Friday, 24 June 2016

Europe ... end ... less

Every now and again I DJ at the National Portrait Gallery in London. There is only one song that I always play: Kraftwerk’s ‘Europe Endless’. Each time I play it the song takes on a different hue. I have played it in support of the Greek fight against the austerity programme, and last year I played at as the refugee crisis reached one of its peaks. It is a song that resonates with people. The melody is uplifting and it contains all the promise of a European union. The song is nine minutes long, but aside from the repeated title there are only a dozen or so words. They nevertheless say all you need to know about Europe’s grandeur and its facade: ‘parks, hotels and palaces, promenades and avenues, real life and postcard views, elegance and decadence’. Usually someone will come up to me and say ‘what is this?’, or they will probe me with their Shazam. The last time I played 'Europe Endless' things were different, however. It was only two weeks ago. For once, the song was ignored. People talked all over it and it couldn’t get itself heard. I guess this was a sign.

Thursday, 16 June 2016

The Aura Restorer

If the ‘aura’ of recorded music is complex, the aura of live popular music performance is even more so. This all stems from the fact that recordings are no longer doing the job of recording. They do not reproduce existing events; they are events in themselves. ‘Accordingly’, as Sarah Thornton noted, records have ‘shifted from being a secondary or derivative form to a primary, original one’. This has had a knock-on effect for performance. Where records once sought to recreate the acts of performers, performance is now secondary to recording.
Walter Benjamin claimed ‘that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art’. He proposed two ways in which reproductions have democratic potential. They escape the cult or originals (offering instead ‘a plurality of copies’) and they break with tradition (rather than being tied to a specific place or time, they could ‘meet the beholder or listener in his own particular situation’). Live performance reverses both processes. Fans experience a unique event and they are tied to its co-ordinates. On top of that, they attend gigs to experience the ‘aura’ of stars. They willingly fall under their ‘phoney spell’.
It looks, therefore, as though live performance will undo all the good, democratising work of reproduction. This is not quite the case, however. And this is because records come first. Audiences take their knowledge and experience of records with them when they go to see a live act. This complicates the experience. Take the following quote, for example. In 1963, a Beatles fan was asked why she and other girls screamed throughout the band’s performances. She replied: ‘We came to see the Beatles. We can hear them on records. Anyway, we might be disappointed if we heard them in real life’.
This is profoundly philosophical. It also cuts through so much of the bullshit about live music. In witnessing a band live, the actual quality of the music is not the priority. What matters, if you want it, is the aura of being in the same room as that band. Even then, though, the real love is not for the act, it is for their records. So why bother going to see the band at all?
What makes it worthwhile is the communal experience of gathering with other fans. It is a chance to make transform a private listening experience into a public event. The deep knowledge of the recorded music has an outlet. That knowledge can now be shared, along with the passion, belief and fantasies that have accumulated. And this doesn’t apply solely to girl fans screaming at their teen idols, it applies to every live music experience that takes as its starting point the popularity of the artist’s recordings. The greatest live performers know this too. Take Prince, for example. If any performer deserved star treatment he did. He had the songs, the talent, the vision and the charisma. And yet he toyed with all of this. Knowing that the real action was taking place in the auditorium, his shows were not centred on his acceptance of the fans’ devotion, but on the playful giving of that devotion.
            The Beatles’ quote comes from Electric Shock, Peter Doggett’s monumental history of pop music. Later in the same book he contemplates the popularity of tribute bands. In the process he condemns the ‘vast audience for whom it barely matters whether they are witnessing an authentic pop idol or a workmanlike facsimile: all they want is the chance to relive some precious pop memories’.
Doggett’s denigration is misplaced. Witnessing a tribute band can be superior to the experience of seeing the ‘real’ act. It is also, in some ways, truer to the relationship that the fan has with recorded music. Conventional live performance restores something of the ‘domain of tradition’. Rather than experiencing art democratically, as fans have done with recordings, fans can become overwhelmed by the presence of the stars. Tribute bands, instead, offer a reproduction of reproductions. They are there to recreate the hit records, the famous TV appearances and/or the ‘live’ performances that have been witnessed on film. It is precisely because they aren’t the real thing that they set the fans free.

