Thursday, August 18, 2016

Music + Biography

Music and biography, specifically the connection between them, has come up a few times here at the Music Salon. An article in the Wall Street Journal lures me back to the topic: In Concert, Adele Talks Nearly as Much as She Sings.
During every concert on her current 88-date tour, Adele delivers a version of the same disclaimer to her audience. “I better warn you. I do talk a lot,” she said last Saturday night in Los Angeles. “I have 10 songs and the rest is chat.”
In fact, Adele performed 16 songs that night, but she was true to her word. The powerhouse singer devoted about an hour to music (68 minutes), and spent almost as much time (41 minutes) on banter.
This is a common element in a lot of popular music. Country and folk artists have long spun us yarns and the occasional jocular remark. One of the best performances of this kind I have seen was at a B. B. King concert in Montreal about twenty-five years ago. He started talking about a relationship he had with a woman and how it had gone wrong. This went on for several minutes until he said his final words to her, ending the relationship: "the thrill is gone!" The band immediately launched into his big hit of the same name. I should have seen it coming, but it was adroitly done and until he actually said those words I didn't know what song he was introducing:

I can't find a performance on YouTube with a spoken introduction like the one I heard--I assume that they typically just cut them off. This leads to the point I want to make: everything you do onstage, including bantering with the audience, is part of the performance which means that it is as available to be critiqued as the tuning and the drummer's sense of tempo.

Here is another excerpt from the WSJ article:
More than her sales figures, Adele’s loquaciousness speaks to the unique nature of her stardom. While tear-jerking songs like “Someone Like You” and “Hello” hit listeners on an emotional level, her candid chat helps them relate to her as a person. Some fans upload video clips that focus exclusively on between-song banter. In Minnesota, she cackled with laughter about a Burger King dish called Mac N’ Cheetos (“How can I not eat that?”). In London, she described the uncomfortable state of the thong under her gown. She described how she has cut back on her drinking, recalling a night in Barcelona when she painted a hotel bathroom red after drinking “12 jugs of sangria.” Recurring themes include her plus-size figure, the highs and lows of raising her 3-year-old son, and the self-doubt she felt while writing new music (“The songs were sh—”) after a long hiatus.
Go read the whole thing. They link to a number of clips of her chatting between songs and inviting fans onstage: sometimes to sing!

 Adele's talk during her concerts is rather different from, say, the B. B. King song intro: it is random details from her biography. The idea seems to be to enhance an intimate connection:
For Kristin Johnston, who spent $375 on the resale market for her ticket to one of three sold-out concerts in Chicago last month, Adele’s banter made the performance seem “intimate”—despite the fact that Ms. Johnston was seated with her sister near the roof of the 23,000-seat United Center arena.
“I enjoyed hearing about her life and the stories behind the songs,”
 This poses a bit of a conundrum for me as my basic position is that the biography of the musician has nothing substantial to do with the music itself. I was particularly critical of the whole idea in this post: Mozart's Family Life. I made my point more strongly in this post: Psycho-music-history. But it seems as if every Adele concert is a repudiation of my theory. Or is it?

I suppose there are a couple of approaches available. I could question the psychological theory underlying the claims, as I did with the book on Mozart by Maynard Solomon, but Adele isn't presenting any kind of psychological theory, she is just telling us about her thong. Perhaps her approach works because it contradicts the prevailing tendency in pop music, which is to idealize and glorify the artists, presenting them as divas far above the quotidian world:

Beyoncé as Marie Antoinette

In a context where most artists are remote goddesses, presenting yourself to the audience as Everywoman, sharing the concerns and foibles of her audiences, is actually excellent marketing! Adele tends to play both sides of the street, though, as she is also a remote diva, extremely concerned with her appearance and earning enormous amounts of money. According to Forbes, so far in 2016 she has earned over $80 million dollars. And she has radically changed her appearance from the dowdy figure of her early years to the demigoddess of today:

Whatever she is doing is working as her concerts are all sold out. We could try and look at some songs to see if they do have some relation to her life in anything other than a trivial sense. But I'm not sure that it would be worth the effort. Beyoncé, in her latest effort, seems to be making the whole thing about her private life--which is no longer private, of course. But I have to admit to a certain amount of cynicism as to whether, again, it is sincere or just marketing. Presenting yourself as a victim these days seems to be the standard practice for both political pressure groups and performing artists.

In an odd sort of way this phenomenon seems to be the reverse of the age-old tradition of the story-teller and songsmith surrounded by listeners at the campfire. In that tradition, the artist spins tales of glory and fantasy:

Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns
driven time and again off course, once he had plundered
the hallowed heights of Troy.

--opening lines of The Odyssey, trans. Robert Fagles

But today, the artist, alone on stage (save for a few spear-carriers called "the band"), lit by thousands of watts of glory, attended by an audience of tens of thousands, instead of spinning tales of gods and goddesses (she is herself a secular goddess) tells us about her thong and how she likes mac 'n cheese.

The 21st century is turning out differently than how I had imagined...


Craig said...

I think the music/biography relationship has to be conceived differently when the music is basically about self-expression, as it is Adele's music (I presume) and in much pop music. When the songs are about specific biographical episodes, or are written to express the feelings of the songwriter in particular circumstances, one's interest in the song quite naturally bleeds over into interest in the circumstances that produced it.

Of course, it's still possible to treat the song simply as an aesthetic object, sans biography, but for "confessional" pop songwriters that can start to seem artificial.

There is also the problem that, musically, most of these songs are impoverished, so sometimes the biographical stuff becomes interesting in lieu of musical interest.

Bryan Townsend said...

Um, isn't all art self-expression? But not in this exact way, perhaps. I think that it is a fundamental reality of art/music that as soon as you open your mouth and sing, you are in a different realm--even in pop music. The act of making music frames what you are doing as no longer conversation (and it is not conversation with only one person talking) but expression. As expression music, like any art, moves away from the quotidian to the transcendent. In the case of Mozart, very transcendent. In the case of Adele, she has 23,000 people listening to her sing about heartbreak because the music universalizes the experience turning it from a simple chat over drinks: "I'm so unhappy, we broke up!" into a universal lament of human tragedy. Sure, I'm exaggerating a bit to make the point. But would anyone pay $375 for a ticket to listen to Adele just chat? Nope. It is the singing that makes the banter seem worth listening to because it is banter coming from someone who just sang a song about heartbreak.

Thanks, Craig. This didn't come clear to me until I read your comment!