This is a response to a conversation with my friend Matt.
Matt, I think you’re right to start with reality TV as the prime example of our present understanding of the real. Initially reality TV was like documentary filmmaking—the camera took a neutral perspective on real-life events, and we assumed the creators were being neutral, too. But as reality TV evolved to compete for viewers, its creators’ neutrality eroded, and now its defining characteristic is simply that “this happened.” We acknowledge that the camera, being a neutral machine, isn’t quite lying to us, even though it’s being used to depict something that is partially contrived. No matter how scripted or deceptive it may be, reality TV shows you something that really happened. That’s the real. We can define the real as anything that happens, regardless of how it was created, so long as we are presented with evidence of it. OK Go’s music videos are a good example. They’re not necessarily artistic or valuable or even suited to the music, but you watch them and have this overwhelming sense of, “Damn. That happened.”
We’re talking about cultural products—music, movies, fashion, celebrity gossip, video games, culinary trends, etc., and we encounter these primarily through media. We read about them online, watch them on video, or listen to them on headphones. Since they are mediated, real things are not always equal to each other. A funny YouTube video with 1,000 hits is real, because it really happened and you can see it for yourself. But a funny YouTube video with 3,000,000 hits is even more real. It has somehow “happened” more. With the real, value correlates to ubiquity. The more a thing happens, via Facebook or Last Night’s Party or Us Weekly, the more real it is. In advanced states, the real becomes tautological. Kate Gosselin is Kate Gosselin because she is Kate Gosselin.
This premium on ubiquity means that some things can grow monstrously real even though everyone finds them distasteful or undeserving. Donald Trump is a loathsome prick. But he’s on a TV show, he has scads of money, and people are compelled to talk about him. He happens a lot. He is very real. So is Lady Gaga, even though every move she makes is contrived. So is the cast of Jersey Shore. Since all publicity is good publicity, it follows that all ratings are good ratings (even if viewers are tuning in to be appalled) and all money is good money (even if it’s acquired in a distasteful way). The real is pretty straightforward.
Authenticity, on the other hand, is like a hate crime. We all agree on the nature of the crime, and we all know who committed the crime, but we argue about the accused’s emotional and psychological state when he committed it. When we judge authenticity, we can agree that you’re standing in a divey-looking bar with a broken mirror and $3 cans of Bud Light. But we might argue about whether the bar intends to be divey-looking, or whether it’s just naturally a dive. In both cases we have to weigh a mountain’s worth of complicated backstories, contradictory interpretations, and hidden agendas. There is something almost naively noble about trying to evaluate a thing’s authenticity. You have to ask whether it’s being true to its essential nature—without necessarily knowing what its essential nature is, because how are we supposed to know a thing like that? The notion of authenticity is simple, but once you begin to investigate, it becomes terribly complex. Authenticity is frustrating.
I’m actually in favor of the real. As a means of evaluating cultural products, I think it works better than authenticity—in large part because of what I said earlier about monstrously real things. Nobody loves the very real stuff. We don’t praise the real automatically. It’s just a statement about where a thing stands in our cultural hierarchy. Because people are willing to both elevate it (by acknowledging its cultural importance) and denigrate it (by constantly talking shit), the real provides a fairly objective spectrum along which we can situate our opinions and identities as cultural consumers, relative to each other.
Authenticity, by contrast, was treated like a universal virtue. It became oppressive when small groups of people stamped a thing as “authentic” and expected everyone else to revere it accordingly. Authenticity was all-consuming: if you wore authentic clothes, you started down a slippery slope where you also had to watch authentic movies and eat authentic food. And if you were ever tainted by something inauthentic, it called into question the authenticity of everything else you did. But we all partake of the real to varying degrees. We’re all compromised by it, and we’re allowed to recoil from it when it becomes too much for us. The real is just a massive set of crude ideas about what counts. Each of us is encouraged to agree or disagree in our own way.
There’s a YouTube phenomenon where amateur bands play cover versions of hugely popular songs, like Beyonce’s “Single Ladies,” in a style that matches the band’s own obscure niche, whether it’s death metal or a cappella. The phenomenon is a tacit admission that Beyonce is bigger than the cover band will ever be. But it’s also a critique of Beyonce’s version and an aggressive demonstration of the cover band’s own identity. We don’t necessarily cheer for the real. We just start thinking about what our remix will sound like.