Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Finding Authenticity in Americana

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].


  1. Theories from the mind of Mark:

    Globalism-people in western society are struggling to give themselves individuality in a world where there are close to 7 billion ppl.

    Rise of Corporate America-after decades of large corporations looking at the bottom line people want to see companies that create products out of passion for the product or the desire to please the customer.

    I'd put money on the corporate theory. A person tired of buying stuff that breaks and was made in China or Mexico decides to buy products that are slightly more expensive, but are made in America by someone they might even know and are of better quality.

    Of course, then again it's probably a combination of the two effects.

    Either way, I love readin your stuff!


  2. Chris,

    Another interesting (but more complicated) way to observe might be looking at the people you are examining. You mention hipsters wearing flannel and LL Bean, and Brian mentions the amorphous "young people."

    Well, I teach young people: young black people. Arguably, the way that they consume is very different from other groups, like young white people. At least in the population I work with, there has been no shift away from blatant consumerism. Brand names are cool, no matter how crappily manufactured, no matter the 300% inflated price tag.

    I guess I am asking you to be very specific about which "young people" and hipsters you write about. An interesting thing to examine would be the ways in which different groups of people (races, ethnicities, religions, etc.) consume things, and whether or not they follow the same patterns as the young people you speak of. Perhaps the patterns will be divergent, but it may still be worth examining.

    P.S. Love it. I'm just doing what I can to keep it real.

  3. Sarah,

    You bring up an interesting point. From my observations, the 'roots movement' seems to be taking shape in a predominantly Caucasian sphere. That may be because I am in a community that is primarily white, or it may be a larger trend.

    I wonder if the focus on Brand names and style is as important in the Indie-Americana scene as it is in the young people you interact with. Do you see any trends toward roots, craftsmanship, and authenticity in the students you work with?

    The other factor is that, when I reference "young people", I am referring to the 20-35 year old population as much as I am the 15-12 year old demographic (I assume this is the age range you are interacting with?). I feel that it is the young adults who are living the "authentic life" in whatever permutation it manifests.

    Thanks for the input! You've given me some horizon-expanding things to consider.

    Chris Walljasper

  4. Mark,

    The Corporate America theory is one that I like, but question the pragmatism. People love the idea of buying "American", but when it comes down to budget, do they follow through? Wal-Mart's low, low pricing is a powerful deterrent to the sustainability movement.

    Chris Walljasper

  5. ha... wow... i wasn't expecting to be quoted in your essay. maybe i should've spent some more time working out my sentence strucure before sending it to you.

    i think sarah raises a good point that could be asked in a couple of ways: 1) are black people seeking authenticity? 2) are there some black people that are seeking that authenticity in the same ways that those white people we mentioned are seeking authenticity? 3) are they seeking it in other ways? are those ways connected in any way to the ways that white people are searching?

    i'm not sure that seeking after corporate goods makes something inauthentic, or authentic. i guess if we all wanted to be authentic, we'd sell our possessions and move into the woods and sleep on the dirt. but i think maybe what you're asking is about the perseption of authenticity, which is really interesting. this is a huge endeavor, and i hope we can help you along the way!

  6. Brian,

    How could I not quote your insightful thoughts?

    You bring up a valid point in the fact that we can still buy corporate and achieve a level of authenticity. Something interesting that Reighley mentions in his book UNITED STATES OF AMERICANA is the idea that you can have your authentic cake and eat it too. People are learning to preserve food by canning, from blogs on the internet. We are finding local farmers markets on our iPhones. We listen to alt-country and bluegrass music while still driving our Hybrid cars.

    That being said, I think the question to the students that Sarah works with is why are they focusing on the label? Is it because of the handcrafted design? Or is it because of the fashionable label, conspicuously tacked where a blind person couldn't miss it?

    I am interested in learning more about diversity in this movement. Anyone who has any input, please share! If you don't want to do so publicly, email me at chris.walljasper@gmail.com.

  7. Sarah-

    What income level are these young black folk? From my lowly observations I would conclude that income level (and how they receive it) has more to do with consumption behavior than ethnicity. Probably even more important is what a person's income level was during their so-called formative years. A drastic example comes from my grandparents hoarding food in their energy-guzzling chest freezers because they have a deep-seeded fear of starvation. This obviously came from scarce times during the depression.

    Here comes the ground-breaking-hold-on-to-your-butts conclusion: The recession, diminishing social freedoms, and general belief that our society is going downhill have engendered in people a desire to go back to a better time. This is actually very close to what Chris said in the initial post, so I guess it isn't that ground breaking.

    Another idea comes from anti-establishmentarianism (I've always wanted to use that word seriously). The sixties and seventies created a portion of a generation of people that
    developed a counter-culture. Maybe now that we are in two, possibly three, wars that generation's children are developing their own counter culture in a form of mild protest to the establishment. You know what I mean, man?