Iggy Azalea, Andrew WK, and the Paradox of Authenticity in Pop Music

The question of authenticity in music is one of those debates that surfaces periodically, and it’s raised its scaly head a few times this week. Most notably, it’s manifested in two places: in Perfect Pussy singer Meredith Graves’ Basilica Soundscape talk on Andrew WK and Lana Del Rey, and the differing standards of authenticity to which she claims they’re held; and in the fact that someone at Billboard thought it was a great idea to get Robert Christgau to review Iggy Azalea’s New Classic, a review in which he compares her to the Beatles, suggests that Tupac’s “flow was never world class,” and holds forth on how Azalea’s authenticity, or lack thereof, matters not a jot. So, who’s right? Do we care about authenticity anymore? The answer, I’d argue, isn’t as simple as either Graves or Christgau wants to argue.

Pop music (and I mean that in its most literal sense here, i.e., popular music, not necessarily just the genre, which will herewith be referred to as “chart pop” to avoid confusion) has always had a vexed relationship with the concept of authenticity. On the one hand, playing music is an inherently performative process, because the minute you strap on a guitar and/or climb onto a stage, you’re performing. You’re becoming something or someone that you wouldn’t be otherwise. It’s impossible to “just be you” on stage, because by stepping on stage you begin to inhabit a character, the character of You On Stage, whoever that might be. (It’s similar to the way that, if you’ve ever been on the radio, your Radio Voice is different from your everyday voice, despite whatever efforts you might make to the contrary.)

On the other hand, pop music has always valued authenticity, or at least the veneer thereof. Often, the two coincide in a completely contradictory fashion: hip hop, for instance, places great emphasis on “keeping it real,” but also allows former prison guard Rick Ross to construct an entirely fictional history for himself, and in the process create a new identity. Sometimes such image construction is part of the artist’s appeal: David Bowie, for instance, or Madonna, who’s been constantly praised over the years for her penchant for reinventing herself.

First, then, to Meredith Graves and Andrew WK. The interesting thing about Andrew WK is that if he’s playing a character — Andrew Wilkes-Krier inhabiting the persona of ultra-positive, white-clad party philosopher — he’s doing it all the time. Andrew WK the character certainly began as an invention — he’s told me as much himself — but also, the character and the man have become so inseparable now that the distinction between the two has become largely irrelevant.

Graves argues that “real women with fake names are somehow considered exponentially less authentic than completely fake men harboring a real, hidden sadness.” In this respect, I think she reads him wrong. His sadness isn’t hidden; it informs everything he does. Arguing that his party-centric persona is an encouragement toward “the ultimate cure for confronting your bleak feelings: getting wasted” is a pretty egregious misreading of the man and his ideas. (It’s not like he hasn’t talked extensively about this, either.) Her vision of him recalls Ryan Schreiber’s review of I Get Wet for Pitchfork in 2002 — seeing him only as a long-haired dudebro who exists to entertain dudebros, perhaps ironically. It’s an easy impression to form, but it sells the man short (as Pitchfork’s Ian Cohen argued on the album’s tenth anniversary a couple of years back). You can understand Schreiber misreading him on face value, but 12 years later, it’s kinda disappointing that Graves can’t do better — and she’s also, knowingly or otherwise, perpetuating some of the rather sillier Andrew WK-related conspiracy theories that have been bobbling around in the sewers of the Internet over the last decade.

This doesn’t necessarily invalidate her larger point, but examining authenticity debates as purely a product of gender — “When a female musician is in any way fake, she’s denied creative agency, written off as uninventive and talentless” — is oversimplifying a complex phenomenon. I certainly agree with Graves that music fans are often more a priori skeptical of women’s authenticity, but there are also plenty of men who’ve been ridiculed for their lack of “realness,” etc. (Remember Vanilla Ice?) It’s as much a function of genre and context as anything else. Graves cites the endless debates around Lana Del Rey’s authenticity circa Born to Die, but everyone stopped arguing about this once it became clear Del Rey was aiming for bona fide pop stardom, not trying to position herself as part of the “indie” world. (What that says about the world of indie is entirely for you to decide.)

Which brings us to Iggy Azalea. The standards of authenticity for pop stars — and c’mon, that’s what she is — have always been fluid and hard to define. Chart pop is first and foremost entertainment, and its practitioners have adopted all manner of flamboyant personae over the years. No one ever really complained about, say, the Spice Girls’ authenticity — everyone knew they were a constructed group, but who cares? Everyone knows that Dolly Parton is probably an entirely different proposition when she hops into Carl Dean’s pickup truck and stops playing Dolly Parton. Everyone knows that Beyoncé The Flawless isn’t flawless, but god help you if you try to say so out loud. And shit, for all that she’s on the downswing now, the most successful pop star of the 2010s has been nothing but a flipbook of images, each more outrageous and removed from reality than the last.

In this respect, Iggy Azalea is no different — everyone knows that “Iggy Azalea” is 24-year-old Australian expat Amethyst Amelia Kelly playing a role. The difference, I think, is that the role she’s chose for herself is one that demands an authenticity she doesn’t have. She’s rather invited this debate upon herself — after all, the literal first lyric of “Fancy” is, “First thing’s first, I’m the realest.” Which, of course, she isn’t. In his aforementioned Billboard review, Christgau argues that this doesn’t matter — “it would be silly to expect a flat-out pop bid like The New Classic to be deep — or, please, ‘authentic'” — although he also devotes a fair portion of his piece to demonstrating that it does, concluding, “You want authentic? Iggy Azalea has all the lineaments of a risk-taking young rebel without a well-off family to back her up.”

To which I say, c’mon. There are plenty of Australian hip hop artists who come from genuinely rough backgrounds and write music about it (none of whom Christgau appears to have heard, given that he cites an act who ceased to be relevant about 15 years ago as “rul[ing] the actually existing Australian rap subculture”). But Iggy Azalea’s not one of them. Australian rap is an acquired taste, that’s for sure, but it’s also a commercial behemoth in its own country, and it’s as diverse as any other international rap scene, replete with innovators, imitators, and its fair share of assclowns.

To suggest Azalea needed to escape this in order to go and seek fame and fortune in Miami is silly — there’s certainly a market for what she’s doing in Australia. She went to the US because she wanted to be a star in the US. And sure, going off to live in another country in your teens is difficult — but shit, I went to London at 19, without an especially well-off family to back me up, and I’m not claiming to be the realest. She’s a pretty white girl from Mullumbimby — a place best approximated as a cross between Goa and Northern California — who went to the US because she wanted to be a singer. And hey, good for her. There’s a constant stream of young Australians coming across the Pacific in search of fame and fortune, and it’s hard to imagine that, say, Liam Hemsworth wouldn’t invite similar ridicule if he suddenly started insisting that his hood pass was intact.

Is she judged more harshly because she’s a woman? Yes, I imagine she is. Trying to be taken seriously as a female rapper is hard enough as it is. But ultimately, she’s controversial not so much because she’s adopting a persona that doesn’t reflect her upbringing — it’s because she’s based her entire career on selling the fake persona as her real self. (It’s worth noting here that there are plenty of hip hop fans who won’t give Rick Ross the time of day for precisely this reason.) And ultimately, that’s the thing with authenticity in 2014: you can become something as artificial or constructed as you want, so long as you don’t insist that that construct is real.