Looking for ‘real’

Times Staff Writer

In the blink of a satellite, modern life has become an endless high-speed connection. It’s streaming 24-7, with crystal clear reception that’s virtually lifelike. It’s airtight and soundproof, except of course for the white noise or the dead air or the occasional break-in of cellphone chatter. It’s no wonder you’re always online -- and on medication -- checking e-mail, checking voice mail, checking e-mail.

What you crave is something far more visceral. You want callused hands and a lungful of fresh air. Or black coffee and a hand-rolled cigarette. You want the stripped-down, low-fi version of life, the kind that feels vintage, handmade or homegrown.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Dec. 10, 2003 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday December 10, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 47 words Type of Material: Correction
Tribes -- An article in Saturday’s Calendar about the search for authenticity stated incorrectly that the planned community of Kentlands, Md., was once home to the Sioux and Iroquois tribes. In fact, the tribes of that region belonged to the Siouian and Iroquoian ethnic and language groups.

You want authenticity. Or a really authentic imitation of it.


This is why you buy CDs that sound like vinyl and brand new T-shirts that look like thrift store finds. It’s why you keep your SUV but ask for paper bags at Whole Foods, why you chug double espressos but do yoga (and if you don’t, you tell your friends you do). It’s why you want to quit your job to start an alpaca farm and “live richly” like Citibank says you can.

You don’t need a good therapist. You need Delta Air Lines’ new Song, “founded by optimists and built by believers” -- who know you need digital satellite TV and organic gazpacho during that L.A.-to-Orlando flight. Looking for peace of mind? Try Sony’s new 42-inch XS Plasma WEGA TV, because “we all need a place to find clarity.”

Can you shop for a better life? IKEA thinks so. Just toss some do-it-yourself birch veneer shelves and a paper lampshade into the mix and you’re “unboring,” not broke. Restoration Hardware is another company that really gets you. It knows that you’re not a fly fisherman and that you will never stand waist-deep in ice-cold waters to prove it. Yet it draws you in precisely because it sells fishing flies. At the mall. Between Dolce & Gabbana and the Gap.

Even Levi-Strauss, possibly the most authentic brand on the planet, is digging deep for a meaning behind its message. The 130-year-old company is now launching “the reinvention of the blue jean,” with a more “real,” “iconic” look. Models on the Levi’s Web site sport tool belts and hammers because the inspiration, the label says, comes from “those who helped build this country -- from the mines and the railroads to the barracks and the construction sites.”

On vacation, you seek out those eco-friendly resorts like Amansala in Tulum, Mexico, or El Monte Sagrado in Taos, New Mexico, where the hosts serve local meats, grow their own produce and purify their own water. Or maybe you choose a “cultural tour” instead, because, let’s face it, it’s not a real experience unless you can brag about roaming the Australian Outback with an Aboriginal guide, touring the favelas (slums) of Rio, meeting a women’s support group in Kerala, India, or studying Tibetan art in the Himalayas.

In Hollywood, integrity is the new must-have. Actors, agents and studio heads are branding themselves as conscious consumers by adding their names to waiting lists for a Toyota Prius, booking natural gas-powered limos, catering parties with organic foods and photocopying scripts on recycled paper. Starlets such as Amy Smart and Alicia Silverstone are celebrated for wearing cruelty-free cosmetics and recycled-fabric gowns.

TV writers, meanwhile, are doing their part to add eco-consciousness to their shows, putting an Environmental Media Assn. canvas bag in three episodes of “Will & Grace,” and centering a plot line of “The District” on a toxic playground in a low-income neighborhood. In film, the documentary is experiencing a renaissance. The latest critical darling, “To Be and to Have,” about a teacher and his students in their one-room village schoolhouse in rural northern France, had Newsday’s Gene Seymour likening it to “a deep sweet pull of spring water.”

