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April 24, 2008

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Yuval Taylor

Elijah Wald wrote me, "Having just read a lot of teen magazines, I'm surprised by the claim that 'Rock’n’roll roundly rejected personal authenticity.' It was very important to teen-mag readers that Paul Anka was really in love with the older woman for whom he wrote 'Diana,' and there was a constant attempt to show that songs really reflected the singers' own experiences."

I replied, "Is Paul Anka 'rock'n'roll'? Was there a similar attempt to find out whom 'Hound Dog' was about? Was Paul Anka the least bit concerned about singing songs that reflected his own experiences? I think there's a big contrast between the modus operandum here and that of country music. For country singers, it was very important that their material reflected their own lives and beliefs. Ditto for folk singers. Of course you find some concern for personal authenticity among fans of pop music throughout the ages. But rock'n'roll was much more about fantasy and less about reality than country or r&b."

Yuval Taylor

Elijah responded:

Paul Anka was certainly rock 'n' roll to his audience, to American Bandstand, and to everyone writing at that time.
As for who "Hound Dog" was about, has there ever been a time and style where every song could pass that test?

On country music, that is what Elvis was considered to be playing--I gave you the quotation where Alan Freed defined him as hillbilly rather than real rock 'n' roll, and he was voted most promising country performer by both Billboard and Cash Box, and portrayed as a country singer in his first three movies. In 1955, he had more hits on the country charts than on the pop charts--so if he was inauthentic, then his success argues against that being important for country fans.

I think if you do some research on this in contemporary publications, you'll find that R&B and country were no more about reality than rock 'n' roll was, for their audience--though R&B's authenticity became more of an issue when "covers" became controversial in 1954. But even then, the "authenticity" of Tweedle-Dee (the main song being fought over, since LaVern Baker was leading the fight) had nothing to do with it being a genuine expression of her personal feelings, or her culture. The argument was that her record was being copied note for note.

It is true that for some "country singers, it was very important that their material reflected their own lives and beliefs." But most? The most popular? I'm glancing at the top 25 country hits of the 1950s: Did anyone care whether Webb Pierce was really "In the Jailhouse," Pee Wee King was really a "Slow Poke" (or anything but a polka musician from Milwaukee), Hank Williams was really a Cajun, Tennessee Ernie Ford had ever been chased with a shotgun, Ray Price had ever really been out of work in the big city......
You can find artists who fit your argument in the country field, and who don't fit it in rock 'n' roll, but is it broadly accurate if you don't cherry-pick? I think you'll find that being a real teenager meant more to rock 'n' roll fans than being a real hillbilly meant to country listeners.

Yuval Taylor

Elijah -

Well, you've corrected me on a few points.

Now let's take it as a given that in all genres at all times in 20th century popular music there were some fans, artists, and songs concerned with issues of authenticity and others that weren't. Let's also take it as a given that rock'n'roll made a departure in some fashion from its antecedents. The question I've been trying to answer is whether that departure involved a different attitude towards issues of authenticity.

If you've read Richard Peterson's Creating Country Music: Fabricating Authenticity, you'll see how the issue of authenticity is at the heart of country music's identity. Obviously, there were artists for whom that identification was stronger (Hank Williams, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton) than others (Ray Price, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Roger Miller). But the further removed you get from pop crossover, the more true Peterson’s point becomes.

The opposite can be said for rock’n’roll. At the heart of its identity--what separated it from country on the one hand, r&b on the other, and Sinatra-ish pop on the third--was its rebellious spirit, which involved a very different relationship to authenticity than did country. The fact that Elvis was on the country charts or that Alan Freed defined him as “hillbilly” even though Elvis viewed himself as rock’n’roll, not country, shouldn’t change that. There are always going to be blurrings of genre, especially when a genre is new. The fact that Paul Anka was called “rock’n’roll” even though he didn’t share that rebellious spirit shouldn’t change the fact that he was far more closely allied with mainstream pop--in terms of his music’s production and lyrics--than were other rock’n’rollers.

Perhaps I’m “cherry-picking” to prove my point. Perhaps generalizing about genres isn’t, in your opinion, a valid approach to studying popular music. I think it’s the only way to get at the evolution of an attitude.

