Monday, June 18, 2012

Against authenticity

[Trigger warning: This post contains yet more speculation on the New Sincerity.]

There's a post on Montevidayo, by Carinna Finn, connecting Chelsey Minnis to the New Sincerity, or the "New New Sincerity," via her use of melodrama. At first, I thought Finn was saying that a lot of the artists associated with the New Sincerity aren't sincere at all, but rather melodramatic; but in fact she seems to be saying melodrama is sincerity, or a kind of sincerity:

And when [Chelsey Minnis] says “It hurts like a puff sleeve dress on a child prostitute,” it’s because that is what it’s really like, and there is no other way to say it. Her signature “this is like that” construction is an exercise in simile that is both ultra-transparent and extremely dense; like Bishop says in her poem about metaphor, “cold dark deep and absolutely clear.” CM and [Lana del Ray]’s melodramatic tendencies are not trying to obscure or costume anything – they are being absolutely clear.

As I responded in a comment, it seems to me that Minnis’s poetry is all about costume, dressing up, playtime, theater. A celebration of silliness, of the tantrum. I’m not sure what we gain by calling it transparent or sincere. In fact, what I love about her poetry is that it doesn't seem to care about reality ("what it's really like"), or this reality anyway; it takes place in an alternate reality that looks very much like a child's playroom but is freakishly sexualized and often violent (but in a non-threatening way, because it's so stylized and unreal). As such it fits right in with the "Gurlesque" aesthetic. As I wrote in a review of Poemland a couple of years ago, "Her poems are subversive, but they’re delivered in the voice of a naughty little girl who defies 'god’s wish.'" Minnis's poems, like Tao Lin's, are completely distinctive in style and tone, and in both cases it seems to me that there are many better ways to describe them than in terms of their "sincerity" or lack thereof. I don't really care if they're sincere – or, insofar as I do, I actually like them better if they're not. 

Katy Henriksen (in a remark to me on Twitter) drew a compelling parallel between the idea of "sincerity" in poetry/fiction and "authenticity" in music, which reminded me that I'm not sure I've ever posted my ready-rant about the word "authentic" as it applies to food culture. Which is to say, I hate it. Something I heard people say over and over in Boston was that such and such Mexican restaurant had "authentic Mexican food," AKA "not Tex-Mex." This pissed me off deeply because even middle-of-the-road Tex-Mex places in Texas are generally ten times better than Mexican restaurants of any stripe in the Boston area. And anyway, Tex-Mex is no less "authentic" than Mexican food; it's a regional cuisine like Cajun food. Tex-Mex isn't trying and failing to be Mexican food; it's authentic unto itself. And anyway part 2, I don't even care if something is authentic to any one region, as long as it tastes good (see the Korean taco craze). And something can be authentic and bad, because there's bad food everywhere. (I prefer most of the tapas restaurants I've been to in the States to the ones I went to in Spain.)

So, basically, if you want me to read your poem or eat your taco, don't tell me it's sincere or authentic. Tell me what it's like.


  1. I prefer Sancerre to sincere. It goes not ill with turquoise tacos.

  2. I don't yet get what "new sincerity" is, or is supposed to be, or purports to be, in poetry. Though I have a visceral (or I maybe mean knee-jerk) reaction that it's what happens in poetry when people try to write it without really having learned to write it. This being my highly uninformed ramshackle guesswork on the subject.

    (It occurs to me to wonder if the last sentence I just wrote might itself be an example of one of the kinds of things "new sincerity" might encompass. Again I beg ignorance.)

    My understanding of "authenticity" in music comes mostly from folk music (including in particular what are usually called field recordings). As folk musicians (and people who listen to and study folk music) use the term, it has to do with how close a piece of music or a performance of it is to the original source.

    So, for instance (using this criterion), a woman in the northern English countryside singing "Barbara Allen" unaccompanied by instrument or other voices might be considered to have a high degree of authenticity, in the sense that it's really folk music (i.e. music of the people). And an informal ensemble of musicians playing and singing the same song in a pub in London would still maybe be said to have a fairly high degree of authenticity.

    And a Joan Baez recording of the same song would be a bit further removed; and a recording of the song by, say, Roseanne Cash (using acoustic guitar with amp) or Tori Amos (while playing electric keyboard and backed up by electric guitar and drums) might be fairly far removed from the source, so might be considered the least authentic of the examples above.

    The might, however, all be playing/performing with similar degrees of sincerity.


    Regarding authenticity in food (about which I won't try to expound): here in Minneapolis I once walked by a small cafe, with about six or seven signs in the window announcing the types of food they offered. These included taco pizza, gyros, veggie chili, yogurt, falafel, barbecued chicken, a couple of other motley items I'm not remembering -- and in the middle of the window, a large sign that said "KOSHER." How much more authentic could you want?

    1. Ha, there were some places in Allston like that!

      I don't usually listen to kind of music that seems to care much about authenticity, so it's not a term I think about much in relation to music. I believe the aforementioned Katy Henriksen, who knows much more about folk music and its musical descendants than I do, plans to write about the topic someday soon.