Interview with Yuval Taylor, co-author of “Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music”

Originally published in Time Out Chicago, March 22, 2007

Fans of punk rock, early blues and modern country may not share many tastes, but they all have one thing in common: They like their music as “real” as possible. Yet as Yuval Taylor and Hugh Barker’s new book Faking It reveals, that realness is an endlessly malleable concept—and one that local author and editor Taylor holds dear.

“I was really introduced to pop music through the aesthetic of authenticity,” says Taylor, editor of the Chicago imprint Lawrence Hill Books. “I grew up listening to classical music, and then when I was a teenager in the ’70s, punk rock happened. My friends turned me on to it, and I was trying to figure out what made this music so appealing. The answer was, it’s so honest. Since then, I’ve always been attracted to music that has this honesty, but at the same time I was always questioning it, discovering holes in it.”

Relying largely on the University of Chicago library’s vast musical archive, Taylor dug deep into the background of seminal artists like Mississippi John Hurt and Jimmie Rodgers, as well as better-known figures like Neil Young and Elvis. Along the way, he learned just how shadowy a concept authenticity can be.

Take the case of Leadbelly, an artist whom Kurt Cobain famously proclaimed his “favorite performer.” Faking It posits that a large part of Leadbelly’s appeal to Cobain and other fans lies in his image as an icon of musical purity and the embodiment of the blues, a convicted murderer who held his demons at bay with his guitar. In reality, much of the Leadbelly myth was fabricated by music archivist John Lomax, whose definition of authenticity was so narrow that he delved into all-black prisons in search of music “untainted” by white influence. By and large a thoughtful, gentle man with an admittedly violent past, Leadbelly allegedly resented Lomax’s insistence that he perform in a prisoner’s uniform and play only preapproved folk songs rather than the day’s popular tunes. Over the years, the Lomax-manufactured myth ironically became the standard for musical authenticity.

Sure to fuel arguments among music nerds for years to come, Faking It is filled with similar conundrums, from the simultaneous ascension of punk’s raw power and disco’s empty calories to the diverging career paths of John Lennon and Michael Nesmith. Taken as a whole, the book becomes a fascinating, complex study of the increasingly blurred line between actuality and artifice. And Taylor doesn’t see that line clearing up anytime soon. “In blues and country and folk music, authenticity was a strong expectation even back in the 1940s, that then infected rock and pop music. And now it’s moved across the whole culture.”

Taylor points to Ashlee Simpson’s album titles, Autobiography and I Am Me, as blatant attempts to create an immediate “connection” with her audience. And it shows up in most obvious fashion on country radio.

“[In] country music there’s a huge pressure from the audience to either be authentic or pretend to be authentic,” Taylor says. “When I listen to the country stations, I hear most of the singers making a very conscious attempt to prove that they are country. Real country is getting harder to find. Everyone’s growing up in cities and Nashville is full of people from Winnipeg, so they have to establish that they’re real country.”

So is there a solid definition of musical authenticity? Taylor isn’t ready to close the book on that issue just yet, but he says researching Faking It helped him cut through some of the ambiguity.

“It’s a Holy Grail,” he says. “You can never actually be completely authentic, but you can come pretty close to it. I think Neil Young does, Keith Jarrett does, Lightnin’ Hopkins does…. Whether that’s always a good thing or not is another question.”

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