Tuned In To Music

Reflections from a lifetime

Review: Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music, Hugh Barker & Yuval Taylor

Barker & Taylor’s Faking It is an essay-based examination of a number of the ways in which the idea of authenticity has affected popular music.  Rather than take a monolithic view of what “authenticity” means in the context of pop music the authors recognize that “authenticity” is faking ita multifaceted concept that has a broad range of implications for people who play and people who listen to music.  Barker & Taylor (B&T) are clear thinkers who recognize the limitations in their arguments and in their coverage of what authenticity may mean and how it may play out in various areas of pop music.  I think this is one of the great strengths of the book.  However, readers who prefer a straightforward argument to a simple conclusion may be frustrated.

B&T consider a broad range of ways in which concerns for authenticity affect pop music.  Their opening, and in many ways strongest, chapter examines how the marketing needs of the music industry, the biases and prejudices (both cultural and musical) of the consumer, and the personal and often political ideologies of pioneeering “field recorders” such as John and Alan Lomax, defined and shaped the familiar musical categories first of race and hillbilly or old-timey music and then blues, country and folk.  They argue persuasively that the authenticity commonly ascribed to these forms of so-called root music is, as often as not, artificial in that the distinctions drawn between these musical categories distort both the experience of the musicians who played the music and the history of the songs assigned to one category or another.  Fascinating stuff.

Other chapters include consideration of how the self-imposed demand for “keeping it real” can produce exercises in drunken, sloppy, mistake-laden recording (a discussion of Neil Young’s album “Tonight’s the Night”), a recognition that performances and public personae are by their very nature exercises in self-consciousness that are antithetical to the essential nature of authenticity (carried out in a discussion of punk and John Leydon), and how an insistence on not faking it can lead to the dilemma of achieving what you set out to achieve, becoming the person who you wanted to be and who the fans that rallied behind your keeping it real credo wanted you to be only to find you really don’t want to be that person anymore (in a discussion of Kurt Cobain).  They also look at how the demand on the part of the public that musicians authentically portray their lives in their music can straightjacket performers like Donna Summer, a woman with a marked talent for getting inside other people’s lives and portraying them in song, who was expected to forever be the mindles sex-object she portrayed in her world-wide monster hit “Love to Love You Baby”.  Other chapters discuss how considerations of authenticity distort the music and constrain the musicians in the world music genre (Ry Cooder, Paul Simon and the Buena Vista Social Club) and how authenticty plays out in genres that embrace artifice such as a bubblegum pop (The Monkees), dance/electronica (Kraftwerk) and early rock (Elvis Presley).  And there’s more.

B&T both think and write clearly without the overweening self-esteem that is typical of academic approaches to pop culture.  They are also careful thinkers who recognize and point out limitations in the claims and arguments they present.  The result is that reading Faking It is like having a conversation with thoughtful and non ego-obsessed people who have a deep and abiding knowledge of and interest in popular music.  It is unlikely that anyone will agree with everything they have to say but their clear presentation and lack of arrogance will leave you free to disagree without rancor.  Most importantly, it can lead you to listen to music with new ears so that you attend to the music itself rather than the category in which the music is typically placed.  I found Faking It to be an extremely thought provoking book that encourages discussion and consideration much more than polarization or argument and can highly recommend it to readers who prefer thoughtful consideration to ideological ranting.


05/19/2007 - Posted by | book reviews, music

1 Comment »

  1. […] an excellent essay in Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor write about how the divisions that are typically imposed on popular […]

    Pingback by Review: Lila Downs, Shake Away « Tuned In To Music | 02/20/2009 | Reply

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