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Archive for the ‘authenticity’ Category

For lack of anything new to read before bed, I’ve been reading random snippets from Fonarow’s Empire of Dirt. At the beginning of Chapter 5, Performance, Authenticity, and Emotion, Fonarow includes a Harry Weinstein quote from the Los Angeles Times in 1997. In this short anecdote, Weinstein admits to having snuck in his theater after hours to learn all of the tricks that a magician he booked had performed earlier that evening. “I ruined it for myself. So all that proliferation of behind-the-scenes stories… to me it spoils the wonderful illusion of walking into a dark room and waiting for the magic to begin” (Fonarow 187). Fonarow uses this excerpt to help us understand the nature of musical performance and how a behind-the-scenes look can change one’s perception of the event. “When a fan or audience member sees a performer as himself or herself rather than as the character he or she envisioned, it is difficult to go back to believing in the character. When you see how the trick is performed, you can’t believe in the trick anymore” (Fonarow 188). After reading this small section, I started thinking back to the Ryan Adams concert I saw a while back at UI and started wondering about what to make of a performer that appears to bring behind-the-scenes to the stage.

I like Ryan Adams because he seems honest and I believe his music. I hear touches of Gram Parsons, Neil Young, the Grateful Dead, and maybe even a little Dylan in his stuff. I guess I see him as a sort of torchbearer and I have to say that I’m a little jealous because I think he’s got it and I wish I had it. So, I was ready to see him live when he came here. I’d heard the horror stories about Adams playing Dead covers for four hours without any audience acknowledgment and stories of him walking offstage because people were talking during his second song, but I knew he had just recently gotten out of rehab and his new album sounded good. And besides, isn’t that kind of rock performance behavior somewhat authentic? If the guy is going to be a little neurotic, fine. Aren’t most? The show lasted almost a full two and a half hours with a five-minute pee break requested by Adams. The music was spot-on – vocals great, guitars great, harmonies amazing, and the band was really tight. So, no complaints there. It was the in-between song banter that threw me. I couldn’t understand how a guy who could write and perform such great tunes could be so annoying and indifferent to the way he was being perceived. From saying “fuck” every other word to picking a grundy out of his ass and calling it a “Calvin Klein date-rape” to calling to the side of the stage for his “hooker boots,” Adams without-music portrayed the exact opposite of what Adams with-music seemed to portray. He separated himself from his audience with his banter, told us how he wished he hadn’t written his stupid songs, rejected requests by verbally saying “no,” and really seemed to resent us even being there to listen. I now realized the horror stories I had heard regarding his performances. His music was the opposite, it pulled me in, rocked me, and really made me want to start playing more. It was like this push and pull from Adams, him wanting to be the brat-jerk and prolific performer, but with distinct separation between the two.

Going back to Fonarow’s comments, the thing that struck me was that as much as I detested and resisted Adams not-playing, I still believed him when he did play that night and have been listening to his latest albums pretty much non-stop ever since. I realize that Adams could have been hamming it up for the audience to play on the bad rap that he had previously been given, but I honestly don’t believe that it was the case that night. I really think that this may be how the guy operates. Judging from the responses of his bandmates that night, it appeared that they were as annoyed as I was, somehow justifying my feelings. In the banter, I felt like I had seen Adams behind-the-scenes as himself without the mask of performer, although it was right back on when the music started. It was weird. I left the show with mixed feelings, trying to judge how I felt about Ryan Adams and his performance. Ultimately, I got over his in-between song nonsense and realized how good the music really was, and was able to let the music transcend the bullshit. Thinking back to Fonarow’s comment above, I think I was able to go back to believing in Adams because of his music, even though I saw him seemingly as himself without it. I seem to have let the trick continue to amaze me even though I was granted a glimpse “behind-the-scenes.” I’d be interested to know if anyone else has seen Adams and felt any certain way about him as himself and/or as a performer. These rock guys, they’re a little funny, ya know?

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In our seminar a few weeks ago, we examined performances of Bruce Springsteen in regards to conceptions of authenticity as a determining characteristic of rock and rockers.

To better understand the appeal we went to YouTube, the internet-gods’ gift to man, and watched two performances of “Thunder Road,” one from 1976 (http://youtube.com/watch?v=KngiJUNdsu0) and one from 1985 (http://youtube.com/watch?v=PWHv4u1aadc). A striking, maybe even shocking element of both performances is the kiss between Springsteen and saxophonist, “The Big Man,” Clarence Clemons to conclude the song. The earlier video portrays a somewhat modest kiss in comparison to the lengthy smooch of the later performance, providing a focus for our discussion about the authenticity or lack thereof in their performance by 1985.

