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February 14, 2007


Thalia May

For me, fake vs real is mostly about sincerity. For instance I can see someone singing a cover of an old song and still feel that they have truly put something of themselves into it. Whereas when you see performers on Pop Idol, you often feel you are watching someone doing a mere imitation, a facsimile rather than anything more real. Increasingly I get that feeling from the music I see the record companies putting out, that it is all just facsimile rather than anything more meaningful.

Hugh Barker

I posted a link to this topic on another (UK political) forum I visit - here’s an extract of a conversation that followed:

SH: On this topic, I could not help but comment on this quote from Noel Gallagher on David Cameron. “It's like a song writer who's eternally ripping off someone else's song and just changing the odd line a little.” http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/6364089.stm

HB: Funny coming from Noel Gallagher, who's hardly averse to a bit of creative plagiarism himself...

SH: Exactly. Fakers, the pair of them.

HB: On the other hand does it always matter - does 'fake' always = bad? We tend to only care about music being 'fake' when we disapprove of or dislike it for other reasons. Plenty of classic records from blues, Beatles, soul or wherever are extremely derivative, or not played by the performers or whatever. Fake is an easily used pejorative, but why is Noel nicking riffs any worse than Mississippi John Hurt or Parliament or Nirvana nicking riffs?

SH: Not always, it depends how it is done. Music has always fed on itself IMO, it is just more obvious now with CD reissues etc. The trouble I have with Gallagher was that Oasis was just a stodgy rehash without moving things forward.

Certainly George Clinton was extremely innovative. But the examples of him reusing old loops (like in Loopzilla) was deliberate recycling (like a turntablist). Other examples such as the use of "Swing Low Sweet Chariot" on Mothership Connection was just an awesomely clever political metaphor, (as well as being funky as f**k).


For me it’s all about creativity. I see more creative value in an artist who draws or paints a scene from their own experience or their own imagination than one who uses a projector to ‘trace’ pictures from magazines or photographs, the second being only slightly more creative than paint-by-numbers.

Music is the same. I think a singer or band that writes their own lyrics, composes their own music and then performs the work is much more real than somebody who is handpicked and polished by a record company is. Sometimes they might be decent singers, though often not, as it seems that looks are most important. Musicianship is irrelevant, as songs can be purchased or covered, and vocal shortcomings and imperfections digitally enhanced/removed. The end result is a more ‘perfect’ sound, but soulless. And why wouldn’t it be? The songwriter writes songs with the aim of making money, not expressing their true feelings or their own (real or imagined) stories. The band are paid by the hour, as are the recordists and engineers etc. The singer is told what to sing, how to sing and what expression to make on the accompanying music video. The goal at every stage is money, not creativity or self-expression.

King Mob

While there is very little music that is not derivative in some way or other, I like to let the hairs on the back of my neck be the judge as to whether anything that I am listening to is real or fake. They dont often let me down. However, here are a couple of examples of formats that i really have a problem with:

1) 1980's pretty-boy rockers with poodle haircuts wearing spandex pants and who only drink mineral water - oh no! Come on guys, you've lost before you even play the first 12 bars. I want my rock stars to be 1970's stereotype greasers who drink Jack Daniels and stink of petuli oil. The first two albums should be tripple gate-fold sleve concept picture-disc albums and then you choke on your own vomit before that tricky 3rd album.

2) Blues players who no longer have the blues. Sorry, but I love Leadbelly and T-bone Walker, but a white bloke singing "I got those - woke up this mornin' in a 5-star hotel, only got 5 more nights all sold out at the Royal Albert Hall left blues".. twiddle twiddle plink plink diddle.. doesn't do it for me.

Yuval Taylor

Like EF, I appreciate creativity in music, but is it the same as being "real"? Alice Cooper and Black Sabbath were intensely creative bands during their first few years, but who would call them "real"? Johnny Shines, the blues player, was not an especially creative player--his style was derivative of Robert Johnson's--but his music is more "real" than Alice Cooper's, in that his songs reflected his real life and the lives of people in his milieu. I think that creativity and authenticity are two entirely different things.

