Remarkably, given that it might be similar to wilfully exchanging your sportscar for a horse and cart, some 3.5m vinyl records will be sold by the end of this year, the highest sales have been in 20 years. But then perhaps this is no surprise: after all, vinyl is, we’re told, not some technologically Luddite medium for music, but the only “real” way to listen to it. Except when we don’t — because it also turns out that nearly half of all people who buy vinyl never get around to actually listening to it at all and 7% of them don’t even own a turntable on which to play it.
What they are buying themselves, it would seem, is a sleeve full of authenticity. That’s the ineffable but essential quality of our times. It’s what convinces us that our purchase decisions, and the lifestyle they reflect, have some deeper value and resonance. Even, that is, while the commercial world, also pursuing authenticity, packages some ersatz version of it for our pleasure. Whether it’s our choice of coffee, bread, or what used to be any other everyday basic, or the very experiences that make up our lives from moment to moment, these are now made a matter of supposed connoisseurship. We demand the artisanal over the humdrum, the lo-fi over the futuristic, the tangible over the digital, the gritty over the polished, the direct over the mediated, the independent over the corporate. To hell with actual quality or enjoyment — everything has to be handmade, organic, original, slow, small-batch, limited, local, heritage, the real McCoy. It has to be authentic.
The desire to live in some pre-lapsarian Utopia of the genuine and sincere is understandable
Except when it isn’t — when authenticity becomes a marketing ploy like any other. And this is precisely what it has become, ably making dupes of anyone who insists on authenticity, only to find that, if the digging is deep enough, ultimately it’s just a façade, like so much wood veneer on an MDF table. Retailers must be careful not to be too successful, thus becoming chains, because small stuff is authentic. Politicians must decry their privileged roots, because working-class stuff is authentic. Products fresh from the factory line are given the faked patina of the aged and careworn because old stuff is authentic. Indeed, don’t bother with a factory at all. That’s far too organised in times that glorify the makeshift. Get a workshop full of wizened craftspeople instead.
Small wonder that authentic obsessives — no doubt all on the hunt for “the real me” — are so quick to cry foul when any hint of inauthenticity is revealed; often, ironically, when something is just too authentic to be believed. But the harder they look, the more everything appears to be fake to more or less a degree. And that’s arguably because it is: because authenticity as it’s currently yearned for can’t exist. It’s a quicksilver quality, gone as soon as you put your finger on it.
Sure, the endless revision afforded by technology and the omnipresent beckoning of advertising mean we live in a world of such superficiality and spin that the desire to live in some pre-lapsarian Utopia of the genuine and sincere is understandable, even comforting, and all the more so during economically uncertain times. But it remains a Utopia — and to insist that we can simply conjure it up by demanding something called authenticity is only to send those that do into an existential tailspin. Better to accept that we exist amid a live stream of myths and go happily along with all the entertaining stories.