This is a very interesting book for anyone who has grown up paying even a little attention to the disputes about "authenticity" in popular music over generations. I am a classical musician and while the issues are hardly the same in that world, I can understand the notions of what these folks are struggling over and arguing about.
The authors begin with Kurt Cobain singing a Leadbelly song on MTV unplugged. His manner of singing the song, his complaints about being "real" and even his suicide act as a springboard for the whole book. We learn more about Leadbelly and his promoter, John Lomax, and where they actually fit into the music world of their time versus what white people believed about their heritage. John Hurt, who was a legend as an old man among the sixties folk singers. Yet, in his youth he was not nearly as popular nor as "authentic" as the sixties idolizers would have had the public believe.
It turns out that the Black public preferred Jazz and its sophistications to the blues and rural music that Leadbelly, Hurt and others performed. Nor was it as rooted in the slave past as the traditions believed. There was a lot of cross between rural White music and the rural Black music. We also see this in Jazz. It was only later that the schism between what is authentically "Black" or "White" became a fundamental issue, and its conclusions are largely wrong.
We get to compare the truly personal music of Jimmie Rodgers and his "T.B. Blues" against other music of its time and the tradition of autobiographical music. It is not as deep, rich, or lengthy tradition as one might expect. There is a lot of "character" biography, but not deeply personal stuff such as Rodgers singing about the tuberculosis that was killing him.
The authors later show us Elvis and how he created his persona and what traditions that flowed out of along with what Elvis actually invented. The problem is that what he created has become so much a part of what followed that it seems part of the genre now, but it was radical when Elvis created it. Or so the authors state.
We then get a wonderful chapter comparing The Beatles and The Monkees. It isn't quite as cut and dry issue of what is "authentic" versus "fake" as you might first think before you read the book. There is no question that The Beatles changed everything, but there is a lot of artifice that went into their music, too.
There is also woven into this the pop music of the Don Kirshner types and his role in The Monkees and what he did afterwards in creating The Archies and the lasting pop hit "Sugar Sugar".
Then comes a look at Neil Young and his travels through various stages of the search for Authenticity (the capital "A" is needed to describe what he was after). The Disco world and Donna Summer is next, the Punk Rock world, the faux reality of Ry Cooder's "Buena Vista Social Club" and world music. The book ties up with a look at Moby and then Nick Cave's "Mercy Seat" and the even more "real" cover by Johnny Cash.
One of the things that I find odd about the idea of "authenticity" in the making of a song is that these artists go around the world performing these pieces for decades. It is not possible that every performance of the work is equally "authentic" or even retains anything "real" about it after the thousandth time they perform it. The authors do mention Keith Jarrett who actually does make up new music on the spot for that night's performance. Now THAT is authentic. Of course, I find that a lot of his ruminations are just as boring as most of real life. Sure, there are moments of great brilliance, but art is working that up into a work and sharing that rather than all the scutwork that goes into the hard work of composing or writing or painting or sculpture.
I liked this book a lot and agree with the authors that listeners need to play more with the realities and the ideas of authenticity. We need to keep our ears and minds open to actually perceive what is going on rather than quickly accepting or dismissing musical works and musicians because of who we think they are (there is a lot of artifice in the creation of these persona's, too).
Of course, in the classical world, there is some of this, too. What is "real" classical, and what is out of bounds. And that discussion is not appropriate to this review. However, the idea that the piece is a role for the artist to perform rather than something "autobiographical" is rather well established.
One of the things beginning listeners to classical music get trapped in is hearing autobiography in the works of the masters. It is not that it is never there, but that it is rarely there as much as they suppose it is. The key is, does it move us? Is it great music? Does it speak to us about our lives and the human condition? It can also be for simple delectation. Not everything has to be dripping in angst and death. Real life has enough of that. Art should have something more, don't you think?