Imagining More Authenticity in Pop Culture
Girl Meets World
Published: Friday, October 18, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, October 16, 2013 21:10
Ask old people about our generation — that of the evil, narcissistic millennials — and they’ll tell you that we’re vain and incapable of meaningful connections. We’re too busy on social media or drinking or interning or something along those lines. There’s something to that, though. Maybe it’s all generations and not just our own, but meaningful connections seem hard to come by. People are rarely willing to open up.
That’s why I’m so impressed by what Donald Glover — also known as Childish Gambino — did Monday night. He posted on Instagram one of the most compelling things I’ve read in a while. Scrawled on seven pieces of notepaper from his hotel room is an open letter to his fans. It touches briefly on his decision to leave the television show “Community,” but is mostly a list of some of his deepest fears and anxieties.
“I’m afraid of the future. I’m afraid my parents won’t live long enough to see my kids. … I’m scared I’ll never reach my potential. I’m scared she’s still in love with that dude.
“I feel like I’m letting everyone down. I’m afraid people hate who I really am. I’m afraid I hate who I really am. … I’m afraid I’m here for nothing. I’m afraid this will feel pretentious.
“You’re always allowed to be better. You’re always allowed to grow up. If you want.”
I was floored when I read it. Glover is a comedian and a rapper — two professions in which it’s not necessarily acceptable to cut yourself open like this. A comedian hides behind jokes that usually conceal more than they enlighten. On the music front, only the best rappers ever get into something actually deep.
But that’s the best stuff — the authentic. It’s getting at something personal, something grounded in experience, even if it’s fiction. It’s something people can connect to and isn’t meant just for attention or image.
Meanwhile, the inauthentic is boring. It gives you nothing to grab on to. Miley Cyrus is pop culture’s laziest target, but she’s not compelling because everything she does is fabricated. “Wrecking Ball,” which is supposed to be an emotional look at her failed relationship, is covered in layers of attention-grabbing stunts and filled with cliches. The lyrics are nonspecific and cloying — maybe it’s the autotune, but she seems disconnected from the words she’s saying, especially once she admitted the tears she shed in the music video were real. For her dog.
Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Bruno Mars, Phillip Phillips and countless other pop stars are the same way — there’s some sort of generic feeling that we’re supposed to connect with or pay attention to, but it doesn’t resonate. Most pop culture does this; it’s meant to dazzle and entertain but is ultimately empty underneath. Creators make situations so generic that anyone can connect, but this also makes them meaningless.
I don’t want fake anymore. I want pop culture that illuminates real experiences. I want Demi Lovato talking openly about her battle against her eating disorder. I want Conan O’Brien speaking candidly during his graduation speech at Dartmouth about how awful it was to lose “The Tonight Show.” I want Amy Poehler explaining how difficult heartbreak is in her Smart Girls YouTube videos. I want television shows and movies that don’t focus on spectacle or pretty people or special effects, but on the stories and humans that underpin it all.
Donald Glover is probably not in the best emotional place right now, but I am impressed by the courage it takes to admit he’s not OK in a world in which we’re socialized to say that everything is fine all the time and in which celebrities are supposed to hide their flaws — unless they’re building up to an Oscar run. When Glover cuts himself open like this, he allows for people he doesn’t know to connect in a meaningful way.
It’s only in this raw place that lasting stuff can be made. Adele turned heartbreak into one of the greatest albums of the decade. J.K. Rowling turned failure into the Boy Who Lived. F. Scott Fitzgerald turned a horribly turbulent marriage into the Great American Novel. Being vulnerable doesn’t guarantee greatness, but it’s more likely that you can make something lasting that way than if you refuse to attempt connection.
I love that Donald is being vulnerable and authentic. Even if it hurts.
Victoria Edel is a senior in the College. GIRL MEETS WORLD appears every other Friday in the guide.