Tag Archives: theatricality

Sobe Yourself

Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular MusicFaking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music by Hugh Barker
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

As a teenager in the post-Nirvana 90s, I was an eye-witness to the strangling authenticity-above-all ethos of “alternative” music. “We dress this way because it’s how we feel,” said whatever amazing-looking, grunge-chic band member or skater kid on TV, “don’t be what other people want you to be, be yourself!” This was the “positive” message constantly rammed down our throats in those days: be yourself, unless “yourself” liked to wear the wrong thing, listen to the wrong music, or, especially, if “yourself” didn’t agree with the “be yourself” message. “Poseur” was a favorite insult during my high-school days–God forbid a teenager might want to try something new. I sometimes feel like I’ve spent my life trying to get out of the impossible labyrinth of this ethos. This book, about the “quest for authenticity” in its most natural habitat, the music scene, opens with the death of Kurt Cobain, a tireless promoter of the very catchphrases that were tearing him up inside.

The subject matter is interesting/infuriating, but the authors’ use of it is confusing and strangely banal. They come up to the point of demolishing the entire idea of “authenticity” altogether, but can’t seem to bring themselves to seal the deal, because they still want to say that Neil Young’s 70s albums are more “real” than Trans. They show how music has always been syncretic, and black and white musicians (before the segregation imposed by record companies) played the same repertoire, but they still imply that Moby and Paul Simon are cultural imperialists. They trace the genesis and eventual ubiquity of the autobiographical song–mostly unknown before the 20th Century–but put this research to use only to mock Tori Amos and other “confessional” songwriters that they dislike. They lay out a case (without quite coming out and saying it) that “world music” notions of authenticity are essentially racist, but still call commercial American releases like Buena Vista Social Club “watered down”. They love to point out that what white, rock-ish audiences consider authentic-sounding are in fact unpopular with the communities that birthed them–a strange “gotcha” that simply substitutes one arbitrary authenticity criterion for another. It’s strange to read these two authors building up all this evidence to undermine the entire edifice of music criticism today–as they point out, authenticity is still something by which music of any kind is judged–but refuse to follow through with it, so they can still criticize the artists they dislike (Europop, Yes, Fatboy Slim) with it.

In any book on popular music, I end up feeling that some band I care about has been neglected–I really feel like the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion belongs in here, for example. I suppose I can accept their begging off the topic of hip-hop as being too complicated to fit into this book–it probably does deserve its own volume. But I really do think that the chapter which contrasts the “real” Neil Young to the “fake” Billy Joel would have been much more interesting if they had substituted David Bowie for the latter. The fact that Joel is relatively critically un-acclaimed stacks the deck; Bowie, both beloved and widely considered “fake”, complicates their whole thesis. Surely in a book about authenticity in rock’n’roll, Bowie deserves a place, if only to break down why on earth we call him, but not Joey Ramone, inauthentic.

In the most intriguing moments of the book, by breaking down the concept of authenticity, the authors end up chipping away at the very concept of the continuous self. The imperative to “keep it real” and “be yourself” has always been impossible. How can one be authentic if one is continually changing, moment to moment? All of us, not just the miserably pigeonholed stars they highlight (Cobain, Donna Summer, John Lydon, etc.) are to some degree trapped within our own identities. The insistence on authenticity is essentially an insistence on an illusory stability in a world of flux. To their credit, the authors recognize this. They quote Kafka: “I have nothing in common with myself.” With the early discussion of acoustic blues beloved of white record collectors, I was reminded of Steve Buscemi’s 78-collecting character’s lament in Ghost World: “I hate my interests!” I would have liked this book to go further along this path, but perhaps it ends up too deep into philosophy, and strays too far from the pop-music topic that they started from. But maybe someday we’ll find a way to let ourselves, and each other, change our minds, adopt new mindsets, try different styles, as unhesitatingly and smoothly as we change our moods.

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Homage to Isabella Blow

Isabella Blow in a Philip Treacy hat

Last entry, I talked about the “be true to yourself and you’ll be fabulous” rhetoric of fashion, and how I believed it.  If I believed it for much longer than I should have, the reason is probably Isabella Blow.  I’m not privy to any of the shifts in business and politics within the fashion world, and I can’t say necessarily that anything has changed.  But it certainly feels like it has, since the days when she was walking through that world, so beautiful and strange.  Looking at photos of parties, or the front row of runway shows, no matter how bland everyone else looked, there would be a towering hat somewhere, reminding you that there was life and weirdness in the world.

Isabella Blow and Alexander McQueen

It’s my birthday today; I remember when she died, a week or two before my birthday in 2007.  I felt, with no justification, like I’d lost a distant but dear relative–an aunt or older cousin who I only saw once a decade or so, but who would tell wonderful stories, give me the perfect advice, and tell me to stop acting like an idiot and get to work already.  That’s the kind of message I found in her outfits, her hats, her position as fashion’s oddball-empoverished-aristocrat-in-chief.  (I love the story of how she bought Alexander McQueen’s entire St. Martin’s degree collection for £5000, but she didn’t actually have £5000 to throw around, so she had to pay him £100 a week for 50 weeks.  I always tell my clients that they can pay me in whatever installments they have to, inspired by this tale.)

Isabella Blow and Philip Treacy

Like so many people I love and admire, she suffered from depression; and she died from drinking weed killer, after several previous attempts.  I hope she’s happier now, and I hope there will always be people out there like her, keeping life strange and lovely.

Isabella and Detmar Blow at their wedding

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Influences: Antonin Artaud & Aeschylus

It’s fun to make every kind of costume, and it’s fun to work in every kind of theater; but at times like these, when feeling fearful and impotent, that I really long for the kind of theater that I truly prefer, which is not perhaps much fun (although backstage is always fun, no matter how gloomy the show) but which is mysterious, terrifying, spiritual, physically moving, a full-sensory gestalt; non-illusionistic, non-naturalistic, non-psychological, non-textual.  Somewhere I once read a playwright who said there are really only three things a character can do in a play, enter, speak, and exit; that conception is the exact opposite of the theater I mean.

No one has ever spoken about this difference better than Antonin Artaud, whose Metaphysics and the Mise en Scène struck me like my own thoughts transcribed.  Both his prescriptions and his reasons for them are my own.  He abominated the idea that the text is the play, that the real artist of the stage is the playwright, that a reading is equivalent to a staging in any way.  “A theater which subordinates the mise-en-scène and production, i.e., anything in itself that is specifically theatrical,to the text, is a theater of idiots, madmen,” he writes.  In this way he is quite opposed to most theorists and critics of Europe from Aristotle until at least his own time.  Furthermore he was even opposed to the idea that character is an important part of theater, much less its most important element: “I am well aware that the language of gestures and postures, dance and music, is less capable of analyzing a character, revealing a man’s thoughts, or elucidating states of consciousness clearly and precisely than is verbal language, but who ever said the theater was created to analyze a character, to resolve the conflicts of love and duty, to wrestle with all the problems of a topical and psychological nature that monopolize our contemporary stage?”  Which, as far as I can tell, puts him definitely outside the mainstream of any kind of Western criticism ever, including today.

What did he think theater was for, then?  He wanted it to be a kind of exorcism, an ecstatic rite, or as he famously put it, to be like a plague.  “The theater like the plague is a crisis which is resolved by death or cure.  And the plague is a superior disease because it is a total crisis after which nothing remains except death or an extreme purification. . . the action of the theater, like that of plague, is beneficial, for, impelling men to see themselves as they are, it causes the mask to fall, reveals the lie, the slackness, baseness, and hypocrisy of the world; it shakes off the asphixiating inertia of matter which invades even the clearest testimony of the senses; and in revealing to collectivities of men their dark power, their hidden force, it invites them to take, in the face of destiny, a superior and heroic attitude they would never have assumed without it.”

Now this is obviously not the only possible or even desirable goal for the theater.  But it is one which I dream of at night when I’m up doodling costumes and scenes, imagining the possibilities of the stage.  Particularly in times of crisis and despair, like now, with my friends in jeopardy so far away.  In general I’m attracted to stylized, splendid, and uncanny kinds of theater (and dance, and even movies) and especially like forms which are only incompletely struck off from the religious and ritualistic, like Noh or Balinese wayang kulit.  Or the tragedies of Aeschylus.

