience to feel true to them.