Concert Fever and Musical Persona in a Quarantined Culture. Interview with Philip Auslander.

Door Tessa Vannieuwenhuyze, op Wed Mar 17 2021 23:00:00 GMT+0000

Now that crowded venues have become a distant reality and we are still stuck at home, bummed about the upcoming festival once again being cancelled, online gigs are meagre consolation. Although circumstances might seem a little unfortunate for the release of a book on music performance as a social interaction, Professor of Performance Studies Philip Auslander shows that the current cultural vacuum is not at all a bad moment to reflect on what music artists do besides producing sound live on stage.

Over the past three decades, Philip Auslander (Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, Georgia, USA) has written extensively about different performing arts in the context of performance theory. Since publishing Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture, which first came out in 1999 (2nd revised version in 2008), he has become an authority regarding the concept of ‘liveness’. In a day and age in which we are overwhelmed with live streaming events and online concert formats, what constitutes the category of the ‘live’ is more relevant than ever.

In his recently published book, In Concert: Performing Musical Persona, Auslander turns toward a related omnipresent phenomenon in popular culture, the musical persona. Music artists perform primarily their own social identities as musicians, he argues, and not just music. In essays written between 2003 and 2015 brought together as chapters in the book, Auslander assesses the self-presentations of musicians accomplished through social interaction. Auslander presents detailed analyses of eclectic case studies, ranging from Beatlemania to Nicki Minaj, in order to show that music is what musicians do. The pandemic has made it clearer than ever that musical performance is way more than music-making.

Philip Auslander

An audience who is only familiar with your argument within the performance ontology debate might wonder why you turn towards music in this book. What exactly is it that brought you to this theory of musical identity, the ‘musical persona’?

‘Why music? First of all, because I’ve been a music fan since I was about eight years old, which is when I started collecting records. The second reason is a disciplinary issue. At a certain point, I realized that there was a lack of discussion in theatre and performance studies about musicians as performers and, equally, a lack of concern about performance in traditional musicology. I am not certain whether what I want to do is to construct a bridge between those two fields, or work around the borderline. But I feel like there is a need for bringing these two areas into a dialogue. Throughout my career, I have always been equally interested in big picture cultural theory and close reading of performances. My work on musical persona is where these interests come together.’

‘My fundamental question was: if musicians are performers, what kind are they?’

‘Having used the notion of persona in different contexts, such as stand-up comedy and performance art, I think the term has broad applicability. My fundamental question was: if musicians are performers, what kind are they? Most of the time, music artists do not play fictional characters, so they aren’t actors. In my thinking, persona as a term means a performed entity that is somewhere between presenting yourself and presenting a fictional character. This led me to the theoretical framework of sociologist Erving Goffman; seeing music as a form of self-presentation rather than as a variety of acting has been a fruitful approach for me.’

One of your most famous statements is that the ‘live’ can only exist in opposition to the ‘non-live’, the mediatised. With all music events cancelled and postponed, the latter is all there is left for the time being. Do you think this period will bring about a major shift in our understanding of what ‘live’ means?

‘Implicitly, we compare what we can have right now, which is various kinds of recorded or mediatized performance, to what we can no longer access.’

‘I don’t think so. I originally proposed that ‘the live is formulated against the backdrop of mediatisation’. Liveness is always defined in contrast to its opposite. What I see happening now is a powerful nostalgia for live performance. In a way you could say the situation is still as I defined it, only in reverse: mediatisation is formulated against the backdrop of the live or, more precisely, its absence. Implicitly, we compare what we can have right now, which is various kinds of recorded or mediatized performance, to what we can no longer access and miss.’ ‘I don’t think the current situation is going to result in a fundamental reconception of live experiences. The perceived value of live performance in traditional terms is more powerful than it ever was now that we have been deprived of it. I don’t like to make predictions, but once live performance becomes possible again, I foresee a flood of eager audiences. During the first phase of the pandemic, I kept track of what was being said about liveness and the absence of concerts. Dave Grohl from Foo Fighters, for example, wrote an impassioned text about the wonderful thing that is a live concert. And that was still relatively early on. I pretty quickly got the sense that a nostalgia for the live was settling in, and it remains the dominant feeling.’

On several occasions you have emphasized how music is much more continuous with ordinary life than other performing arts. There are numerous occasions in which we experience music outside a concert setting. Is this why we are seeing an explosion of online music alternatives nowadays, compared to for example, dance and theatre?

