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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…)