Reinventing yourself

Culture | Garth's morphing himself into a rock star illustrates the new postmodern psychology

Issue: "Turkey: A terrible toll," Sept. 4, 1999

Garth Brooks has sold 95 million albums, singlehandedly turning country music into a mass market and eclipsing Elvis himself in number of records sold. But he is not yet bigger than the Beatles. So now he has decided to become a rock star too. On the cover of his latest CD, Garth has given up his cowboy hat and Western shirt. His long hair is pulled down nearly to his eyes, he has a little beard under his lip, and he stares out with a doomed look. But it isn't that Garth has gone alternative. He is simply doing what many people in our culture are doing today, adopting a temporary new identity. The album is titled The Life of Chris Gaines (Capitol), and though everyone knows it is by Garth, it is being released under the name of Gaines. The name comes from an upcoming movie titled The Lamb, a project Mr. Brooks is involved with, about the death of a rock star. The album is supposedly Chris Gaines's greatest hits, a survey of his pop styles over the course of his career. But Mr. Brooks has gone on to construct a whole biography of this alter ego. Mr. Gaines was supposedly born in Australia to a pair of Olympic swimmers. With his band "Crush," he scored a series of hit records that range in style from the Beatlesque, through R&B, to the grungy depths of alternative rock. He titled one of his albums Fornucopia. He suffered a nearly fatal car wreck. Like other pop icons, he died young. (The movie will tell us if he was murdered.) NBC is planning a TV special on September 29, featuring a concert by Mr. Gaines, as played by Garth Brooks. The elaborate fiction and play-acting allow Garth Brooks to record pop songs-something country purists complain that he has been doing all along. (Will country stations and his legions of country music fans play his new non-country music? Or will pop stations pick it up, knowing it is by Garth Brooks? The first single, "Lost in You," a piece of rhythm & blues that sounds nothing like Mr. Brooks usually does, debuted at 62 on the country charts, dipping to 64 in the second week.) But the spectacle of Garth adopting a completely different persona is unsettling to many of his fans. It makes them wonder if the downhome everyman with friends in low places, whose impression of sincerity they have always found endearing, is also nothing more than a fictional act. After all, the singer has always had the curious habit of referring to himself in the third person--as in "Garth Brooks is going to put on a good concert"--as if he were someone different than himself. But in this he is not alone. Identity-shifting has become a hallmark of postmodern culture. If truth is relative, who you are as a person is also relative. If there are no essential realities, there is no essential self either. Internet surfers often assume a different identity for each screen name, with men pretending to be women, normally nice guys putting on a belligerent front, and solid family men acting like sex-crazed seducers. Or maybe it is sex-crazed seducers who are putting on the disguise, in their regular lives, as solid family men. The anonymity of the Internet allows people to do what they would never do in the personalities known by their families and friends--use pornography, tell lies, flame the innocent with profanity and invective. Role-playing games, increasingly popular among both young and old, let bookworms pretend to be medieval warriors--or vampires or witches or mass murderers. But even apart from the entertainment industry, identity-shifting is being hailed as a sign of mental health. In The Protean Self, contemporary psychologist Robert Jay Lifton argues that the truly healthy person is one who can always change his identity. Like the mythical Proteus, who could change shapes so fast that Hercules could never quite get a handle on him, the postmodern man never lets himself be restricted by a single set of beliefs, relationships, or character traits. Rather, he is always "reinventing himself." Going through many different marriages, many different jobs, and many personality changes are all good things, according to this postmodern psychology, Those who are dysfunctional, according to Mr. Lifton, are those who are inflexible and dogmatic, committed to a particular belief system and letting it run their lives. These Mr. Lifton terms the "fundamentalists," a clear shot at Christians, whom he would classify as mentally ill. Modernist psychology, for all of its faults, was worried about "multiple-personality disorders," schizophrenia, and people needing to pull themselves together to forge a strong identity. Postmodernist psychology turns it all upside down.Those once considered sick are now diagnosed as healthy; those once considered healthy are now diagnosed as diseased. Mr. Lifton was the first to praise President Clinton as the first postmodern president, hailing the way he is unencumbered by ideology, the way he constantly creates his own truth, and the way he keeps reinventing himself. This was before Monica Lewinsky and the impeachment trial. Mr. Clinton, after starring as the porn star in a national soap opera, is now coming on the stage as a champion of family values. President Clinton is not the only politician who sometimes plays the role of a liberal and sometimes plays the role of a conservative, putting on identities as casually as changing clothes. And you don't have to be a politician to be a hypocrite. You don't have to be an entertainer to be a performer. In ordinary life, phoniness, false fronts, dishonesty, and fake role-playing abound. At the same time, such pre-modern virtues as personal integrity, genuineness, and what young people call "being real" are becoming all the more attractive. Christians recognize that while we all may play many parts, and while our true natures are distorted by sin, we do have an identity. It is not a social role, nor something we put on or play at. It is deep down, our truest self. It is the one part of us that survives after death, that is accountable for all of our deeds, and that has been redeemed by Christ: our immortal soul. Today people in our culture are at the point of gaining the whole world but losing their souls-and not even realizing that they have one.

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Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith


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