OK, Fine, Let’s Talk About Authenticity

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This is not a post about Lana Del Rey. Or, at least, it isn’t just or even mostly about Lana Del Rey. I can’t deny that it was partially inspired by the recent, deafening backlash against those who would judge the singer based on her wealthy dad, puffy lips, or the failure of the recording career she attempted to launch under her given name, Lizzy Grant. Critics like The New Yorker’s Sasha Frere-Jones have zero patience for those who insist on “authenticity” as he defines it, calling their arguments “arrantly stupid.”

If the Del Rey authenticity debate were as one-dimensional as Frere-Jones suggests, then he’d be absolutely right. But my own reservations about her — and the painful experience of watching MTV’s new Brooklyn-hipster sitcom, I Just Want My Pants Back, lead me to believe that there is a more complex conversation to be had about authenticity and its relationship to art.

For those who missed the sneak peek of the show’s pilot that aired after the MTV Video Music Awards in August and kicked off a double-episode premiere last night, I Just Want My Pants Back is a TV adaptation of David J. Rosen’s book by the same groan-worthy name. Its protagonist, Jason Strider, is a post-collegiate Brooklynite with a coed group of friends. In the debut episode, he’s got two main problems: he works a soul-crushing job as a receptionist at a casting agency, where his boss says things like, “I am Pharaoh, you are Jew” (Jason is, in fact, Jewish) and reminds him that he’s easily replaceable in our current, recession-era economy; and he hasn’t gotten laid in six weeks.

The first issue may take a while to resolve. Jason tells a skeevy acquaintance, “I’ve been thinking about music journalism. I don’t even know where to begin.” In case the prospect of watching this kid take a clueless stab at his fantasy of becoming a journalist isn’t worrisome enough, he launches into the biggest cliché that ever clichéd: “I just can’t spend the rest of my life doing something I don’t like just to get little green bits of paper.” Is this really the story?

Thankfully, for those who would rather see IJWMPB’s cast stop talking about their dreams and start getting naked, Jason’s dry spell seems to be the more pressing concern. He gets some in the first few minutes of the show, from a cute, mouthy girl who’s quirky enough to want to beat the heat by having sex in his refrigerator and borrow his pants the next morning. Jason is excited about their potential for a relationship, but his hopes are dashed when he calls the number she gives him and gets a Thai restaurant. (The deception doesn’t stop him from ordering takeout.) Before the end of the episode, our hero has bounced back, going to bed with a woman who’s into butt play. Truly, he is not hung up on the dream girl who absconded with his clothing — he just wants his pants back.

In its first half hour, the show is constantly flaunting its hipster bona fides. Characters name-drop indie bands and reference Pee-wee Herman, the token douche bag brags about hanging with “locavore sluts,” and the cast parties in a crappy, cramped apartment that will actually look familiar to the demographic the series portrays. (Of course, the cred-grubbing is often — occasionally entertainingly — undermined by MTV’s simultaneous need to make IJWMPB accessible to a mainstream audience. One girl tells her friends that she wants to see “the band Wavves” for her birthday, just in case the casual viewer would misinterpret a desire to see Wavves as a longing for the ocean.) MTV has made it abundantly clear that authenticity was the goal: The network’s senior VP of Creative Music Integration has described the decision to hire — who else? — Wavves’ Nathan Williams as a guest composer for the show as an attempt to tell “the story of the coolest crowd” by getting “an affirmation from the people who provide the soundtrack.”

I don’t just want to chuckle about the fact that authenticity is a central preoccupation of a sitcom on the network that gave us Snooki. In fact, while I could list multiple mistakes IJWMPB makes in its attempt at Brooklyn verité, to be honest, they’re not what actually makes the show bad. What makes it difficult to watch, it turns out, is that it’s so dull. MTV is trying so hard to bring us a series that evokes the feel of life among the “coolest crowd” in Williamsburg that it has forgotten to also work in a plot. And it’s not just the pilot that lacks for action: One of the second episode’s major story lines finds the group’s live-in couple learning the dangers of buying a cheap mattress and Jason reminding us that those damn trousers aren’t going to find themselves.

Like Lana Del Rey’s Born to Die, I Just Want My Pants Back is pretty to look at but essentially content-free. Both products attempt to evoke a world that feels authentic to hip, young, urban types without alienating the mainstream audience that has the power to make a TV show or a pop singer wildly successful. But because the deeply flawed attempt to conjure a real place (in IJWMPB’s case) or a retro, cinematic fantasy world (in Del Rey’s) is the entire function of both projects, neither is sustainable. The first two episodes of the sitcom don’t make me want to watch more, and the first listen to Born to Die doesn’t make me want to play it again, because I’ve already gotten everything out of them that their creators put in. There will be no nuance, because nuance would shatter the uniform surface each product needs to present.

And that’s how we circle back to authenticity. As Lionel Trilling wrote 40 years ago, when people were already arguing about this stuff, “The concept of authenticity can deny art itself, yet at the same time it figures as the dark source of art.” It may be beside the point to complain that the details of an artist’s life don’t exactly match the character she’s presenting, but it’s also undeniable that lived experience — however indirectly it affects the finished product — is an essential component of art that feels both honest and compelling. MTV and Lana Del Rey may have created imaginary worlds that look lifelike from afar, but their lack of actual insight into milieux both real and imagined means that their creations never actually come to life in three dimensions.