Demystifying authenticity in the sociology of culture

Authored by: David Grazian

Handbook of Cultural Sociology

Print publication date:  July  2010
Online publication date:  September  2010

Print ISBN: 9780415474450
eBook ISBN: 9780203891377
Adobe ISBN: 9781134026159


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The performance of authenticity pervades our popular culture and public arenas. In recent years “reality” television has proliferated not only because it is inexpensive to produce, but for its brazen attempts to capture “ordinary” people in unscripted moments of everyday life, warts and all (Grindstaff 2002). African American hip-hop music artists sell records on the basis of their ability to “keep it real” by remaining “true” to their neighborhood roots, even when they hail from middle-class suburbs (McLeod 1999). In American politics, highly stylized candidates perform authenticity to within an inch of their lives by emphasizing their working-class tastes, however manufactured. For example, during the early 1990s Tennessee Republican Fred Thompson’s senatorial campaign reinvented the wealthy lobbyist “as a good old boy: it leased a used red pickup truck for him to drive, dressed up in jeans and a work shirt, with a can of Red Man chewing tobacco on the front seat” (Krugman 2007). Media elites act no differently, going so far as to downgrade their résumés for fear of seeming inauthentic and out of touch with “common” people. Conservative talk-show host Bill O’Reilly has asserted that “I understand working-class Americans. I’m as lower-middle-class as they come,” even though he hails from the decidedly well-off neighborhood of Westbury, Long Island, and earned advanced degrees from Harvard and Boston University without financial aid (Murphy 2002).

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