Menus Subscribe Search
Lana Del Rey singing at a microphone


Why Hipsters Hate On Lana Del Rey

• December 19, 2012 • 4:00 AM


From indie to rap to South Texas polka, 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.


IN MY RESEARCH, I’ve found that most major music styles follow a well-worn trajectory as they grow and change. They usually start out in what I call an avant-garde phase, when a small circle of musicians comes together to tinker, share recordings, and express a sense of dissatisfaction with the state of contemporary music. If they keep at it long enough, they may start to converge on a style, perform in public, and develop a fan base: they become a scene. And if sufficient buzz builds around the scene, the global music business—always hungry for new trends—may descend, triggering the next, industry-based phase with an influx of cash, national attention, and media hype.

You might think of authenticity as something musicians obsess over in the scruffy avant-garde period, or in the intimate early days of a scene, when the music is untouched by industry, imaging, and global sales forces. But this is wrong. The fetish for authenticity, and the heated debates about its meaning, are almost always triggered by the industry’s arrival on a scene—and accelerate from there.

Consider one example. In the early 1970s, a small group of Bronx teenagers who regularly deejayed at neighborhood parties got together and complained that their dance floors were packed only during the instrumental breaks between verses of songs. So they adapted their turntables to enable them to loop these “break beats” together. Some added a “hype man” to stand in front of the turntables, rhyming into a microphone with couplets that acknowledged members of the crowd or the DJ’s skill. Soon the music attracted a local following and began to be associated with a style both fashionable (doorknocker-earrings, sweat suits) and technological (bass-heavy PA systems).

Then, in the fall of 1979, a group called the Sugarhill Gang released the single “Rapper’s Delight,” and mainstream America was given its first taste of what would come to be called hip-hop:

The only problem was that no one in the Bronx rap scene had ever heard of the Sugarhill Gang.

“Rapper’s Delight” brought a deluge of attention to the emerging musical style. But instead of welcoming that attention, rappers turned against the Sugarhill Gang, claiming that the group had been “manufactured” by Sylvia Robinson, the head of Sugar Hill Records. “Rapper’s Delight,” the very vessel that was defining rap for the nation, was, the scenesters said, an inauthentic representation of the style.

The debate over what constitutes authenticity in hip-hop has raged ever since—to the point of crowding out other concerns about rap lyrics. A few years ago, I analyzed all the rap songs that made it onto the Billboard charts between 1979 and 1995 (pdf), beginning with “Rapper’s Delight.” In the early years, the music was produced mainly by independent record labels, and the lyrics focused on whatever mattered to the kids writing the songs, like partying, romance, or competition between dueling bands in the scene. In 1988, however, soon after the major record labels took over the rap market, lyrics took a dramatic turn toward boasts of street credibility voiced by an array of “hustler” protagonists. Just when the industry passed fully into corporate hands, its lyrical currency shifted to favor competitive claims of gritty authenticity.

Rap’s trajectory is fairly typical. The first flush of commercial success is almost always disorienting for a style’s originators. Accustomed to competing against rival local bands for fans, gigs, and attention, scenesters balk when, for instance, they are suddenly asked to compare themselves to the leading lights in mainstream pop; not wanting to compromise the underground integrity of their work, musicians in a scene simply reject the terms of the discussion. And so, in their stead, imitators and “tourists” jump to the mic, and are often the first to profit from all the attention.

Similarly, newly discovered music scenes often lack a catchy name on which to hang an ethos; so industry promoters or the outsider press happily step in to provide one, just as their cameras and microphones provide listeners with their first sense of the genre’s ideals. The name and the ideals then inform an idea of what it means to be authentic in the new pop style.

What is now called “grunge rock,” for example, started out as a musically diverse scene in Washington state that was loosely called “the Seattle sound.” Then in 1989 the writer Everett True arrived to cover the scene for the British trade paper Melody Maker, and he was followed by more media attention. Soon Seattle bands were being described as the “saviors of rock”—and also as the “grunge phenomenon.”

A host of fans and new bands rallied around the grunge ideal, which seemed to exude authenticity—but the term quickly alienated stalwart members of the Seattle scene, who had only ever tossed the word around as an adjective. “Itwas never meant to coin a movement; it was just to describe raw rock and roll,” recalled Mark Arm, the front man of the band Mudhoney, in a recent interview for an oral history of the grunge era called Everybody Loves Our Town. “Then that term got applied to major-label bands putting out slick-sounding records. It’s an ill fit.”

