Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Invisible Elvis

Limited to surface appearances because of exhaustion...

It was while searching through the various pictures available on Vex's website (Vex is a metal band originally from San Angelo, Texas - although one of the members of this group let me know that they are now a little closer to me, being based for the present out of Austin) that I began to reflect on the possibility of an essay detailing the appearances, imagery, poses, behaviors, etc. of musical groups on stage and what these habits/expressions/supposedly "spontaneous" movements and gestures could "mean" when examined closely. I am an enthusiastic seeker when it comes to witnessing the ability imagery has to support or alter (depending on its own internal/native characteristics) one's ideas and thoughts about a band and that band's music, and so I often come across imagery - planned, manipulated, caught offhand or not, etc. - on the internet or in magazines that has the ability (I feel) to either add to my understanding of a band's music, the personalities "behind" the music, the "image" they are trying to present to their audience, etc. As far as elaborating upon the different types of meaning that imagery is invested with in the music industry, that is a subject for another essay, and one that should not be too unfamiliar to most music fans as it is such an important focus in this age of style over substance, image over music, surface references over "depth" (this is a dangerous word to use - it is usually meaningless when taken "psychologically") and emotional resonance, etc. I say "this age" but as far as I know it has always been this way in the music industry...it's just a trite, tired cliche to speak this way and I do it to mock myself.

Self-mockery becomes you. Is it the zeitgeist speaking again?

Having just watched a PBS Frontline report on the supposed decline of the music business into stale profiteering and cynical image-manipulation/mass-marketing, etc. called "The Way The Music Died" (the title is a reference to Don McLean's "American Pie", or rather one line in that song that labels the time of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. Richardson's death "the day the music died" - references within references), I was disposed at first to examine the manipulation of their audiences that musicians enact through imagery and the visual arts (painting, photography, stage presence and illustration, stage performance), but I believe the ideas that I would present in such an essay would be all-too-familiar to my readers. Most of us, I believe, have heard (or thought about) about death/black metal musicians presenting their highly-contrived and conceited imagery as an "example or" or "doorway into" their imaginations, a method of "drawing in" the listener and making him/her feel emotionally/psychologically closer to the subjects to the lyrics. The agency of altering (all possible manipulations) images is also focused upon the band members themselves in order to make them appear to be fictional characters that may or may not reflect thoughts or aesthetic/ethic considerations present in the lyrics. This entire "fictionalization" of the musicians themselves is a storied process, and very traditional within rock and roll - if not the entire music industry. Everyone knows this. It is both a marketing tool (a means of creating ignorance and desire in an audience) and a reflection upon the desires of the musicians themselves to "transcend" their given/accepted reality...but these are commonplaces. I believe it is not really worth examining in depth as most of the points I would carry across to the reader would be overly familiar - if, at times, unwelcome.

A collection of sentences arrogating to itself the notion of "randomness" in order to appear "natural".

No, in this short essay I choose to reflect upon the most basic "meanings" we have given to musicians' movements on the stage that is provided for them, and in effect detail (if I can) the entire process of "representation" that is enacted before us, as an audience, as we watch musicians perform. By "representation" I only mean: a sort of transfiguration of movement, behavior, language, etc. that changes normal human beings into "objects of performance" where their movements become iconic, symbolic, and metaphorical, a sort of tableau to be read and interpreted by their audience, and what this entire transformation and ritualized enacting can possibly "mean" for both a performer and an audience. In concentrating/throwing a reflected doubt on the word "mean" I am only trying to express a certain...suspicion that these behaviors do not have any intrinsic, native, or "pure" connotation/value, and that the meanings an audience gives certain behaviors reflects both their own desires and the desires of the performers in front of them. What sorts of meanings do we give to a band's stage performance, what do we expect from them? What are the strict lines of tradition when it comes to a band's performance - how do they know how to behave on stage, what to reference, how to "act"? What meanings are we presented with by musicians to place over their behavior - the palette of possible interpretations they offer us - and how do these meanings reflect upon our desires and the needs of the musicians?

