A week ago the MTV Video Music Awards celebrated an array of over-the-top visual, bodily, and stylistic performances. The most self-righteous moralizing has been reserved for Miley Cyrus’ awkward entrance into adulthood celebrated with teddy bears, Beetlejuice, and vinyl hot pants, but the collective event staked a clumsy claim to authenticity that has often dogged musicians in particular and subcultures in general. To be authentic implies originality, distinction, and stylistic innovation that springs from a sort of essentialist notion of human experience and raw talent, which is confirmed in “live” performance moments like the VMAs. Two moments at the VMAs—one the celebrated Miley Cyrus dancing sequence, the other focused on the stylings of a member of One Direction–revolve around that ambiguous authenticity and contemporary musical performance.
Musical authenticity has always been closely linked to live performance, but judgmental observers charge that the death rites to such authenticity have been delivered by the likes of MTV. Hannah Montana’s galavant about the Barclay’s Center stage aspired to seem a relatively spontaneous performance reflecting her essential musical skills and instincts, but of course it was as choreographed and constructed as Lady Gaga’s performance moments before Cyrus. A chorus of voices have labeled the Cyrus performance raunchy, crass, or immoral, but Cyrus herself celebrated the fevered discussion—and may even have captured the irrelevance of “authenticity”–when she tweeted that “My VMA performance had 306.000 tweets per minute. That’s more than the blackout or Superbowl! #fact.”