The crisis of authenticity in the age of immanent tinkering.
This is an article response to Ice-T vs. Soulja Boy
As Ice-T implies, the thing called authenticity seems self-evident: obvious in its presence, glaring in its absence. As a question of being true—to beliefs, institutions, and traditions—authenticity strikes many as worth defending, or mourning. The epitaph “Hip-hop is dead,” for instance, is almost as old as hip-hop. Typical is the reaction of Ice-T, a rapper since the heyday of beatboxing, against Soulja Boy Tell ’Em, who’s still too young to drink. Soulja Boy, who produced his breakout singles in a home studio and became famous through social-networking sites, is emblematic of a new and notably independent moment in musical promotion. But to Ice-T’s aged ears, he’s complicit in the desecration of hip-hop’s authentic essence—the raw sound, the social message—in favor of the saccharine hook.
Many of us feel the sting when the authenticities that form us, personally and culturally, start to drift, generally in the breeze of technological change. As the argument goes, though we derive a sense of self in part through cameras, computers, recordings, and broadcasts, we also long for things that precede or avoid this mediation, or what we regard as excessive mediation. In response to this longing, we often look backward, in an attempt to recover authenticity in an earlier technological moment. This retrospection is at least as old as modernity. But authenticity today, in the expanded field of media, is more deeply in crisis. This crisis does not involve mere negation, but inversion. Inauthenticity, which looks a lot like the opposite of authenticity, is actually its successor—or its mirror.
Let’s try taking an end run to sort out Ice-T’s frustration. In sound, “fidelity” refers to the similarity—or lack thereof—between input and output, production and reproduction. To have fidelity is to play it again as it was played before; a high-fidelity recording will sound like it sounded live. From this, we can say a few things. First, that any instance of fidelity involves two points separated in time—an original and a copy. Second, that the earlier point is always an ideal toward which the latter orients itself. Third, that our understanding of fidelity will inevitably change in relation to the sophistication of technology. Even the most precise magnetic tape recorder is no match for today’s digital devices: What was once high-fidelity now merely belies its own vintage.
Authenticity in any situation is judged on the basis of fidelity—but, considering the third point above, not always in terms of a linear relation. For instance, Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes sound authentic not because they reproduce Dylan’s voice and playing, but because of the recorder grot characteristic of amateur production at that time. Remastered editions with the tape noise scrubbed out therefore possess higher fidelity but perhaps less authenticity. Authenticity must entail the appropriate degree and kind of fidelity, inclusive of flaws.
That is to say, new kinds of flaws can generate new kinds of authenticity. Consider the following anecdote: In late November 2006, singer-songwriter Joshua Radin reported an embarrassing anecdote about Paris Hilton on his blog. The story, which was picked up by MSNBC.com, among others, described Hilton getting surreptitiously hammered on Grey Goose in the hours leading up to a brief performance at a club in Las Vegas. As she stood onstage, her backing track was activated, but Hilton herself was too drunk to sing along and promptly vomited, even as her disembodied voice continued to play through the speakers. Performance (art) over.
Do you like that? Enough of us do—or did at the time—that Hilton's career was not compromised; indeed, it has been premised exactly on such stunts. In a single drunken stroke, she showcased inauthenticity while authentically obliterating it; her profligate twenty-somethingness could not help but spoil the script. In her story, Hilton does not perform an authenticity that strives toward an archetype; instead, she enacts an utter destruction of inauthenticity through her infidelity to even a lip-synced Vegas gig: an infidelity to inauthenticity. And she didn’t even mean it.
This double negation is itself a mode of authenticity, one that is increasingly common. It is accomplished by the decomposition of media rather than the avoidance of mediation. We will note that, expressed in terms of sound, it is neither a movement toward greater fidelity nor the reenactment of a specific, nostalgic moment of fidelity (as in the sampling of the “crackle” of vinyl). Instead, it is an active movement to pull representation into pieces.
Authenticity and inauthenticity do not stand apart, as they may have in a more modernist moment. Authenticity is, instead, conceived as a kind of gesture toward inauthenticity during performance. Nowhere is this schematic demonstrated more clearly than in the rupture between sound and image. Pythagoras used the word acousmatic to describe pedagogy delivered to students from behind a curtain; novice learners were distracted by the true image of the teacher. Today, acousmatic sound is increasingly enabled by technology, every time we listen to recorded music, watch animated films, or receive orders from some Wizard of Oz. The absence of the image of the sound source can produce an uncanny effect, or a funny one.
Hilton’s mishap is a great example of the disjuncture between sound and image, but such a splitting need not always be spontaneous or nonsensical. It can also be compositional. With editing tools widely available for dismantling and rearranging media, many viewers avail themselves of the chance to use circulating sound and video, copyrighted or not, as raw material for their own productions.
This approach is now so common as to be paradigmatic; in other words, one can express authenticity not only by harking back to an essence but also by destabilizing something already construed as inauthentic. The perfomer’s—or the composer’s—toolkit includes juxtaposition and destruction, humor and hostility. Ultimately, composition becomes a habit of looking, listening, and the exploitation of (re)sources. From the right angle, shit is gold.