Like a euphemism for cunnilingus, the authenticity debate has returned to pop music. Which is to say, it never really left, but was badly in need of a new spin. And Jack White has obliged us. Sort of.
Last week White spoke to Esquire UK about Lady Gaga, among other things. "I don't think she lives it because it's all artifice," the former White Stripe said of the former Stefani Gernamotta's studied outrageousness. "It's all image with no meaning behind it. You can't sink your teeth into it. It's a sound bite. It's very of this age, because that's what people want. They want a Twitter line, a jpeg, an MP3."
Anyone with a smartphone and Twitter account knows these qualify for incendiary words today. And Esquire ran toward the smoke. A little too zealously, as it turned out.
After the quote was posted out of context, White quickly clarified his comments in an open letter posted on his website at Third Man Records. "I never said anything about her music, or questioned the authenticity of her songs in any way," White wrote last Wednesday. "I was in a conversation about the drawbacks of image for the sake of image, and that it is popular nowadays to not question an image in front of you, but only to label it as 'cool' or 'weird' quickly and dispose of it. I don't like my comments about Lady Gaga's presentation being changed into some sort of negative critique of her music."
What's remarkable about White's statement is the rare subtlety with which he views the issue of authenticity. He clearly believes an image, no matter how contrived, doesn't necessarily define the message it packages. This is a duality music critics have defended at least since Paul Morley coined the term "New Pop" in a 1980 feature for NME, singing the praises of the archly conceptual synth trio Heaven 17. The brigade against "rockism" that sprang up around 10 years ago continued Morley's assault against bo-ho earnestness. But musicians -- especially musicians who play guitar and bother with words like "authenticity" in their everyday diatribes -- have been slow to see the nuances in the word and idea. Something rock stars who publicly champion the real never seem to get about "authenticity" and "artifice" is that they don't make up a binary opposition to one another.
Of the subjects that have risen to prominence in philosophy in the past hundred years, authenticity is the one pop music has taken on most often, even if the conclusions have been mostly knee-jerk. This is no accident. The civilization-wide trends that prompted the authenticity debate among members of the Frankfurt School of social critics around 1950 are the very same that created an appetite for rock 'n' roll a couple years later. Among other causes, these issues had to do with the increasing frequency with which people started to see their lives reflected back at them through the beautifying mirror of mass media. The flood of advertisements and movies and the romantic haiku transmitted through swooning pop lyrics imposed a crushing set of standards to live by. And nothing has complicated our public selves' relationship to our private selves like these constant reminders that they are not one and the same. Rock 'n' roll has always spoken to this disunity, whether it be through the contrived images pop stars adopt or the calls for nonconformity they sing.
Erich Fromm, a member of the Frankfurt School and a social psychologist, wrote extensively about authenticity, too. He thought a persona was a discrete thing, something we can break down into pieces and describe, much the way music critics spill more ink on Lady Gaga or Lana Del Rey's images than they do their music. But he didn't think a persona, "the mask we each wear, the ego we present," was an inauthentic thing. It was necessary that we project one, otherwise we might not truly exist for others. "The total me, my whole individuality, my suchness that is as unique as my fingerprint are, can never be understood," Fromm wrote in 1976.
So, when checked against Fromm, there is at least one way White in his open letter is dead wrong: there is no such thing as an "image for the sake of image." Every image we try on is an attempt to be seen, to be read, and maybe even to be understood. In our games of dress up, the stakes are always life or, if not death exactly, then absence.