Sunday, June 28, 2009

Tag, You're It: Authenticity, Identity, and Play

I am the last person on earth to discover music sites like Pandora and, but that's only made me more evangelical. Listening to whatever music streams on the "Animal Collective channel" or the "Freakfolk channel" or the "Ambitious ambidextrous gluttons channel," I am completely absorbed and entertained thanks to the way tags, labels and channels can play to my mood. In my day job, I create, modify and apply tags in order to get the word out about all manner of books to the right people. Both the music and reader channels suggest that tags work, but not singly, only when considered in multiple. Steve Reich is both "classical" and "avant-garde," "minimalist" and "experimental." Emily Dickinson is both "lyrical" and "experimental," "Christian" and "heretical." No single label or collection of labels works across artists or even a single musician.

We're sold the idea that bands and authors are unified stable formations--whether it's a brand like The Pussycat Dolls or James Patterson constructed with marketing in mind, or more "authentic" acts like REM and John Updike. Recent concerns about Twitter and authenticity in social media suggest that this is not just a matter for big brands but also for the new mass anxiety around "The Brand of Me." To turn the perspective around: tags make us easier to market to, but the complex of our desires and thought-patterns are both infinite and evanescent. Art, music and literature are made created from a passing weather of personalities, situations, and materials.

Musicians themselves don't worry about the marketable myth of the authentic voice too much; they understand it's just part of the business (unless they're not fully recovered from outrageous success). But if ever an artist-type is prone to become trapped in this myth, it's the "poet." This is at least part of what's so exciting about Flarf and its place in the long, proud history of Conceptualism. But it's also what's frustrating about it. There is often an attitude around self-styled oppositional poetics that it alone is "authentic" in the way it demolishes the myth of authenticity. Writers, like musicians and artists, do have a style that has developed out of habit, circumstance and good old Emersonian "Genius," but it's still changeable. You don't have to take a sledge hammer to your style to play. You can both toy with authenticity and mean it, as Jennifer Moxley does in all her books, but particularly her most recent one, "Clampdown." Not to mention most anything Lisa Robertson writes.

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