Authenticity in pop music: Examining #representations from today

Throughout history, pop stars and pop singers have distinguished themselves from regular, everyday people by being eccentric, over-the-top, and unconventional, both on stage and off stage. However, there has been a recent trend where many pop stars are going against this typical image and instead #representing themselves as authentic and real, which has been generally well received by the public, as shown by these singers’ popularity and success. By representing themselves as authentic, these pop stars are symbolizing and portraying this “realness” with both their choice of dress as well as with their mannerisms and modes of expression. When examining these representations, however, it is important to consider that this authenticity is only true to a certain extent because these singers do possess high social status and high wealth, and therefore are not really “just like us” and are using this “just like us” façade to sell both their music and their image.

One example of a pop star who represents herself as authentic is Miley Cyrus and she does so by explicitly rejecting notions of traditional femininity. As explained in her chapter “Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power,” Sandra Lee Bartky states that people are born male or female but not masculine or feminine, and that femininity is an artifice and a “mode of enacting and reenacting received gender norms” (95). According to Bartky’s examination of societal ideals, women are supposed to be submissive, take up little space, and be generally modest and refined in their postures and gestures (97). These disciplinary practices of femininity are completely contrived and arbitrary and by blatantly and specifically defying these expectations, Cyrus is able to expose them as fabricated. Cyrus, in her performance style and meet and greets, is very out there. She sticks out her tongue and allows fans to do outrageous poses with her. She also posts photo of herself that show that she is not concerned with being viewed as beautiful at all times, including a photo wearing false rotten teeth. By doing this, she is stepping outside of the norms of femininity and showing that a “real” woman who is famous does not need to embody the ideal that a woman is required to be tame and meek to be successful or desirable, and is simultaneously showing her female audience that they do not necessarily have to follow the strict constructed idea of femininity to be viewed as a woman.

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Another pop star who also represents herself as authentic by defying expectations of femininity is Demi Lovato. According to Michel Foucault in his chapter “Docile Bodies,” a body can be “subjected, used, transformed, and improved” (136). Foucault further affirms that through discipline, culture instructs people to change their bodies, which thus makes the body “an object and target of power” (137). At the beginning of this year, Demi Lovato began posting no makeup selfies on her personal Instagram account with the hashtag #NoMakeupMonday in order to show her fans that they are beautiful without makeup and should feel confident with themselves with or without makeup. By posting photos without makeup, Lovato is showing her fans her “real” appearance, without any adornment or enhancements, and is encouraging them to do the same and feel comfortable doing so. Through this, she is rejecting notions that women must discipline their bodies to look a certain way, and is instead using her unadorned body to make a statement that femininity is constructed and that women should be seen as beautiful without these disciplined practices.

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In a somewhat different manner, singer Katy Perry demonstrates to her fans that she is authentic. Perry constructs her off-stage persona in a specific way by often choosing to wear very silly outfits and quirky styles, which fans of all ages and tastes can copy. In doing this, Perry shows that she is authentic, which Alice Marwick discusses in her paper “Conspicuous and Authentic: Fashion Blogs, Style, and Consumption.” According to Marwick, a person can be viewed as authentic if he or she has a unique “personal style” and is not “overly influenced by trends and sponsors” (11). Through wearing uncommon and distinctive clothing, Perry is producing her image as “different and resistive” by demonstrating that she has “a sense of expression, creativity, and personal ethics” to her fans, which then leaves an impression that she is accessible (13). Through her off-stage fashion choices, Perry is very clearly making a statement about how she wants to be viewed by her audience. As explained in his chapter “Do Clothes Speak?” Fred David explains that fashion can help to “make clear reference to who we are and [who we] wish to be taken as” and that clothes constitute a “visual language,” which express meanings to others (148). Through wearing silly and humorous outfits in her everyday life, Perry is representing herself as relatable, rather than as perfect or contrived, which is how many pop stars represented themselves in the past.

Katy Perry dresses up as a Cheetoh at Kate Hudson's Party

Katy Perry causes chaos as she visits the steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

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Traditionally, pop singers have signaled to their audience that they have high social and financial status through “conspicuous consumption,” which is the idea that in order to show off your wealth, you must continuously spend your money on luxury goods or expensive brands to signal to others that you are in the elite class. In his work The Theory of the Leisure Class, Thorstein Veblen further elaborates that “in order to gain and to hold the esteem of men it is not sufficient merely to possess wealth or power” but that this wealth and power must be “put in evidence, for esteem is awarded only on evidence” (24). Though many celebrities and pop stars specifically have followed this model in the past by wearing elaborate costumes on stage, and expensive, well-known designers while they are not performing, Swedish pop singer Tove Lo rejects this notion and thus presents herself as more relatable and authentic than some of her peers. Through rejecting this idea, she is showing that she is more of a “regular” person, similar to those who make up her audience, and is therefore more explicitly aligning herself with her fans by not partaking in the culture of conspicuous consumption. In order to show that she is accessible, Tove performs in very simple clothing—she frequently chooses to wear plain black jeans or jean shorts paired with black fitted shirts, none of which tend to have visible brand labels. In addition, she often performs barefoot because she feels more comfortable without shoes. Through examining Elizabeth Wilson’s chapter “Adorned in Dreams,” it can be seen that Tove Lo’s style of dress “is an extension of the body” which helps to creates the link between that body and the “social world” (3). Through selecting to reject norms of consumption that other pop stars frequently subscribe to, Tove is able to distinguish herself from them and represent herself as different and more authentic than other pop singers.

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By representing themselves as authentic and “real,” these four pop stars are able to more easily connect with their audience, which in turn leads to greater popularity, and therefore more sales and profitability. When considering these singers’ different ways of depicting themselves as authentic, it is important to keep in mind that these images of realness and relatability are only somewhat genuine because as highly wealthy and successful women in the music industry, they possess influence and consequently, this constructed illusion of “realness” is a at least partially a ploy to sell themselves more successfully to their consumers.

Works Cited 

1.  Bartky, Sandra Lee. “Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power.” Femininity and Domination: Studies  in the Phenomenology of Oppression. New York: Routledge, 1990. Print.

2.  Davis, Fred. “Do Clothes Speak? What Makes Them Fashion?” Fashion Theory: A Reader. Ed. Barnard, Malcolm. New York: Routledge, 2007. 148-58. Print.

3.  Foucault, Michel. “Docile Bodies.” Discipline and Punish: The Birth of Prison. New York: Vintage Books, 1995. Print.

4.  Marwick, Alice. “Conspicuous and Authentic: Fashion Blogs, Style, and Consumption.” International Communication Association annual conference, Boston, MA, 2011. Print.

5.  Veblen, Thorstein, and Stuart Chase. The Theory of the Leisure Class; an Economic Study of Institutions. New York: Modern Library, 1934. Print.

6.  Wilson, Elizabeth. Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity. Berkeley: University of California, 1987. Print.

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