I’m trying to make good on a commitment to bring this blog back to life through the revolutionary practice of blogging more often. That’s going to mean doing things more quickly, which isn’t easy because I tend to let pieces of writing build up in my head–like the one about the Nashville blue comedy duo Birdcloud that’s been gestating over the past month–before actually putting them down to text. That particular piece became more complex when I discovered that half of Birdcloud, Jasmin Kaset, has a whole solo catalog of smart, complex, and sonically adventurous songs all on her own, and all very different from Birdcloud’s disconcertingly raunchy aggro-folk.
I’m wary of making too much of this contrast. Creative people work in all kinds of different directions, sometimes all at once. Its only the post-Bob-Dylan-1965-Rock-Authenticity Mandate that makes us think that an artist’s work isn’t legitimate unless it’s the result of a SOUL BARING STRUGGLE TO REPRESENT EXACTLY WHO THEY ARE AND WILL BE FOREVER. Moreover, as I’m going to argue when I get around to it, Birdcloud’s material is a lot more complex once you get under the hood than it seems from the outside, full of nuanced characters, inconvenient desires, and unreliable narrators.
Still, its quite a contrast. Listen to/watch this:
And feel your head spin.
Nothing too deep here, but something hopefully worth thinking about and expanding. I should preface it with the caveat that Performance Studies is not my main gig and that I’m not necessarily a reliable guide to readings in the field. But its in the purview of what I’ve worked on and think about. So, besides elaborations on this thought that hit my head as I was on my way to sleep, I’m also looking for corrections, refutations, arguments and tangents.
There are, roughly and broadly, two different normative paths into and out of “performance studies.” One of them is the analysis of staged performances and rituals, that which is set aside from everyday life in some manner. Here, I’m thinking of everything from the vast history of music, dance, and theater criticism to the work of Victor Turner and the scholarship that follows out of that. My favorite marker down this path is that put up by Jose Limon in Dancing With the Devil: Society and Cultural Poetics in Mexican-American South Texas.
The other path is the Ervin Goffman Trail, which tours the performative as it occurs in everyday life: the way that we stage our actions and practices, play roles, and define ourselves against and in response to our own imagined and imposed audient. There are some alliances with Folklore studies here, in the way that folklore imagines the everyday as an object of study, but it does a nice job of removing the historical folklorical reflex to only imagine the lives of others (by which I mean “Others” or “the othered”) as objects of study. When we talk about the performance of everyday life, its much easier to immediately understand that we’re discussing our own lives and performances than it is to hit the some conclusion via folklore.
Just bringing Turner, whose work is anthropological and not dramaturgical, into this discussion this early is a clear clue that this is a false schism, since Turner’s study of ritual is rooted in social practice. I’m not going to pretend that I’m tearing down heretofore unbreachable walls here. But I think that some bridges can and should be built between the study of overt performance (Performance) and undemarcated performance (performance). The need to mark of “the everyday” from staged performance sometimes elides just how transcendent and moving and personal and political our everyday lives in fact are. The analysis of staged performance should start before the show and shouldn’t stop when it ends, for either the performers or the audience, who all have “everyday lives” that these performances/Performances are part of.
Its in the popular analysis of the latter–staged Performances–that I really see this bridge needing to be built. What do we bring to and take from these Performances? How do they infect our everyday lives, whether we are on or offstage? What good are they to us? What do we understand about staged performances if we strive to always see a performer’s (or a composer’s or director’s) onstage as work, as part of their expressly personal and political lives?
The place this train of thought takes me to is the idea of socially symbolic narratives, as founded in Kenneth Burke’s dramatism and as expanded in Frederic Jameson’s political unconscious. The bare bones idea here is that narratives–broadly writ to include virtually everything performative, including that where the “performance” is the subvocalization of a read text–are socially symbolic if they resolve contradictions that are unresolved in everyday life. In my dissertation, I argued that the construction of musical genre, in formal and informal discourse, is an ongoing act of socially symbolic narration; an attempt to come to grips with the contradictions we encounter in our everyday lives through the telling of stories that relate styles and practices, performers and performances into coherent and cohesive catalogs of the transcendent. I also argued that while genres present themselves as these supposedly coherent catalogs, they are more properly understood as arguments about cataloging.
I’ll try to provide some concrete examples of these bridges and the paths across them in another post. Maybe this does go somewhere. We’ll see.
