Updated: Dec 12, 2021
She’s a Real Fake
If you wander lonely as a cloud through a field of wildflowers beneath a starry night, you may be led to awe at how such beauty could have stemmed from mere chance. No rhyme or reason, just complexity arising without purpose. That is nature. But if you put pen to paper, and describe how then your “heart with pleasure fills, and dances with the daffodils”, in just a few simple words and with all the rhyme and reason in the world, you have intentionally created something that seemingly transcends nature itself. That is art.
Art is inherently transformative - intentional. Artists take raw materials - a pen, paper, and a muse, and bend it to their passion. The subject of every painting, every film, every poem, isn’t real itself, but an echo of something that is; creating a sort of paradox - originality born of imitation.
Yet when we look at the creation of an artist’s persona as opposed to their art, the same rules do not seem to apply. An artist taking their life and bending it to their wills is often seen as insincere. Art is intentional, but personas, which can be argued to be a form of art in their own right, should not be, at least according to many critics.
Following the release of her debut poetry collection, Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass, Lana Del Rey established herself as a poet and became the talk of the town within the poetry community even among those not familiar with her music. Readers were enchanted by Lana’s confessional, diary-like writing, drenched with the longing and nostalgia of a vintage Hollywood starlet.
Yet despite critic’s praise of Lana as a poet and artist in general, there has always been one criticism that has remained constant throughout Lana’s career - a mortal sin of artistic conventional wisdom.
Lan Del Rey is inauthentic.
But before we speak to the validity of the statement or its implications, let’s take a look at what earned Lana such notoriety.
Lana Del Rey, born Elizabeth Grant, on June 21st 1985, in New York City is an American singer/songwriter who made headlines after her song “Video Games” went viral. She became known for her mysterious and seductive persona drawing inspiration from the glamour of old Hollywood. Wikipedia describes her music as “noted for its stylized, cinematic quality and exploration of themes of sadness, tragic romance, glamor, and melancholia, containing many references to pop culture, particularly 1950s and 1960s Americana.”
Yet prior to getting her big break as Lana Del Rey and creating her Hollywood persona, Lana was an east coast girl trying to make it under several other pseudonyms including Lizzy Grant, Lana Rey Del Mar, Sparkle Jump Rope Queen, and May Jailer.
Despite Lana Del Rey’s success, as her international sensation grew, so did questions about her past and the persona that she created for herself. People began to question how much of Lana was genuine, and how much of her was an intentionally created character.
Lana’s story raises some interesting questions regarding what Authenticity really is. Is it simply being true to the life you were given (Elizabeth Grant)? Or is it being true to the life that you desire (Lana Del Rey)?
In this post, I will be dissecting what people really mean when they refer to an artist as “authentic”, and offer a possible alternative to these notions of authenticity as an artistic goal; using Lana Del Rey, her poetry collection Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass, and YouTuber Rachel Oates’ critique of it to illustrate my points.
You can find Rachel's video here.
If you take a scroll through Instagram or TikTok, you will find no shortage of talk about “aesthetics”. From Cottage Core, to 90’s Grunge, to Dark Academia, there is an ever-growing number of expressive styles being named and claimed by modern generations. Though the popularization of the term in recent years has led some to believe it a relatively novel concept, debates surrounding aesthetics have been a major discussion for centuries, so much so, in fact, that the term “aesthetics” has become synonymous with the philosophy of art; the philosophy concerned with how we experience and perceive beauty. Though there are many definitions to potentially employ, the most instrumental definition of aesthetics for this discussion is: A set of principles underlying and guiding the work of a particular artist or artistic movement.
Taking a look at Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass, you will find that there is great emphasis placed on the visual aesthetic of the book. The pages are written on a typewriter then scanned into the book, often with pen marks, edits, and annotations handwritten by Lana directly on the page. There are paintings and photos scattered between poems, some by Lana and some by others. Overall, the collection evokes a sense of nostalgia, being reminiscent of an old manuscript or diary lost long ago.
With this in mind, there was a particular comment made by Rachel in her video that I found interesting -“the whole book feels very contrived and maybe a little fake” claiming that Lana places "style over substance", or aesthetics over art.
Now I’d like to say that as soon as Rachel spoke this, I had an immediate intuitive understanding of what she meant, as this is a criticism I myself have been inclined to use. My goal here is not to argue against Rachel, but to instead, take a deeper dive into the philosophical implication of the claim “aesthetics over art”, pull apart what “fakeness” has to do with it, and possibly challenge the ways we tend to think about aesthetics.
The phrase “aesthetics over art” makes an important implication - that aesthetics and art are distinct concepts. Yet this seems to be in contradiction with what we know about art itself. If art can loosely be defined as creative expression that maximizes the role of beauty in telling a story or creating an emotional effect on the observer, then all art has an aesthetic whether the artist is aware of it or not. How could you create a collection of poetry that didn’t have an aesthetic? What would that look like? And even if you tried creating a collection devoid of any immediately apparent one, wouldn’t that be an aesthetic in and of itself? Art is aesthetic and aesthetic is art.