The national media, in short, arrive on a scene with their eyes peeled for authenticity, intent on finding the “true auteurs” of a newly discovered style; but they often find a music community that has yet to really define authenticity for itself. In fact, talking about authenticity is something music communities don’t even have the capacity to do until their music has been imitated or crudely characterized in a way that, to them, seems “inauthentic.”

After the first rush of commercialization, some scenesters who don’t benefit from the buzz quickly sour on the popularization of their style. Resentful that the old-timers—those who put in all the work starting the community and the music—have reaped few of the rewards, they may push the music into a fourth, traditionalist, phase, bent on the preservation and celebration of the scene as it was before the corrupting influences of the industry arrived.

Other members of the scene eventually find their footing and begin to claim their prerogative to define what is, and isn’t, authentic in the newly popular style. Only at this point do classic authenticity disputes heat up, as old heads and new promoters begin to fight over who can claim a rightful place within a music community’s borders—and who can profit by association with a style. The debates may sound peevish, but fundamental questions of group identity hang in the balance: Who gets to define whether an African-American rapper is being authentically black, whether an indie rocker is authentically bohemian, or whether a country artist is authentically blue-collar? The discussion may even extend to rulings on the proper uses of female sexuality. In the case of Lana Del Rey, much of the dispute over her indie credentials focused on her looks, and whether her “alt sexy” appeal had illegitimately helped her get ahead. Which just goes to show: while the self-appointed guardians of authenticity may look young and hip, they often represent the most conservative impulses in fandom, ruling over a style the way a homeowner’s association rules over a neighborhood.


THERE’S A BASIC PRINCIPLE UNDERLYING ALL THIS: authenticity sells. It is a precious commodity, mined from the musical scenes that are seen to possess it; controlling its definition is a way of controlling value. Demonstrations of authenticity help mass audiences decide who’s worth paying attention to in cool but unfamiliar popular styles. Ginning up a discussion about authenticity is a way to compete for market share on the radio, in the press, in the popular eye. (Take it from the luxury automaker Jaguar, which recently hired Lana Del Rey as a spokesmodel, citing her “unique blend of authenticity and modernity.”)

But once a musical style has been around long enough, there does come a time when authenticity fades as a concern. In July 2008, shock rippled through the hip-hop world when documents surfaced online exposing the checkered—or, more accurately, the uncheckered—past of the rapper Rick Ross. Known for his gravelly voice, substantial tattooed midsection, and rhymes boasting about his life in the cocaine trade, Ross was, at the time, a rising star in the industry.

Here’s the video from “Speedin,” the big single from that year’s “Trilla” album:

So it seemed a fatal blow to his credibility when The Smoking Gun, a website that specializes in embarrassing revelations, dug up a file on him at the Florida Department of Corrections: not an inmate rap sheet, but an employment record as a prison guard.

The Internet lit up with insults, denunciations, and withering parodies—including a song by the rapper 50 Cent, “Officer Ricky.”

But none of it stuck. Rick Ross’s records have sold better than ever since the scandal—he earned his fourth No. 1 album on the Billboard 200 this past August—and in 2012 MTV named him the “Hottest MC in the Game.” As the hip-hop blogger Andreas Hale put it, [Ross] “singlehandedly changed hip-hop’s motto from ‘Keep It Real’ to ‘It’s Just Entertainment.’” Discussing Ross recently in The New York Times, the rap mogul Jay-Z surmised that “hip-hop has moved away from that place of ‘everything has to be authentic.’” If that’s true, it could liberate rappers from the limited palette of stereotyped inner-city cred. Or it could just pave the way for more artists to cast themselves as druglords and thugs. In any event, we can be sure that the music industry will keep busy looking for new sources of authenticity.

This piece originally appeared under the headline “A Visit From the Credibility Squad”

Jennifer C. Lena
Jennifer C. Lena is a visiting professor of sociology at Barnard College. She is the author of Banding Together: How Communities Create Genres in Popular Music, and is currently working on Slumming:The Reproduction of Prestige, a study of wealthy fans of folk art.

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

July 30 • 6:00 AM

Are You Really as Happy as You Say You Are?

Researchers find a universal positivity bias in the way we talk, tweet, and write.

July 30 • 4:00 AM

The Declining Wage Gap for Gay Men

New research finds gay men in America are rapidly catching up with straight married men in terms of wages.

