Have you ever noticed how important “realness” is to musicians these days? Listening to a rap song, you’d think you were listening to Boethius or Augustine or one of the other Neoplatonists describing their view of the “hierarchy of being.” It’s awesome.
I first encountered the connection between music and realness in this scene from Almost Famous:
I thought it was hilarious (watch the video from the beginning if you want more context) but didn’t understand it. What was so great about something’s being real? But later, as I got more familiar with pop music, I noticed the same thing coming up over and over. And it wasn’t supposed to be funny. There was something about realness that people evidently found to be of fundamental importance.
And I noticed the same thing in my grad school philosophy studies (I wasn’t a philosophy undergrad) except the old philosophers seemed to have a whole theory worked out. More real equaled better. Less real equaled worse. And that made me want to write about the connection between the modern musicians and the ancient philosophers.
So, for the first post in this series on songs about realness, let’s take a song everyone knows. (Then we’ll deal with ones that you may or may not know.) This is “Fancy,” by Iggy Azalea, ft. Charli XCX. The video, evidently, is an homage to Clueless, which I’ve never seen.
“Fancy” made it to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, so I’m not the only one who liked the song. What I find particularly amusing about it is the opening line, “First things first: I’m the rilliss.”
Okay, so it’s “realest,” but that’s not how she says it. She says it “like a rapper.” When I first heard the song, in fact, I assumed she was black, like most rappers. But she isn’t. She’s white. And she’s not even American, like most rappers. She’s Australian. So her rapping accent is “put on.” Though she may be the realest, he rapping accent isn’t real.
Putting on an accent is pretty standard in contemporary music, of course. Look at this article on pop punk accents that my friend Tom Sparrow (@ThomSparrow) found. It quotes Billie Joe from from Green Day as saying “I’m an American guy faking an English accent faking an American accent.”
But the America/England thing doesn’t just happen in punk. Have you ever heard opera sung by an American? Americans sing English-language operas as if they were Brits. Nor is Iggy Azalea the only white vocalist ever to adopt a black accent in pop music. Remember the Police? Sting often used a faux Jamaican accent, since the Police were basically a British pop-rock band playing reggae.
And Nicki Minaj — who had a minor, though much played-up, beef with Iggy — uses various accents when rapping and seems to have felt, at least at one point, defensive about it. A major difference between Nicki and Iggy, of course, is that Nicki’s use of more than one accent means she’s “up front” in her performances about putting on the accents, while Iggy’s continual use of a single accent makes it seem like she’s hiding.
Accents have been a sore point for me since my family moved “up north” from Florida, and kids started making fun of how I talked. Since then, I have deliberately tried to adopt “Mid-Atlantic” American pronunciations. I try to pronounce “pen” like it’s spelled, for example, not like “pin” (which is how I learned it).
But I still have to consciously think about it. It’s still an effort. And I’ve never given up on “y’all.” And I refuse to call “lawyers” “loiyers” (they don’t practice “loi”).
So, am I a faker? Is my quasi-successful Mid-Atlantic accent a front?
More importantly, here’s our philosophical question: can you “own” an accent, like you can “copyright” a song or movie? Can an accent be yours, simply because you come from a particular area? Does your ethnicity matter when it comes to which accents you’re allowed to use and which you aren’t; and if so, why?
Furthermore, what’s so important about not pretending, about not “putting on” an identity (whatever precisely that means)? Why is it important to “be real”?
In classical philosophy, people like Plato, Augustine, and Boethius believed that the more “being” or “reality” (realness) something had, the better, more powerful, and more important it was. And conversely, the less being or reality something had, the worse, weaker, and less important it was.
This leads both to the idea that God, who is Realness Itself, is also Goodness Itself, and vice versa. And similarly, it leads to Augustine’s idea that evil is not a real thing. If the less being/realness a thing has, the worse that thing is (a fake chair, is not as good as a real chair; fake food is worse than real food), then true badness is a lack or absence of being.
Evil is fake. Being evil is faking. It is bad to be fake, false. It is wrong to “front.”
Our modern musical artists seem to agree with this very ancient idea wholeheartedly, even while they are faking their accents. But it’s worth asking why we should agree with it. Is it self-evident? (I think it probably is.) Or is it something you need to prove, and thus something you can doubt?