This article treads a fine line. I want to discuss the way that particular contemporary pop soloists talk about, and are talked about in terms of, authentic identity. And I want to use this to make an argument about the significance of those claims within a broader cultural dialogue about identity; specifically: that they demonstrate the persistent popular desirability of “authentic identity” in the face of its perceived theoretical indefensibility and supposed loss of significance. But I want to do all this without perpetuating the tendency for popular music scholarship to engage “authenticity” as the basis for assessing the relative merits of different musical forms. Rather than adjudicating on competing claims to authenticity, I want to ask: when specifically attached to identity, what does the claim to authenticity do?
This paper investigates popular ways of speaking about the identities of three soloists: Britney Spears; Christina Aguilera; and Jennifer Lopez. All three combine aurally undemanding mass-market pop with a public persona organised under a rubric of authenticity. Irrespective of whether the claims made about the authenticity of their identities could be judged illegitimate, the repeated references to authenticity within this context engenders a taken-for-grantedness about its significance with regard to identity. As a way of describing this operation it seems useful to liberally adapt ideas advanced by Meaghan Morris and describe pop celebrities as operating like sites where anecdotes accumulate to establish a specific discursive context for identity. Morris writes that anecdotes are ‘functional’ in that they are:
orientated futuristically towards the construction of a precise, local and social discursive context, of which the anecdote then functions as a mise en abyme (Morris 150).
This is complex and parts of it require some re-engineering before it can be usefully adapted as a model for discussing celebrity. The “future orientation” operates somewhat differently in this context from how it operates within the kind of writing practice that Morris was seeking to promote. For Morris, the anecdote grounds an academic writing practice by smuggling in a day-to-day way of conceiving of the workings of the world. The “future orientation” is an invitation for a writing practice to engage in the kind of explication that could draw currently marginal or impossible ideas and experiences into a precise discursive context. This is different from the kind of operation that I want to describe.
In the stories told about the authenticity of these pop celebrities there is similarly a “future orientation” but here it is one where constant evocation works toward amassing significance around a particular idea. Specifically, I am arguing that constant repetition of “authentic” and its cognates in thinking and speaking of these pop soloists makes that term appear crucial for identity. So this is a situation where very many anecdotes, derived from a common model of the way that identity could be said to be working, construct by virtue of their similarity a particular discursive context for identity. They work to actually form that context rather than simply inviting it. While each alone can serve as that discursive context’s mise en abyme, their role is not restricted to that. Each anecdote is less important in its singularity than it is as part of an accumulation.
Spears, Aguilera and Lopez are repeatedly the subjects of anecdotes themed around the idea of authenticity — anecdotes which regularly employ the terms “real” or “realness.” The examples which I am about to give I am using advisedly, being aware of popular music scholarship’s repeated warnings about the dangers of the kind of scholarly analysis that gives too much regard to what musicians sing or say. I am not using these examples in order to seek to challenge or verify the truthfulness of the claims made in lyrics or interviews. My interest is more in examining the kinds of claims that are made. A Rolling Stone profile of Spears reveals that:
“Real” is very important to Britney. Her upcoming movie, tentatively titled Not a Girl [released as Crossroads], is, in her estimation, “really real.” Sarandon is one of Britney’s favourite actresses because she “has a realness about her.” And one of her biggest pet peeves, she says after a moment’s thought, is “fake people.” (Eliscu 58)
Similarly, Aguilera has observed of the content of her song “I’m OK” (2002) — which seems to address the domestic abuse she suffered in childhood — that ‘everything’s really real’ (quoted in Heath 55). In fact, she introduces her album with the part spoken, part sung “Stripped – Part One” (2002), which begins:
Allow me to introduce myself
I want you to come a little closer
I’d like you to get to know me a little bit better
Meet the real me.
And Lopez has commented, while discussing her debut album On The 6 (1999):
Someone said to me: “it’s so you. It couldn’t be anything but that. It’s natural – you’re not faking anything. This is who you are.” (Jennifer Lopez: Feelin’ So Good 2000)
Whether or not each woman speaks or sings these words in earnest — irrespective of whether the words represent what she “really” thinks or feels — there is a persistent and significant reiteration of the idea of the “real” self.
Morris observes that ‘anecdotes need not be true stories’ in order to operate but it is necessary that they ‘be functional in a given exchange’ (150). Adopting this idea, it is possible to circumvent the question of the truthfulness of these claims to being “real.” This is useful because it enables a description of how each anecdote need not itself be a true story in order to posit the “real” or the “authentic.” It is precisely this somewhat paradoxical potential that makes the anecdote so versatile a tool for the celebrity to claim “authentic” identity. Lopez, for example, sings in “Jenny From the Block” (2002) that staying real is so effortless for her that ‘it’s like breathing.’ She is simply asserting that she embodies a qualitatively better, more authentic way of being a person. At one level it is a patently ridiculous statement. But at another it is quite an effective mobilisation of “real” as a self-descriptive term, coming as it does in a context where there is no scope to argue the point. Had she written a philosophical paper on how real she was, there would be a clearer basis on which to challenge her claim. But instead she is using a medium — pop music — with obvious links neither to veracity nor “realness.” The supposed “inauthenticity” of the context is no bar on her claim and in fact has the effect of making it difficult to challenge.
