Wednesday, 29 July 2015

And Now This is Me

Authenticity. Oh dear. It makes me wince to write that word. It is the most over-used and over-valued concept in popular music studies. And I stress studies rather than popular music itself. I’m sure that authenticity exerts a greater pull on scholars than it does on artists or audiences. In the UK, at least, there is a long-standing tradition of theatrical pop music. The country is home to cracked actors and pantomime dames. The focus in this instance is not on keeping things real.
            This is not to say that authenticity doesn’t matter. It does form a part of popular music’s pleasures. Most regularly, it resides in a singer’s voice. It is here that we locate a purity of expression and artistic earnestness. Above all, singing is the prime means of measuring an artist’s soul.
            But singing is a technical skill. What’s more, this skill is emphatically displayed in vocalists who come from the rhythm and blues world. They are making the voice do extraordinary things. And whatever it is they are doing, it is a long way from the vocalist’s everyday patterns of speech.
            In this sense, singers have a lot in common with impressionists. They are able to imagine their voices into the places where they want them to be. They can manipulate them and mangle them and squeeze them somewhere new. In fact, there is a trade off between the two practices. Many of the best impressionists are also adept at singing: Rob Brydon; Steve Coogan; Jane Horrocks; perhaps even Mike Yarwood. Many great singers are good at accents. There was, after all, a whole generation of British vocalists who located themselves in the mid-Atlantic. And there are numerous singers whose singing voices bear little relation to their spoken ones. This applies as much to Prince and Amy Winehouse as music as it does to Geddy Lee or Bryan Ferry. There are also singers who have numerous voices. Marvin Gaye and David Bowie, for example, will assume a number of different characters on the same record. 
            And yet we rarely talk about the authenticity of impressionists. Mimicry is one of the few practices not to have been described as ‘the new rock ‘n’ roll’. Mike Yarwood attempted to show us why. In his programmes he would make a sharp distinction between his impressions and his singing. Breaking the fourth wall at the end of his shows, he would turn to the camera and say ‘and now this is me’. He would then sing a song. His impressions, he was telling us, were of others; his singing represented his true self.
Things are more complicated than this. On the one hand, the singer could be regarded as just another of Yarwood’s routines. On the other, are people really being false to themselves when they adopt a persona? Costume can be a way of finding something deep within. This is one of the legacies of minstrelsy. It’s also something that Barack Obama indulges in.
            He’s one of the great orators. He also probably has the best singing voice of all US presidents. And he indulges in impressions. All three were in evidence in his eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who was gunned down in his church in Charleston, South Carolina, along with eight of his parishioners on 17 June. Obama delivered a powerful speech about race and about resistance, as well as about the symbolism of the confederate flag. He concluded with a decent version of ‘Amazing Grace’, bending the notes in the appropriate vernacular. What was most starting, however, was when this vernacular appeared in his speech. The eulogy was patterned on the rhythms of a minister from a black southern church. As he became more impassioned, Obama got more deeply into character. His accent became southern. This was most notable after he concluded his hymn and sermonised that each of those shot down had ‘found that grace’. As he wound up this litany it was almost as though he had to shake off the southern preacher in order to return to his everyday voice.
Was any of this false? I don’t think so. If anything Obama was more genuine when he was in character as the preacher than he was when playing the president of the United States. He was responding to the situation, feeding off the cheers of the parishioners in the assembly hall and the words of endorsement from the clergy who were lined up behind him. At the end of the speech, Obama looked almost surprised at what had happened to him. He had achieved some sort of transcendence.
We don’t find authenticity by keeping things real; we come closer to locating it when we let ourselves go.

Friday, 24 July 2015

Playing by the Rules

I’m going to miss Hull. I’ve been living in this city, on and off, for the past year. It’s a good socialist town and one that does not wear its tolerant past lightly. The legacy of William Wilberforce makes a difference. From the start of August I’ll be living in London full time. More than ever, England’s capital feels as though it is the capitalist system incarnate.
            Hull, in contrast, is the sort of place where you can see someone wearing a Slavoj Žižek t-shirt and it doesn’t look like too much of a pose. This evening I was sat next to someone who bore his slogan: ‘In football we win if we obey the rules. In politics we win if we have the audacity to change the rules’.
            This is a resonant phrase to see in England this week. On Wednesday, Tony Blair warned members of the Labour party against voting for the left wing candidate Jeremy Corbyn in the forthcoming leadership elections. Doing so, he offered the dubious advice: ‘when people say, “my heart says I should be with that politics”, well get a transplant’. Blair was telling his party members not to have bleeding hearts. They should forget about safeguarding the National Health Service, the universities, the arts, union rights. Instead, they should adopt the dominant neo-liberal agenda, even if it feels utterly wrong. He was instructing them that following your conscience will not gain you power. If you want to win, you are better off mimicking the Tories. It pains me to think that Blair is more in tune with our times than Žižek is. In politics, unless there is a crisis, the winners are those who can best ride the hegemonic crest of the wave.
            Žižek is wrong about football as well. Or, at least, he needs to think more carefully about how rules work in this game. In football playing by the rules can involve breaking them. This is why there are two separate codes of conduct: the rules of the game, and the spirit of the game. It is a sport that has professional fouls and tactical transgressions. As with so many things, this can be best illustrated by the Uruguayan player, Louis Suàrez. He is surely one of the most brilliant players currently playing the game. Suàrez knows that rule breaking can reap benefits. His biting escapades are not the best example of this. Instead, think of his performance in the quarter final of the 2010 World Cup. Uruguay faced Ghana. Deep into extra time the two teams were drawing one all. The Ghanaian striker Dominic Adiyiah headed the ball towards the net with a shot that was unstoppable by any legal means. Suàrez used his hands. He broke the rules to save the ball, but he did not forfeit the game: his team were not disqualified. There were instead two lesser punishments for his misdemeanour. Suàrez was sent off and Ghana were awarded with a penalty. Asamoah Gyan failed to convert it, however. Consequently, Suàrez’s ‘cheating’ was worthwhile. Uruguay made it through to the next round.
            What can we take from all of this? Firstly, winning in politics is achieved, not by breaking the rules, but instead by hiding them. Neo-liberalism is triumphant because it is made to look like common sense. It disguises its ideological agenda. Blair's intervention this week was a rare example of the system exposing its ugly head. The rules of football, in contrast, are transparent. Disobeying them does not have the same consequences as testing positive for anabolic steroids in a 100 metres sprint. It can, instead, reap benefits.
            This is supposed to be a blog about popular music, but I’m not sure what pop can learn from either politics or football when it comes to obeying, breaking or changing the rules. What I do know, however, is that popular music would now be best served by a Suàrez-type figure. Please spare us from a Tony Blair. 