And then there’s karaoke . . . 

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

The Removal of Approval

The technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence. And in permitting the reproduction to meet the beholder or listener in his own particular situation, it reactivates the object reproduced. These two processes lead to a tremendous shattering of tradition which is the obverse of the contemporary crisis and renewal of mankind.
Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936)

For Walter Benjamin ‘that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art’. He believed that audiences feel overwhelmed and inhibited when in the presence of an original artwork. On top of that, they feel that curators and aesthetes are setting the conditions for their appreciation. In contrast, when dealing with a reproduction of the same artwork, the audience can have a direct and involved relationship. They meet it on their own terms. They choose the time and place in which to hear or see the reproduction. They don’t feel the need to seek approval for what they feel about it; they have their own jurisdiction. Benjamin argued that:

Mechanical reproduction of art changes the reaction of the masses toward art. The reactionary attitude toward a Picasso painting changes into the progressive reaction toward a Chaplin movie. The progressive reaction is characterized by the direct, intimate fusion of visual and emotional enjoyment with the orientation of the expert.

He was right. And that is why we keep going back to him. We also come back because his thesis includes some head-spinning stuff. Benjamin argued that reproduction shatters aura, but he also claimed that reproduction facilitates its return. Ramping up the complexity, he suggested that this return provides a different type of aura. Benjamin’s essay is focused primarily on film production. He noted that:

The film responds to the shriveling of the aura with an artificial build-up of the ‘personality’ outside the studio. The cult of the movie star, fostered by the money of the film industry, preserves not the unique aura of the person but the ‘spell of the personality’, the phony spell of a commodity.

This is the only time in the Work of Art essay that Benjamin discusses commodification in pejorative terms. Mass manufacture is liberating; mass promotion is not. It bewitches us.
These processes happen in music too. Records make music ordinary: they render expensive productions cheap and these productions become part of our everyday lives. The music industries want records to be un-ordinary. They want us to fetishise recordings so that we feel the need to own them (or at least this was the record business model in pre-digital times). They do so through their star-making machinery. They promote their performers because they want us to become invested in them.
Benjamin saw this much, but he was less alert to the fact that fans re-create aura too. His essay is centred on the idea that mass manufacture ‘reproduces’ original works of art. With recorded music, however, this soon ceased to be the case. As Sarah Thornton noted:

Initially, records transcribed, reproduced, copied, represented, derived from and sounded like performances. But, as the composition of popular music increasingly took place in the studio rather than, say, off stage, records came to carry sounds and musics that neither originated in nor referred to actual performances … Accordingly, the record shifted from being a secondary or derivative form to a primary, original one.

As a result, records ‘accrued their own authenticities’. Thornton claimed that:

Recording technologies did not, therefore, corrode or demystify ‘aura’ as much as disperse and re-locate it. Degrees of aura came to be attributed to new, exclusive and rare records. In becoming the source of sounds, records underwent the mystification usually reserved for unique art objects.

Although record companies eventually cottoned on to this practice, it was audiences who undertook this attribution first. They developed the art of record collecting.
A record embodies two creations: there is the creation of the sound recording and there is the creation of the product that houses the sound recording. Sound recording became ‘primary’ rather than ‘derivative’ and this is what prompted fans to restore aura. It was, however, the product that enabled this restoration to take place. The restoration of aura is therefore diffuse. It comes back via the worship of stars and via the worship of objects.
The restoration is also incomplete. A fan might be in awe of a star, but that aura is accumulated in the fan’s ‘particular situation’ – it is developed through the purchase of reproductions that are played in the fan’s own home. When a fan plays the record of a star they can indulge in a private fantasy of engagement; they do not have to suffer a public display of power. And when a fan attributes aura to a record they are not under a phony spell: they are restoring aura on their own terms. It takes the ‘orientation of the expert’ to develop a knowledge about record collecting. There is creativity rather than passivity in what is going on here. The shattered aura is re-assembled, but this building process results in something that is new.