Mike Posner & the Age of Authenticity
The evening began auspiciously: “Free concert tonight w/ @mikeposner!” my Twitter feed told me. “Yes!” my soul replied. It was Tuesday, and I was lost in a desire to be anywhere, doing anything, with anyone, as long as I wasn’t alone. Some call this FOMO, but I’m not sure the adorable acronym fully captures the existential dread. It infiltrates your thoughts, corrupts you judgement and overtakes you until you find yourself doing things you had no idea you wanted to do. Which was how, twenty-four minutes later, I found myself at a Mike Posner dinner concert.
If you’re familiar with the name “Mike Posner,” perhaps you will share my confusion at the choice of venue. City Winery, an elegant SoHo establishment, looks more like where you go for light jazz and eloquent, candlelit banter. At the table next to me, a couple of fellow twenty-something ladies echoed my bewilderment: “I’m just not used to going to a concert and being like, let’s drink some wine!”
So what were we doing here, we misplaced Mike Posner fans? First, a quick trip down memory lane…
The year was 2008, and I was a newly minted college freshman at Duke University, where Mike Posner was a junior whose star was beginning to rise. His life (I imagine) was some bittersweet mixture of total validation and typical college nonsense. Duke was the kind of school where people didn’t outright admit to being impressed by things like fame, but we were still quick to claim Posner as one of us.
I, however, was not-so-secretly impressed. I remember feeling a tiny thrill when I first learned of Posner and the proximity of his success. His big hit at the time, Cooler Than Me, was even about a fellow Duke lady! (Not that I‘m drawing any comparisons — it is a diss song after all.) Though we didnt have much in common, there was an intimacy to that shared college experience. At the very least, he felt more tangible than any other pop star out there. It’s a feeling I’m sure every resident of a small town has felt when someone makes it out and makes it big. But as Posner’s career grew far beyond Duke’s walls (and he went on to write songs for the likes of Bieber and Maroon 5), the specter of his tangibility was replaced by unattainability. We’ll always have Duke, but Mike was on to bigger and better things, and he no longer felt knowable.
Fast forward a few years into the future, and I think it was this loose fraternal college bond that drove me to go to Posner’s concert. (That and the FOMO.) Either way, I didn’t expect what came next. As he walked on stage, instead of the smooth, hip-hop bro vibes I remembered, here was a Mike Posner in a simple denim shirt and full on Brooklyn lumberjack beard. His vibe, if anything, was goofy.
I didn’t expect to have the similar philosophical taste as Mike Posner, but then he went and quoted Maria Popova’s thoughts on the nature of good art. And when asked Posner about his new EP (“The Truth”), Posner shared this story about the title’s etymology: In a testosterone-fueled songwriting session with country writer Mike Owen, Owen asked Posner about the source of inspiration for a new song. “It’s about a girl I had a thing with in New York City…” (he paused amidst cheers to assure us this wasn’t an attempt to pander) “…And I mixed it with a thing I had with this girl in Ohio.” Which is when Owen posed a question to Posner:
“Why don’t you just tell the truth?”
His delivery of this anecdote was so forthcoming that I felt like Posner had bestowed upon me some sort of life-altering wisdom. That wisdom went something like this: in the highly remixed and mass produced world of entertainment, it’s easier to invent and hybridize your way to a finished product. We probably assume most songs we hear may be true in spirit but not in lived reality. Maybe we cynically doubt even that (#meekmill). It’s strange to think that once upon a time, Picasso’s distortion of reality through art was revolutionary; now, our most well-known artists struggle to tell it like it is. Why don’t you just tell the truth? This question, Posner explained, was the ethos behind his move in a different musical direction. When the concert began, I understood what he meant.
His conspicuously produced synth-pop sound had been replaced by an acoustic guitar, keyboard and vocals. But beyond instrumentation, his lyrics seemed entirely based on the premise that I’m just going to tell you what I’m actually thinking.
Take the first song he played, “I Took a Pill in Ibiza.” The title automatically evokes that unattainable celebrity imagery we’re used to. When I tell people about it, a knowing smirk usually creeps onto their face. Which is a brilliant setup for what comes next (listen here for full effect.):
I took a pill in Ibiza…
To show Avicii I was cool.
And when I finally got sober,
I felt 10 years older,
But, fuck it, it was something to do.
With these threadbare opening vocals, Posner draws you into his confidence. He’s trying to guide you toward the version of himself that he wants to become. I think it’s working, because somewhere in between the juxtaposition of his privileged lifestyle and his insecurities lies the elusive thing Posner is pursuing: the truth.
It’s clearly the truth, because it’s just not the kind of thing you make up. That’s how I would summarize most of Posner’s new songs: they’re not the kind of things you make up. They’re the kind of things you admit, because you don’t feel like holding them back anymore.
There was something exciting, and at times self indulgent, about listening to someone share his inner dialogue in this way. In a song called “They Ain’t Listening,” Posner delivered different stories each ending with the titular line, “they ain’t listening.” It built up perfectly to a verse about his audience at a concert, faces lit with the glow of our cellphones. It drew laughter and cheers and sudden self-awareness from the crowd (particularly from those of us on their phones). For maybe a whole minute or two, the phones disappeared, and with them every layer of distance between performer and audience.
Posner obviously isn’t the first musician to write about the downside of success. That doesn’t make his efforts any less honest. While Kurt Cobain’s IDGAF-quality made it easy for him to denounce the allure of fame, it’s harder for someone with Posner’s pop-producer image. Which may be why he moved so deliberately away from pop, toward a more conventionally “genuine” acoustic sound. By removing that layer of production, he could expose something real underneath.
I have to admit that there was something about the ease with which he embodied his own vulnerability that drew my skepticism. As a successful, white, male, music industry insider, he’s not exactly the epitome of relatability. There was a moment after a song when he and band mate Adam Friedman actually fist bumped in triumph. It was the most natural of motions. The world was their oyster. This small act of “crushing it” reminded me that their success afforded them an easy self-assuredness I was unacquainted with.
So no, not the epitome of relatability. But here Posner was, attempting to show us his cards, being fully human in the process. At one point he prefaced his cover of Bob Marley’s Redemption Song by calling it “one of my favorite songs of all time… that I did not write.” Then in the next interlude, he asked for our forgiveness: “I was trying to sound slick earlier and it may have sounded like I like my own songs more than I like Bob Marley’s song. That’s not true!” One moment, bold and full of confidence; the next, flawed and humble. And perhaps, in a few rare moments, both at the same time.
I forgave him.
We are living in an age of “authenticity.” Brands know it, celebrities know it, pretty much every manipulative entity in existence is catching on to this “trend”. But they aren’t all succeeding, and that’s because of one tiny teleological catch: You can only be authentic by actually being authentic.
Even though celebrities and influencers will never lead relatable lives (they are aspirational by design), they can still be honest versions of themselves. They still have vulnerabilities and insecurities; they still get bored; they still experience loss; they still feel isolated and depressed. The hard part is owning up to this. The hard part (the part Mike Posner is crushing right now👊) is telling the truth.