Thalia May

Re: Creativity vs being real...

I tend to think that part of creativity is having a personal vision of the world and being able to communicate it clearly. Now that vision might be a fantasy one (as in the case of Black Sabbath or Alice Cooper) or a version of the real world (say Bruce Springsteen. We get a different satisfaction from the two - it's like the difference between fiction and journalism, or maybe more like the difference between fantasy and realism in the cinema. So for someone who is trying to communicate something in a realistic mode, then we can judge them on how successfully they do this, as being more or less real or fake. Whereas for Black Sabbath that distinction isn't really worth making.

So for instance I find John Cougar Mellencamp more fake than Bruce Springsteen, although both try a similar approach. And I also find late Springsteen to be more fake than early Springsteen.

Craig Matteson

My relationship to pop music is having grown up in the 60s and hearing it on the radio and listening to some albums. However, most of the music I studied and played was either classical or the religious music at my church.

For me this whole "authenticity" or what is "real or fake" has always seemed quite extra musical to me. The question for me has been whether it was a good piece of music or not (and that has quite a flexible and changing set of criteria) and, separately, whether I liked it or not (it is quite possible to like something one knows is pretty much whipped cream and not appreciate something one knows is pretty good).

Now, if one is talking about whether something flows out of a "legitimate" tradition or is simply a something manufactured for sale, that makes sense to me. However, one might be in a "real" tradition and by a poor work and something could be manufactured for sale (like Sugar Sugar) and be quite delightful.

For, me the more critical question about music isn't about listening to it, but whether I want to put in the hours necessary to learn it and make it a part of my life. If so, then it is a "real" piece. If I don't then in some way it is "other".

Anyway, my two cents.

Joel M.

People seem to be linking originality and authenticity and autobiographicalness (sorry, couldn't conjugate it). Blues players played and play covers, and we think of them as more authentic than, say, a pop punk band, even one playing original music. Originality is an illusion, as has been written about for thousands of years; nothing comes from nothing. And personal doesn't mean autobiographical. I mean, there is a thing called metaphor. Think about the difference between Dylan and Lou Reed.

Having said that, I do recognize what I FEEL is more authentic, more real. I just think that this is a product of creativity too. I mean, Kurt Cobain? He sang with an affected voice, admitted the similarities between his most famous work and old pop songs, and constantly talked about references for his work (a hallmark of his generation). Still, Kurt fretted over his authenticity, but it's obvious his definition was slightly different than other peoples'. To him authenticity was an attitude.


It's important not to confuse inauthenticity with fiction. I read a review in the paper that quoted your book as follows:

"Rock 'n' roll was, at its core, self-consciously inauthentic music,"

What makes rock'n roll inauthentic? Is it because performers are role-playing when they sing/play. Isn't that what all performers do. Isn't all music fictional storytelling? That certainly doesn't make it inauthentic. Maybe I should read the book...


Just to add to what I said above, maybe the confusion arises from the fact that in music such as rock'n roll, nothing is ever explained. The stories just happen in a very abstract way without the kind of obvious cues that you get from watching a film or reading a book etc.

Hugh Barker

Just to answer Joel and Ciaran:

In the book we talk about three kinds of authenticity:

1) Representational - where the artist is what they appear to be (as the Monkees weren't when they were represented as having played on the records).

2) Cultural authenticity - as in true to a culture - eg people perceive blues to be culturally authentic to the Mississippi delta and African inheritance, although the actual story is rather more complicated.

3) Personal authenticity - which can mean any or all of 'sincere', 'heartfelt', 'honest', 'personal', 'autobiographical', etc. Possibly even 'original' (as people tend to see inspiration as an individual, romantic form of creation), although originality is a slightly different issue.

