April 28, 2007

THIS JUST IN... (via Ed Driscoll):

Keeping it unreal: We consider the "primitive" music of blues singers such as Leadbelly to be more authentic than that of the Monkees. But all pop musicians are fakes: a review of Faking It: the quest for authenticity in popular music by Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor (Jeff Sharlet, 16 April 2007, New Statesman)

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." [...]

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.


...Richard Wagner didn't actually worship the Norse gods!

Their point eludes me.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 28, 2007 7:49 AM
Comments

Maybe because, although they covered the song, "I'm a Believer" was written and recorded by Neil Diamond??

http://www.monkees.net/DOCS/LYRICS/BELIEVER.htm

Posted by: Rick T. at April 28, 2007 8:57 AM

Maybe because, although they covered the song, "I'm a Believer" was written and recorded by Neil Diamond??

http://www.monkees.net/DOCS/LYRICS/BELIEVER.htm

Posted by: Rick T. at April 28, 2007 8:59 AM

Maybe because, although they covered the song, "I'm a Believer" was written and recorded by Neil Diamond??

Posted by: Rick T. at April 28, 2007 8:59 AM
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