It’s strange, in some ways, to put Aeschylus together with Artaud, when text is all we have of the former.  But I think any reader of Aeschylus will soon see that his was a sensory art, not an intellectual one.  Donald Clive Stuart says, “Aristotle believed that every tragedy must have six parts and that these parts determined its quality.  Arranged in order of relative importance they were plot, character, thought, diction, song, and spectacle.  However correct this order may be for tragedy of Aristotle’s time, it must be exactly reversed to apply to early Aeschylean drama.  Aeschylus was least concerned with plot and character.”  His reputation for extravagant spectacle has lead to some wild speculations (some have supposed that more than 150 people crowded the orchaestra in The Suppliants) and a thorough dismissal of Aeschylus as a dramatist.  His defenders usually retort that his “spectacular” nature has been exaggerated–in other words, he is too a playwright for whom words, plot and character, take precedence.  (Oliver Taplin’s The Stagecraft of Aeschylus takes this tack, and is subtitled “The Dramatic Use of Entrances and Exits in Greek Tragedy”–as if calculated to make me groan.)  His command of the stage in all its aspects has almost never, in my reading (and I of course am not a scholar, so what do I know), been appreciated.

But it’s there.  Even at this remove of almost 2500 years, even in translations of copies of copies of a text which was never more than the libretto of a multimedia extravaganza, the power of Aeschylus pulls itself out through the page and into the viscera.  Only the very grandest epic poets can match the scale of his vision, which is the main function of the words–to expand the drama from the people onstage to envelope the entire universe, which, far from being static background, pulses and moves and changes as the tragedy plays out.  From Sophocles onward Western drama has tended to focus on individuals, who, in order to bring them into relief, must necessarily be separated from the background of the world; but in Aeschylus humans are a part of the world, from the chorus who are often identical with the “set”, to characters like Orestes who seem to be only the focus point of immense forces working–“I am a charioteer–the reins are flying, look, the mares plunge off the track,” he cries, as he kills his own mother.

He used every theatrical trick in the book, some of which he doubless invented.  Characters enter on chariots, ghosts appear, contrasts of color and costume are exploited, the chorus dances composedly or whirls wildly around the orchaestra.  The wonderful story goes that at the original production of Eumenides the first appearance of the Furies–carefully prepared for by the old priestess, brought to her knees in terror, and whipped into a frenzy by the ghost of the formidable Clytaemnestra–was so horrifying that men wept and women miscarried.  In Agamemnon he uses the famous “Aeschylean silence”, a consummate theatrical effect, where Cassandra remains resolutely silent to all entreaties until suddenly, without warning, bursting into wild shrieking–“a scream that turns the house of Atreus into an echoing torture chamber,” say Robert Fagles and W.B. Stanford.  For all his epic scale, he could focus down beautifully, as he does when Atossa, in The Persians, pours out libations one by one on the grave of her husband: “Milk, white, sweet to the taste, from an unblemished cow; honey, sucked by flower-working bees; lustral water from a virgin spring; and from an ancient vine in the field, this unmixed draft of radiant wine.”

For awe and terror, the purifying fire that Artaud was after, I know of no better scene in all of theater than the great, central chant at the grave of Agamemnon in Libation Bearers — the midpoint of the Oresteia as a whole.  From a plot and character point of view, it’s almost nothing–Orestes and Electra, egged on by Pylades and the chorus of slave women, appeal at the grave of their father for his blessing of their revenge, and psyche themselves up for the coming action.  It could be a line or two, or even cut altogether; but Aeschylus makes it an enormous, complex polyphony of grief and rage that builds, and builds, and just keeps building.  Artaud writes that “it is not a matter of suppressing speech in the theater but of changing its role . . . to make use of it in a concrete and spatial sense, combining it with everything in the theater that is spatial and significant in the concrete domain; to manipulate it like a concrete object,  one which overturns and disturbs things.”  That’s what this incredible chant does, it combines with the (of course unfortunately lost) music and choreography, the space and light of the theater, to overwhelm the spectator completely.

The interesting thing about Aeschylus is that he is far more uplifting to me than the more humanistic, character-driven Sophocles, much less the famously cynical Euripides.  In Sophocles, despite the high school English teacher’s focus on tragic flaws and hubris, essentially innocent people suffer and die horribly at the hands of a competely impersonal Fate (as Sophocles himself seems to argue in Oedipus at Colonus).  But in Aeschylus humans, part of the continuum of nature, and not the weakest part, can affect the world in profound and positive ways: in the Oresteia the horrifying history of the House of Atreus precipitates a rebalancing of the universe in a more just, merciful, and democratic direction.  Right now, with the destructive power of both nature and human beings on display in Japan, that’s the kind of theater I want to see and make.  I want theater which can, in Artaud’s words, “restore to all of us the natural and magic equivalent of the dogmas in which we no longer believe.”

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