I’ve had two conversations about authenticity in music today, one of which will likely end up on the radio in the future. Since the other took place in an email exchange, and it addresses topics that might be of general interest, I decided to post it here. The questions came from a former student working on a project; the answers are mine.
1) How do you view the idea that “celebrity” no longer refers to talent but instead to the ability to be a sustained topic of discourse, to attract attention?
There was never a time in recorded history when audiences didn’t dispute the talent of famous performers. [Just quickly, I found this example of unsourced quotations from classical composers, and this lovely comment on Wagner:
Wagner’s art is diseased. The problems which he brings to the stage – all of them, problems of hysterics – the convulsiveness of his emotions, his overwrought sensibility, his taste that always demands sharper spices, his instability, and, not the least, the choice of his heroes and heroines, considered as psychological types (a clinical exhibit), all this presents a picture of disease that leaves no doubt.
In other words: Wagner doesn’t have talent, he’s just famous.
That we began to use the word “celebrity” to describe “the condition of being famous” (or that’s what my etymological dictionary says), and then later had disputes about what should rightfully make someone famous means the word acts exactly like a lot of other words: what “should” a woman act like? what traits “are” African-American, what “is” authentic jazz? Over time, these things are disputed, and the content of those disputes helps you to understand the state of the society. Our society has been stuck–since 1800 or so–in a period of preoccupation with authenticity, legitimacy, and genius.
So, the sustained public conversations we have about the difference between celebrity and talent, and between control and manipulation (see: Miley, Wrecking Ball), are not surprising to me, and are an expression of a society that is preoccupied with moral evaluations of authenticity.
2) Why do you think the media and general public are so fascinated with Miley Cyrus right now? How can Cyrus extend the longevity of her position as the object of the public’s fascination?
I think I answered the first question above, if obliquely. Young girls who are popular entertainers are solid market entities. (Young boys too–see Michael Jackson, the young Stevie Wonder, Bieber, Chris Brown, etc.) Ours is a society that loves youth, fetishizes it, and delights in its destruction. That’s why Britney shaving her head, or Cyrus naked, are show-stoppers. I think Mary Douglas’s essay on “Dirt” is helpful in this regard–it helps us to see the ways in which we invent what is “dirty” and what is “clean” and illuminates how much collective effervescence happens when we witness a transformation from clean -> dirty (Bieber seen in the South American brothels this week) or from dirty -> clean (see: Celebrity Rehab).
If I knew how Cyrus could extend her position in the public eye, I’d be working for a record company, making 5x as much money as I do now.
3) How do you view the idea that “any publicity is good publicity”?
It strikes me as a pat observation. It leaves unanswered the most important question: what counts as “good?” Or better yet, “good for whom?”
4) Music videos have been traditionally used as a means to promote songs. What do you think distinguishes a music video that successfully sells records from one that does not?
Traditionally? Not really. In some genres, this has been true for maybe 30 years at most. In other genres, it never was true. I think you meant something different than what you wrote.
A music video that sells records? You know, there’s an answer to this, but to get it you’d have to actually collect some data. I don’t have that, so I don’t know. There are probably mythologies that industry people hold–e.g., a video that spreads through word-of-mouth sells more records, or one that has a famous model in it, or whatever…but those are probably pretty feeble explanations.
5) In her MTV documentary Miley: The Movement, Miley Cyrus states that people expect a “shocking video” and that the shock is “why people want to watch it over and over again.” How do you view shock in relation to the popularity of popular music videos? What do you think creates shock?
By “shocking,” I think she means “transgressive.” It used to be that the censors would remove suggestions of sex from TV shows. Then you could show kissing, then we finally got to the point where you could show just about everything except genitals. Then the first “lesbian kiss” on TV made national news. Now it’s a naked ex-Disney kid, suggesting that she’s giving a blow job to a hammer. It’s a pretty simple process, really.
And I’d point out that there are plenty of shocking or transgressive things that “people” (or, large numbers of them) totally ignore. E.g., the videos of Die Antwoord, or Yoko Ono’s (see her recent attempt to buck this trend by getting the remaining Beastie Boys + ?uestlove etc. to dance in it).
6) What do you think the relationship is between music videos and artist promotion? Why do you think music videos are considered sites for authoring an artist’s public image and identity?
Because they give us the illusion of access to the performer? Because they’re visual and audible?
7) How much control do you think a recording artist has over their public image versus how much is decided for them by their record labels and managers? Do you think there is a different level of control given to established artists than emerging artists?
This is another empirical question for which I don’t have data. Artist’s contracts are hard to see, as you know. But it’s pretty routine for managers and lawyers to leverage prior sales success into contracts that afford more creative freedom to artists.
I think it’s a strange, if totally reasonable, question for you to ask. What counts as “control” is totally subjective, and it’s an illusion to think that any artist, at any time, works without collaborating with others. When does collaboration turn into control? There are some famous disputes about this–Brian Wilson’s struggle to make “Smile” precisely as he wants it, or Axl Rose’s decade long struggle to make “Chinese Democracy”–both often-cited examples of when an artist who is *seen to have* control struggles to actually produce a product. Is this “good” control? Or what about poor Lana del Rey,* who was excoriated by the press for having an image-maker because she was “supposed” to be some kind of auteur? If she decided that having a manager change her clothes and singing style was in her best interest, do we have a right to conclude she “gave up control?”
There’s no right answer to this question, because the answers all depend on a constellation of expectations the answer-giver has about what counts as “control,” “decision,” etc.
* I notice that Pacific Standard Magazine changed the title of my article without asking me. That’s awesomely collegial.