Lastly, regarding your point “that being a real teenager meant more to rock 'n' roll fans than being a real hillbilly meant to country listeners,” I’d be curious to hear about rock’n’roll fans objecting to Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, Gene Vincent, Elvis Presley, Bill Haley, Fats Domino, Bo Diddley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Pat Boone. None of them were teenagers at the time of their hit records.

Vincent Egan

Love the site! Authenticity and the blues orthodoxy are the enemy of creativity, and the racism of the 'authenticity' merchants should be compared to the genius of camp in popular music, which actively recognises the exaggeration and artifice of rock music, and carries an inherent irony - and thus conservative popular music often remains conflicted about homosexuality. Anyone who tries to go outside the imposed limitations tends to upset rock critics. Im sure this is why progressive rock has been so reviled by critics and so loved by the fans.

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David Broyles

Well said, Vincent. This is not a clear-cut issue, by any means. The idea that there should be limitations, whether they be parallel with or contrary to any idea of "authenticity" (or even just some idea of "cool") is a lie. "Rock & roll, on some level, is bullshit, but music is the realest thing in the world to me."--Trey Anastasio

Damian Joseph

Hate to do this, but the authenticity issue was around before the folk music trends you're talking about.

In fact, this is a huge issue in talking about deemed "black music" like spirituals and early blues. It's been argued that these are not part of their traditions (and listening to percussion heavy african music it's not hard to see they don't quite mesh).

Professors and other scholars that did field recordings of this music in the 20's sought out the people with harder lives... aka authenticity... and ignored the fact that the music was being played elsewhere. It also made for better stories to get their recordings heard.

Damian Joseph

oh sorry - early blues equals rock n roll... in case you missed that

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Chris Neal

Hello, Hugh!
I just found this blog and it's interesting. My main interest though is that I'm Hugh's American cousin (well, one of them, anyway,) and wondered what my cousins have been up to since 1987 (the last time I saw Hank and Hugh.) Been listening to Animals That Swim and am impressed!
Chris

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In fact, this is a huge issue in talking about deemed "black music" like spirituals and early blues. It's been argued that these are not part of their traditions (and listening to percussion heavy african music it's not hard to see they don't quite mesh).

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annie

“when the music gets too good, and too polished, it isn’t considered the real thing”..unfortunately, although nowadays music is a part of everyone's life, it is viewed in different ways too. most recently, i was (unpleasantly) surprised to hear a remix made after an old rock'n'roll song, a house version of it. those houses remixes are applied with all kinda other genres also..sad. some things should be left untainted.

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A group of musicians who specialize in playing this music called rock band or rock group. Many rock groups consist of guitar player, lead singer, bass guitar player, and drummer. In this case, they form quartet.

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Love the site! Authenticity and the orthodoxy of the blues are the enemies of creativity and racism of "authenticity" of traders should be compared with the genius of popular music in the field, which recognizes the active role of artifice and exaggeration of music rock, and has an inherent irony - and popular music both conservatives often conflict over homosexuality. Anyone trying to leave tends to alter the boundaries of rock critics. I'm sure that's why progressive rock has been so vilified by critics and loved by the fans.

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What people are saying about our book

