Thursday, October 9, 2008

Just Wanna Play with You

I don't know why I love listening to pop music so much, but I guess one reason why I love to go to pop music concerts it's because it's an accepted space where grown adult people act completely ridiculous and over-the-top. And I don't mean me - I mean the performers. I love the way they behave completely differently from what we would expect of ordinary people - they way they are putting on a performance that has only a fairly tenuous link with reality.

One aspect of pop music as performance that does seem to carry over, every so often, into the music itself is the idea of singer as playing a role. For whatever reason, first-person confessional is by far the most common mode for pop music lyrics. I think that listeners and songwriters definitely realize that this can easily be fictional; although many of the songs I listen to apparently refer actual events in the writer's biography, many of them don't, and the same is true for people who listen to very different music than I. Nonetheless, even when writing about fictional events or emotions, the writer still tends to use "you" and "I." But some writer/performers take this a bit further and end up constructing an entirely fictional character whom they explicitly play on the stage, and who has at least something to do with the lyrics they write. The most famous example of this is, of course, David Bowie and Ziggy Stardust.

I find this fascinating - but then, I always like to think about people who are pretending to be other people; it's one of my favorite topics. For over a decade now, I guess, I've been creeped out by the actual song "Ziggy Stardust." Bowie, singing this song onstage, was performing in the role of Ziggy Stardust but somehow simultaneously singing a song from the first-person point-of-view of another character ("we were Ziggy's band" clearly indicates that the singer is a member of Ziggy's band, not Ziggy himself). The lyrics of the song, to at least some extent, involve the narrator expressing his somewhat ambivalent feelings towards Ziggy - but the person singing the song is in the role of Ziggy himself - Ziggy is ventroloquizing his own band members' somewhat negative attitudes towards him! I just find that soooooo creepy!

Right now, Kevin Barnes is taking on the role of "black she-male" Georgie Fruit. And yet we know this is just a role - I don't think he's constantly playing Georgie Fruit the way Bowie probably was always playing Ziggy in that stage of his career, and certainly not all of the lyrics on Skeletal Lamping could possibly be Georgie's. I continue to find this role-playing fascinating. In particular, at the beginning of "Death Is Not a Parallel Move," Kevin sings? raps?, "All of my thoughts come from a foreign host. I feel just like a ghost." The rest of the song would seemingly be sung from Kevin's own point of view - Kevin must be addressing his family when he sings "lille venn" - it apparently means "little friend," a term he commonly uses when singing about his family, in Norwegian, his wife's native language. But surely "all of my thoughts come from a foreign host" must be Georgie talking? After all, it's Kevin's body and brain that are the foreign host for Georgie, and it's Kevin who's actually the creator of the Georgie persona. A casual listener might think that the line involves Kevin expressing his anxiety about his thoughts coming from Georgie, but this seems highly implausible to me, as Georgie has no actual body of his own. And so we come across something as creepy in its own way as what David Bowie sung in "Ziggy" - Kevin is ventroloquizing the fictional Georgie Fruit's discomfort with their* own fictionality, their own forced binding to the body and mind of Kevin Barnes. And yet it's Kevin who's creating that very dissatisfaction! Fascinating!

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