To claim, as Morris does, that ‘anecdotes need not be true stories’ (150) is, however, somewhat disingenuous. Certainly an anecdote can function allegorically even if its truthfulness is doubtful, but it is precisely a sense of the possibility that “it actually happened” that differentiates an anecdote from overtly fictional kinds of story. It is this possibility that enables anecdotes to function as what Morris describes as ‘allegorical expositions of a model of the way that the world can be said to be working’ (150). The actual person associated with the pop soloist’s story about authenticity enables that story to appear as an allegorical exposition of the real workings of the world. There is, for example, an actual person “Jennifer Lopez” who at least appears to embody “Jenny from the block.” This actual person is the guarantee of the allegory’s potential applicability to other actual people — people who might potentially include ourselves.
I have chosen to focus on pop music soloists because they seem specially equipped to engender these kinds of anecdotes that work to allegorise what an identity might be. Their individuation is a constantly present and pressing issue. The appearance of unique identity is felt to be commercially necessary as a means for differentiating between the work of different soloists. Elaborate individuation is employed to guarantee this differentiation, encouraging the prevalence of anecdotes of authentically distinct identity. In addition to this, the lack of the group identity that a band might provide means that there is relatively little apparent mediation between the soloist’s personal identity and their music’s form and content. Lopez has described how:
The music is just you. It’s you out there on your own… As a solo artist it’s you – very solo. (Jennifer Lopez: Feelin’ So Good 2000)
While her comment is rather circular, that circularity usefully expresses how the ‘music’, the ‘you’ and the ‘artist’ appear indivisible when she is ‘out there’ on her own. The singularity of the source of the voice — it at least appears to come from just one person — adds to the hyper-individuation of the pop star; it makes her appear ‘very solo.’ This means that the songs do not even have to be explicitly about the self in order to appear as symptomatic of singular identity.
The anecdotes told about the authentic identities of Spears, Aguilera and Lopez tend to associate authenticity either with their own control over their representation or with the lifelong persistence of childhood characteristics. These aspects are encapsulated in an interview in Esquire magazine, which is worth quoting extensively, in which Lopez describes how:
People always ask me, “Have you changed from what you were?” And I’m always like, “No way!” And they find it so hard to believe. And I go, “Look, I’m not saying my life hasn’t changed. But I am still the person I started off as.” Has it affected me? Do things get weird? Yes. But I am still Jennifer. I did grow up poor… And now it’s different. It’s different because I worked hard to get here. And I never take it for granted. I really do realize, like, oh my gosh, I wanted to do this my whole life and now I’m able to do it. It feels amazing, you know what I mean? (Lopez in Sager 60)
The implication of this kind of anecdote is that being authentic has made Lopez successful and now, her dreams having come true, she can revel in her success. Authenticity promises enviable kinds of pleasure. Even if this is a myth, it is a powerful and powerfully attractive one.
This puts these anecdotes quite clearly at odds with a general tendency within cultural theory, where “authentic” has lost favour as a descriptive term and an alternative set of terms have been developed for describing identity as, variously; mobile, flexible, changeable, or performative. At the risk of dangerously complicating my argument at this late stage, it appears that these anecdotes about authentic identity serve for this academic tendency a function not dissimilar to Morris’s original intention for anecdotes. What I mean by this is that they invite the attempt to develop a discursive context for identity that could incorporate an account of what appears to be a persistent cultural attachment to authenticity. In serving this function, these anecdotes raise a series of questions with which I will conclude: Does the persistent desirability of authentic identity mean that the shift toward avowedly postmodern identities has been less pervasive than has been suggested elsewhere (that stopping to be certain kinds of selves is not happening all that quickly)? Or does it mean that despite the shift toward avowedly postmodern identities, ideals of identity are still imagined in ‘outdated’ terms (that the ways of describing things hasn’t caught up to the way things are)? Or is the maintenance of a mythical ideal of authenticity necessary to make palatable an existence within a changeable, temporary or mobile identity?
What I am avoiding is the unproductive question: is the music “authentic”? Popular music scholarship has been profoundly influenced — haunted, perhaps — by the work of Theodor Adorno, who was profoundly antithetical towards popular music. Adorno’s main bone of contention was that, despite its regular and varied claims to authenticity, popular music was invariably — even inevitably — inauthentic (1976). Due in no small part to Adorno’s influence, the question of the relative authenticity of different musicians or musical forms has operated as a kind of touchstone in writing about popular music (Leppert 346-47).
Charles Hamm provides a useful history and an explicit critique of the discourse of authenticity within writing about popular music (1995). The creation of hierarchies of authenticity serve partly, he writes, as a means of differentiating the author’s taste from the relative ignorance in which mass taste is seen to be formed (15). Hamm views this theoretical preoccupation as the result of the persistence of modernist narratives — particularly neo-Marxism — within popular music scholarship (23-27), underpinned by an assumption that ‘capitalist production negates “authentic” expression by certain groups’ (25). Popular music scholarship, he observes, has consequently privileged ‘marginal, oppositional, or so-called authentic genres or repertoires… Commercially viable music, if studied at all, is usually placed in an oppositional context’ (36).