I live in what many consider to be the capital of fake. To outsiders — and a few disgruntled insiders — Los Angeles is a company town where people reinvent themselves to suit whatever audience is present, a place where plastic surgery is a forgone conclusion, where religious affiliations and surnames are as mutable as lipstick. And no one is slapped with charges of fakery more than women who work in the business here.
As the sheer number of people with self-invented names attending the Grammys this year will attest, mutability catapults stars to success. But paradoxically, it can also be a sticking point for critics. Female pop stars, in particular, are quickly slapped with a fake label as soon as they break big. Many of the most successful women in music — Ke$ha, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Lana Del Rey — are highly theatrical, platinum-selling artists who are repeatedly called “fake.” And that perceived inauthenticity is endemic to how we talk about them as artists.
Most of these artists did change their names, their looks, and their sounds in pursuit of mass appeal. Katy Perry went from singing in Christian churches to spraying whipped cream out of her bra. The Katy Perry: Part of Me documentary was, in essence, a feature-length answer to charges of inauthenticity, belaboring the point that, despite early attempts to find success in a number of genres, Perry has always been herself. Stefani Germanotta, meanwhile, gave up premenstrual-angsty piano ballads and donned latex to become Lady Gaga — and was subsequently charged with faking her freakiness. When Lana Del Rey first broke big, Hipster Runoff devoted his entire blog to “The Lana Del Report,” hating on and obsessing about her “Lizzy Grant” origins and artificially plumped lips. And absolutely everyone knocked Ke$ha as a poseur until we found ourselves dancing to her hits again and again.
Reinvention has long been key to success — especially in artistic fields. So why are we hating on pop stars for adopting the very qualities that entertain us? We’ve all heard the advice to “fake it til you make it.” The pop-music industry takes that a step further: Fake it so you can make it. If your work isn’t catching on, try something new. Seen through this lens, fakery is laudable! It takes guts — and savvy — to radically change your career, your looks, your approach to life. In just about any industry, the people who don’t adapt to changing times are left behind. And those who evolve quickest, those who are first to learn new technology or hop aboard new trends, tend to be the most successful.
So-called fakeness is also the antidote to imposter syndrome: that feeling you get that you’re really not supposed to be here, that you somehow lucked your way into a job or tricked the boss into giving you that plum assignment. The best remedy is to fake it. To pretend you’re 100 percent confident in your skills and abilities, and usually you’ll rise to the occasion. (Ask almost anyone who’s “made it” if she’s ever bluffed her way through a meeting.) Most of us have never added a dollar sign to our names or purchased new boobs, but we have swallowed our insecurities in order to succeed professionally.
The most “inauthentic” female entertainers should be heralded as celebrity spokespeople in the crusade against imposter syndrome because their shape-shifting is so visible, and because they’ve accrued so much wealth and power as a result. But the fact that these women all found success after changing themselves is used as a way to discredit their work. Charges of fakeness don’t only dog up-and-coming artists; they’re a go-to insult when we want to knock a woman on top. Even Queen Bey isn’t immune: After Beyonce sang a flawless National Anthem at Obama’s second inauguration, she was accused of having lip-synched it. Then she was called hypocritical for the name of her world tour. How dare the woman who told us that girls run the world also nod to the name “Mrs. Carter”?
Meanwhile, even female artists with a more staid stage presence, like Taylor Swift — who is nominated for a slew of Grammys for the fourth time in her four-album career — aren’t safe. After years of mostly avoiding the kind of fakery charges that dogged her fellow chart-topping young women, the critics have recently gone after her personal life as the false construction. According to the tabloids, her relationships are fake, her wedding invitations are fake, even her boobs might be fake.
The problem, really, is that even starlets contain multitudes. Lana Del Rey “has many different qualities that women in our culture aren’t allowed to be, all at once, so people are trying to find the inauthentic one,” Rookie founder Tavi Gevinson told music journalist Jessica Hopper last year. Society abhors a woman who can’t be categorized — especially if she is willfully defying the categories, and even more so if she’s famous. A more recent piece in The Walrus calmly explained, “When a woman embodies a persona, we see words like ‘disingenuous’ and ‘fake.’ When a man does the same, we get ‘Jack White Is the Coolest, Weirdest, Savviest Rock Star of Our Time’ — the actual subtitle of last year’s New York Times Magazine profile of Jack White by Josh Eells.”
Smart people evolve to stay relevant. And if you’re around long enough, changing often enough, people eventually accept it as a positive quality. (Madonna, anyone?) Hating on young women for daring to change is a pretty nefarious way of undermining their long-term success. I have no idea what Taylor Swift and Lana Del Rey and Katy Perry consider to be their authentic selves. And that’s exactly the point. None of us are in a position to allege what’s “fake,” especially when we’re talking about people who make their living — a very good living — entertaining us. Nicki Minaj puts it another way: “And if I’m fake, I ain’t notice cause my money ain’t.”