Keeping it unreal

We consider the "primitive" music of blues singers such as Leadbelly to be more authentic than that

Faking It: the quest for authenticity in popular music

Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor Faber & Faber, 288pp, £14.99

ISBN 0571226590

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." (The italics are Cobain's.)

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.

The Monkees, for instance, fare well compared to the pedantic "therapy songs" of John Lennon. And if Billy Joel, "obnoxious and bullying . . . mawkish or lecherous", doesn't look so good next to Neil Young, Barker and Taylor none the less make a compelling case that the "Piano Man" was as honest a songwriter as Young. Young's insistence that he creates his best music without craft or thought is a cliché every bit as banal as Joel's phony Italian accent on "Big Shot", but the results are more interesting because Young is more interesting. "In 'Honesty'," write the authors, "Joel sings, 'I don't want some pretty face to tell me pretty lies: All I want is someone to believe.' In 'World on a String', Young sings, 'It's just a game you see me play, only real in the way I feel from day to day.'" Joel's truth is blunt and static, they argue, while Young's is shiftier. "For Young . . . being real means being true to whatever he feels at the moment, and that can and will change." Barker and Taylor want us to follow the bouncing ball - Young is the better artist not because he's more authentic, but, in a sense, because he's less so. There is no essential truth to Neil Young, only the pleasure (and pain) of brilliantly crafted pop filtered through the veil of the real.

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".

But that's not quite right, either. Wright recognised Lomax's manipulation of Leadbelly (who later successfully sued Lomax), but he assumed there was a genuine Leadbelly behind the music, a real black expression minstrel-ised by the white man. In fact, many of Leadbelly's songs came from white folks, who'd learned them from black musicians, who'd composed them with African inflections as reinterpreted by white musicians eager to add "floating" rhythms to the marching beat of Scots-Irish reels. The strongest argument of Faking It is for the endless "miscegenation" of music. Great popular music is always a collage of cultures, while the quest for authenticity all too often functions as a means of policing racial boundaries.

Consider the case of Mississippi John Hurt, the subject of the book's longest and most powerful essay. First, there's his name: Mississippi was an add-on from the record company. Then there's his reputation as a patriarch of the Delta blues: Hurt wasn't from the Mississippi Delta and he insisted he wasn't a blues musician. And then there is the problem of his blackness, thought by the white fans who rediscovered him in the 1960s to be pure and profound ("Uncle Remus come to life," write the authors). When Hurt was "discovered" the first time, he was performing for black and white audiences backed by a white fiddler and a white guitar player who also happened to be the local sheriff. He recorded blues because the record company insisted he do so. Meanwhile, Jimmie Rodgers, a white musician who happened to be a bluesman, recorded what came to be known as "country" music because the blues were reserved by the market for black men. One more twist: when Harry Smith included two of Hurt's songs on his great Smithsonian Folk Anthology, most listeners mistook the black musician for a white hillbilly.

The term "folk" itself presents more problems. Until 1949, country music was simply "folk", as was much "black" music. Racism was the centrifuge that separated them: Henry Ford, for instance, poured money into a campaign to promote square-dancing as a form of authentic (read: white and Protestant) Americanism. One of the pioneering producers of "old-time" music in the early 20th century, Ralph Peer, later boasted: "I invented the hillbilly and nigger stuff."

The weakness of Faking It, otherwise a fascinating and nimble investigation of pop's paradoxes, is its failure to explore the political implications to which it so often points. Barker and Taylor have escaped the authenticity trap, but only by embracing the pleasures of inauthenticity. There's nothing wrong with entertainment, they insist. True enough; but there's nothing wrong with taking music seriously, either, even when it's "fake".

Barker and Taylor do that, too, but after describing the marketing manoeuvres that made country and the blues racially "pure" categories (and left much of folk a politically impotent exercise in earnestness), they shy away from the legacy of that divide: rock purists and anti-hip-hop crusades on the one hand, and, on the other, pop music that entertains but rarely provokes, and never threatens any real danger but suicide, packaged and sold as a gesture of romantic authenticity. By the time they get to punk, a genre defined by politics, they're so committed to avoiding the authenticity trap that they celebrate punk's overlooked showmanship, failing to recognise that their embrace of inauthenticity as the essence of popular music is itself a trap.

But, as they write of the Monkees' utterly contrived "I'm a Believer", so what? It's still a great song. And Faking It is a great collection of true stories about "fake" music. It's the essay as Möbius strip; a literary illusion that ultimately makes less of an argument than it seems to, and yet 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 is contributing editor of Rolling Stone

This article first appeared in the 16 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Iran