"Where else would you go when you have an ax to grind?"

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Faking it
(the edited review of this ran in The Daily Yomiuri on Sunday, this is the longer original draft)

The illusion of keeping it real

Faking it—The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music

By Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor

Norton, 375 Pages, $25.95

By Kevin Wood

Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer

All performance is, by its very nature, artifice, so why are music fans so obsessed with “keeping it real?” Why is it that raw authenticity is valued above artful contrivance in music? What makes one performer real and another a fake?

These are not idle questions for Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor, authors of Faking It – The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music. Rather they are central to their book’s thesis, which seems to be that full representational, cultural and personal authenticity in music is an ideal rather than an achievable goal and may not even be such a laudable end in itself. The obsession with authenticity, they argue, “has limited the kinds of music that musicians aspire to make and that critic and listeners appreciate.” The authors seem to come to the conclusion that authenticity is highly overrated as a yardstick of musical talent or quality, which may be true, but it is their examination of the notion of authenticity in a variety of popular genres that is likely to spark arguments wherever music obsessives gather.

In making their case, Barker, a former musician, and Taylor, an author and editor, start with a shared chapter comparing Kurt Cobain and Leadbelly and the notion of selling out or faking it and then move chronologically with Taylor authoring early chapters on racial segregation in southern music, Jimmie Rodgers, Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel” and Neil Young’s “Tonight’s The Night”, while Barker tackles the Monkees and the Archies, Disco and Punk. A pair of co-authored closing chapters take snobby potshots at Ry Cooder and the entire genre of World Music, accusing them of trading on notions of authenticity while being inauthentic, and sing the praises of Moby and KLF for their ability to toy with the whole idea of authenticity.

Part of the problem with Faking It seems to be that the authors never really nail down a clear definition of authenticity in music beyond some fairly obvious comparisons between Ozzy Osbourne’s “Iron Man” (inauthentic) and Loretta Lynn’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter” (authentic) in the introduction. It seems to be like pornography, they can’t describe it exactly, but they know it when they see it. c

The opening chapter is something of a microcosm of the book as a whole. It compares and contrasts Cobain and Leadbelly, noting that Cobain’ s last public performance was of a Leadbelly song “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” and makes the argument that Cobain was obsessed with authenticity and was authentic, while Leadbelly was uninterested in the concept and was presented in an inauthentic, even racist manner. Some of the chapter is consumed by trashing the reputation of early musicologist John Lomax for promoting Leadbelly as an unsophisticated primitive and speculating, not without some merit, on the correctness of the racial politcs of Lomax and his era. Interesting points about the notion of primitivism are raised, but as happens again and again in the book, salient points made are later undercut by logical overreaches and statements that, taken at face value, are just plain laughable – such as the notion that the failure of other grunge musicians to kill themselves like Cobain did, robbed the genre of its “essential gravity” or that fans insistence on authenticity, not his own drug addiction and manic depression killed Cobain.

“It’s too simplistic to say that it is our fault, but deep down we wonder: if we had not encouraged them—if we had thought less of “authenticity” and more simply of good music—might they have survived?”

Faking It is the kind of book where you might read nodding in agreement for pages as the authors build a carefully constructed proof of a theory and then blow their accumulated credibility by describing Donna Summer as “a brilliant musical innovator” or suggesting that the contribution of the Monkees’ Mike Nesmith to the evolution of Country Rock was somehow on par with Gram Parsons’. Barker’s efforts to draw parallels between Nesmith and John Lennon also become more than a little labored—the two aren’t in the same ballpark, they aren’t even in the same sport. Lennon was a brilliant songwriter and musician, Nesmith, despite his ambitions to do likewise, merely played one on TV.

And don’t even get me started on the chapters on John Lydon, Donna Summer and Ry Cooder. I’m not a violent person by any means, but a discussion over a sufficient number of drinks between the authors and myself would likely end with us circling each other in the parking lot with mayhem in our hearts—we are the people Nick Hornby was writing about in High Fidelity. This is very much a book for music geeks, and I mean that in the best way.

For all its many faults, Faking It is worth reading and does have some valuable things to say about the notion of authenticity and its importance in pop music. Like any argument among obsessives, there is plenty of opinion masquerading as fact and hyperbole presented as considered positions, but it is an interesting argument.


jj said...

"with mayhem in our hearts" LOL

The authenticity issue reminds me of those endless discussions in the late 60's of which bands were real and which bands were "plastic" (as we called it back then). Sounds like a cool book. I'll put it on my wish list.

the rev. said...

that is exactly it -- and comparing the Monkees to Gram Parsons is just so very very wrong.