‘The notion of an audience as a community is not at all dependent on what it is that you are watching.’

‘The only people that I have come across that are not up for performing at all if it cannot happen live are in theatre. This might be because a satisfactory online equivalent seems to them to be impossible. In music, by contrast, the recorded form is a well-established and accepted version, whereas this is rarely the case for other performing arts. Watching theatre on television is still ‘not good enough’ in the minds of many theatre lovers, while listening to recorded music is, even though we understand that it does not provide the same experience as a live performance. Theatre and performance art have a deep, and I think irrational, suspicion of the recorded event, which I address in my book Reactivations: Essays on Performance and Its Documentation (2018). I happen to be working on a third version of Liveness right now, and I had to think about one particular situation. I recently watched the musical Hamilton in its televised version, and I was wondering, can I say that I have seen it?’

Maybe you have experienced it in one way or another, but you have not ‘seen’ it?

‘Well, I would say that I have seen it. (laughs) But I believe that many theatre lovers and scholars would say that I have not. This is what the debate is about, indeed.’

From my sofa to yours

Online alternatives are either shows that were made on purpose for online viewing, or recorded versions of earlier music performance - with or without an audience. Do you see a parallel between your use of sociologist Erving Goffman’s framework for discussing jazz music – where audiences have to conform to a certain suspension of disbelief regarding whether or not musicians are actually improvising as the genre prescribes -, and audiences currently being more willing to act ‘as if’ attending a live show?

‘I think so. We may be willing to take these events as approximating performances we would otherwise physically attend. The key is being able to have a sense that you are part of an audience, that you are not alone. The Internet is actually a one-to-one medium. It appears to be a broadcast medium, but it really isn’t. It does not send out signals that people can receive. Rather you send out a signal and establish an individual connection with a website or stream. So, on a technological basis, it is really one-to-one. But livestreams and watch parties can give you the feeling that you are watching together with others, especially when you can communicate with your fellow audience members through chat. Creating a sense of a collective audience is crucial to imbuing a live-streamed or recorded event with liveness.’

‘Recorded or live-streamed events are contextualized in ways that make them seem to be live.’

‘A small theatre company in Chicago, Theater Wit, recorded a show at the beginning of the pandemic and treated it as an event: you bought a ticket to see a specific production of a play at a specific time, albeit online. What really caught my interest was that they limited the number of tickets they sold to 90. The actual theatre in Chicago has 90 seats, which they were replicating online. This way you get the sense of occasion even though the performance is recorded: you cannot watch it whenever you want. Assuming there was no chat function available, this too would reinforce the sense that you are participating in a traditional theatrical event by imposing conventional theatre etiquette on the audience. There is also the idea – and it is an idea – that only you and 89 other people are watching the event online. It creates a frame for a sense of participation in a specific event with a specific group at a specific time. This is why watch parties are proliferating during this pandemic. It goes back to something I said in the first edition of Liveness: the notion of an audience as a community is not at all dependent on what it is that you are watching. It has to do with the perceived liveness of the audience, not of the performance.’

‘Recorded or live-streamed events are contextualized in ways that make them seem to be live. The easiest way is to limit access, making a recorded concert available for only 48 hours for example, urging you to watch it immediately. The sense of ephemerality created this way emphasizes the real-time aspect and allows the viewer to feel like they are being part of a collective gathered for a specific event. The chat function also plays a fairly big role in all of this. It enables you to engage in conversation with others watching, even more so than you would be allowed to do in an actual concert.’

Have you watched any of the online alternatives yourself? And how do you experience them, both from the perspective of a performance studies scholar and as a music fan?

‘A recorded concert can be reframed as an event that is unfolding in the here and now, and of which you become a part as a viewer.’

