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 . . .