What I believe Rachel meant by this criticism was that Lana was trying too hard to fit the aesthetic of a vintage starving artist which made the overall look of the collection feel insincere or fake. And while I undoubtedly cannot disagree with the fact that every bit of the book was intentionally crafted to look a certain way, I am still overcome with a resounding "so what?". Isn't that art after all? Isn't every bit of it supposed to be intentional? And given that so many find beauty and joy in this type of artistic aesthetic, Lana creating an immersive experience that her readers will find beauty in seems to be in line with the most fundamental goal of art - beauty.
Like global pandemic has become a sign of our times, so has relatability as a metric by which we judge poetry, film, and literature. There is an increasing demand for the themes and stories expressed in art to be reflective of the lives of audiences. There is a tendency for “relatable” art to be deemed automatically authentic, because it reflects an experience known to the consumer, making it easy for them to believe it sincere. After all, we all believe ourselves to be authentic, don’t we? And while there is something incredibly powerful and validating about seeing your own experiences being reflected in poetry, music, and film, I believe there may be another, more sinister reason as to why we are drawn to it. Consuming relatable art prevents you from encountering the experiences of those in potentially better circumstances than you. Authenticity becomes synonymous with relatability, and attraction to relatability is often a self-placating desire to justify one’s own mediocrity and ward off the envy associated with watching someone seemingly escape the constraints of the life they were given. Relatability takes away the challenge of needing to look at something from somebody else’s perspective, or empathizing with new ideas, opinions, or ways of thinking, and instead, quarantines our preconceived world-views into safe, untouchable, bubbles. Reading poetry that expresses someone having the same struggles as you provides comfort, while reading poetry by someone who has escaped these struggles in a way you have not thus becoming unrelatable, provides a sense of inferiority. As a result, relatable, and therefore “authentic” art, is promoted to a near moralising degree.
Let’s take a look at the poem Happy from the collection, and the following excerpt taken from it:
People think that I'm rich and I am but not how they think
I have a truck with a gold key chain in the ignition
And on the back it says: happy, joyous, and free
And when I drive
I think about the last time my friends were driving with me
How the radio was so loud that I couldn't hear the words
So we became the music
In response to these lines, in her critique video, Rachel states, “So you are rich in the way people think, plus more. You have ridiculous amounts of wealth and good friends. Am I supposed to relate to this? Because I don’t”, later stating “it just sounds like bragging”. Let’s just get it out of the way that I am about thirty million dollars and twenty friends shy of finding this poem relatable, as I am sure is the case for the majority of people reading this. But the question remains, does this really matter? And while this can be a fine criticism of celebrity lifestyles, why does it have any bearing on artistic merit?
An interesting paradox also arises here - in order for Lana or artists in general to seem more authentic, they should have to sacrifice truth in storytelling in service of being more relatable to the crowds.
This isn’t to say that relatable art can’t be good or enjoyable, in fact, I believe how relatable a work is should hold no bearing on its judgement. I even value relatable art for its particular brand of seductiveness and its ability to create a sense of validation in people; but I also think that there is great function in art that is specifically unrelatable to the audience. It becomes an exercise in empathy, learning about other people’s lifestyles, worldviews, experiences, and at the very least, a form of escapism - this sort of exposure is an invaluable asset in furthering your own horizons.
All the World’s a Stage
Like most other mammals, human beings are psychologically wired to be creatures of play, and contrary to popular belief, the games don’t stop once childhood ends. Instead, they become more sophisticated, subtle, and higher-stakes, but rest assured, there is still a part of all of us that is fighting pirates and flying with fairies in Neverland. From the flirtatious banter of star crossed lovers to the clever negotiations of a sly business woman, there is a hint of roleplay in all we do. It allows us to temporarily escape the banality of everyday life by making the mundane seem interesting. More importantly though, roleplay is the vehicle for change. It is a widely held belief that if a person wants to experience metamorphosis, the internal change must precede the change in behavior. However, this doesn’t seem to be true. If you want to grow, you can’t just wait around for it to happen. Instead, if you desire personal progress, there must be a period of time where you act as though the change is real, a period of time of faking it ‘till you make it. In other words, a mandatory period of being inauthentic in the aim of achieving a desired end.
A Challenge to You
So what is all of this to say? Well, you only have one life to live, and it’s too short to waste on being someone you have no creative control over, or worrying about how being the artist you truly want will influence an audience’s perception of you. Remember, we are the masters of our own fates and captains of our own souls. With this, I challenge you to dance through the daffodils, but do it as whoever you want to be. Take some time for introspection and think about your influences, muses, and secret desires, then don’t be afraid to start imbuing yourself and your art with such things. Stay true to your morals, passions, and be genuine in your expression of emotion, but don’t let it affect the way you express yourself. When the poet you become is in alignment with the poet you wanted to be all along, that is true authenticity, and that is a poet to be remembered.
Please check out my video on my YouTube channel that accompanies this blog post below!