Saturday, April 21, 2007

It used to be about the music, man!

Jeff Sharlet reviews the book "Faking It: the quest for authenticity in popular music" by Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor:

Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor, two publishing professionals who have turned out their personal record collections to produce a persuasive defence of inauthenticity as the defining characteristic of great popular music, borrow the title of their book, Faking It, from a suicide note - the most authentic, and also the stupidest, genre of all. "The fact is," wrote Nirvana's singer Kurt Cobain shortly before eating the muzzle of a shotgun in 1994, "I can't fool you, any one of you . . . The worst crime I can think of would be to rip people off by faking it and pretending as if I'm having 100% fun."

Like many people of a certain age, I remember where I was and what I was doing the day Cobain died. I was in my third year of college, I was in a dorm; friends and I were drinking 40-ounce bottles of Colt 45 malt liquor, and when we heard the news, we laughed. Cobain, the gold standard of rock-star sincerity since his suicide, had long seemed to us like a joke, a poseur, a pretty-boy pop singer for the high-school teens who gathered in herds of earnest weeping within hours of the news. We slightly older boys and girls were past that kids' stuff; we listened to 1980s art-punk and traditional blues - two of the fakest musical genres ever presented to the public as revelations of the real - and it was to the forgotten pain of dead black men, Skip James and Son House and Mississippi John Hurt, that we raised our 40-ouncers.

Little did we know that these musicians had been served up to us on platters, literally, resurrected 30 years before by another generation of white college boys who had looked up and recorded the old men as stand-ins for their fantasies of the romantic savage. They had at least bothered to produce some records; all my friends and I did was listen to them and drink malt liquor, a beverage manufactured to exploit poor black people and winos of all races. For us, it was liquid authenticity.

Our choice of malt liquor and callow disregard for suicide constituted what Barker and Taylor call an authenticity "trap" - the harder you try to "keep it real", the more artificial you become. Barker and Taylor explore the trap in ten chapters ranging from 1920s blues to Nirvana's last concert, most of which pair an artist generally considered authentic with one generally considered not, often to surprising effect.

Cobain's companion is Leadbelly, a favourite of folk aficionados who to this day perceive him as a giant of "black music", even though the vast majority of his fans were white. (When white producers brought Leadbelly to New York City in 1935 to play "traditional" music, Life magazine declared in a headline: "Bad Nigger Makes Good Minstrel".) Cobain's swan song, performed on MTV's Unplugged a few months before his suicide, was a cover of Leadbelly's "Where Did You Sleep Last Night", about a woman who wanders into the woods after her husband is hit by a train. Cobain, so deep into the authenticity trap by then that he'd never escape, seemed to be making one last attempt not to "fake it", by reviving a song by his "favourite performer", and exiting the stage without an encore.

But Leadbelly, Barker and Taylor reveal, was by necessity a master of "faking it", a sophisticated musician of cosmopolitan taste limited to a repertoire of "Negro" songs and told by his manager to perform in prison garb. That manager was John Lomax, one of the early 20th-century giants of what has come to be known as "roots music". "The music that was, for Lomax, the most authentic," write the authors, "the most black, the most free from 'white influence', was the most primitive." That doesn't mean Leadbelly was primitive, only that Lomax and, decades later, Cobain decided to believe that he was, the better to break the bonds of artificiality they felt modernity and celebrity imposed. Leadbelly was a tool. This shifty truth comes to us by way not of postmodernism, but of old-timey Marxist analysis. In 1937, the novelist Richard Wright, profiling Leadbelly for the Daily Worker, declared his coerced performances "one of the greatest cultural swindles in history".

I like the term "authenticity trap". It sums up my opinion of the modern penchant for putting on the customs, traditions and styles of past or foreign cultures, real or imagined, in some quixotic quest to acheive a dimly imagined state of higher being-ness. As Sharlet states, it is usually the affliction of white college educated types, though it wouldn't surprise me to find that it has spread via globalization to the upper classes of non-white countries. The irony of this is that the people embarking on these quests don't see the self-defeating nature of it all. You can't acheive authenticity by choice. There is only one authentic life that you can live, and that's the one you've been stuck with by the random chance of your birth.

