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AMONG THE THINGS I’VE WITNESSED AT SOME LOcal music shows are: an electric guitar methodically destroyed using a circular saw (Baby Magic), a drum kit set on fire (Monotonix), the live piercing of a young woman’s flesh with hooks connected to amplified strings that were strummed (Secret Guilt/Neon Viking Funeral) and a chihuahua in a clown suit giving birth on top of a player piano playing ragtime songs. OK, I made that last one up.
With celebrities, spectacle and antics often draw attention to the art (at which point, it is called “marketing”), but here on the local level, when spectacle is involved, mostly it is the art.
I can appreciate a good spectacle. I’m generally receptive and curious regarding the unusual; kudos to those who challenge the status quo, and for the record, I appreciated all of the aforementioned examples to some degree. That said, risk-takers sometimes walk that tightrope which, to paraphrase a quote from the film This Is Spinal Tap, is the fine line between clever and stupid.
Purists may shake their heads disdainfully, saying that the music itself is just what matters and dismissing superfluous gimmicks, novelty or trickery. Ideally, yes, music should be judged on its own merits, but it is nearly impossible to divorce a musical experience from its context, shaped by personalities, history and many other elements. Orchestra members traditionally dress in black and white so that clothing doesn’t offer distractions from the music, but taking that one step further, why aren’t people just listening to music alone in darkened rooms? Years ago, I remember my violin teacher criticizing the famous violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg for her seemingly exaggerated, vigorous movements. Showmanship has lost its place in classical music, since Paganini passed away.
Even for the most sedentary musicians, live performances involve at least a bit of performance artistry. The band Slint, for example, is known for being chilly and detached, with no extraneous motions; however, that is its version of performance artistry and its shtick, if a minimal one. On the other end of the spectrum, there are countless examples; James Brown had his dance moves, and Robert Pollard (of Guided by Voices) had his on-stage binge drinking and karate kicks.
So, when does spectacle work? It’s hard to say, and it’s easier to say when it doesn’t work. One example is trying too hard. This is not the same as “giving a good effort.” Audiences can sniff out insincerity, but they can also detect true enthusiasm. Spectacle can work well when it is an extension of the performers’ excitement, and if the performers can’t get excited about their music, then why should the audience?
Being truly novel without precedent these days seems like a lost cause, and the same goes for being uniquely transgressive. (On this topic, my friend Evan Lipson pointed out that the new way to shock people these days is to be polite.) My late friend Dennis Palmer would automatically say, sarcastically, after hearing about some seemingly novel idea in music or art, “Brand new, never been done before!”
If the aim is to astonish, then certain examples can be likened to magic tricks or jokes; once you know how the trick is done, or what the punch line is, then some of the potency is lost. What makes a difference is the delivery. A seasoned storyteller can deliver a well-known tale in an entertaining way even if the audience knows how it ends. It’s the difference between concept (or inspiration) and execution; a good idea can only get you so far, and the execution needs to live up to the promise of the idea.
When you want to draw attention, you want the right kind of attention. Any person in the world can get attention—just walk into a shopping mall without wearing any pants. It’s fair to say that it’s easier to impress youngsters who have no deep knowledge of cultural history than jaded, insufferable know-it-all snobs. I’m not saying that musicians should only cater to snobs. What I am saying is that musicians should try to understand what the audiences are that would appreciate them, then aim to reach all of those people.
And here is where spectacle can sometimes play a role, outside of live performances. One atypical example is the success of the band OK Go, which is better known for its creative, incredibly intricate musical videos than its own unremarkable music. Another example is the case of The Magnetic Fields, which for years released acclaimed, beloved synth-pop albums but remained in the indie-rock ghetto until 1999, when it released the ambitious triple-album 69 Love Songs, a conscious attempt to gain attention. And it worked. However, it wouldn’t have worked unless it had the quality to back up the hype. Decades from now, OK Go will be remembered for its wacky videos. The Magnetic Fields will be remembered for its music.