The performances that we saw were separated by nearly a decade. Clearly the Boss and the band had performed “Thunder Road” show multiple times and knew what worked. They knew what their audience wanted to see.

I don’t think it was rehearsed but it was definitely practiced. How many times had the Boss and the band performed “Thunder Road” in that time span? Was the kiss authentic if it happened for most or every performance? Surely, the audience that loved the Boss and the Big Man saw that this was part of the act, it was contrived. However, does that mean that it was not authentic?

It seems that many agree that authenticity to some extent is an inseparable characteristic of rock. As Brian asks in “Why Captain Beefheart,” “is there actually one type of authenticity at work in rock music, or are there several?” I think it is possible there are no universal qualifications for what can be ‘authentic’. I’ll agree that most perceive some degree of authenticity in ‘rock’, but the difficulty of describing universal characteristics that make something ‘authentic’ are as problematic (and probably unnecessary) as trying to define ‘rock’ itself. It depends who you ask, when you ask them, where they are, etc. For me and my peers the “Thunder Road” performance was contrived, but for fans at that time I don’t think it had the same associations.

Shortly after the seminar, I had the opportunity to talk to the biggest and only true Springsteen fan I know: my mother. She attended two performances of the 1985 Born in the USA tour, both in South Florida one night after another. For the first, she stood in line all night to be one of the first to purchase tickets and happened to luck out and was given tickets to the second show. Perhaps I mention the overnight adventure because it makes my mom seem really cool, but it also portrays the expectation and loyalty of Springsteen fans by that time. My mother was part of the predictable demographic fan base for Springsteen and the E-Street Band, a very dedicated (and female) fan base.

When I asked her about the kiss, she preceded her account with a bit of background information. First, that “Thunder Road” was the finale in both concerts. Second, that from her interpretation of the song (presumably similar to others’ interpretations) “Thunder Road” was the Springsteen and E-Street Band anthem that reminded fans that freedom is found by living without fear. She recognized that the performance of “Thunder Road” allowed her to experience “an extreme emotional moment” because of its place in the show and its lyrical meaning, but still recalls the kiss enthusiastically as the pinnacle of the performance of “Thunder Road”.

Though she did not expect the kiss at her first show, she remembers that it seemed perfectly appropriate to convey the “ecstasy” of the moment. She recalls that the next night the kiss still seemed appropriate, and that perhaps, that she was eagerly anticipating it. It seems that for her and probably for most fans who had seen Springsteen and the E-Street Band perform before, by the second show, to a some extent the kiss indexed the first show, amplifying the euphoria of the moment.

I realize that my informant-base is limited to one, but it also seems fair to presume that the Boss and the Big Man would have done away with the kiss if it didn’t get an encouraging response. I suspect that most of the audience sees the kiss as an authentic and ESSENTIAL element to the performance of “Thunder Road.” The lyrical content and performance expectations, seem to have made the kiss not only appropriate to those fans, but to a certain extent, part of the song (live) itself. The fans undoubtedly recognize that it had been done before. However, they have no derogatory connotations towards the ‘contrived’ nature of the kiss because the expectation was part of its effectiveness and appeal.

I think it’s unfair to pass judgement on what people expect to see at live show, or to criticize the ‘authenticity’ of any performer who is willing to give the audience the expected. I also believe that for Springsteen and Clemons the kiss was an authentic part of every performance. The kiss reminds scholars and/or critics that ‘authenticity’ in rock is not equivalent with spontenaity. Similiarly, it reminds us that determining ethical values based on what may be perceived as ‘contrived’ is not a useful analytical tool to describe unfamiliar performance settings.

Perhaps the comparison of “Thunder Road” performances for my peers and I seemed to present Springsteen and Clemons as actors on a musical stage. But twenty years ago the fans of Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band wanted to and more than likely did, re-experience the “ecstasy” of the “Thunder Road” performance every time, every kiss. I would like to propose that the ‘authenticity’ that is disctinct to rock, especially in performance, can take any shape depending on the performers’ AND audiences’ expectations at any given moment. Performances that ooze romantic sentiment are as authentic as post-modern cries for attention disguised as ambivalence depending on who you ask, when you ask them, where they are, etc. As scholars/critics, the most effective way to determine what is ‘authentic’ is to ask.

