I have this habit of taking breaks between the books I read. On whether I take time off to reflect on the information I just consumed or that I idle out of sheer laziness is debatable. I finished reading Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music (W.W. Norton & Company, 2007) by Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor and true to my word, I'm taking a literary hiatus before moving on (Simon Reynolds is next in line).
So… faking it. Yeah,I know what's running through your dirty mind so before your imagination grows legs, allow me to stop you in your tracks. If anything, the cover features a photo of Kurt Cobain frozen in midair – a moment immortalized during Nirvana's set at Reading and Leeds back in ‘92. You probably don't have the book so feel free to Google the cover. Once you see it, you’ll infer that 1. there's nothing remotely lewd about the book (Cobain's inner world is altogether a different story) and 2. if the line "The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music" does nothing to enlighten you, walk away. Walk away from this piece right now.
Anyway, I had been eyeing this book in the store for months and I'm glad I finally got to buy and read it. I'm also sort of sorry for leaving it to dust on my shelf for x months. I blame college and now that I’ve graduated, I have all the time in the world (mind you, I’m not a bum). I can wear my figurative bookworm suit as freely as my schedule permits. Life is good.
The book tackles the issue of artistic authenticity, which may prove relevant to you as a musician or listener. The music industry and culture have been molded, remolded and revolutionized over the years. This implies shifts in focus and what people value. In one regard, history is about action and reaction – about how people in a certain era or decade behave as a response to the decade or era that precedes it. In Faking It, everything revolves around the idea of a musical artist's honesty or dishonesty when it comes to his craft and career. (Note that this isn’t about the “morality” of such honesty or dishonesty. Being “dishonest” with one’s music doesn’t necessarily mean it’s evil or wrong.)
Barker and Taylor point out two forms of authenticity: Personal authenticity is applied when an artist stays true to his person and experiences when it comes to his music. This is attributed to the idea of "keeping it real." John Lennon and Kurt Cobain are two people considered to be personally authentic. Lennon's "Mother," in which we find him growling, snarling and screaming about his deceased loved one hardly fails to affect listeners because of its bare sincerity. Cobain's "Pennyroyal Tea" is a bothersome revelation of his thoughts regarding his crippling (and publicized) drug addiction.
Cultural authenticity is applied when an artist stays true to a particular style, culture or heritage – like blues and folk, for example. John and Alan Lomax were song collectors in the early 20th century and they scoured America for the most isolated and unadulterated music. Although they made the mistake of assuming that the most racially pure music is the most authentic, it goes to show that the concept of authenticity has been around since before the time of your grandpa.
Faking It deals a lot with philosophy and history. Even if it felt like reading an elementary school textbook at some point (cough chapter two cough), it packs a lot of insight that we can all use, whether as music makers, fans, critics or cultural watchdogs. Allow me to synthesize a 300 plus-page read into a five-point penny for your thoughts.
Do your research.
The book cites the names of countless artists, performers, musicians, producers and composers – of which I know only about 30%. I had to list them down so I could look them up on my own. As for you, don't confine yourself to contemporary or mainstream music. Trust me, you're missing out on a lot. History has left us with generations' worth of artistic and musical works so if you're up for it, do some digging. Go deep enough and you'll find gold.
The song is not the artist (and vice versa).
Each person is a complex being. There are several layers to a personality and different thoughts occupy the mind at different moments. One's likes, dislikes, inspirations and beliefs change over time based on experience. That's just how it is. When an artist writes a song that seems autobiographical, it helps to pause a bit rather than making hasty generalizations about the song and writer. The entirety of any person is impossible to capture in a song – or in anything, really. It might be appropriate to see the song as a work that reflects the artist's thoughts or emotions during the moment it was written, instead of assuming anything all-encompassing. So you might want to think twice before dropping judgment on Taylor Swift for her breakup songs. She’s not that kind of girl… I think.
Fact + Fiction = Maximum
For the aspiring songwriters out there, listen up. If there's something you need to know, it's this: by all means, draw your lyrics from your emotions and experience but keep your audience in mind. The trick is to find the right balance between being idiosyncratic and universal. Being able to express yourself is good but common – getting the audience to relate to what you're saying is a huge plus. There's nothing like weaving fact with fiction to maximize your impact.
Early on in the book, Barker and Taylor established that pure authenticity is merely an ideal – it's elusive and unreachable regardless of what we do. But this shouldn't be a cause for panic. Treat it as you would virtue through the lens of philosophy: No one can ever be brave or generous all the time, but we can display flashes of courage or selflessness at certain instances. We still strive for the ideal because the pursuit improves us and makes the world a better place. In the same way, you artists, musicians and songwriters should always just keep at it - explore the different corners and depths of your personalities and personas, and improve on your craft because you'll turn out to be fuller human beings who ultimately contribute to culture and society.
Shut up and enjoy the music.
It all comes down to what you hear and what you feel about it, anyway. Come into a zen mode – the state of conscious un-knowing. Yes, I'm telling you to temporarily forget everything I've said. As you listen, toss out thoughts acquainted with the song’s background, politics, biases – heck, even authenticity. For once, unlatch yourself from your prejudices and just damn listen. It's actually difficult to do but if you're successful, you'll catch a glimpse of heaven. Or nirvana, if you will.
You can read more of Anthony's musings on his blog.