New book explores pursuit of authenticity


From Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, top, to Elvis Presley and Neil Young, above, a new book examines the authenticity of some of the music world’s biggest stars.


Credibility is the last thing on the minds of the young hopefuls who lined up last weekend for the 2007 Canadian Idol auditions at Yonge-Dundas Square.


In fact, contestants in the plethora of “instant star” extravaganzas that saturate TV schedules and record company agendas ditch any and all claims to artistic authenticity well in advance of their quest. They’re playing a game for money, acting out a part for fame and glory, living a fantasy. It’s reality TV, but is it reality music?


Not even close.

Forever tainted by their means of entry into the pop music marketplace, they will never be expected to live up to the kind of scrutiny that genuinely attentive and caring music fans have applied to their artistic heroes over the past three decades.

Then again, authenticity may be just as illusory as wannabe dreams in Idol land.

Think back to before the big bang of the 1960s music boom. Elvis cultivated a Marlon Brando snarl in the ‘50s because he noticed it turned girls on and constructed a hybrid sound out of black blues and white country music that was pure artifice, sheer pretence and laughably unrealistic, argue music writers and cultural observers Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor in the provocative new book Faking It: The Pursuit Of Authenticity In Popular Music.

And given the abundance of heavily manufactured pop froth that’s cluttering up radio these days, credibility may not matter at all in the future.

“Rock ‘n’ roll was, at its core, self-consciously inauthentic music,” they write.

Barker and Taylor deliver very few answers and a myriad more questions in their tightly focused examination of why, when and how authenticity became such a powerful force in popular music — and eventually its key marketing tool.

“It’s hard to say how `realness’ originated as a defining principle in the acceptance of music,” Taylor said. “I couldn’t say if the issue of authenticity was first raised by music fans or by the music industry itself.”

In their book, Barker and Taylor examine prevailing — and often completely erroneous — ideas about who and what is authentic.

“Authenticity was always important to folk musicians, who value their proximity to source material, and to country artists who traditionally bent over backwards to convince others they were genuine hayseeds,” Taylor said. “But it crossed over into popular music in the 1960s, when the authenticity of politicians became an important cultural issue, and when the culture in general became obsessed with what was phoney and what was real.”

They examine various manifestations of artistic authenticity in the work of such artists as so-called blues legends Mississippi John Hurt and Leadbelly, country music star Jimmie Rodgers and rock ‘n’ rollers Elvis, The Beatles and Neil Young during his ugliest (but undeniably authentic) period. They also look at industrial creations like disco diva Donna Summer and The Monkees — who fought for credibility and lost — and anarchic, anti-celebrity celebrities Kurt Cobain and The Sex Pistols.

But Barker and Taylor barely approach the complex personas created by generational superstars Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, David Bowie and Van Morrison.

“Frankly, we veered away from subjects we couldn’t agree on,” said Barker. “Dylan is just too big, too complex, when it comes to authenticity issues.”

Asked why music fans care about authenticity, Taylor was stumped, but later posted his response on the blog,

“Why is authenticity important to fans of punk rock and country music and unimportant to fans of disco or showtunes or bubblegum?

“The answer lies in a philosophical question: should the esthetic sense be allied to the moral sense? For punk rockers, country fans, and folk singers, the answer is yes. Their cultures have very well-developed moral senses that are based on ideals of honesty.

“Fans of disco and show tunes, rockabilly and bubblegum ... (are) more or less hedonists — anything goes, as long as it’s fabulously entertaining.”