Do You Really Know What Live Is?
Originally published on Tue September 18, 2012 5:26 pm
For a few minutes the other night, I thought I'd be going to see One Direction this Sunday. A dad I know sent me a text proposing that we bring our third-graders to Key Arena for the exceptionally mop-topped British boy band's Seattle show. He thought we could nab some tickets. I was pretty sure he had the dates wrong for the gig — I was aware of the rapid-fire sellouts for the One Direction tour, and the subsequent scheduling of new dates far in advance. But I was hoping against hope that I'd just overlooked this opportunity. It took a few exchanges to confirm that the One Direction show in question would in fact be happening in exactly one year — July 28, 2013. Parental fail! My kid didn't care that much, but I was really disappointed.
I've always loved going to tweenybopper concerts — even in the years between my own Andy Gibb fixation and my kid's realization that Justin Bieber and his ilk existed. The best thing about these shows isn't the scream therapy provided by thousands of overamped natural sopranos, or the chance for an embarrassing mom like myself to relive my own Tiger Beat days. It's the joy of witnessing first-time concertgoers learning how to love music being made right in front of them.
Some reading this may scoff at my suggestion that a One Direction concert is, in fact, a musical experience. Top 40 acts like this one often sing to prerecorded tracks and sometimes just mime their lyrics, especially when they're executing tricky dance moves. One Direction may or may not lip-sync — their fans certainly insist they don't — but I'd be shocked if they don't use some backing tracks and other electronic elements in their live shows. The New York Times critic Jon Pareles warned of the encroachment of this sort of thing on "real music" as far back as 1989, blaming the rising trend on MTV, but many people feel that the only right way for touring artists to make money is to cook it up from scratch every night.
It's a common assumption that pre-recorded elements make live music less meaningful. In summer, it's an oft-discussed issue, as major tours roam the continent and festivals send throngs into the sun or the muddy muck. Most recently, it played a small part in the remarkable profile of Bruce Springsteen written by The New Yorker editor David Remnick, which appears online and in the magazine this week.
The feature goes deep, and will certainly be anthologized; it's a great introduction to rock's ruling titan that also provides plenty of juicy detail for the seasoned fan. Just two things bother me about it. One is an aside suggesting that no Bon Jovi fan would thank that band for changing their lives, the way Boss fans do; obviously Remnick has never seen Jersey's other favorite sons at the Meadowlands. The other is a quote from sound engineer John Cooper: "This is about the only live music left, with a few exceptions," Cooper says of the E Street Band's legendary 3-hour-plus set.
One obvious problem with this point is that music gets made from scratch in venues smaller than arenas every day of the year. Bars, coffeehouses, hotel lounges — heck, even churches — feature musicians banging out live music on whatever limited technology they can afford. But that's not what Cooper's really talking about. His quote reinforces the truism that "real" music can't be made using certain machines: not just stereo systems playing backing tracks, but samplers and sequencers, the core tools for artists today. (Remnick notes that Springsteen does use one prerecorded element in concert: "a snare-drum sound in 'We Take Care of Our Own' that seemed to elude easy reproduction.")
For the record, I love the E Street Band; I kept on loving them even after I discovered, as a teenager, that Springsteen wasn't making up those amazing stories he tells before songs like "Rosalita" on the spot. One of the best things about Remnick's article for a fan like me is the insight it offers into how Springsteen created his traveling salvation show, and what he thinks of it after so many decades on the road. Spontaneity is a value for Springsteen, but only within a tight frame. In that way, he's like most musicians, finding ways to drive home his music's meaning through stylized performance and repetition.
As Remnick's article argues, every great arena show is a ritual that relies on artifice and repetition to drive home the meanings in an artist's music. Spontaneity is not the point for most artists once they've left the nightclub. (Exceptions: the Grateful Dead and, occasionally, Prince.)
What his beautifully written tribute to classic rock's top artist doesn't get across is that pop has fundamentally changed since the days when Springteen was playing the Stone Pony. The electronic beats and samples at the core of hip-hop and dance music are now fundamental songwriting tools. In mainstream music, the old divide between "real" and "fake" ("rock" and "disco," "authentic" and "plastic") has collapsed. Music is truly cyborgian, and live performance continues to evolve to accommodate this reality.
In some ways, this brave new world of DJs filling stadiums and divas more skilled in dance than in vocal emotion is a return to the beginnings of American pop. At the turn of the 20th century music was inseparable from theater and social dancing: the vaudeville stage made stars like Sophie Tucker and Al Jolson, and jazz bands drove big crowds into shimmying frenzies not totally unlike what you'd see at an EDM concert today. Virtuosos making music from scratch did gain their share of attention, but the focus was really on the interaction between performer and audience — the magic circle formed by a crowd responding to a charismatic performer.
In other ways, though, what's happening now is new. Never have computers played such a prominent and visible role in Top 40 pop. The girls who love One Direction are growing up with Ableton and Fruity Loops on their laptops, and making their own music using those programs. The dream of getting a guitar and learning how to make it talk isn't totally dead, but it's not the dominant one.
Does that mean there's no place for an old-fashioned sweat-it-out soul man like Springsteen? Certainly not. Actually, boy bands like One Direction (or the Jonas Brothers and Hanson before them) are often aggressive in preserving the image of the classic rock band, if not the reality. Justin Bieber gains credibility by strumming an acoustic guitar while floating around his concerts in a giant metallic heart. Lady Gaga makes a point of trotting out her piano and belting out a ballad in the middle of her Grand Guignol spectacles.
What I often find exciting now, though, are the artists who infuse their humanity into their relationships with machines. Last weekend I saw 24-year-old Claire Boucher, also known as Grimes, play during the sunset slot at Seattle's Capitol Hill Block Party. I didn't expect much: I'd never found a way into her recordings, which feature her doll-like high singing interwoven into Garage Band-rooted sound collages that just didn't hit me in the gut. Live, though, she fleshed out the music in ways I found surprisingly rich.
Flinging her whole body into the act of pushing buttons on her banks of synthesizers, Grimes presented herself as a kind of mad scientist — not an unusual stance for an electronic artist. But the aggressiveness and physical intensity of her performances, and of her now-growling, now-shrieking vocals, flipped the switch on the girlishness Grimes projects in her recordings. What might have come across as light and effervescent became contorted and almost frightening. Yet a sense of playfulness remained. Through her voice and her bodily engagement, Grimes was asking her audience to focus on the point where the plastic became human.
There's obviously room in pop for computer nerds like Grimes and guitar-slingers like Springsteen. I'd bet Bruce Springsteen would agree with this. After all, he's got three kids in college. One of them is probably fooling around making music on her computer right now.