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Following up on Bryan’s post on Beefheart, which I largely agree with. I think you have to also look at this (Cptn Beefheart in the 1970s–sorry about the irritating british guys setting up the video):

I don’t know what to think about it–is it the consumate joke, the big swindle, or does that crazy look in his eye make it something else? Incidentally, it’s quite interesting to check out the comments thread on youtube–there is no consensus on this; rather, it seems polarizing, probably because of how it plays out with regard to artifice and authenticity.

I would throw in the Shaggs here as well.

I mean, I LOVED the Shaggs in college, and I still have a fondness for them. But not really a fondness that I indulge by listening to their albums; it’s more a fondness that I indulge by thinking about them, remembering the songs, and smiling. What’s not to love–“Rich people want what the poor people got; skinny people want what the fat people got.” But the pleasure is the feeling that you are listening to something without artifice. I also loved a Madison-area street musician named Art Paul, and who sung songs like “My Cat Was Taking a Bath” and “Pink Pants” (“Tell all your uncles and all your aunts/You ain’t never lived till you’ve worn pink pants”).

People think of this music as having child-like qualities (the Shaggs, especially, but in general, music that seems to come out of some savant-like space), and I think we do because we often think of mentally compromised people as child-like (not that I know the psychological status of ANY of these artists, only that their music projects something like crazyness). I don’t have a good analysis of this, except to say that I played the Shaggs for my 10-year-old son the other day and he hated it. Somehow the fact that the “childish” appeals only to adults intrigues me.

UPDATE

Just now, after picking my kids up for school I was re-watching the Art Paul video, and my six-year-old said, “That’s not funny,” and walked off. I asked her what she thought of the Shaggs. That also received her derision, and to my surprise, the question, “how is that funny?” Needless to say, she did not care for “Upon the My Oh My” either.

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During our seminar over the past few weeks, it has been suggested that authenticity plays a role in why listeners identify with particular musical artists. Increasingly, the word seems to have no fixed meaning when it comes to rock music. One listener’s definition of the authentic artist may be totally different from another. While this seems to be essentially problematic, it actually opens up a different notion: is there actually one type of authenticity at work in rock music, or are there several? If we accept that there are several types of authenticity that people use to qualify artists, we can then stop fixating on finding one actual definition for authenticity and shift the conversation to what finding out what kind of authenticity is being displayed by a particular artist.

Two weeks ago, Professor Solis posed the rather simple question: “Why Beefheart?” Indeed, what is it about Captain Beefheart that appeals to listeners and critics? Surely it’s something besides the pure enjoyment of his music. I grant that someone may reply to this post and say “I love the music of Captain Beefheart because it moves me on an extraordinarily deep level and that’s the only reason.” This statement would be totally valid, but I venture to say that in the majority of cases, there is something else at work here in relation to why a listener would be drawn to Captain Beefheart. This something else is a type of authenticity I’ll refer to as the genuine article.

Here I’ll turn to Christgau: “Zappa’s distance from his audience is a calculated means of bullying it into respectful cash-on-the-line attention. Beefheart really doesn’t give a shit. Zappa plays the avant-gardist and Beefheart is the real thing. He does perform, but for once performance and self expression are almost identical: his detachment is in some sense pure and even innocent, and at the same time he is arrogant as only the pure heart can be arrogant.” (from Any Old Way You Choose It) In other words, both Zappa and Beefheart are weird, but Zappa is being weird. Beefheart is weird. Thus Zappa is a poser and Beefheart is the authentic artist, worthy of reverence and whatever else. To Christgau, it would seem that if Beefheart were playing music in his living room, he would be playing it exactly the way he was on stage that evening. There is no seperation between Beefheart the person and Beefheart the performer, and he is thus the genuine article.

So how does Christgau (and countless others I presume) know that Beefheart isn’t simply acting the part? Here’s where I’ll draw a parallel to another artist who exhibits similar qualities, Daniel Johnston. (If you haven’t experienced him, rent the film The Devil and Daniel Johnston.) On stage, both Beefheart and Johnston are weird, but there’s something about their persona that projects more…they’re almost like idiot savants, and they clearly don’t just play that on stage. Because of this quality, it would seem that they are immune from posturing, from record companies, from the corruption of big time rock, and they are in fact genuine artists.

It is this “purity” that draws people to Beefheart and Johnston. I don’t deny that their music speaks to people, but it’s the feeling of authenticity that creates a substantial part of their lure. Because of their idiot savant like nature, they project the image of the genuine article, and thus serve as an example of authenticity that many listeners look for in their artists.

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