Awesome to run into such cool music/place/race/narrative scholarship from Memphis. Dr. Zandria F. Robinson and Regina N. Bradley talking it out.
So, there are these three videos from Janelle Monae’s new record The Electric Lady that I keep watching, over and over. They tie into, and are the latest episodes of a long-running future history narrative arc that she’s used to connect every bit of her publicly released work. I don’t know nearly enough about that narrative enough to explicate it, but maybe these folks can help with that. In the meantime I just want to put them up here, possibly counterpoised with some other “emotion pictures” (as they’re known in the world of Monae’s alter ego, Cindy Mayweather, the Archandroid. Here’s the first, the scene setter:
And, as I watch that video I find myself seeing this one out of the corner of my eye:
There are some obvious nods, in the multiple roles that Janelle and Andre play, and in the twitchiness of the filming. What else?
There was at least a solid two years in Fayetteville where it seemed like you could not go to a party or hangout or a show without hearing “Legend.” Usually on cassette, and typically turned over a couple of times. This, and the whole jambandization of reggae in general has probably led me to take bob Marley for granted, and forget that I used to hear punk and reggae as musical coefficients. Anyway, this rocked my world. if you find an hour and a half of reggae daunting (I do) start here at 20:06 with “Concrete Jungle.” and skip ahead to 33:27 for “Them Bellyful,” both deep grooved and blistering deconstructions of the real situation.
Dave Bruceck has passed, and everywhere on the net, “Take 5″ is playing. That’s a wonderful thing, but here’s a lesser known bit of the Brubeck legacy, a musical written by Dave and Iola Brubeck, starring Louis Armstrong and Carmen Mcrae, among others, about the cultural and political paradox that was the US State Department’s Jazz Ambassadors program, during the era of segregation and the Cold War.
is the currency of genre.
Some notes from an email I sent into a discussion list while working on ideas about how to talk about pop music that stands against pop music. It’s not exactly right in some places, but it does a good job of explaining where my thinking about pop music and authenticity comes from. Written in reply to the estimable Tony Thomas, I’m trying to salvage what was good (or at least necessary) about being worried about selling out, while recognizing what’s really problematic about the foundations of the whole idea.
I came of age playing and putting on punk rock shows in the early 1980s. During this time what we were doing seemed, to us, to be part of an attempt or series of attempts by various people in various cities across the country to take control of the various means of production (venues, record labels, recording studios, records) that brought music into contact with audiences. Within the context of trying to build alternate channels, or of trying to craft a set of more humane relations of production that could still exist under capitalism, the idea of “selling out” has a little more meaning.
Now, that doesn’t mean that even in those contexts it was more often than not a dubious idea mobilized in pernicious ways. people who had a measure of social power within the scene might mobilize it to police other people’s stylistic choices, for instance or to attempt to delegitimize bands, venues, record labels, etc. that were more successful than their own, even on the local micro-scale. Our purity was largely imagined, perhaps only existing in some kind of negative ratio to how fiercely we defended it.
But, there was something (not purity by any means) going on in our little town that had fractured links to similar activities across the US. And I do think that it was healthier for all concerned when we (and others in other cities and the next group of kids that followed us, about 10 years later, etc.) were putting on shows for each other, sharing postering, set up and clean up duties as well as any little
money that was made, than when the local beer merchants decided they could make some money off of having these “alternative” bands play at their clubs. To some degree, the idea of “selling out” helped to counter the appeal that playing in a “real” club still offered. The discourse of “not selling out” was for better and worse part of our sense of mission, although the mission itself proved unsustainable and on a larger scale “alternative” and “indie” became the newest entries in the rock lexicon of faux authenticity.
I’m sorry if these thoughts tend towards rambling, I’m just trying to make some sense of these ideas and my own history with them. Because I do think that attempts to democratize, localize, and overall humanize music making are good. And, it’s good to recognize the predatory nature of the system we’re working under when we try to do those things. but, as Tony points out, the bohemian mirror image of “artistic purity” is also poisonous. DIY-centric punk rock scenes tend to be generationally centered towards younger kids, perhaps in part because they depend on a kind of volunteerism that can only be maintained with energy and free time that are mostly available to adolescents. And this free time is bought and paid for by the work that other people (parents mostly) do, work that’s pretty much invisible to teen-age scenesters who are most likely to level charges of “sell out!” at others, and elided by essayists in the popular press who are invested in making a living out of the debris of rock and roll mythology that’s scattered around our popular culture.