‘It is an occupational hazard that it is almost impossible for me to watch anything without analysing it! I stumbled onto a concert on YouTube by Phil Lesh from the Grateful Dead and his Terrapin Family Band. The concert had been filmed on March 16, 2018 at the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, New York. It was streamed on Zoom on May 7, 2020 with live commentary from some of the musicians on the experience of doing the concert. During the song ‘Truckin’’, you could see people in their homes watching the streaming concert and dancing to the music. At one point, the singer was in the box in the middle of the Zoom frame surrounded by fans at home as if they were his audience, even though he was recorded and they were responding in real time. In the next moment, the Zoom grid was replaced entirely by a shot from the concert film showing the audience at the Capitol Theatre, juxtaposing two audiences responding to the same event at different times. And of course, the whole thing was recorded, including yet another layer of participation: chat from the audience that watched the stream in May 2020. The resulting artefact is multi-layered and complex, like a palimpsest. It is a sophisticated example of how a recorded concert can be reframed as an event that is unfolding in the here and now, and of which you become a part as a viewer, while simultaneously being in the past, as the presence of the musicians commenting on their own performances makes clear.’

‘Andrea Bocelli’s YouTube livestream also really stuck with me. To see him singing in the empty Duomo in Milan, then stepping out into the deserted piazza, was both moving and very reflective of the situation at the time, a reaction to the reality of the moment. The livestream was not just about seeing Bocelli sing – his lone voice in the massive urban space spoke to how people were feeling. It was sort of therapeutic, but at the same time a powerful reflection on the feeling of isolation that people needed therapy for. I had a similar feeling when I watched the Kronos Quartet performing at Stanford University. It was shot in a concert hall without an audience, with cameras moving around the masked musicians and emphasizing the extra space between them due to social distancing, which strongly communicated a similar sense of isolation. These concerts were not just occasions to hear musicians perform; they really engaged with the situation under which the performance was taking place.’

Pop artist Dua Lipa was praised for her livestream Studio 2054, an online alternative for the concert tour that would have accompanied her new album. One review of the event reported on how Dua Lipa acknowledges the difference between a live concert and a recording of it, which is why she approached it as a 40-minute-long music video instead. I found this remarkable: it resonates with my observation that music videos, and in line with that, social media, have been taking centre stage in the construction of a musical persona. Do you agree with this?

‘Music video is the perfect venue for performing a musical persona per se.’

‘Generally, I do. These platforms liberate the artist from having to play or sing. Ultimately there is much greater control over the visual aspect of the presentation than you have in a live performance. So, in that sense, yes. Music video is the perfect venue for performing a musical persona per se, as a thing that is an entity unto itself. Some of the best examples of the performance of persona that I have come across come from music videos. I refer to Suzi Quatro in the book and to a music video by country musician Darius Rucker, which is a complicated negotiation of African-American identity in the context of country music, a genre generally associated with whiteness. Although somewhat indirectly, the video addresses questions surrounding Rucker’s identity to a greater extent than a Darius Rucker concert ever would. Videos provide a different space where different questions can be dealt with. These questions might be implicit, not necessarily in the music itself, but certainly in the social context surrounding the artist, the performance, and the genre.’

Audience interaction is essential for an accomplished self-presentation as a musician. Social media provide the possibility of simultaneously offering a form of intimacy and keeping distance to uphold a certain star image, which you explain with Goffman’s concept of ‘social distance’ from The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1956). Given the current circumstances, social distance has taken on a different meaning. Do you think it will affect the prevailing para-social activity between fans and artists?

‘I think the basic difference, which goes to the core of Goffman, is that the social distance we are currently experiencing is enforced. The normal social distance that performers maintain from their audiences is the result of a tacit agreement on both sides. I am not enough of a social media scholar to say whether or not the apparent intimacy between performers and their audiences that social media seems to offer has had the effect of making audiences think that they should now have even greater access to the performer.’

‘Maintaining a public image is always a balancing act between seemingly revealing the intimate truth, or the backstage version of you, and maintaining distance from the audience. The little Christmas records the Beatles made for their fan clubs in the early 1960s were already creating the effect of revelation and intimacy on the part of the music artist whilst maintaining mystification and social distance. Those recordings gave a peek of the Beatles being informal and fooling around, which was, of course, entirely scripted. If you go back even further in time, to Hollywood in the 1930s and 40s, gossip magazines claimed to provide glimpses into the stars’ real lives. Social media continues this phenomenon, which takes different forms at different times.’

‘Maintaining a public image is always a balancing act between seemingly revealing the intimate truth, or the backstage version of you, and maintaining distance from the audience.’