If one views a band's "act" (in most senses of that word) as a tableau, a series of images that serve as "illustrations" of the band's lyrics and a further addition, within one's imagination, of the illusive/fictitious world of the band's proliferated propaganda/imagery/words/beliefs, etc. then it can hardly slip past one's notice the inherent contradictions within this view of a performance and the problems it raises for the actions of a band on stage. When exactly does the band cease to be themselves, when are they "transformed" into the creatures they have presented through their imagery and lyrics? Does it happen backstage, a moment before they enter the stage, before the first song right after the introductory or club music is turned off as a signal that the performance is to begin? Do certain musicians never exit their fictitious characters, or do these characters become something (a mask, mirror, an automaton, a second self) from which they not only view the world, but give that world meaning and approach it inside? Are these "stage personas" an expression of their innermost desires, the selves they wish to present to the world, or something they believe their audience expects from them? All...none? Is it something the tradition of their art form - that invisible residue of past performers and performances and their legacies - expects them to deliver, enact, create, maintain, and carry through to the internal logic of self-destruction (or creation) and identity reevaluation or confusion? Is a band's "performance" on stage also a performance of the existence of these fictitious selves, these alter-egos, second doppelgänger identities, these constructions of desire (both the performer's desires as to his own identity and the desires of the audience meeting and interacting - including the desires of the audience to have the musician's acts, words, and image reflect their own desires...a three-way mirror), or is it an "unveiling" of "true selves" that always exist within the "normal" identities of the musicians? How does the performance ritually enable/empower them to shed these "artificial" or "normal" personas, and what part does their music play in this unveiling?

It is interesting in observing these kinds of behaviors...watching from the center of the action, as it were, and being held in the middle of their focus, at their apex or axis, where the expectations and wishes of the audience crystallize around the figures on the stage...to feel all of the subtle (because almost unconscious, or primal, not because they aren't evident to one's immediate view) influences of the mass audience, feeling the combined power of the audience's focus (attention), desire, their anticipation of each note and shouted word, etc. What is a "live" act but a conjoined mass willing tied hand-in-hand with a mass expectation or a witnessing? The pull and push of desire both ways, between musician and audience, is easily felt by anyone, even the "neutral" onlooker, but I always wonder when caught in the middle of such things if it isn't all in my mind. Am I creating it all myself, is it just a reflection of what I want to see? It is easy enough to feel the desire of another person, how then...the expectations and wishes of an entire room full of people? And yet...in such situations we seem to act by instinct in order to steer our bodies and minds through this situation in the pull and lull, the swaying and exhorting, or give and take of mass movement, and rarely do we feel out of place. To be "lost" in a crowd and join in its gathered, communal, collective, focused desire is such an easy thing, especially when in the dark, assaulted by loud volume, surrounded by the heat of other bodies, the smell of sweat, cigarettes, beer, etc. There is a simultaneous overwhelming of the senses and then the muting of the same that occurs as a result of all channels of experience being pressed to their limits of awareness. In a crowd one feels as part of this mass witnessing, this mass manifestation of desires brought into being by a collective will, and yet...the rituals itself (or rather, the effects of that ritual, in this instance) serve to block off one's senses, isolate one within a wall of sensation that is undifferentiated, opaque, too direct, too confrontational. Thus the distinct setting of the stage, the differentiation and partition of space and setting up of territorial boundaries...the differences between the priority of actions on the stage given a different meaning than those just a few feet away, outside this delineated space. The lights focused on the stage symbolically represent the focused attention of the audience, but the darkness in which they witness the theater of the music (is the music in itself just another form of display, or spectacle?), the performance, the darkness that faces the musicians from the stage...what of this? Why do musicians perform to a darkened room? How does the darkness enable them, empower them, allow them to act in certain ways that would not be allowed in equal light? What does it "mean", psychologically or personally (in the case of the performers) to play to a wall of darkness? An undifferentiated mass in itself, this faceless crowd, this swelling scene of automatons reacting with their own generation of sound, energy, movement? How does it change a musician's experience of his own music if he plays to an empty room? What if...upon looking down at his guitar after staring into the lights above and below him and the darkness straight ahead, he glances up again and sees nothing but an empty space, the nothingness that the darkness was hiding? Does the darkness protect the musician from the gaze of his audience? Is it easier to play to an undifferentiated mass than a single person?

