NYT book review
March 4, 2007
Songs of Myself
By BEN YAGODA
The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music.
By Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor.
Illustrated. 375 pp. W. W. Norton & Company. $25.95.
One day in January 1931, Jimmie Rodgers — a yodeling country singer known as the Singing Brakeman — placed himself before a microphone in a San Antonio recording studio and sang, “I’ll tell you the story of Jimmie the Kid — he’s a brakeman you all know.” This fellow, he continued, “yodels a yodel that everybody knows is the yodeling brakeman’s song.”
In December 2006, “Hip Hop Is Dead,” by the rapper Nas, made its debut in the No. 1 spot on the Billboard album charts. The title track contains these lines: “Any ghetto will tell ya Nas helped grow us up / My face once graced promotional Sony trucks / Hundred million in billin’, I helped build ’em up.”
You could stretch a narrative of the last 75 years of American (and, more recently, British) popular music between those two poles. It would be a story of self-consciousness, of the ways significant performers chose, in the course of a song, to comment on themselves (Johnny Cash’s “Man in Black,” John Lennon’s “Ballad of John and Yoko”), on their colleagues (Waylon Jennings’s “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?”), on their genre (Chuck Berry’s “Rock and Roll Music,” “Hip Hop Is Dead”) or on the song itself (James Taylor’s “Hey mister, that’s me up on the jukebox / I’m the one that’s singing this sad song”). And so, almost infinitely, on.
Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor’s “Faking It” is about how performers since Rodgers, stoked by powerful notions in the cultural air, have been inordinately interested in proving how real they are. The authors devote much of a chapter to “Jimmie the Kid” because, they contend, this autobiographical song took a pioneering stroll on one of the three paths to authenticity — the path they call “personal authenticity.” The case study of the second path, “representational authenticity,” is the Monkees — a group created not in the traditional dank basement but at a television casting call. Studio musicians furnished all the music on the Monkees’ records, but in due time the actors who played the roles of band members insisted to their producer, Don Kirshner, that they take over: somehow it didn’t seem right that they should represent themselves on TV as something they were not.
Barker and Taylor address the final category — “cultural authenticity” — in their best chapter, an account of how misguided notions of authenticity first closed the door of success on a black Mississippi performer, John Hurt, and then shoehorned him into a role that was, in a word, fake. A record company producer encountered Hurt in the South in the 1920s — a place and time, the authors write, where the sophisticated indigenous music was “a hybrid, a product of musical miscegenation.” Hurt performed Tin Pan Alley numbers, and his ragtime guitar picking lacked any strong racial identity. But at this same moment, a combination of commercial calculation and a flawed and racist conception of folklore was decreeing that the only authentic Southern black music was something more primitive — what would become “the unadorned and often brutal sound of the Howlin’ Wolf-Willie Dixon-Muddy Waters-Bo Diddley stable at Chess Records.” For Southern whites, meanwhile, “authenticity” consisted of fiddle tunes, Appalachian ballads and square-dance songs. And so, after one recording session, John Hurt went back to his house in Avalon, Miss. He stayed there until 1963, when two young white men found him and hauled him off to help lead the blues revival. That he didn’t think of himself as a bluesman seemed not to matter.
This chapter combines a strong point of view, intelligent and informed musical analysis, and rigorous historical research. But too much of the book takes place in mistier realms. The authors often appear to be responding to recondite debates among rock critics. The sections on actual musicians are full of inference about reactions and motives — a perilous critical stance. (Thus the authors observe that Donna Summer “internalized much of the criticism that she received for her disco work and spent at least part of her subsequent career trying to prove that there was more to her than that.”) The writing labors for oxygen. It is rare to encounter a sentence in the book without at least one qualifying or intensifying adverb or adjective; in the space of a page and a half, one finds “very,” “strong,” “strongly” (twice), “perhaps” (twice), “frequently,” “tended to,” “a kind of” and “exact.” Each superfluous word or phrase dulls the prose.
Another problem is the book’s insularity. Barker, a former musician and songwriter, and Taylor, the author of “The Future of Jazz,” show no awareness that for a century or so, authenticity has been a crucial and highly charged word and concept in philosophy, psychology and aesthetics. If they had made use of Lionel Trilling’s classic 1972 book, “Sincerity and Authenticity,” for example, they would have been able to trace the lineage of such tortured neo-Romantics as Neil Young, Kurt Cobain and John Lydon back to Edmund Burke’s denigration of “beauty” in favor of the energy and power of the sublime. In this conception, Trilling wrote, “the artist ... ceases to be the craftsman or the performer, dependent upon the approval of the audience. His reference is to himself only, or to some transcendent power which — or who — has decreed his enterprise and alone is worthy to judge it.”
Or, as Lydon (better known as Johnny Rotten) put it: “No gimmicks, no theater, just us. Take it or leave it.”
Ben Yagoda directs the journalism program at the University of Delaware. His latest book is “When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It: The Parts of Speech, for Better and/or Worse.”