My beginnings in the punk rock scene led to a decade or so of doing sound work, mostly on a very mercenary basis. it was satisfying to be working so closely with the production and habitation of musical moments, but it was also depressing when i felt like I was just part of the booze/money apparatus, no more indispensable than the beer tap. When I entered academia later in life, part of my motivation was to try to make some sense out of what I had seen. There are ideological traps and knots bound up in the way that people keep trying to build platforms for sustaining unpopular popular music, but there are good reasons why people keep trying with whatever imperfect tools they
“Basically she sounds like Anita Baker,” Merritt continued. “And people are not, you know, wild and crazy about Anita Baker. And I think about the whole, with the racism, when people love when British people sound like American black people.” Any genre is going to periodically go through points when it synthesizes and hybridizes, and, if it has listeners still attached to some vision of its past, its also going to have, in response to those moments, calls for purity and a return to essentials.
Over at Dangerous Minds, Nail O’Conghaile has a post about the Emily White-David Lowery-Free Music-Piracy conversation that rolled across social media a couple of weeks ago. Arguing in support of Lowery’s position, O”Conghaile asks “why does the onus always seem to be on the creator of art to accept that their product should be free, rather than on the consumer to analyze the impact of their actions on the quality of art?” and predicts “that we’ll never see another David Bowie or another Prince or another Beatles again. Not because talents such as there’s aren’t out there, but because the financial system that allowed those talents to flourish, and that in turn made the consumers used to obtaining a high level of art on a regular basis, are gone.” I think that’s a good question to ask right now, and I like the fact that the prediction refuses to unwrap great popular music from its economic structures.
In between those two points, O’Conghaile touched on the role of what I would call the rhetoric of authenticity in justifying piracy. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and I’ll have more to say about it later, but for now, I left this in comments:
“One day I would dearly love to be able to live off the money generated by my music. So, am I somehow wrong (or perhaps even evil) because I want this?
Some would say that I am, that somehow I am not a “true” artist because I have brought money into the equation and have aspirations to become “professional.” (How exactly does being considered a professional in your field invalidate what you do?!) To these folks I must stay clean and unsullied by money at all times, lest I become some kind of artistic “whore.” (And I LOVE getting called a “whore,” especially by people who can’t stop themselves downloading music like a junkie can’t say no to a fix.)
Well, newsflash: your romantic notion doesn’t pay my rent.”
One of the things that I think feeds into this is the idea that the genres that have occupied the center of the pop universe over the past 4 decades or so, are somehow themselves transcendent of or separate from the marketplace. its an idea that got attached to rock at pretty much the point where it moved into that center, and its been a defining characteristic ever since. there are some exceptions, but the dominant genres between 1965 and today, rock and hip-hop in their various variations, posit themselves as what I call “unpopular popular music” or “unpop,” music distinguished in the market by supposedly resisting those market forces.
In some ways its a by product of what pop music does, the way it makes you feel freed from your everyday, workaday, shackles. But that feeling has always been an illusion, leveraged by musicians and record companies (I’m not equating the two, just pointing out a confluence of interests) to keep people buying music. Now, its being leveraged by people who run file sharing sites and make money off ad revenues, and pay even less (nothing) to the people who make the music.
Given the choice, and we do have one, I’d rather pay the record labels and the musicians. Even the crookedest record labels gave artists a bigger cut than The Pirate Bay.
A lot of folks on here keep insisting that somehow this current state of affairs is more democratic, is better for a wider variety of artists, for people unlikely to have been signed in the first place. Well, this could be true. But it doesn’t have to be, and it won’t automatically turn out that way. The talented and quirky ukulele player will likely have to find a way to support her art or get burned out. if you go and look for ways to pay her for the music you like, she can keep doing it longer. Or, you can throw up your hands and watch the market eat her alive. its really up to each of us.
I’ve beaten this analogy to death on this thread, but I’ll hit it one more time. People decide to pay more for fair trade coffee, or to shop locally, or to eat organic, or to not wear sweatshop clothing. These kinds of choices have even become kind of hip, often with the same folks who think that driving up the ad revenues for a file-sharing site is more rebellious and righteous than buying music from an artist. We can make it hip to buy music. its not about putting the genie back in the bottle, its about asking for what you really want to happen, even if it costs a little cash.