Authenticity «

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American culture has a big hang up for authenticity. Either something is or it isn’t. “Faker” or “wannabe” or “sell-out” are considered strong insults.

I’ve been pondering authenticity a fair bit lately. As this is my thought process we’re talking about here, of course I got to the topic through a totally ridiculous path. Watch this if you’re too old or (worse) too young to know the song Total Eclipse of the Heart:

It’s a song about love and longing. Yeah, the tune is definitely a product of the 80s, but she performs well and the lyrics tell her story in an interesting way. It may not be Shakespeare, but it paints the scene, sets a mood, and was catchy enough to be a hit.

I want to compare it to this cover by Hurra Torpedo:

Featuring a monotone singer, percussion on kitchen appliances, and blue track suits, it’s definitely weirder than the original. In some ways it feels more authentic than Bonnie Tyler singing and swaying. She’s a professional musician with a solid backup band. Her video is a deliberate, well-executed show.

This cover is awful, but it’s a couple of guys that think they’re pretty hardcore rockers. The lead singer has to do his own backup because the backup singer is trying (failing) to keep the beat by demolishing an oven range. The set is an austere corner with a rough tromp l’oiel to make it appear more substantial. The camera is pretty consistently pointed away from every crescendo. But the low production values make it more authentic because it’s not a carefully considered consumer product, it’s just a performance.

But then there’s this other cover by Hurra Torpedo:

Joke blown. There’s footage from several concerts, it’s professional edited, the band engages in premeditated spontaneity to appear wacky. This video was cut from a fake tour that Ford financed as part of a “viral” campaign. (There are some other awful clips from their mockumentary on YouTube, if you’re curious.) In their Total Eclipse cover video, that couple seconds of intro and outro is the logo of a Norwegian variety comedy show roughly similar to Saturday Night Live. It was a gag from the start, but it works very differently when divorced from that context.

The joke is that it appears to be a couple guys who have no idea how uncool they are but are playing their hearts out anyways. It’s a great joke, pretty much everyone nervously laughs their way through their first viewing while wondering how the performers could think this was possibly a good idea. It’s funny because it’s playing with our notion of authenticity. It’s not nice to mock people who are enthusiastically, genuinely bad because they’re being true to themselves in the attempt.

That brings us to the last video, a cover of the cover:

Bonnie Tyler was actually completely inauthentic. Total Eclipse of the Heart was created by a professional composer and producer who tried to sell the song to a few other singers before her record label bought it and had her perform it. The song was created to sell some cassette tapes, not capture the expression of a heartrending emotion.

This last video, though, is completely authentic. It is what it appears to be: two friends covering a funny video they saw online. They’re not professional performers — they don’t even look at the camera (probably to avoid cracking up). It’s honest, it’s done decently, and it’s plain fun to watch. The singer’s trying to do the accent, they’re confused about who’s doing the backup, the percussionist nearly knocks away the pot he’s crashing.

Is this what authenticity comes down to when the Internet gives everyone a global distribution platform, that all commercialization is proof of inauthenticity? Does authenticity stop being important when we’re all drowning in terrible but terribly authentic self-produced media? I don’t know the answers here, I’m just pondering out loud.

(Now, of course, you have to ask yourself if I authentically thought this was a topic worth pondering or if I’m a jerk who just wanted to get Total Eclipse of the Heart stuck in your head. Maybe you should just be glad I didn’t bring up punk, a genre hamstrung by its notions of authenticity…)


  1. Hi Peter — interesting post. Yeah, discussion about authenticity has become a big thing (multiple books on the topic etc) but it is a tricky one (as you say).

    It doesn’t sound quite right to say that anything commercial is guaranteed inauthentic (there are companies that many people would say *are* pretty authentic). And it doesn’t sound right to say that anything professional or competent or polished is guaranteed inauthentic (because sometimes competency is damn important, and sometimes people want professionalism and polish).

    One issue is that the word “authenticity” is used to mean different things. Sometimes it’s used to means “truthful, not deceptive or misleading.” Other times it’s used to mean “not corporate, not commmercialized, not overly packaged.”

    Another issue is that perceived authenticity isn’t an absolute; it varies by individual, and it depends on your (sub)culture / your own social context. Lawrence Welk and Hee Haw looked ridiculously inauthentic to me, to the point of camp (camp having its own weird authentic inauthenticity, if that makes sense) — but to my grandparents, those shows were great and perfectly authentic to their generation/context.

    And a third issue is that authenticity has different connotations in different areas of life. For example, authenticity has different connotations in the area of entertainment (musicians etc) than for politics.

    Entertainment is about keeping us entertained — that’s the highest value of that discipline — it really doesn’t matter what else entertainers do, as long as they don’t bore us.

    Politics meanwhile has other highest values (embodying our values of democracy, running the government competently, etc.) — if a politician entertains us but doesn’t deliver on these other criteria, then that politician is a failure and in that sense inauthentic, because s/he falsely advertised that s/he was a competent politician and in fact wasn’t.

    In the examples you give above: strangely enough, Bonnie Taylor isn’t being inauthentic in the sense of being deceptive — she is exactly as she’s portraying herself: a professional musician with a record contract and pro backup. But she’s inauthentic (for some viewers) in the sense of being very packaged/commercial, and because frankly the performance can be perceived as boring/very predictable (the ultimate sin for an entertainer).

    Hurra Torpedo, by contrast, is being inauthentic by both meanings of the word — it was a viral campaign of a fake bad band, but in reality a pro band sponsored by Ford. So they’re faking amateur status and they’re commercialized. But they’re not boring — it’s fun to watch them, see what they’ll do next, and to be “in” on their schtick. So in that sense they’re successful as entertainers and thus are “authentic” as entertainers.

    The last video (the amateur one) is authentic in the sense that it’s neither commercial nor is it misleading — it is what it is (two random guys spoofing a pro video). But for me, it fails as entertainment — because for me it’s boring. You enjoyed the video, but I didn’t particularly (IMO it didn’t seem to be to be any more entertaining than thousands of other pieces of amateur content that’s out there — it didn’t stand out for me).

    So authenticity alone (in the senses of not lying and not being commercial) isn’t a guarantee of good entertainment.

  2. That’s a really good way of breaking it down. It seems that what fascinates me is the way all these different definitions are conflated.

    And I still think two guys jamming in their kitchen is great.

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