Friday, February 07, 2014

The realest thing to do

A week ago I could not have predicted that the 2014 Superbowl would inspire so many interesting discussions about music. I have already mentioned the Bob Dylan thing. Apparently there is also a bit of an uproar over the notion that Bruno Mars performed the halftime show for exposure instead of a monetary fee. (In fairness, he isn't the first pop star to have done so.) That may not exactly suck for Bruno Mars, who probably got a ton of new fans as a result -- but it does suck for those of us farther down the musical food chain, who already have a hard time convincing presenters to pay us for what we do. One can imagine the strange rationalizing: well, if Bruno Mars can play for exposure, why can't you? 

Still, the incident is a useful reminder that market capitalism is inherently exploitative. Within this system, there might be short-term solutions to the problem Mars highlighted (e.g., labor organizing, boycotts, etc.), but if you're truly interested in economic fairness for musicians, you should think about getting a different system altogether.

I also want to comment on a third discussion, about how members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers -- who appeared in tandem with Mars -- mimed the performance of their song "Give It Away." Bassist Flea has a thoughtful post on the subject. He explains how difficult it would have been, from a technical standpoint, to actually perform live at such an enormous venue, under the given time constraints. When the band, for whom performing is a "sacred thing," was offered the gig, they gave it a lot of consideration, and decided to do it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity -- a "wild trippy thing to do." Flea asks:

Could we have plugged [our instruments] in and avoided bumming people out who have expressed disappointment that the instrumental track was pre recorded? Of course easily we could have and this would be a non-issue. We thought it better to not pretend. It seemed like the realest thing to do in the circumstance. 

I like that. The "realest" thing -- implying that in the act of perception, reality is always a question of degree, and never as absolute as we assume, or as it inevitably feels. Riffing on Flea, one could not say of any performance that it was the real thing to do -- only that it seemed like the realest, given the context.

Every time one of these controversies comes along, I want to point out that the resulting outrage is never itself genuine. Once upon a time, one could perhaps claim to be legitimately astonished at the inauthenticity of a performance. (Perhaps.) But in 2014, it's not like audiences don't know, deep down, that some kind of fakery (or, to put that more generously, some kind of mediation) is an unavoidable component of both live and recorded music. We all have had our moments of disillusionment, whether your touchstone is one of the obvious ones -- Luciano Pavarotti (2006), say, or Ashlee Simpson (2004), or Milli Vanilli (1989), or Michael Jackson (1983) -- or something more local, like the pre-recorded soundtrack used at your kid's choir concert. More broadly, in the digital age, fakery is a way of life. We all partake in it. Your Facebook page? It's a construction. The photos on your iPhone? You have probably edited them to make them look cooler. 

For the person sitting at home watching the Chili Peppers on TV, what is the functional difference between the performance with plugged-in instruments and the performance without? Either way, the vibrating air that reaches your tympanic membrane had to originate with a human musician. Either way, it is highly processed, through the instrument, through the soundboard, through the football stadium, through the satellite broadcast, through your television speakers, through the cultural baggage of the Superbowl, through your living room, through your physical hearing apparatus and subjectivity. How much more is it changed if the sound that registers in your awareness actually began in a studio the day before? 

It's not enough to say "live music is better," because what people roughly mean by "live music" -- an almost mystical communion with the artist -- is unattainable with current technology. What's most interesting to me is the weird psychic dance we do in response to that truth. We lie to ourselves. Immersed in fakery, we are not naive; and yet we delight in pretending the fakery is not there, or that it is possible to eliminate -- as if we could plug directly into each other's aesthetic consciousness. We feign horror when that pretense is exposed, as it inevitably will be. Why?

No comments: