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”