The interesting thing about autobiography in song is just that it was pretty rare in the first half of the century and only became ubiquitous from about the late 1960s with Lennon, singer-songwriters and so forth. So it is not essential for what people perceive as being personally authentic (for instance in the heartfelt performances of Hank Williams). Kurt Cobain needn't be autobiographical or even non-fictional for people to perceive him as personally authentic. Or for fans to feel that they were getting to know the 'real Kurt' through his music. Autobiography in music is more a symptom of the focus on personal authenticity in rock than the only defining feature of it.

The quote about rock and roll being inauthentic is partly down to what we'd see as a misperception of the history of rock music. Many listeners and writers tend to depict rock as being essentially authentic, and the sexy, playful, theatrical aspects of it as being a departure from the true way. So for instance when early Elvis sounds quite folky or countryish he is seen as singing 'from the heart' and the more mannered aspects of his performance are written off as abberrations or corruption of the pure Elvis. Whereas, if you listen with prejudice, it is clear that from the start Elvis was being first and foremost a performer, drawing on a range of mannerisms and theatrical poses to create his persona. And in early rock and roll in general there was very little concern for personal authenticity as I've described it above. (In this respect 'inauthenticity' is being identified with theatricality, lack of concern for sincerity, posing etc).

Hugh Barker

Oh, and a couple more comments on Joel's post:

Blues players are partly seen as being culturally authentic, as the songs they sings are seen as being expressive of the culture they come from. And to a degree they are seen as personally authentic because they are honest, emotional, heartfelt etc. There were very few genuinely autobiographical blues songs, so don't take that as being the only or most important issue here. But blues in general is perceived as one of the most authentic kinds of music around (even though it was partly defined as a 'black music', while folk and later country music became 'white music', because of the activities of the record industry and folk music collectors.

In the book we try to acknowledge that many of the things that make us see music as personally or culturally authentic can be important to listeners; while at the same time questioning the ways that the quest for authenticity has been constructed, and also asking why certain kinds of music tend to be rejected as 'inauthentic' or 'fake'.

Hugh Barker

I meant 'without prejudice' in the post above, not 'with prejudice'...


"Many listeners and writers tend to depict rock as being essentially authentic, and the sexy, playful, theatrical aspects of it as being a departure from the true way. So for instance when early Elvis sounds quite folky or countryish he is seen as singing 'from the heart' and the more mannered aspects of his performance are written off as abberrations or corruption of the pure Elvis."

People often make the same mistake with poetry. One should never assume that the author is also the narrator or speaker of the poem. The same applies in song. You're quite right to draw attention to this but you insist on using the terms "inauthentic", "posteuring" in the sense that the terms truly apply to the artists. That just reinforces the confusion.

Hugh Barker

I see what you mean Ciaran, but I'm compressing a complicated argument from the book. I wouldn't say we are ever describing artists as being inauthentic. But we are examining the aspects of music that have tended to be written off (by musicians, critics or listeners) as fake or inauthentic or to have been judged lacking in contrast to artists who are regarded as keeping it real.

As I said, this is not just about whether or not the song is about the singer - there are plenty of other criteria that have traditionally been used to judge how 'genuine' a musical performer is.

Hugh Barker

So when we say rock and roll was 'self-consciously inauthentic', we mean that it was quite happy to be theatrical, sexy, pure fun, and to be none of the things that have generally been taken to mean that music is personally or culturally authentic.

It's not to say that it was knowingly fake. But it is to say that it was knowingly lacking in all those attributes that have generally been seen as 'authentic'.

yuval taylor

I just wanted to expand on what Hugh was saying. Rock'n'roll, on Elvis's part, was in part a reaction against the this-is-God's-truth mode of country music, which emphasized authenticity--as did the blues. Rock'n'roll was self-consciously inauthentic in that it tried hard to get away from country's and blues' need to keep it real. Instead it emphasized its own playfulness. "Heartbreak Hotel" is a great example--we never really believe that Elvis is heartbroken, the melancholy in the song is incredibly exaggerated. Compare that to Robert Johnson's or Hank Williams's melancholy.

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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