The tradition of metal, and black metal in particular, allows for an interpenetration between the Dionysian and the (supposedly) Apollonian order of "normal" reality, taking for granted, one would assume, that "normal" reality is controlled by some sort of "artificially" imposed array or effective category of imposed will, an overreaching, overarching, authoritative superego-in-action, and not taking for granted that ostensibly Dionysian events are nothing but an artificial, traditional representation/performances of symbolic "chaotic" happenings in order to impose, by logical supposition, an opposing Apollonian order that may not actually exist. For me, at least, musical performances have often appeared this way...a concentration/distillation of traditional symbols of "chaos" or passionate disorder in order to define (and locate), by the logical interposition of a contrary or controlling opposite, an order which probably never actually came into being. By concentrating Chaos, one could say, we tempt Order to show its hand. In this sense it is the Apollonian order of the boundaries and performance limits that we seek dispassionately (at least on the surface) by summoning an exhibition of chaos that must then be controlled by the echoing/reflecting interpenetration of Law. This "order" is the quiet of the "before show" stage, the exhaustion, twisted remnants of sensation, and numbed experience of the "post show" period. The abstraction or further distillation of this wished-for order is called into being by one's displays of (absorbed, assimilated) group will, an aberration that must be destroyed in order for the "normal" isolation of the individual to be imposed once again...the isolation and separation from the group mind that is symbolized in one's experience in the post show period by the stress of the senses....the aches of fulfilled (and still the tinge of dissatisfaction?) desires, the numbness of the ears and throat, the blurred vision of desire sated upon darkness...all of these leading to the quiescence of desire that "order" supposedly imposes. Isolation, surely...but order in...death? Loneliness? The extraction, once again, of the I from the we?

Everywhere clichés...

It is this "releasing" of the Dionysian that metal seems to worship...being based, supposedly, on the nature of the art form itself and the way it seek to capture "forbidden" or taboo energy/ideas/thoughts/desires and broadcast them wholesale, thus "empowering" their creators or initial holders. The inspiration is a democratic action in that it seeks to place individual desires on the plane of "natural" ideals, appealing, one is led to believe, to an "essential, inner human nature" of which metal is cognizant of and which it protects against the Apollonian streams of authoritative or repressive power systems by selectively releasing it through individual musicians at certain places and times. This Dionysian energy, channeled from one's "natural inner self" through the art form, is sent to empower musicians who then use its inspiration and force to craft ritual art that will, in turn, allow the release of further energy from others across the globe. This is simply another mask which the contrasting forces of individuals and groups (and their divergent ideologies and core ideas) use to understand their own struggles for precedence. Calls to a "secret" or "hidden" human nature are usually the imposition of an external, controlling force upon the reflecting surface of the human mind. Because the human mind does mirror the world and represents the world to itself in order to understand it, the image of a power structure, belief system, etc. which appears to be reflected in its depths can be shown to the consciousness as something existing external to the reason and yet somehow internalized in the "nature" of the human - as a "root" identity, a basic principle and force upon which the human mind and its primal desires is based. In reality is this not just another reflection of the external world, not something internal or "natural"? It is instructive to view how much power these "calls to human nature" have, as individuals feel (read: have been taught to feel) powerless in the sway or grip of "unconscious forces" which they have been told exist - forces which they can not actually control and which reflect, in themselves, an inner structure of the world which - more often than not - can only be a positive influence in understanding the worldview of the proponents of one select form of human nature, and empowers them as well...to be authority figures. This is to say...when certain individuals profess or propound an understanding (or even definition) of the "one true human nature", equally valid for all human beings, one usually will notice that this format or structure of inner, indivisible, all-powerful human nature is one that not only flatters their own desires, but one which will empower them in some way if accepted wholesale. Leaders come into power by appealing to an audience's "inner assurance of what is right". It is almost never mentioned that these audiences has been conditioned from each individual member's birth to accept certain things (which are usually used only as devices for emotional/mental manipulation) as being "right". These inculcated beliefs form a constant reserve in an audience for a leader or performer to draw upon. However, in seeking to define his own "inner nature", what does a man appeal to? His own experience of his internal, emotional, secret mental states? How far back does one have to go in order to reach "authentic" experiences? By what standard does one measure the authenticity of any experience? How does one know what is truly unique in one's soul?