  • 9/07
    "[A] perceptive exploration of authenticity and its meaning in 20th-century popular music. . . . Highly recommended." --M. Goldsmith, Choice
  • 7/1/07
    "This revelatory book is a must for anyone who has been an ambivalent pop music fan. . . . An exhaustive and thought-provoking book that deserves serious attention." --Alan Licht, The Wire
  • 5/22
    [Four stars] "Whether nailing how perceptions of the blues were moulded by the racist cultural bias of those who originally recorded it or assessing the multi-dimensional pranksterism of the KLF, this well-researched, informative and thought-provoking book pierces the bubble of what pop authenticity really means." --Thomas H. Green, Q Magazine
  • 4/18
    [five stars] "Enthusiastic . . . superb. . . . Like all great music writing, Faking It is unashamedly subjective and, above all, makes you wish you were listening to the records it describes." --Martin Hemming, Time Out London
  • 4/17
    "Essential reading for anyone who really loves pop." --Paul Connolly, London Lite
  • 4/16
    “Persuasive . . . powerful. . . . A fascinating and nimble investigation of pop’s paradoxes. . . . A great collection of true stories about fake music. It's the essay as Möbius strip; a literary illusion that . . . tells us more about what's true, what's not, and why that doesn't always matter, than a more straightforward confrontation with the secrets and lies of pop music ever could.” --Jeff Sharlet, New Statesman
  • 4/15
    “Valuable . . . instructive . . . Taylor, who has written extensively on slavery, is particularly strong when discussing how the music of the American South was divided along race lines by the fledgling record industry, even when white and black artists had almost identical repertoires. The chapters on Jimmie Rodgers's autobiographical 'TB Blues' and Elvis's 'Heartbreak Hotel' are excellent.” --Campbell Stevenson, The Observer
  • 4/14
    “Diabolically provocative . . . [A] tightly focused examination of why, when and how authenticity became such a powerful force in popular music – and eventually its key marketing tool.” --Greg Quinn, Toronto Star
  • 4/11/07
    “The authors skillfully navigate a complicated musical past. . . . The book avoids the prose pitfalls of dry academic work and is not without humor. . . . 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. 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.” --Chrissie Dickinson, Washington Post
  • 4/11/07
    “This is a work by two fanatics that, through copious research and profound contemplation, offers fellow fans a stimulating semantic exercise . . . and, more significantly, carte blanche to enjoy guilty pleasures without guilt. . . . Barker’s obvious passion for and deep understanding of manufactured pop make his chapters fascinating. . . . The exquisite research and nuanced insight Barker brings to [Donna Summer’s] moans and groans makes ['Love to Love You Baby'] one of the strongest chapters in the book. . . . [And Taylor’s 'Heartbreak Hotel'] is one of the most passionate, articulate love letters to the King I have ever read.” --Jake Austen, Chicago Journal
  • 4/7/07
    "Merrily throwing in references from R. Kelly to Mississippi John Hurt to the KLF, . . . Faking It is dynamite for the pop subversive. . . . The arguments are very persuasive." --Bob Stanley, The (London) Times
  • 4/1/07
    “What Faking It shows us, through an impressive array of eras and musicians, is that the quest for purity in pop is a fool’s errand. . . . Faking It is a fascinating read based on a truly provocative and enlightening argument. It will be hard to think about pop music in the same way again.” --Nora Young, Toronto Star
  • 3/28/07
    “Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor certainly know their stuff and have fun poking and prodding at our idols.” --Jonathan Gibbs, Metro
  • 3/28/07
    “In 10 chapters--each addressing a particular song or song cover as a starting point before running rabid over all kinds of cultural, racial, and social terrain--[the authors] trace the shifting importance of originality in popular music from the early 20th century to the early 21st with diplomatic élan and overachieving gusto, . . . smashing precious illusions like microbrew bottles along the way. . . . Faking It is certain to inspire some awesome conversations among readers.” --Raymond Cummings, Baltimore City Paper
  • 3/22/07
    "Sure to fuel arguments among music nerds for years to come. . . . Taken as a whole, the book becomes a fascinating, complex study of the increasingly blurred line between actuality and artifice." --Ira Brooker, Time Out Chicago
  • 3/14/07
    "A brutal attack on what professor David Lowethal called 'the dogma of self-delusion,' which basically kills the entire concept of 'authentic' alternative culture, eats it, shits it, buries it, digs it up, burns it, eats it and shits it out again. And then nails it to a canvas and calls it art. I intend to carry this book around with me. And the next time I meet a DJ who looks like he might be about to use the phrase 'keeping it real,' I shall smack him in the head with it. Repeatedly." --Steven Wells, Philadelphia Weekly
  • 3/4/07
    "Combines a strong point of view, intelligent and informed musical analysis, and rigorous historical research." --Ben Yagoda, The New York Times Book Review
  • 2/18/07
    “Essential . . . a model of lucidity and concision. . . . Barker and Taylor might make great house builders. They lay a solid foundation for their argument that popular music is inherently 'impure.' . . . Part of the fun here is the way the writers trust their ears. . . . [A] smart, passionate book.” --Charles Taylor, Newsday
  • 2/15/07
    "With plenty of interesting and contentious assertions to stimulate even casual readers, this is a heck of an argument starter." --Booklist
  • 2/15/07
    "Insightful. . . . Faking It delivers lots of good stories." --Michael Washburn, Time Out New York
  • 2/9/07
    “Provocative . . . incendiary . . . fascinating.” --Ron Wynn, Nashville City Paper

The most essential songs discussed in Faking It