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Tuning Up: The Scarlet Letter of Artifice

Tuning Up: The Scarlet Letter of Artifice

The perils of the “fake it till you make it” mentality in music.

Anytime you start bitching about the troubling “little” things in modern life—particularly those related to, say, tech developments—you risk coming across like a crotchety ol’ bastard who’s just a dumbass about how the world works these days. [Insert string of LOL-ing, eye-rolling Giphy files here.]

After all, it’s way easier to be wowed by the “conveniences,” the shiny interfaces, and the never-ending ways to have fun/waste time/shirk responsibilities/be oblivious than it is to process the implications of things like, say, the recent revelation that Facebook allowed a who’s who of corporate juggernauts to access users’ private messages, contacts, and other data—despite years of claims to the contrary. I mean, A) Facebook? Puh-lease, geezer! And B) who even has time to wonder about the downsides of life on the bleeding edge when there are hil-LAIR-EE-OUS new Instagram filters out? Plus, how am I gonna maintain Meme Lord status if I’m worrying about that boring stuff?

Speaking of memes/aphorisms/hashtags, one that’s been around for a while but that particularly sticks in my craw is “Fake it till you make it.” Originally, the saying might’ve seemed profound to those lacking self-confidence or hope about life in general. (PG columnist John Bohlinger touched on this a few years back, and our cover story this month on Ergon Guitars’ luthier Adriano Sergio proffers another example.) But, too often, today’s culture of “that is so five seconds ago” vapidity teaches us that you just have to want something bad enough—bad enough to create a slick persona and an elaborate web of lies and half-truths, but not bad enough to do the legit work.

Which takes us back to things like how one of the world’s wealthiest people testified to U.S. and E.U. regulators that millions (billions?) of Facebook users’ intimate information was protected because it was easier and more profitable than the morass of inconvenient truths. Or how about Elizabeth Holmes, the Stanford chemical-engineering dropout who founded the now-defunct Silicon Valley outfit Theranos on the promise that clients’ future illnesses could be divined and prevented from a drop of their blood? Holmes’ charm, telegenic looks, and Machiavellian marketing savvy fooled prominent figures like media mogul Rupert Murdoch and U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who were more interested in the narrative than the bullshit methods behind the company’s quackery. Or how about the laughable new occupation of being a social-media “elite influencer,” aka an arrogant prick whose picture-perfect life, mad selfie skillz, and hyperbolic hashtags apparently warrant living the high life at the world’s poshest resorts for free. Simply pump out a steady stream of heavily staged photo inanity with all the personality of a Restoration Hardware catalog, and you’re set for life!

Today’s culture of “that is so five seconds ago” vapidity teaches us that you just have to want something bad enough—bad enough to create a slick persona and an elaborate web of lies and half-truths, but not bad enough to do the legit work.

I’m not normally one who goes all in on public shaming, but sometimes I think we ought to go all Puritanical and dole out scarlet letters to these fools. What they’re pulling is infinitely more consequential than Hester Prynne’s love life.

But WTF does all this have to do with music? Well, everything, really. Because this insidious sort of thinking permeates everyday life, over time it becomes easier and easier to fall into these deceitful habits of self-delusion and entitlement in our guitar playing, songwriting, etc. The stuff that really matters gets crowded out by our preoccupation with giving the appearance of legitimacy.

Do I have enough gear? Do I have cool enough gear? Do my riffs and chord progressions and lyrics sound polished and professional—but not too weird or risky? Do I have enough tattoos, the right hairdo, killer posts on social? Do I spew pompous and/or ass-kissing gibberish into the mic because I’m afraid to be myself or just let the music speak for me? Do I use the right dude-speak tone of voice and issue a chill, charming smile as I say all the right things to my bandmates—play up the importance of being fair and democratic, promise to learn parts and show up on time, give lip-service to shared band goals, etc.—only to backstab, backslide, and do whatever makes me feel best when it comes time to deliver?

I don’t know about you, but I loathe the idea of an existence that creeps ever closer to a mashup of Brave New World and Black Mirror. Someday when other intelligent life forms visit the wreckage of our civilization and figure out how to boot-up our inferior tech, they’re going to scoff at our petty pitfalls—our savage obsession with meaningless baubles, phony platitudes, and hypocritical disregard for the weight of our own words and actions—the same way we chortle at superstitions of yore. But maybe, just maybe, if we all strive a little harder to be truly genuine—with each other and in our music—we can keep the aliens at bay a little longer.