[JPL] FAKING IT The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music.

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March 4, 2007
Songs of Myself


The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music.

By Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor.

Illustrated. 375 pp. W. W. Norton & Company. $25.95.

One day in January 1931, Jimmie Rodgers ‹ a yodeling country singer known as
the Singing Brakeman ‹ placed himself before a microphone in a San Antonio
recording studio and sang, ³I¹ll tell you the story of Jimmie the Kid ‹ he¹s
a brakeman you all know.² This fellow, he continued, ³yodels a yodel that
everybody knows is the yodeling brakeman¹s song.²

In December 2006, ³Hip Hop Is Dead,² by the rapper Nas, made its debut in
the No. 1 spot on the Billboard album charts. The title track contains these
lines: ³Any ghetto will tell ya Nas helped grow us up / My face once graced
promotional Sony trucks / Hundred million in billin¹, I helped build ¹em

You could stretch a narrative of the last 75 years of American (and, more
recently, British) popular music between those two poles. It would be a
story of self-consciousness, of the ways significant performers chose, in
the course of a song, to comment on themselves (Johnny Cash¹s ³Man in
Black,² John Lennon¹s ³Ballad of John and Yoko²), on their colleagues
(Waylon Jennings¹s ³Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?²), on their genre
(Chuck Berry¹s ³Rock and Roll Music,² ³Hip Hop Is Dead²) or on the song
itself (James Taylor¹s ³Hey mister, that¹s me up on the jukebox / I¹m the
one that¹s singing this sad song²). And so, almost infinitely, on.

Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor¹s ³Faking It² is about how performers since
Rodgers, stoked by powerful notions in the cultural air, have been
inordinately interested in proving how real they are. The authors devote
much of a chapter to ³Jimmie the Kid² because, they contend, this
autobiographical song took a pioneering stroll on one of the three paths to
authenticity ‹ the path they call ³personal authenticity.² The case study of
the second path, ³representational authenticity,² is the Monkees ‹ a group
created not in the traditional dank basement but at a television casting
call. Studio musicians furnished all the music on the Monkees¹ records, but
in due time the actors who played the roles of band members insisted to
their producer, Don Kirshner, that they take over: somehow it didn¹t seem
right that they should represent themselves on TV as something they were

Barker and Taylor address the final category ‹ ³cultural authenticity² ‹ in
their best chapter, an account of how misguided notions of authenticity
first closed the door of success on a black Mississippi performer, John
Hurt, and then shoehorned him into a role that was, in a word, fake. A
record company producer encountered Hurt in the South in the 1920s ‹ a place
and time, the authors write, where the sophisticated indigenous music was ³a
hybrid, a product of musical miscegenation.² Hurt performed Tin Pan Alley
numbers, and his ragtime guitar picking lacked any strong racial identity.
But at this same moment, a combination of commercial calculation and a
flawed and racist conception of folklore was decreeing that the only
authentic Southern black music was something more primitive ‹ what would
become ³the unadorned and often brutal sound of the Howlin¹ Wolf-Willie
Dixon-Muddy Waters-Bo Diddley stable at Chess Records.² For Southern whites,
meanwhile, ³authenticity² consisted of fiddle tunes, Appalachian ballads and
square-dance songs. And so, after one recording session, John Hurt went back
to his house in Avalon, Miss. He stayed there until 1963, when two young
white men found him and hauled him off to help lead the blues revival. That
he didn¹t think of himself as a bluesman seemed not to matter.

This chapter combines a strong point of view, intelligent and informed
musical analysis, and rigorous historical research. But too much of the book
takes place in mistier realms. The authors often appear to be responding to
recondite debates among rock critics. The sections on actual musicians are
full of inference about reactions and motives ‹ a perilous critical stance.
(Thus the authors observe that Donna Summer ³internalized much of the
criticism that she received for her disco work and spent at least part of
her subsequent career trying to prove that there was more to her than
that.²) The writing labors for oxygen. It is rare to encounter a sentence in
the book without at least one qualifying or intensifying adverb or
adjective; in the space of a page and a half, one finds ³very,² ³strong,²
³strongly² (twice), ³perhaps² (twice), ³frequently,² ³tended to,² ³a kind
of² and ³exact.² Each superfluous word or phrase dulls the prose.

Another problem is the book¹s insularity. Barker, a former musician and
songwriter, and Taylor, the author of ³The Future of Jazz,² show no
awareness that for a century or so, authenticity has been a crucial and
highly charged word and concept in philosophy, psychology and aesthetics. If
they had made use of Lionel Trilling¹s classic 1972 book, ³Sincerity and
Authenticity,² for example, they would have been able to trace the lineage
of such tortured neo-Romantics as Neil Young, Kurt Cobain and John Lydon
back to Edmund Burke¹s denigration of ³beauty² in favor of the energy and
power of the sublime. In this conception, Trilling wrote, ³the artist ...
ceases to be the craftsman or the performer, dependent upon the approval of
the audience. His reference is to himself only, or to some transcendent
power which ‹ or who ‹ has decreed his enterprise and alone is worthy to
judge it.²

Or, as Lydon (better known as Johnny Rotten) put it: ³No gimmicks, no
theater, just us. Take it or leave it.²

Ben Yagoda directs the journalism program at the University of Delaware. His
latest book is ³When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It: The Parts of Speech,
for Better and/or Worse.²

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