Few people have ever taken being “real” as seriously as Richey Edwards of the Manic Street Preachers. In 1991, Edwards was being interviewed by journalist Steve Lamacq who — being interested in authenticity at the time — asked the band if their “slogans and gesturing and glam rock look” undermined their art. In response, Edwards carved “4 REAL” into his left forearm with a razor blade.
Taylor Swift is unlikely to ever do the same. But she’s the inspiration for American dictionary Merriam-Webster naming “authentic” as their word of 2023. Swift is one of the celebrities, says the dictionary, who “made headlines in 2023 with statements about seeking their “authentic voice” and “authentic self’”.
The singer-songwriter has been steadily re-recording her back catalogue in order to wrest back control of her songs’ masters, with the new editions identified by a parenthesis in the title: “(Taylor’s Version)”. It’s hard to imagine that these re-releases would have been so commercially and critically successful without the importance that we put on authenticity. By being blessed by her, Taylor’s new versions become more valuable than the near-identical originals.
Merriam-Webster also cites technology for their 2023 “authentic” choice because AI-generated photos, videos and audio which seem real but aren’t are rife online. The Pope posed in a white Balenciaga puffer jacket and Sadiq Khan declared “I don’t give a flying shit about the Remembrance weekend.” Neither actually happened, but many people believed the bogus evidence. Why? Because it seemed truthful. The Pope wears cool clothes — why not a puffer jacket? Sadiq Khan, according to some on the Right, hates Britain’s heritage — why wouldn’t he slag off Remembrance weekend?
Merriam-Webster defines authentic as “not false or imitation”; a synonym of “real” and “actual”; and “true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character”. That last definition is less about truth than about “truthiness” — coined by Stephen Colbert in 2005 to denote a kind of truth that’s as much in the eye of the beholder as in objective reality. It gets at an old idea that art is the best route to the deepest truths. In his 16th-century essay The Defence of Poesy, Philip Sidney made a case for the superiority of poetry to history and philosophy. History was “captive to the truth of a foolish world”, and philosophy was too abstract, he said. But poetry could convey meaning by describing the world “as it should be”.
Our modern notion of authenticity owes much more to truthiness than truth. People insist on their own reality, and sometimes it pays off. In 1991, a few months after Edwards got to work with his razor blade, Caroline Calloway was born in Virginia. She became an icon of our age of scammers: faking her academic transcript to get into Cambridge University, building a Gatsby-esque brand by throwing parties in photogenic hired rooms, signing and then withdrawing from a six-figure book deal, selling literal “snake oil” on her website, then finally releasing a (quite well-received) book this year called Scammer. The lies eventually became the product: if you can’t fake it until you make it, turn faking it into making it.
And why not? The custodians of apparent objective truths — notably, the neoliberal economists who insisted that there was no alternative system — have been revealed to be just as hopelessly subjective as the rest of us. Political authenticity is now judged by “vibes” — truthiness — rather than policy, hence why dedicated Swiftie Liz Truss won her short-lived Downing Street residency. Being real is overrated: authenticity these days is in vibes, not truth.