I'd been discussing with a colleague last week the idea of Authenticity in today's culture. He is from the New England region, hailing from Maine, and has spent a great deal of time in Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts. When you look at Shawn, the New England woodsman ambiance is clear. He often wears thick cable-knit sweaters, durable mariner jackets, and generally sports an impressive, full bodied beard.
Shawn told me that, since he was a child, the clothing company L.L. Bean has been a mainstay in his house. This Northeasterly outfitter deals exclusively in durable outdoor apparel meant to last. It was a regional business that provided quality products to the hearty people of the North Atlantic. But recently, it seems as though L.L. Bean has become much more vogue in the rest of the United States. Popping up in fashion magazines and on indie hipsters in places like Portland and Memphis, this diaspora of Shawn's beloved Bean should be a welcome sign of prosperity for the company. So why is Shawn feeling an underlying level of resentment toward these retrofitted, skinny-jeaned lumberjacks?
It is an interesting phenomenon that is taking place in our society. A trend towards the rustic that goes beyond clothing. It's infused in our food, music, attire, and recreation. It's a call to authenticity, but is it authentic? I'm aiming to further clarify this phenomenon in a series of posts. If you have any anecdotes or resources, I'd love to hear from you.
MicroBrews, MicroDistilleries, Microcosms
I would be naive if I said that Microbreweries were a new phenomenon. That being said, the rise in widespread popularity of the brewpub and microbrewery can be seen in the mid 1980's, after a steady decline in breweries due to the lasting affects of prohibition1. Now, you can find a microbrewery in every town of moderate size, offering a unique product and intimate connection to the product served.
Hot on the heels of the craft-brewed beer is the microdistillery. Facilities that craft-brew small batch vodka, gin, whiskey, and other spirits are increasingly popular in the recent years. These distilleries, similar to microbreweries, will create one-of-a-kind blends in batches of only a few thousand, that create a sense of ownership in those who consume their libations. By being among a select few who experience the spirits, you can become a member of the esoteric group that is more cultured or savvy.
The element that truly draws people into this industry is the connection to the process. By purchasing a locally distilled bottle of vodka, you know where the grain comes from, who is processing it, and can even purchase it directly from the distillery. You can walk through the facility and see the giant copper-pot stills. And every sip has that story in it. By knowing more about the liquid in the glass, the connection is greater.
So why do we feel that need to connect with our product? Why do we care about the back story of our brews and bubbly? Kurt Reighley, author of United States of Americana has some theories.
“ 'People want to have real, genuine, authentic things,' says Christina Vernon of Wolverine, who've made boots since 1883. Thanks to the protracted recession and mounting concerns about conservation, she predicts that demand will only increase. 'The throwaway society is going to go away – or be greatly diminished.' ” 2
So blame it on the economy. But many of these trends started earlier than the recessional woes of the last decade. So I don't believe we can attribute this lurch toward authentic living solely to the likes of the big banks and greedy CEOs.
Recession Reaction or Larger Trend?
Musicologist Brian Wilcoxon has a more cyclical perspective on the “authenticity” movement. As the commercial world blossomed over the last few decades of the twentieth century, becoming cheaper, more prepackaged, and more accessible, the bubble has burst, and we are living in a post-commercial America, where the emphasis is not on bigger, faster, cheaper. Instead the appeal is local, handcrafted, and rare. Wilcoxon, in a recent interview:
“There is a sort of "call to small" -- while there's a cynical part of me that thinks much of this is just a trend (like the clothes at the above named stores), I think there is a real sense of disenchantment with "large" America. Young adults, or at least, a segment of young adults, seem to be interested in quality, in origin, in roots, in the environment, or maybe just one of these things that has an impact on the other. And thus you see things like the farmer's market making huge grounds in how people eat. You have chains of grocery stores like Trader Joe's, Fresh Market, and Whole Foods offering organic foods grown (and sold) with integrity (when I say "sold," I'm thinking particularly of the push towards "Fair Trade" chocolate, coffee, tea, etc.). You see people wanting to purchase things grown and made locally. You also have people doing their part to help the environment by riding their bicycles or driving hybrid vehicles.”3
So where does that leave Shawn? Should he be irritated that people are wearing L.L. Bean, but have never experienced the grueling Maine winters that the company protected him from as a child? Is this move toward American roots simply a fad, treading on the heals of all the other recurring decades? If that is the case, then I'm afraid the next stop may be a Neo-Victorian resurgence, complete with parasols and top hats.
Ok, so I just googled Neo-Victorian. It's already started. Hold on to your flanel, indie hipsters.
Seriously though, where does this “Roots” movement come from, in your opinion? What have you seen that irks, excites, or befuddles you? I welcome any insight, anecdotal or theoretical.
1 Papzian, Charlie. The Revival. Craft Beer: Celebrating the Best of American Beer, http://www.craftbeer.com/pages/beerology/history-of-beer/the-revival
2 Reighley, Kurt. United States of Americana: A Field Guide to the New American Roots Movement. New York: HarperCollins, 2010.
3Wilcoxon, Brian. (2011, April 11) Authenticity [Interview by Chris Walljasper].