Monday, January 9, 2012

The Rise of Persona in Music

The Italian Early Renaissance painter Giotto is considered by many to be the very first celebrity artist (i.e. painter or sculptor).  There are a handful of known names in Western art before him, but before his time, art was largely considered a technical endeavor taken on by craftsmen and not a creative endeavor taken on by artists or intellectuals.  Also, the focus was the subject of the art, often a religious or cultural theme that transcended the mere human capturing it.  Art has always had a dichotomy between the universal and the personal and this was a huge tipping point in favor of the personal.  Modern art, of course, took this extreme much further.  The history of music, or what I know of it, seems to have followed a similar path.  Gregorian chant has lyrics based off of the psalms and other Christian themes.  Classical music has no lyrics at all, and thus, despite different styles, is very abstract and impersonal.  Popular music, especially in but even before the rock and roll era, has seen the rise of the stage persona.  The stage persona brings up a new slew of problems and new sets of expectations.  What is and what should be the relationship between the performer and their real self?  Why is it that musical performance specifically brings up these questions more than other types of performance?  Artists and performers should understand what they are trying to be and whether or not that is worth being.

Classical music has no lyrics at all.  This statement is as obvious as it is important.  Music is abstract.  It can tend to arouse certain feelings in certain people.  Maybe one piece even has a generally accepted meaning, but nothing is absolute.  A musical piece, while it may in some way be a personal expression of the artist, it is nearly impossible for the listener to get this.  It could easily be argued that the listener does not really get an intimate portrait of a composer from instrumental music.  In spite of this, different composers still have different styles.  This is a way to capture the personal and the individual.  Some composers will stand out every time.

Lyrics bring a new dimension to music.  In some ways, they take away from music.  They remove the abstract "openness" of instrumental music and replace it with words.  While words can also have varying degrees of abstraction, I believe they are much more concrete than music.  They more securely tie down the meaning of a piece.  Through this loss of abstraction, they give a more concrete sense of the personality of a performer or writer/composer, even if this sense is incorrect.  There is a stronger sense of narrator in the song.  Words can also be used to create a dynamic of words versus music.  The question becomes which does the listener give precedence and how do the two enhance or conflict with each other's meaning?

In the case of Dynamite Hack's "Boyz n the Hood," I believe that the lyrics take precedence.  The lyrics create such a concrete mental picture in your head that it is almost impossible to focus on the images on screen.  Part of my bias comes from having also heard the original song.  This is the problem of the music video.  It tries to add another layer, thus making the music become even more narrowly defined.  This cover has fun destroying the idea of autobiographical narrator.

This brings us to the notion of the stage persona and the narrator in music.  With instrumental music, there is precious little narrative voice.  When music deals with universal, cultural or religious themes, there is slightly more narrative voice, but it is still not very personal or defined.  When music gains lyrics that are not tightly bound to certain universal themes, there comes the more unique and personal.  This is not to say that someone can not express themselves through universals.  Things are universal because they are, for all intents and purposes, an infinity of individual instances.  Thus, while wider religious themes could potentially be the personal expression of the composer, there are things that are more unique and incommunicable about that person.

This leads us to a performer who is not just a conveyor of some timeless culture piece, but he is singing "his" song.  This song is not some public domain standard or Christmas carol for anyone to sing, but his song.  Even if it is covered, it will most likely still "be his."  The individual performer brings his voice to it.  Thus, the performer must live up to the song through his persona.  Audiences like strong personae because they are entertaining and fun.  They are a break from mundane, everyday life where most personalities are somewhere in the middle.  Also, it makes the songs more enjoyable in their "authenticity."  In our modern times, we more often view a popular music performer as an autobiographical narrator, bringing himself to the table when performing a song.

Depending on audience and genre, the demand for performer's authenticity varies.  The rap genre seems to have the greatest obsession with the authenticity of its stage personae.  If you are going to talk like you are from the streets, you better have "street cred."  No one cares if the members of Styx really did sail away with aliens who they initially thought were angels, but don't rap about the streets unless you've been there.  The ghetto is something very real so don't pretend you've been there.  What is the necessity of authenticity?  Performers perform.  They not only sing, but they can also act.  How literal should personae be?  Are nearly all gangsta rappers serial murderers?  Gangsta rap began as rapping about the performer's reality.  Some of the pioneers even preferred to call it reality rap.  It just happened that their reality was the harsh life of the streets, extreme enough to pack entertainment value.  This tradition still continues on.  It comes off as cheap to copy the outward signifiers of the genre while not having actually lived that life.  Audiences mostly realize the heightened nature of the stage persona, but still expect some resemblance.  Rapper Ice-T says he at least knows someone who has been through the scenarios in his music so he is adjacent to that world. 

Why any demand for authenticity in stage personae at all?  Actors have no demand for authenticity.  Why can a performer not act on stage? What is it about music that lends itself more to an autobiographical expectation?  There is more of a consistency on stage.  Someone is not usually playing different parts like an actor would.  If there is consistency, then it is much easier to assume that that is them.  Persona acting, lest we forget, has also been popular and made many stars.  Even some music personalities have crossed over to acting and played types similar to their stage persona.  Audiences bring expectations to such and such actor's movie, and we do like to think that the actor must be similar in life, but their isn't the same high level of demand.  Even though acting roles are the same, they are technically different.

Elvis Presley in Jailhouse Rock
Ice Cube in Boyz n the Hood
Some stage acts have gotten popular with little or no autobiographical or pseudo- or semi-autobiographical element, but these old-fashioned entertainers seem increasingly less common.

The world of music, despite being a world of performance and entertainment seems to operate differently than other entertainment media spheres, whether necessary or not.  It's interesting and mysterious that music has brought with it so many preconceptions, but of course there are exceptions to the rule.

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