Keepin' It Real, On and Off the Charts

By Chrissie Dickinson,
a writer, musician and songwriter based in Chicago
Wednesday, April 11, 2007


The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music

By Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor

Norton. 375 pp. $25.95

Back in my punk youth of the late 1970s, the harshest dismissal of all for a punk performer (or an audience member, for that matter) was to be slagged as a "poser." That withering label was frequently slung at anyone who dressed in the trappings of punk rock but was perceived as not living the life "for real."

That was just one aspect of the bitter debate over authenticity back then. Though the performers and musical battlegrounds have changed in the years since, the topic has hardly gone away, whether it's rappers insisting on street credibility, world-music devotees searching for musical "purity" or hard country fans mistily yearning for the days when country music was "real."

In "Faking It," Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor -- a musician and music writer, respectively -- take on the complex and fraught subject of authenticity.

Largely drawing on examples from popular music of the 20th century, their analysis begins in the 1920s and comes up to contemporary times. The authors skillfully navigate a complicated musical past, emphasizing that rigid distinctions between "authentic" and "inauthentic" music have always been a slippery, contradictory business.

Early folklorists and record labels often segregated musicians along racial lines, but the musicians themselves often created music from a melange of influences. Early record labels marketed accomplished country and blues artists as rustic primitives deemed all the more authentic because of their perceived lack of commercial aspirations.

From Mississippi John Hurt to John Lennon's primal-therapy-inspired songs to the Replacements' "cult of failure" and Kurt Cobain's cover of an old Leadbelly tune, Barker and Taylor tackle the many-headed Hydra of the authenticity question: the chasm between public persona and private reality; the triumphs and debacles that occur when artists attempt to reinvent themselves; the shaping of myths to fit audience conceptions.

Barker and Taylor note that although the desire to make heartfelt music has produced important work, great and lasting music also has come from such critically dismissed genres such as disco and bubblegum pop. When it comes to determining whether a piece of music is authentic, the authors conclude that it's ultimately an impossible task: "Every performance is to some degree 'faked' -- nobody goes out on stage and sings about exactly what they did and felt that day. Authenticity is an absolute, a goal that can never be fully attained, a quest."

Despite its potentially highfalutin topic, the book avoids the prose pitfalls of dry academic work and is not without humor; a chapter on Neil Young's raw classic "Tonight's the Night" begins with the wry observation: "The 1970s was the decade in which all of rock music's potential -- for both greatness and awfulness -- came to fruition."

The early chapters set the historical context, but the book really picks up steam in its later chapters. Among the most notable essays is a bracing consideration of Donna Summer and her disco hit "Love to Love You Baby," the hypnotic epic of simulated female orgasm. In this chapter, Barker and Taylor nicely fuse a brief history of early disco with a larger contemplation of the tensions between authenticity and artifice in the disco era.

As good as the authors' defense of disco is, it's topped by a riveting analysis of the career of John Lydon, who first blasted into the world's consciousness as Johnny Rotten, frontman for the notorious British punk band the Sex Pistols. In this finely nuanced chapter, Barker and Taylor penetrate the core contradictions within the punk scene, a genre rife with internal debates over authenticity and fakery.

That Lydon -- who jettisoned his Rotten moniker and reverted to his real name after the demise of the Pistols -- was able to weather the heavy burden of punk expectation and create groundbreaking music with his next band, Public Image Ltd., was a nearly miraculous feat. Contemplating nearly a century of popular music, the authors make a strong case that, "authentic" or not, music is best listened to with an open mind, as well as open ears.

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