I’ve been pissed off about the Lynn Hirschberg hit piece on M.I.A. since it came out. Granted, M.I.A.’s reaction afterwards—tweeting Hirschberg’s phone number, trying like hell to prove she was quoted out of context, etc.—made it harder to side with M.I.A., and easier to believe the accusations that she’s childish and wears radical politics as a costume more than a real belief system. But still, I come back to thinking, who cares? Am I supposed to stay up late at night, thrashing in my bed, worried that pop artists are more invested in image, aesthetics and symbolism than in direct action? What next? Being angry that painters are more worried about texture and color than about starting organic farms?
Hell yeah I thought it was sexist. M.I.A. is actually one in a long line of musicians whose audiences perhaps read images literally instead of symbolically. Public Enemy was notoriously unnerved by the fact that their use of the symbols of militancy were taken so seriously by some audiences—that is, when they weren’t being amused at how those images scared the crap out of whiny racists. Anyone who’s into punk rock has been given more than one headache because of this problem. Punk started off as relatively apolitical, but let a few people do what artists do and use political content in their music, and suddenly it’s A Movement. But usually, this disconnect doesn’t cause the New York Times to commission a hit piece. The artistry of Public Enemy wasn’t considered null because they weren’t actually radical underground militants, and there’s no suggesting the Clash isn’t a great band because they didn’t actually start riots. But they’re dudes, which makes it harder to attack them through the weapon of cattiness. Suggesting they, as artists, want attention and audiences isn’t going to be some huge strike against their character. Dwelling on the fact that they like tasty food won’t make people think they’re greedy. The amount of cloth on their body isn’t an indictment of their character. That they choose to work while also parenting isn’t something you can get people to clutch pearls over. But if you have a female target, all these weapons are available to you, and used to great effect in the Hirschberg piece.
Sady at Tiger Beatdown and Nitsuh Abebe at Pitchfork have some useful thoughts. Both are incredibly annoyed at Hirschberg’s suggestion that one cannot really have leftist politics while being wealthy, and I have to point out that even implying otherwise shows a certain lack of intellectual heft. I find myself agreeing with Abebe that M.I.A.’s particular brand of politics-as-art is often childish and irresponsible and insensitive—it’s easy to be a supporter of political violence if you don’t actually have to live in the thick of it, isn’t it? So, they’ve got that covered. I want to talk about authenticity, and why I’ve come to hate the discourse around it.
Once I realized where Hirschberg was going with that M.I.A. piece, I started to get a headache. Authenticity baiting is the worst game in pop music, because it’s such a rabbit hole. There’s no way to “prove” authenticity and so any attempts to prove it will just dig you in deeper. And if you want to prove someone’s inauthentic, that’s easy, too. To be perfectly clear, M.I.A. does invite authenticity baiting, by being obsessed with it. Abebe pulls out a particularly grating example:
It also makes for the most Western quote in Hirschberg’s piece, where Arulpragasam fires off a line about Bono’s poverty efforts in Africa– about how Bono’s not African, but she herself is from Sri Lanka. This is an incredibly first-world thing to say: It’s not about policy or development issues or whether Bono’s accomplishing anything worthwhile. It’s entirely about this Western game of authenticity and who gets to wear the cloak, who gets the credit for something.
Trying to be “authentic” never works. You can strive and strive, but there’s always something about you that’s going to be a little too posh for the haters. Having been a music fan and in left-leaning politics for roughly forever, I’ve come around to seeing how “authenticity” is basically a weapon used to knock people down. Often the crime is, as Sady pointed out, being too outspoken or popular. And let’s be clear—women are easier to beat with the “wants attention” or “thinks she’s all that” sticks, but “authentic” eats up the careers and often lives of men as well. (Think of how this idea played into the deaths of Tupac, Biggie, and Kurt Cobain.) The craving for this impossible standard of authenticity causes neurotic behavior, depression, and withdrawal. To make it worse, “authenticity” is not just a lie, but it’s also a black hole. It eats up everything around it, including those things that are real, like quality and effectiveness.
For example, take Kathleen Hanna, who basically has given up on music and does a lot of interviews where she sounds like she’s been beaten down with the authenticity stick. Take her recent interview in the Bust music issue this year. (Yes, I read Bust. I suppose this makes me inauthentic.) She laments how much she was unable to resist the bullshit that was flung at her, laments her youthful inability to distinguish that from real criticism, and sadly admits that only recently has she even listened to Bikini Kill albums, because the whole thing left her sore. You know who loses when something like this happens? Well, the artist for sure, but also the fans. You know what’s genuinely authentic? The pleasure that you get from putting on a Bikini Kill album and pumping yourself up. The moment of joy at a Le Tigre show when everyone’s pumping their hands in the air. The purity wars, the authenticity cruising, the impossible standards of perfection, the requirement that musicians and artists who have political content in their art be these Jesus-like figures of political perfection—all that kills the music. And ironically distracts from what is pure and authentic about music, which is the feeling it gives you.
The smart artists are the ones who basically tell the authenticity police to fuck off, and refuse to believe in authenticity. In a lot of ways, the idea of authenticity and the accusations of selling out have receded for a decade or so, and music has been way better off for it. Musicians, both underground and above ground, have been more interested in playing with symbols and ideas than shoring up their credibility as “authentic”. I’d really hate to see the emphasis shift back to a system that chews people up and spits them out, instead of one that supports artists at what they do, which is creating inspiring and enjoyable works.