Taylor Swift, Donald Trump, and the desire for authenticity

Last week Ryan Adams released a cover album of Taylor Swift’s 1989 and the music world lost its mind over it. I posted this article critiquing the way music critics responded to the album on Facebook and was a bit surprised by some of the responses it received.

After a number of conversations, both about that article and in the past, what it seems to boil down to is that many people feel Taylor Swift lacks authenticity – she is too packaged, too marketed, too affected. Rather than being an honest artist, she has meticulously crafted a particular image and used it to make money. On the other hand, Ryan Adams, with his out-of-the-mainstream, stripped-down aesthetic, was able to reveal the heart of Swift’s music because he is more authentic. Many critics felt that his interpretations of the songs were more honest and real, and therefore better.

The whole situation made me wonder why exactly we consider authenticity to be so desirable, especially from artists and especially now that “authentic” is a buzzword that only sometimes actually means “honest”. The belief that an artist with an acoustic guitar is by default less produced and more real than a pop artist or someone who creates EDM or a hip-hop artist who uses her computer to create beats seems silly to me. This is exactly where the backlash against “hipsters” came from – they cultivate and produce an image that strives to appear authentic. From the perspective of someone who admittedly just listens to whatever music she likes, without a whole lot of knowledge of what makes it “good”, guys with beards and guitars seem just as produced as Taylor Swift. It happens in different ways, but any artist who has achieved any sort of recognition is to some extent manufactured.

This happens in daily life as well. Everyone complains about how social media has caused us to edit our lives and make ourselves look better than we really are, but I’m pretty sure we were doing that before Facebook was a thing. Sure, social media creates a larger platform for it, but people have always exaggerated and edited and told fish tales. And you know, I don’t think editing yourself is necessarily a bad thing.

As a teacher, I have a particular image and persona that is just as meticulously crafted as Taylor Swift’s. My students do not know everything about me. They don’t know every thought that passes through my head or all of my natural reactions to things. And this is good! It’s professionalism! Editing myself and using my teacher persona in the classroom makes me a better teacher.

The same goes for social media. The things I talk about on Facebook are different from the things I say on Tumblr which are different from the things I tell my best friends. The audience and purpose are different, so the content and presentation are different. Does this make me somehow dishonest or inauthentic? If it does, I’m not sure I really mind all that much.

If I were always being my most “authentic” self, I would probably be a really rude person. We teach children to think before they speak because we recognize that the first thing that pops into our head is rarely the kindest and best thing to actually say. But by valuing authenticity so highly, we’ve actually encouraged a lack of tact that can be incredibly damaging, all in the name of “straight talk” and “being who I am without apology” – which is where Donald Trump comes in.

The most common thing I’ve heard from Trump supporters is that he speaks his mind. They are so sick of political correctness and vague speeches that Trump feels like a refreshing new thing (side note: I don’t understand why so many people are so annoyed by political correctness…what exactly is the problem with doing your best to not hurt and offend people by choosing your words carefully?). And Trump definitely seems unapologetically authentic. But is that a good thing? Do we value speaking your mind so highly that we have no concern about what the things he says reveals about his mind? To me, he just seems to be a few orders of magnitude higher than people who excuse their own rudeness by saying they are just being honest and that anyone who doesn’t like it should stop being so sensitive.

We all package and market ourselves. We choose the way that we dress and the way that we speak in order to portray a certain image. We do it in job interviews and at parties and on social media. And sometimes, choosing not to complain about that coworker on Facebook or make that comment in front of your boss isn’t being inauthentic, but rather being a decent human being. Having a filter and acting appropriately professional are actually considered marks of maturity in most industries – why is it different in entertainment and politics?

I’m not saying we shouldn’t value honesty or be vulnerable with the people in our lives. I’m also not saying that you have to like Taylor Swift. I’m just saying that instead of valuing authenticity above all things and at all times, maybe we should try to focus on the types of authenticity we really consider important and not worry so much about who is the more honest musician.

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  • A collection of ramblings and musings on Jesus, life, education, family, and anything else that pops into my head.

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