July 30 • 2:00 AM

LeBron James Migration: Big Chef Seeking Small Pond

The King’s return to Cleveland is a symbol for the dramatic shift in domestic as well as international migration.

July 29 • 4:00 PM

Are Children Seeking Refuge Turning More Americans Against Undocumented Immigrants?

A look at Pew Research Center survey data collected in February and July of this year.

July 29 • 2:00 PM

Under Water: The EPA’s Ongoing Struggle to Combat Pollution

Frustration and inaction color efforts to enforce the Clean Water Act.

July 29 • 12:40 PM

America’s Streams Are Awash With Pesticides Banned in Europe

You may have never heard of clothianidin, but it’s probably in your local river.

July 29 • 12:00 PM

Mining Your Genetic Data for Profit: The Dark Side of Biobanking

One woman’s personal story raises deep questions about the stark limits of current controls in a nascent industry at the very edge of the frontier of humans and technology.

July 29 • 11:23 AM

Where Should You Go to College?

July 29 • 10:29 AM

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.

July 29 • 10:00 AM

The Monolingual American: Why Are Those Outside of the U.S. Encouraging It?

If you are an American trying to learn German in a large German town or city, you will mostly hear English in return, even when you give sprechen your best shot.

July 29 • 8:00 AM

The Elusive Link Between Casinos and Crime

With a study of the impact of Philadelphia’s SugarHouse Casino, a heated debate gets fresh ammunition.

July 29 • 6:00 AM

What Are the Benefits of Locking Yourself in a Tank and Floating in Room-Temperature Saltwater?

After three sessions in an isolation tank, the answer’s still not quite clear.

July 29 • 4:00 AM

Harry Potter and the Battle Against Bigotry

Kids who identify with the hero of J.K. Rowling’s popular fantasy novels hold more open-minded attitudes toward immigrants and gays.

July 29 • 2:00 AM

Geographic Scale and Talent Migration: Washington, D.C.’s New Silver Line

Around the country, suburbs are fighting with the urban core over jobs and employees.

July 28 • 4:00 PM

Border Fences Make Unequal Neighbors and Enforce Social Inequality

What would it look like if you combined Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, demographically speaking? What about the United States and Guatemala?

July 28 • 2:00 PM

Are Patient Privacy Laws Being Misused to Protect Medical Centers?

A 1996 law known as HIPAA has been cited to scold a mom taking a picture of her son in a hospital, to keep information away from police investigating a possible rape at a nursing home, and to threaten VA whistleblowers.

July 28 • 12:00 PM

Does Internet Addiction Excuse the Death of an Infant?

In Love Child, documentary filmmaker Valerie Veatch explores how virtual worlds encourage us to erase the boundary between digital and real, no matter the consequences.

July 28 • 11:11 AM

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.

July 28 • 10:00 AM

Hell Isn’t for Real

You may have seen pictures of the massive crater in Siberia. It unfortunately—or fortunately—does not lead to the netherworld.

July 28 • 8:00 AM

Why Isn’t Obama More Popular?

It takes a while for people to notice that things are going well, particularly when they’ve been bad for so long.

July 28 • 7:45 AM

The Most Popular Ways to Share Good and Bad Personal News

Researchers rank the popularity of all of the different methods we have for telling people about our lives, from Facebook to face-to-face.

July 28 • 6:00 AM

Hams Without Ends and Cats Tied to Trees: How We Create Traditions With Dubious Origins

Does it really matter if the reason for why you give money to newlyweds is based on a skewed version of a story your parents once told you?

July 28 • 4:00 AM

A Belief in ‘Oneness’ Is Equated With Pro-Environment Behavior

New research finds a link between concern for the environment and belief in the concept of universal interconnectedness.

July 25 • 4:00 PM

Flying Blind: The View From 30,000 Feet Puts Everything in Perspective

Next time you find yourself in an airplane, consider keeping your phone turned off and the window open.

July 25 • 2:00 PM

Trophy Scarves: Race, Gender, and the Woman-as-Prop Trope

Social inequality unapologetically laid bare.

Follow us

Subscribe Now

America’s Streams Are Awash With Pesticides Banned in Europe

You may have never heard of clothianidin, but it's probably in your local river.

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.

The Most Popular Ways to Share Good and Bad Personal News

Researchers rank the popularity of all of the different methods we have for telling people about our lives, from Facebook to face-to-face.

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.