In terms of sheer "spectacle", the ground rules for an elaboration of emotive movement (expressive action, the music "empowering and enabling the body, which expresses its movements symbolically") are the reserve, in themselves, of tradition. Musicians do not "react naturally" to the music they are producing, they enact specific ritualized behavior that is the accepted language of movement for the genre of art they supposedly represent. Their movements, gestures, on-stage banter, appearance, etc. are all signs which have been handed down to them - a related series of accepted, agreed-upon, collectively determined symbolic acts. The audience, of course, "speaks" the same language and broadcasts it back to the musicians as signs of their approval - or as a sign of the interpenetration of the "inspiring influence" of the music, which is only one part of the entire ritual. The signs are elaborate and strictly codified...it is a simple enough exercise for the initiated to not only determine the specific genre of music/art a group belongs to by witnessing their appearance, imagery, movement, etc. but in fact gain a significant insight into the group's propounded ethics, religious or social beliefs, "lifestyle determinations", etc. just by watching them for a few seconds. The language of movement and stage appearance is so rigidly codified and delineated that a band has to assume an entire new cache of specific appearances, movements, gestures, etc. when they expand outside of genre limitations - in fact a change in appearance is one of the "accepted clues" that a band has "left behind" strict genre definitions. Notice that this effect of genre ambiguity is also brought about by a novice band not yet being able to adequately display the accepted language of movement and appearance. This is opposed in one's mind with the obvious sense of the completely traditional, impenetrable or unassailable genre or movement display of "veteran" bands who have all the moves down, all the appearances promulgated and internalized, all the imagery strictly controlled...the mastery of movement and imagery mirrors a mastery of the music form and a set place within the "scene" of other bands, the combined hierarchy of other artists...

It is by watching these "veterans" of the language of movement and stage appearance that the younger bands learn how to perform. Performing is a skill like any other, it has to be taught, absorbed, practiced, applied rigorously, enjoyed wholeheartedly, made to express in terms of symbolic movement the energizing/exhorting nature of the music itself, made to express, through the accepted language of movement, the codified/stock themes of the genre or art form. Each "new" performer or group is, in this sense, just a variation on what had come before (and often much less)...they display (supposedly) their own reflection on the accepted tradition of genre movement and the codified symbolism of action with each gesture at the same precise time they are "expressing" the "inner movement" of their own music. By steadfastly refusing this accepted tradition of performing language, of course, a band is often making a political/genre/scene gesture in its own right filled with symbolic import...they are declaring themselves to be "independent" of the entire codification process. By this point, however, such "refusals" are, in themselves, also completely traditional and have their own internal logic and rigidly determined laws for elaboration. The artist, in seeking an expressive series of movements and actions that will translate his/her beliefs to an audience (no matter what these "beliefs" are), almost always finds set before him an entire range of alternatives, a terminology of gestures, appearances, and acts gravid with easily-interpreted "meaning"...although this of course can also be an illusion, and he plays out his pantomime of "deeply held convictions" against a blank backdrop, through a ritualized series of movements and professions or addresses which signify nothing, in front of an audience that can not interpret a single thing he is trying to express and which - even if they could "understand" the symbolic import he is giving his movements - can not truly match their own experiences with his attempts at communication. They, perhaps, can only play along...and become that mirror of empty eyes that he hopes is not too judgmental in "accepting" his proffered attempts at bringing meaning across the barrier/chasm between selves, between a performer on a stage and an audience that empowers and enables him...an audience that may or may not have enabled the entire ritual for their own benefit, as a way of reminding themselves of what they supposedly hold dear, a display, once again, of those beliefs they somehow think separate them from a larger mass and give them a set identity. How ironic is it then...for the performer who tries to ritually "abstain" from genre/movement expressions and finds that he not only has entire tradition of "gestures of refusal" in front of him, but that he has been summoned before an audience expressly because they know he will refuse in this manner, and so express their own collective disdain for codified movement and symbolic language, a refusal that they have taken as the defining impetus of their identity and which segregates and isolates each individual (what is an individual? how does one know one is an "individual"?) in the audience...being summoned, in effect, to be used by an audience in order to mirror its own isolation through the medium of a stage-raised automaton of reflection?

U. Amtey
30 May 2004, 12:18 CST