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When a Listener Becomes an Audience, Must a Recording Act Become a Performer? (Notes from a Radio Orphan, Part I)

12 December 2006

There are two kinds of audiences—-those who discover music primarily through recordings (and videos), and those who discover music primarily through live shows. It’s probably easy to prove that there are far more of the former in contemporary America (if not necessarily Canada), and that this could prove how mass culture has overtaken local culture during the 20th century. Sure, there are exceptions, those “raised in musical families,” or those who find in hip hop the natural expression of a particular inner city ‘hood,’ etc. But when you’re raised on the radio and other mass culture media – regardless of whether you live in the country, a small town, the suburbs, or even in a large city – and you genuinely love that music you’re being fed, as if it can pierce and ‘speak to you’ more deeply than any elementary music school class, the boring hymns of the white church, the dusty municipal bands, etc., well, it makes it kind of hard to not feel like a hypocrite if you were to lament, or seek an alternative to, the way local culture has largely been supplanted by mass culture. Essentialist notions of authenticity no longer seem applicable when electronic means of reproducing and disseminating the most soul-stirring music become naturalized to the point that we can’t exactly imagine a life without it, even if it increasingly seems inadequate as we become adults.

One of the advantages of the mass cultural art form called “popular music” (including “semi-popular” music) was that it seemed to compensate for, or even allow us to transcend, the isolation and alienation we felt without it. In our lonely rooms, verbally articulate musicians become heroes as the songs had plenty of time to sink in, groove by groove, and give us glimpses of an alternative or a hope—not so much that we could be like them someday, but that we could be more like ourselves someday (or, at the very least, not any less).

Because of what these mass-cultural musicians gave us through recordings, when we became musicians ourselves, it would never be enough to perform music live. We knew we could only pay back the debt by making records. This wasn’t because we thought we sounded better in the studio, with all its ‘enhancements’; it wasn’t a technical issue—but rather because we wanted to create an art as beautiful, fun, and crucial as that which got us through our adolescent loneliness and helped us find others with which to share the fine frenzy or wonder that even the saddest and most desperate songs could bring forth. KURT COBAIN could sing “Come As You Are” and, hell, we didn’t even have to dress up in thrift shop chic to feel invited into his ‘home’ as the warm guitars blared as we rocked furiously in our bed.

Later, I began to feel duped by this process. The mass culture music industry, which I loved and had been so loyally a consumer and student of, began to seem less an alternative to the isolation and alienation but more of a collaborator with, co-creator of, it. Downtowns died because of the radio, TV, internet, and so on. The freedom the car promised just created the suburbs that made more people suspicious of each other.

We couldn’t go back to the past, but we could go to the city—which seemed closer to the source, especially now that we were 21 and could finally go to the ‘shows’ that serve as the social glue or hub for the mythical local scenes (which we had first heard about through mass culture) we felt we could be a more intimate, integral, part of –especially compared to those arena shows where even bands we genuinely loved (and didn’t consider ‘sellouts’) so often paled before the recorded artifact. We shelled out at least twice as much money for a show as for an album, crowded like sardines as if at a rally for some global political or religious figure—-and despite the crowdedness, it wasn’t like it was made it any easier to meet people there.

In the city it was different. The wall between performer and audience, as well as people in the audience, was much easier to smash, and even if these shows were being ignored by the mass media, we knew it was at least as good. Yes, it could still happen today. Hell, it may even be the beginnings of a kind of revolution and we could get in at the ground level. We could form our own bands to do shows. Mass culture could thus be seen in a new perspective, a better perspective, as it shrunk to a size of a dot on a TV screen just turned off, a ghost powerless to haunt us. This felt great, except for one thing: the local scene didn’t care about the art form of the album as much as we do. It cared about the show, the performance, and we still cared about the album. We needed to find a balance, but it starts feeling the local music scene is out of whack because it doesn’t make room for the solitary aspects of the musical experience, or at least the recorded music we loved (like LOU REED having to leave the ANDY WARHOL factory in order to do “Pale Blue Eyes,” “I’m Set Free,” or “Jesus” and how we needed this at least as much as White Light,/White Heat).

Perhaps it isn’t that we wanted to be alone so much as it is that the art of songwriting requires it. With CONTINUOUS PEASANT (Mock I), I placed more emphasis on the album as an art object than I did on our live performances. Not that we didn’t have some amazing live performances (the other members of the band seemed to be more into that than recording and they did a pretty good job of convincing me so we found a pretty good balance), but, since songwriting is a largely solitary activity separate from band rehearsals, I imagined my primary audience as the solitary person listening. I still don’t think there’s anything wrong with this desire in and of itself. In fact, in a time and place where notions of “local culture” are like a second skin grafted onto a more primary “mass culture” mentality, in part because of the “suburbanization” (or decentralization) of America and in part due to the fact that most clubs that play new bands are small and make their money serving alcohol, which (despite fake I.D.s) largely prevents many “under-agers” from discovering exciting new musical acts except through mass culture (even “word of mouth” often can be traced back to a root in mass culture), it may be a necessity.

The problem arises, however, when one lacks access to the means of cultural production. Simply put, it’s more common and generally easier for a lower-class musician to develop a local reputation through live shows than it is to develop a mass-cultural reputation through recordings. Conventional wisdom claims that the former is a pre-condition for the latter. The success of my old band,THE SILVER JEWS, is a rare exception to this, yet, lacking such fortune that allows me access to the cultural middleman of mass culture, I now feel that in order to continue to make music, (saving a reincarnation of an ALBERT GROSSMAN or JOHN HAMMOND), I must forget about the solitary listener, alas, and with it, the ideal of the well-crafted song—-at least for the time being. Once again, the local scene, and the hope of an extended musical family, is all there is.

This doesn’t necessarily have to lower the quality of the music if one can find an extended musical family that may consciously realize the implications of the fact that all of us, whether we like it or not, are products of the mass-cultural ‘virtual community’; that we were listeners before we were audiences even if we must be performers before we can get out records heard regularly in ‘far away’ places (by people who may have more in common with us than our neighbors do). But even if I can’t jump around on stage and rock out so much these days, maybe the extrovert youth energy scenes can make still make a room for the groggy crooner piano tunesmith who may be crippled for life but who still can’t say “no” to the dream.