In pop music, it’s all about revival. OutKast brought back Parliament. The Strokes brought back the Velvet Underground. Interpol is today’s Joy Division. The Darkness has revived hair metal. And the Kings of Leon are a Southern rock band with album covers that evoke a barefoot-and-bushy-sideburns era that was over before they were born. Even Eminem has embellished his tracks with the crackle of vinyl, albeit digitally.

A craving for authenticity

So what’s going on here? Are we really so lost that our search for meaning is in earnest? Or does this faded-jeans-and-iron-ons infatuation with “real” just look good in magazine ads? Some social observers say this is the dawning of a new civilization. Really. Others dismiss it as a collective midlife crisis.

Sociologists and market analysts are calling this the “Soul Age.”

“What consumers are seeking is more of a balanced lifestyle, which talks about physicality but also emotional, mental and spiritual balance,” says Harvey Hartman, author of “Marketing in the Soul Age: Building Lifestyle Worlds.”

Translated, this means we’ve grown bored with consumption for consumption’s sake. Our lives, constrained by gridlock and sprawl, air conditioning and antidepressants, video games and Internet anomie, lack the milk bottles on the doorstep and the smell of homemade bread that in our minds add up to a genuine experience.

“If you live in a major city, the pace of life is somehow not real,” says David Lewis, coauthor of “The Soul of the New Consumer: Authenticity, What We Buy and Why.”

This perception has inspired a new tribe of consumers that sociologist Paul H. Ray calls the “Cultural Creatives.” They’re leading the culture to “deep integral changes,” he says, heralding the first new civilization in 500 years that rejects the authoritarianism and oppositional thinking that began at the end of the Renaissance and embraces a more humane, environmentally conscious, egalitarian, spiritual, idealistic and socially conscious lifestyle of the future.

Cultural Creatives are mostly women, Ray says, but they span the working class and the wealthy and all ethnicities and races. He claims they make up 26% to 28% of the U.S. population. They buy organic, they are huge contributors to a variety of social concerns, they volunteer, they champion personal growth and holistic medicine.

“A good working definition of authenticity, the way most people understand it, is: ‘What’s in here, in my own personal experience, must match what’s out there, how I seem to the outside world,’ ” says Ray, who co-wrote with his wife, Sherry Ruth Anderson, “The Cultural Creatives: How 50 Million People Are Changing the World.”

Neal Gabler, a senior fellow at the Norman Lear Center at USC Annenberg, has a different term for the trend. “What we’re talking about on the side of the consumers is nostalgia,” he says. “Remember a time when you could actually go to the corner store, before there were supermarkets? Remember a time when there weren’t focus groups that anticipated how we’re supposed to respond to something? Well, they don’t exist anymore, and they never will. What we have in its place are people who can give us a false sense of authenticity.”

CNN political analyst Bill Schneider says the search for authenticity is just another yuppie obsession. New York’s Times Square was no tourist attraction when it oozed authenticity, he says, before the Giuliani/Disney makeover. “Their idea of a circus is Cirque du Soleil,” he says. “Real authenticity can be threatening, exactly like Times Square once was.”

Hence such “new-old communities” as Kentlands, Md., with its white picket fences, tree-lined streets and stately Georgian Revivals. Once occupied by Sioux and Iroquois tribes, the 350-acre development is now home to affluent locals who fiercely protect their turf from the likes of Wal-Mart, Kmart and McDonald’s. Yet, Schneider notes, these efforts have done little to nurture realism. “When you’re in the downtown area you feel like you’re on a movie set,” he says.

Sort of like in Playa Vista, or Paseo Colorado, or the open-air “experience” of the Grove.

Authenticity means different things to different corporations. To some, it’s television ads shot with hand-held cameras. To others, it’s “walking the talk.”