But in another sense there is nothing inauthentic about a modern white kid enjoying Mississippi blues or Ska or Reggae or Latin Salsa, because all these are available to him in his modern milieu. He's not experiencing the life of a southern black during Jim Crow, or a Jamaican black, but listening to all these different varieties of music is an authentic expression of the life he is living, as a cosmopolitan white kid in the Information Age.

Authenticity is like body odor. It's something you don't notice in yourself because you're around it everyday. Since you don't notice it, you imagine that you don't have it. Other people have exotic smells, so you feel like they have something that you do not. You never imagine that these exotic people might find their own ways dull, and they may actually find your way of life exotic and exciting.

My "music theory" is very simple. There is good music and bad music. There is no need to articulate the qualities that make up goodness or badness. Much like Emperor Joseph II from Amadeus, bad songs have "too many notes", or "not enough notes", or "the wrong notes". Even that level of critique is considered advanced theory in my book. I've freed myself to like what I like and dislike what I don't, no questions asked. In this way I am living the authentic life of a white Baby-Boomer male from New England transplanted to Minnesota.


Blogger David said...

I once read a great essay, the details of which are now lost in the dusty recesses of what I laughingly call my memory, the point of which was that all native English speakers are the heirs of Shakespeare, regardless of what language their ancestors spoke in Shakespeare's day.

"Authenticity" is overrated. We are who we make ourselves. Of course, it's entirely possible to make ourselves shallow and artificial.

April 21, 2007 7:12 AM  
Blogger Susan's Husband said...

Isn't this another aspect of the art world and its obsession with provenance?

April 21, 2007 7:41 AM  
Blogger Mike Beversluis said...

Food too. What's an authentic pizza? Or authentic Chinese vs day-glow Sweet'n'sour?

One thing that might be different is that music authenticity debating is very much a Champion-Vinyl male status signifier, whereas a lot of the Martha Stewart cooking and living shows and magazines seek to recreate an idealized family life with a recipe.

April 21, 2007 8:37 AM  
Blogger Susan's Husband said...

On the other hand, I do have a thing for authenticity in one of my interests, swords. I like the ones in my collection to be "authentic", by which I mean "an original or one made exactly like an original". It's similar to the re-enactors who strive for authenticity as well. Them, I understand, because being authentic in that sense is key to acquiring a deeper understanding of the people who lived that sort of life. It's not something easily understood purely from reading or watching.

April 21, 2007 3:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good stuff, Duck, but why the freedom analogy? Who or what fettered you in the first place?

Anyway, welcome to middle age. But this is just stage one. Crabby "I know what I like" declarations shouted from rooftops won't stop you from being seen as an increasingly irrelevant and boring dinosaur by the cool kids. You have to hit back and defend your weird tastes in a way that hints they are part of a serene whole that lacks for nought, a superior life that raises you above the madding crowd.

The famous British eccentricity should be your mentor here. One of my favourite examples is the remote rural squire character in Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford. As with many of his class, he was happier mucking about in pig s--t than indulging in more cerebral or artistic pursuits. Nagged by a young relative that he should perhaps read more, he replied:

"I have only read one book in my life--White Fang. It was so frightfully good I never wanted to read another."

I sense the makings of a contest here.

April 22, 2007 2:58 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

"Who or what fettered you in the first place?"

The opinions of others, I guess. Not so much in music but with books, certainly. I still have "Ulysses" on my shelf, unfinished, as well as books by various other "serious" authors like Wallace Stegner.

Oh, and the occasional comment by Brit on my musical choices.

April 22, 2007 6:31 AM  
Blogger Duck said...


There is a valid place for valuing authenticity. Things can have authenticity. The problem arises when you try to acieve personal authenticity by the things you collect or use. An authentic Samurai sword won't make you a Samurai.

April 22, 2007 7:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


That's why we religious folks live longer and are less anxious than you guys. We've known from a very young age that God intended Ulysses to remain on the shelf, unfinished.

April 22, 2007 8:59 AM  

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