‘What has become more prevalent, though, thanks to the pandemic, is the genre of the informal ‘at home’ video, where you get to see the music artist performing in their living room. One of my personal favourites is a post Steve Winwood made of himself playing the piano in his living room. It feels like he is opening his home to you. But this is not without precedent. You could place it next to a video fragment of Arthur Rubinstein from the 1950s, another of my favourites. Dressed in formal wear, he sits very erect at a piano in the incredibly elegant drawing room of his apartment while playing Chopin for three formally dressed couples. Another example is the Glenn Gould 1959 short documentary Off the Record, where you see him hanging out in his lakeside cottage. It is that era’s version of the intimate view of the music performer at home. So again, the highly constructed intimate domestic view of the performer is nothing new.’

Steve Winwood

All the world’s a music stage

The basic premise of ‘performing an identity in a social realm as a musician’ has been extremely prominently present lately. Lana del Rey wore a controversial mesh facemask during a signing, but also Ariel Pink and John Maus participated in the Trump rally at the Capitol, for which the former was dropped by his record label a few days later. You tend to emphasise how a star persona should at all times align with the musical persona of a music artist. Is this a case where the identity claim of an indie, lo-fi musician is not successfully negotiated in relation to the boundaries implied by genre conventions?

‘I think that is absolutely the case. Any given genre has a set of values, an ideology associated with it. You mention Ariel Pink, but as I said before, country music is a good example of how genre has always connected to certain demographics. In the early 00s, The (Dixie) Chicks proved to be too politically liberal for country music, so they were basically kicked out of the genre. In a similar context, travel writer Rick Steves recently brought up how country artist Garth Brooks put his career at risk by performing at President Biden’s inauguration this year. Value questions are very much part of an affiliation with a genre. If you cross an ideological line, you’ll take the heat for it, even to the degree of being rejected from the genre by the fans and the industry itself.’

Which, once again, shows how musicians do way more than make music indeed. They embody something else, which is connected to persona. Within musical persona, you identify three layers: the real person, the performance persona and fictional characters. An artist like Nicki Minaj moves from one fictional character to another, you say, which you then contrast with Lady Gaga’s musical persona, something that fluctuates itself. How is this different from a metapersona, a term you introduce for individual personae that emerge under different performative circumstances, but cannot be performed directly?

‘Lady Gaga is a different kind of metapersona, an umbrella under which different manifestations of identity take place.’

‘I originally developed the concept of musical metapersona for cases in which an artist performs in different genres and therefore has different genre-specific personae. These personae cannot be performed simultaneously, but the audience’s awareness that David Amram, for instance, is both a classical composer and musician and a jazz player colors its perception of his persona in each context. It makes sense to extend the concept to the entity called Lady Gaga, which is a different kind of metapersona, an umbrella under which different manifestations of identity take place. Comparing Gaga and Minaj, it struck me that while Minaj is clearly recognizable in her many guises, this is not the case for Lady Gaga. Each of her personae looked like a different person at a time when it was not even clear what Stefani Germanotta (Lady Gaga’s birth name) actually looks like.’

One could argue that social media has obfuscated clear-cut distinctions between the different layers you define. But when you observe that the name ‘David Bowie’ not only belongs to a performance persona but has also merged with the real person in a pre-Internet era, it does not seem that different.

‘David Bowie is a key figure. He was not necessarily the first one to be self-conscious about persona; plenty of artists were already aware of the fact that what you see on stage is a construct. He was, however, one of the first ones to thematize this idea. He addressed it directly and worked with it. What I try to bring out in the book is that the lines between real persona, performance persona and character are never that clear. There is always a potential to blur those lines, intentionally or unintentionally. In the case of Bowie, I think he was doing it very intentionally; in other cases, it is not necessarily all that clear-cut.’

‘Social media enables music artists to represent themselves in different ways at the same time.’

‘It is sometimes hard to pinpoint what is coming from which layer. Goffman emphasizes that the different parts of self-presentation need to be coherent, which made me a little too insistent in the beginning on the monolithic quality of the persona. Musical persona is better understood as an entity that is itself made up of different layers, which are not necessarily always in harmony with one another. I bring in some examples of this, such as Jimi Hendrix’s seemingly becoming tired of performing his persona at a certain point and communicating that through his performances. There can be tensions within the persona and there can be different ways of performing the persona, which suggest different degrees of identification of the performer with the persona.’

Before it might have been common that characters made their appearance in music videos or single songs, performance personae in interviews and public events, while the ‘real’ person stayed behind closed doors. Social media nowadays has brought everything onto one platform, it seems.

