Authenticity, Fiction, Truth, Lies, and Jenny Lewis
I’ve been a little obsessed with Jenny Lewis lately.
I should back up a bit. A while ago I was out for one of my morning runs, listening to one of the one of the “workout” stations on Spotify. Most of the songs that came on were fairly terrible, but the rhythms were all propulsive enough to keep me chugging along. Some awful pop nonsense faded out, leaving nothing but the sound of my footfalls and labored breathing for a moment. Then a few chiming guitar notes rang out of the silence, a quick tempo drum beat kicked in, and there was Jenny Lewis singing about how she’s bad news.
I don’t know if it’s a great song. But there’s something about the way she sings it that makes me believe. “C’mere!” she shouts to her lover, her voice forceful but wild, maybe desperate. The guitar growls in answer and the drums stutter in syncopation like someone tripping over their own feet. I’m drawn in, and I can’t help but wonder: did you do this? Did this happen?
A few months after that morning run, a Facebook friend recommended her solo album, The Voyager. “I can’t stop listening to it,” my friend said. I promptly added the album to my “To Investigate” playlist and forgot about it until last month, and now I can’t stop listening to it either. Throughout the ten songs, Lewis seems to be struggling with regret and disillusionment, the pain of seeing what your life is as you head into middle age, and how it’s different from what you might have thought.
There’s only one difference between you and me
When I look at myself, all I can see:
I’m just another lady without a baby.
I used to think you could save me,
I’ve been wandering lately
Heard she’s having your baby,
And everything’s so amazing
How could I resist her,
I had longed for a big sister
And I wanted to kiss her,
But I hadn’t done that
And, again, I want to know: When you wrote this, were you remembering or imagining? Are you singing in your voice, or someone else’s?
But why? Why do I care? Do the emotions mean more if they are drawn from her own life? And, if so, how does that work?
Almost all of my own work—and certainly the work that has resonated the most with viewers—is about myself. I try to reach for something other people can relate to, but I do this by showing things that are particular to me. And, thinking over my favorite work from other photographers, much of it is drawn from highly personal experiences. Judith Fox’s I Still Do. Andi Schreiber’s Pretty, Please. Duane Michals’s The House I Once Called Home. Rebecca Norris Webb’s My Dakota.
And yet, as much as I seem to value “honesty” and “authenticity” in music and photography, the same isn’t true for, say, books or movies. Of course there are autobiographical examples of each that I love, but I don’t love them more than my favorite works of fiction. Michael Ende never literally visited Fantastica, and yet that doesn’t diminish my feeling of wonder when I read The Neverending Story. Rick Blaine never had a club in Morocco, but the end of Casablanca still puts a lump in my throat. In fact, one of the things I have always said I most admire about novelists is their ability to bring things into being that never existed before, through the sheer force of their imaginations. If they can get me to feel something, that’s real, whether or not the events of their stories actually happened.
Why doesn’t this hold for songs or pictures, then? Mind you, there are fictions in lyrics and images that I enjoy, but the ones that stick with me the most, that I keep coming back to over and over, all of them come from life. Photographs need not be straight or documentary, and lyrics need not be literal, but the driving impulses behind my favorites of each are nearly always emotions and experiences that the artist really lived.
Is it a question of immediacy? A movie is populated with people you know are actors, and words on a page need you to interpret them, to picture them in your head. But when a singer says “I,” it’s hard to hear a persona in that, at least the first few times you hear it. And when you look at a photograph, it’s hard to get past the notion that what’s in the image was really in front of the camera, that the photographer was really there in the room. In either case, there’s room for fiction and lies, and interesting work can and has been made that plays on the audience’s ingenuousness, their expectation of honesty. But then the experience becomes intellectual instead of visceral. There’s value in that, too, but it’s never what I return to more than once or twice.
So then, where does that leave me with Jenny Lewis and her songs? I don’t know if she made them up or not. If I were to find out one way or another, would I care about them more or less? I’m not sure. Authenticity and honesty in art certainly don’t require literal truth. I’m reminded of a bit of advice that photographer James Luckett gave his students about writing an artist statement:
You have no duty to the facts. Your loyalty is to the honesty of your ideas, emotions, dreams, desires and needs; what Werner Herzog calls the ecstatic truth. That is your goal.
If what you’ve felt is real and you’ve put that into your work, then the work is honest, whether or not it depicts actual events. I like that idea, and I certainly can’t argue against it as advice for an artist. As part of the audience, though, I still haven’t made up my mind. But I suppose if the beat is propulsive enough, I’ll keep running.