Sunday, October 09, 2005

On-stage production techniques go nuts; I don't

My first thought when I walked into the Jamie Lidell show was that I was happy that there were seats. The rightness of this idea, and the deeper truth of it, was revealed to me with the show's duration. I actually like Lidell's Multiply, despite the fact that it's a 1+1 genre-melding exercise, more match-up than mash-up, strictly delineated and something like the musical equivalent of a tv dinner tray; no peas in my apple cobbler and vice versa. My problem with his live show is the same as any show involving a dude and his table full of electronics gear: unless that dude is going to lay down serious beats and be mostly ignored by a roomful of dancing people, I'm not going to hang out and watch it.
Last night I played at a singer-songwriter showcase. Before 2000 the singer-songwriter was the most self-indulgent thing anyone could see onstage in a musical context (Performance artists are the single most self-indulgent thing onstage or off in any context). But now there is a new expectation from musicians that their audience should be utterly enraptured by their knob-turning and experimental Xaos pad-tweaking, that that should qualify as a show. I am not enraptured. If I was sitting in a friend's living room, stoned, and they busted out their one man band looped beatboxing project, I would probably be blown away, but I spent over half of Lidell's show trying to check the time on my phone without getting busted by the guy who caught me doing that about 20 minutes into it. I will admit that a dude beatboxing house beats instead of rap ones is a novel idea, but not one that can sustain my interest. Lidell's schtick is that he does half a dozen things at once: beatboxing, singing, tapping out soft-synth beats, playing a little keyboard. It takes a lot of concentration, and I doubt that I could do what he does. The thing is, I don't go to a show to watch someone concentrating. The best concerts that I've seen involve very little concentration on the part of the performer. Either they're too fucking good at playing their instrument or they don't give a fuck and spend most of their time onstage drinking and/or inciting the crowd and/or doing bodily damage to themselves. The performer's freedom from what the technical aspects of what they are doing onstage provides the transcendence that we as an audience do or should demand from a performance. Jamie Lidell's constant multitasking came off more like someone trying to catch up on their email before a meeting than anyone providing entertainment to anyone.
A share of the blame for performances like this come from the inevitable perfectionism that is the outcome of music's computerization. 808s begat Pro Tools which begat a demand, starting with producers and record labels, through musicians, unto the audience, of perfect beat-matched tempos and exact edits, whether in the studio or onstage. Anyone doubting the validity of a performer singing along to a pre-sequenced cd or computer file seems like a Luddite now, and even singers with session backing bands are expected to deliver on-the-dot renditions of their studio recordings. (Did you see Kelly Clarkson doing "Since U Been Gone" on Saturday Night Live? It totally blew my mind because someone seemed to have let the band go and let them do all the feedback and skronk that the song needed to reveal its debt to the Pixies' first two records. It felt super loose and electric and amazing. Seriously.)
The rest of the blame, albeit a concentrated and distilled part of it, lies in the current solipsistic nature of music in our present times. Genres and sub-genres inspired by techno and hip-hop have been a fertile culture for the reproduction and amplification of the cult of personality that superstar DJs and cribs-flaunting rappers developed, losing all sight of the crowd-pleasing elements that both styles of music were built on. When producers become superstars, we're supposed to be enthralled by the act of watching producers produce, a "look at me" tricksterism that's assumed to be entertaining.
I'd rather watch dudes do wheelies. In middle school there were always guys around busting wheelies on their BMXs on the sidewalk in front of the school for any audience who happened to be around for it. You could tell that, just like these me-and-my-Pro-Tools "performers" they had spent a lot of time working out their tricks in private, making all their mistakes where nobody could see them and waiting for the time for them to bust it out and impress everybody. The difference is that a good block-long wheelie on a BMX is like poetry made out of physics, every bit as enthralling and amazing as any modern dance you could cite, with a greater chance of blood being spilled for the sake of the performance.
The other difference between wheelies and watching a guy twiddling knobs is that a wheelie takes up 20 seconds of my time at best, and at the end of it I'd clap my hands and scream out for them to do it again.

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