Friday, 17 July 2015

Love of Labour

These days people hark back to the mixtapes and describe the creation of them as a labour of love. In doing so they emphasise the wrong part of this practice. There has been a large body of writing about the romantic aspects of creating these tapes; compiling them as love letters to the person you wanted to date. In my own experience romance was only a small part of mix-taping practice. Sadly, perhaps, I was more likely to make mixtapes for my mates (what does this say about my sexuality?). Most often I made them for myself (admittedly, I did have a fairly isolated upbringing).
            And I made a lot of mixtapes. In fact, just about every vinyl record I bought, as well as any pre-recorded cassettes or CDs, was reconfigured and re-contextualised as part of a tape compilation. This didn’t represent a labour of love, but rather a love of labour.
            There is a type of listening practice that is idealised above all others: dedicated, motionless listening, preferably through headphones and better still in the dark. This is the pop equivalent of the classical music concert: listening that supresses bodily activity. As with so many aspects of classical ideology this needs to be countered. Simon Frith has made a strong argument for dancing as an ideal way of listening. This is a political move. He wants to overturn the idea that rhythmically-focused black music should be reduced to ‘feeling’ while harmonically-sophisticated white music is the bastion of ‘thought’. He argues instead that ‘dance matters not just as a way of expressing music but as a way of listening to it, a way into the music in its unfolding – which is why dancing to music is both a way of losing oneself in it, physically, and a way of thinking about it, hearing it with a degree of concentration that is clearly not “brainless”’.
            In black culture there is a dynamic cluster of meanings around the word ‘work’. When you are ‘working’ you might be doing your job. The term is also applied to dancing and to dancing’s great correlate, sex. This metaphorical usage stretches from Hank Ballard’s ‘Work with Me, Annie’ through to Michael Jackson’s ‘Working Day and Night’ and beyond.
            Returning to the subject of mixtapes, I want to raise a less titillating equation between working and absorbing yourself in sound. Another great way of listening to music is to turn it into a job. For me, the making of mixtapes wasn’t romantic; it was an industrial process. In my own vainglorious way I was imagining myself as a producer or engineer. I was selecting, sequencing and editing. Like dancing, this changed listening from a passive process into an active one. It was also a way of getting closer to the music. I have written before about the reciprocal relationship between recording personnel and the public: producers mix recordings with an imagined ‘ear’ of the public; one of the ways that the public listens to music is by imagining the scenario in the recording studio. There are all sorts of ways of miming along to the records we play and there various locations that we can picture ourselves in – the air guitar and the live concert are not the only games in town. In fact, one of the best ways of locating ourselves in recorded sound is to configure ourselves as engineers. And this, as much as courtship, is where the mixtape came in handy.  

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Just Like Watching Brazil

I have just returned from Campinas in Brazil, where I was attending the 18th biennial conference of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music (IASPM). I heard some great papers there, covering a wide range of subjects (from Astrid Gliberto to Metallica, from modernism to the Musicians’ Union). I also gave my own paper, ‘Sounds Revolting’, which was drawn largely from my recent blog entries about big data and new music. I introduced it by asking the delegates if they knew the current number one single, either in the UK, the US or Brazil. The fact that I didn’t receive a single correct reply confirmed my thesis and is a reflection of the lack of centrality that the charts play in people’s lives. Or is it just indicative of IASPM? One of the curious things about the international association of popular music is that it doesn't pay much attention to the most popular popular music. I attended plenty of talks, but none of the papers addressed music that is currently in the charts.
            While I was at the conference I met with Olivier Julien, who lectures in music at the Sorbonne. He has recently written a great review of my book in the French journal Volume, in which he describes its structure as a ‘truly brilliant idea’. He sums up:

Given this clever and engaging formal scheme, and considering it helps organize an argument that is particularly well researched and documented while providing an overall pleasant and stimulating reading experience, I believe Osborne’s book to be one of the best recent contributions to what Amanda Bayley described, back in 2009, as “the increasingly diverse research currently being undertaken in the field of recorded music” (2009: 2). For these reasons, I am certain Vinyl: A History of the Analogue Record will soon feature prominently on many bookshelves, alongside such classics as Andre Millard’s America on Record (1995) or Mark Katz’s Capturing Sound (2004).