‘Ostentatious disregard of the audience is in itself theatrical’

‘You have a point. There is an ongoing argument about spectacle overtaking pop music performance, which I often get asked about. What I find remarkable in the case of Lady Gaga is that if you need to be assured that Gaga has traditional musical skills, you can easily find old videos in which she plays the piano or fronts a rock band. Different phases of her career are all available, so if you are not particularly fond of Gaga the spectacular pop performer, well, there is also Gaga the singer-songwriter. If she weren’t happy about this aspect of herself being available online, I am pretty sure she could get it taken down. My guess is she is happy for this material to remain available precisely because it presents her in various ways that can potentially connect her with different types of audiences. It keeps her archive, her historical record, present. Social media enables music artists to represent themselves in different ways at the same time.’

You speak in terms of theatricality as a significant variable in the construction of musical personae. Why not performativity, as Gaga’s multiple presentations seem to hint at a strong performance in the other sense of the word?

‘When I use the word “performativity”, I try to use it in the sense language philosopher J. L. Austin introduced it, “doing things with words.” I use this term in contexts such as my discussions of performance documentation where I am concerned with what documentation does. I recognize the problem with the term ‘performative’: since there is no other adjectival form of the word performance in English, the term performative seems to have been shifted away from its original linguistic context. It has suffered the same fate as a term such as deconstruction.’

‘All musicians, by definition, have a persona. Performing a persona is what they do.’

‘Theatricality is a relative concept, however. For example, modern jazz, after the Second World War, seemed anti-theatrical. Musicians were extremely reserved, completely self-absorbed, and unaware of the audience. However, ostentatious disregard of the audience is in itself theatrical, which means that anti-theatricality can also be a form of theatricality. Anti-theatricality can be so exaggerated that it becomes theatrical again.’

From jazz music to Lana del Rey is probably a bit of a brusque shift, but this ambiguous understanding of theatricality reminds me of her claiming, as an artist with a carefully curated theatrical image, that she ‘has never had a persona and will never need one’.

‘Where, when, and from whom a particular kind of music comes, tells us a lot. We cannot just throw all of that away.’

‘A statement like that is absurd on its face, or presumably strategic. She is trying to make a claim to some kind of authenticity. All musicians, by definition, have a persona. Performing a persona is what they do. I don’t mean to be too glib about this, but obviously saying “I don’t have a persona” is in itself a performance of a persona. Even musicians in a pit orchestra have a persona, though the audience for that persona is not the one in the auditorium. The musical persona is a special case of self-presentation. From that perspective, it is not possible to say, “I don’t have a persona”. It is equivalent to saying, “I don’t have a self”. The actual question here is: what is she doing by saying this, and what kind of persona does she construct through this strategy?’

In the introduction of the book, you assess how Gen Z artists’ (Billie Eilish, Nas X) are being described as transcending the notion of genre altogether, which you find rather questionable. In one of the last essays, you visualize how different bands have approached the genre of original 1950s rock ‘n roll in the past, placing them on a continuum between modernist authorship and postmodern pastiche, between authenticity and inauthenticity. I would like to bring those two observations together for my final question: do you think we arrived in a post-authenticity era outside this continuum, where conventions, categories and frames have completely collapsed?

‘People will make this claim, but there’s a difference between the claim and the reality. It becomes very difficult to talk about anything if we are post-genre. It means you cannot describe music at all, because describing it means using genre categories, at least in part. One of the reasons I object to doing away with genre categories is that the history of music, the social history, is embedded in these categories. You dismiss all of that when you claim that genres don’t matter. It’s about the history of the blues: where the blues came from, who the blues came from… I find it important to keep that in sight. Where, when, and from whom a particular kind of music comes, tells us a lot. We cannot just throw all of that away; we need those categories to think.’

‘If there is something we can call the postmodern era, I am not convinced that it has ended.’

‘I am sure some people believe we are post-genre, post-persona. Again, these statements become examples of the thing they are trying to refute or dismiss. I used to be quite happy to talk about postmodernism, and in some ways, I still am. I understand postmodernism as a cultural configuration that is identifiably different from what came before it. But I have to say I am not convinced that we have moved past postmodernity yet. I’ve flirted with the idea of hypermodernity, because it seems to have some utility with respect to artists like Lady Gaga. Nevertheless, if there is something we can call the postmodern era, I am not convinced that it has ended.’