On 50 acres of undeveloped land outside Minneapolis, wild geese flock around a natural lake, and an aromatherapist periodically leads colleagues on nature walks. This is Aveda Corp. headquarters, as described by company president Dominique Conseil. Aveda, he says, lives by the “conscious” principles that it markets to consumers. The company manufactures beauty products in collaboration with indigenous tribes of South America, who collect the natural ingredients. All products are sold in recycled packaging.

“I think more and more we don’t see a buyer-seller relationship,” says Conseil. “We see a friendship happening between consumers and companies that they elect as being part of their lifestyle.”

The coolification factor

Biofuel entrepreneur Charris Ben Ford calls this “the coolification of consciousness.” Raised by a Madison Avenue ad executive and a hippie mother, he was eating organic and taking herbal remedies as a child in the ‘70s. As a teenager in the ‘80s, Ford tried organic farming and life off the grid as an apprentice with an Amish family in rural Tennessee. For 10 years, he says, “I was on a media fast. I was really connecting to the earth.”

Eventually, though, Ford craved something more. His authentic life, it seemed, wasn’t quite enough. “What broke down for me was, I read something by a Zen master: ‘No leaf can live separate from the tree,’ ” he says. “I wasn’t really effecting change in my group. I wanted to find a place where my love for the environment matched up with people’s interests.”

Five years ago he and his wife moved to Telluride, Colo., to manage a large ranch. There Ford lives in a solar-powered home and runs Grassolean Solutions, a company he founded to, someday, mass-produce vegetable oil as fuel for car engines. He dreams of nationwide Grassolean stations that sell trail mix and soy milk instead of Big Gulps and Twinkies.

“I believe people are looking for hope in the way they live their daily lives,” he says. “How many of us live is not exactly synonymous with consumption. But there’s a lot of overlap there -- between what we buy and consume, and who we are.”

The pursuit of authenticity, of a life free from conformity and industrialization, has motivated similar cultural shifts over the centuries -- from the Renaissance to the journey to the New World, to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s 18th century proposal that all things modern were evil, to Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Transcendentalists’ 19th century credo of self-reliance.

“You could say, ‘Well, Thoreau talked about authenticity,’ ” sociologist Ray says. “But think how few people picked up on Thoreau and Emerson. A few hundred thousand. Now we’re talking about tens of millions. We’re talking about big numbers.”

In the 20th century, the pursuit continued with Mohandas Gandhi and his nonviolent movement to overthrow the British rule of India. It surfaced in the United States in the 1950s when Nashville Rev. James Lawson adapted Gandhi’s teachings to the black freedom movement. He mobilized college students with the phrase “walk your talk,” which meant: Stop hiding behind your spoken convictions and demonstrate your commitment to civil rights by going to jail and facing the fire hoses, the attack dogs and the club-wielding state troopers. Only by confronting these terrors, Lawson taught, could activists realize the strength they needed to win dignity, integrity and, ultimately, freedom. The phrase would later be used by the peace, student and women’s movements.

Today, retailers such as Starbucks, IKEA, Pottery Barn and Trader Joe’s trade in earnestness. The star student of this trend, however, might be Whole Foods Market, which has boomed in the last 10 years to become a $2.7-billion company, acquiring six other natural-food chains across the country.

In the Whole Foods at 3rd and Fairfax, authenticity looks like this: Staff with dreadlocks and tattoos serve up wheatgrass shots and lattes. Bruce Springsteen and the Go-Go’s play overhead. Shoppers stroll aisles where Haagen-Dazs is sold alongside soy ice cream sandwiches, In Style magazine next to Organic Style.

“It’s how do you make shopping fun?” says Elizabeth Carovillano, Southern California marketing director. “It really is looking at anyone who loves to eat, who cares about the environment, their health, their family. There really isn’t anything that we’re not thinking about.”

Beyond the cash registers, beyond the store’s wide windows, the dichotomy comes into clear view -- the original Farmers Market in the shadow of spotlights on the Grove. On a saffron wall framing that picture, scraps of a mission statement have been painted in curly script. One reads: “We create wealth through profits and growth.”