When discussing art or music, there’s always a lot of talk about authenticity, a word used to describe something that orbits the truth. The problem is, the word itself has been corrupted. Artists and creative people spend so much time chasing the idea of authenticity, they make the mistake of conflating truth with reality.
None of many manifestations of Bob Dylan (whose real name is Robert Zimmerman) are reflections of who he is personally. These are cultivated personas, used to dig at the truth. But so many observers read these performances as reflections of the who Dylan is as a person.
In turn, young artists misunderstand his aesthetic choices and imitate them for all the wrong reasons. Their decisions are based on “I’m doing this because it’s who I am,” when instead they should be saying, “I’m doing this because it evokes the response I’m seeking and fulfills the goals of this project.”
As Chrisoph Niemann says in Abstract: Art of Design, “when you show the real thing, you kill it. You make it impossible to look at these things in the abstract…Nobody wants authenticity. Authenticity is like changing your kid’s diapers. It’s a cute idea in the abstract, but the real deal is just…” He trails off and makes a face of disgust.
In a recent interview on The Marie Forleo Podcast, Seth Godin riffs on authenticity a little bit too:
“If you go to see a concert, you don’t want the authentic musician, you want that musician to give their best performance of their day, their week, their month…That’s what we want in every interaction with very few exceptions.”
He’s right too. When we go to see Bob Dylan, we’re paying to see the poet laureate of rock ‘n’ roll perform, not watch Robert Zimmerman work out his feelings.
“If you want to be a professional, get past all this authenticity stuff because what I think people mean when they say, “Well, I was just being authentic,” what they’re actually saying is “I did something and it didn’t work. Don’t blame me.”
But I think my favorite riff on authenticity comes from Mark Ruffalo’s character in Begin Again, an A&R man trying to sign an artist played by Keira Knightley:
One of the major lessons I’ve had to learn as an artist is there’s no such thing as authenticity. There is only showing up to do the work.
Unless, of course, you’re Randy fucking Newman…