During the 1960s the term “authenticity” became a buzzword. Authenticity was generally defined in opposition to “artificial”. Emerging baby boomers, often college attendees, united across America in the quest to remain honest to themselves, while rejecting that which they determined fraudulent. According to Sixties historian, Howard Brick, authenticity required “discovering, voicing, and exercising a genuine whole personality,” and this personality must be “freed from the grip of mortifying convention.” The quest for authenticity required the seeker to reflect and be genuine, while refusing to be complicit with routines that inhibited honesty.
The most reaching voices of this revolution into the Real came from musicians. Elvis Presley maintained integrity through rejecting conventional standards of “white music.” Instead, he revolutionized mainstream music by sincerely expressing himself. Similarly, The Velvet Underground, led by Lou Reed, allied with avant-gardist–Andy Warhol to launch music, culture, and art into an area it had never been. This push came from an innate yearning to remain true to their artistic vision, complex sexuality, and obsession with forging a counter culture. Perhaps the most respected artist that evangelized authenticity during the 1960s was, Nobel Laureate, Bob Dylan. His protest anthems are still considered music canon that effortlessly describes the tumultuous era, but his authenticity was not tied to his fame. Instead, his artistic legitimacy materialized from his desire to reinvent himself as his genius dictated. He refused to be confined to a single genre on the basis of that is how he gained his reputation. Instead, he “went electric” at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, thus alienating himself from his traditional fan base. He demonstrated to the world that his authenticity meant more to him than external esteem and acceptance.
Considering how committed these, and other, musicians were to remaining authentic, it is ludicrous to think of the bands paying “tribute” to them by duplicating their sound. Factory, the tribute band for The Velvet Underground, believes that the groundbreaking avant-garde can be rediscovered through a facsimile. Highway 61 Revisited honors Bob Dylan by reproducing his singularly intimate lyrics with vacuously intoned words. Elvis impersonators can be found by the thousands, mixing with gamblers and drunks in the most artificial city in the world–Las Vegas. Tribute bands have become so routine that a television program is dedicated to presenting artificial performers playing authentic artists’ music. The World’s Greatest Tribute Bands just finished its eighth season!
This begs the question: Who cares if someone wants to see some awful tribute band and have a good time? The answer is that it probably doesn’t in this limited instance. Still, a more important question must be asked: Why are multitudes foregoing the daunting quest for authenticity on important matters simply because the artificial is so easily secured?
The authentic is so scarce in contemporary America that it has become a pastime to engage in criticism of various artificial components of modern culture. We could join Kendrick Lamar in attacking Photoshop by asking for “somethin’ natural like ass with some stretch marks” or the creators of a well-known YouTube clip that demonstrate the artificial creation of a beautiful woman from a slice of pepperoni pizza. We could join both sides of the political aisle by ostensibly attacking pharmaceutical companies for creating an artificial dependency on medication. We could join CNN, The Guardian, and virtually every major news outlet in attacking doctors that overprescribe medication. We could join Morgan Spurlock, and countless others, that have attacked the artificial fare produced by fast food companies. We could reject, with every intellectual in the world, the hit reality show-Keeping Up with the Kardashians on grounds of lacking reality.
Criticizing all of these manifestations of artificiality is futile because, if removed, a new synthetic commodity would replace its predecessor. Photoshop, unnecessary medicine, unhealthy food, and reality television are merely the fruit of the artificial tree. The fruit is easy to spot, but it is the root that must be removed for widescale eradication of the inauthentic. The root is less discernable than the fruit, and in this case, it is something we wish to be withheld from universal view. The root is us, or more specifically, our uncontrolled desire. We demand beauty at a level that is authentically unobtainable. We find comfort in the artificial hope of a cure through swallowing a pill instead of the authenticity of a daily practice of healthy eating, exercise, and mindfulness. We work late and overbook our days, resulting in insufficient time to fix nourishing meals. We present McDonald’s as the only option for sustenance on these hectic days. We turn the television to a program that has no value because judging ourselves as superior to moral degenerates serves as an adult pacifier. Plus, why add authentic experiences through reading and conversing with family and friends when you can bombard your brain with advertisements and storylines of the artificial?
It is time for the pursuit of authenticity to take a place of primacy in our minds, as it was in the 1960s. One measure is as simple as talking with people we spontaneously encounter on the bus or walking through the grocery store, not just to exchange information, but to gain awareness and understanding of our communities. We move out of the confines of our minds as we seek to engage neighbors and community members that live around us..
We must listen and comprehend the music we listen to increase our authenticity. Disregarding lyrical analysis in favor for a catchy hook, or a tight beat, leaves us supporting artistic work that we fail to fathom. The music of authenticity written during the 1960s, told us that “The Times They Are A-Changin’”. Through his lyrics, Dylan issued a clarion call for a movement toward the authentic as interpreted through the more humane treatment of Americans and non alike.
Currently, in popular music, we find the artificial masquerading as authentic in songs like, “The Way I Are”, where the lyrics detail the lofty ambition the songwriter has of signing a woman’s chest and dancing. This musician is telling the listener that “the way I are,” or his inherent human qualities, guide him to thingify a woman and dance, hopefully with the woman he just claimed. “Listener” has become a misnomer, it should be replaced with “feeler,” as in, someone that feels the beat. Music has digressed from the authentic it once was where the composers called for equality and the betterment of all. Luckily, we can easily reclaim honesty and storytelling in music by listening and supporting artists that are authentic. Such artists already exist!
Still, another way of pursuing authenticity is by familiarizing ourselves with people that are socioeconomically diverse. It seems that nearly every homogenous community accuses other homogenous communities of existing in a bubble. Most communities live in isolation to a world that is unlike theirs. We can experience various forms of diversity by traveling and learning of other cultures, enrolling in higher education, and visiting gatherings and festivals in communities that are unlike ours. Seek for ways to appreciate and understand others. If we look for these opportunities, we will notice that these chances abound.
However we choose to pursue authenticity, it must be what inherently brings us joy. Authenticity is being the person we were before the artificial took over. We must free ourselves from “the grip of mortifying convention,” and discover our “genuine whole personality.” That is the only way we will return from the artificial world we have created to one of authenticity.