Monday, February 20, 2006

Self Portrait

February 20, 2006

Self Portrait

Ever since the James Frey and JT Leroy revelations, the importance of being honest has tipped pundits' lips everywhere except the Beltway. You already know the stories: Oprah was for Frey's fictional A Million Little Pieces memoir before she was against it. Cult literary phenomenon Leroy turned out not to exist, concocted like so many failed conceits by a pair of washed-up rockers. Suddenly, truth mattered.

The usual media bloviators may have been right on the merits, but music obsessives could be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss was about. Granted, memoir is presented as nonfiction while even first-person song lyrics are inherently fictive. And posing as a troubled, HIV-positive, heroin-addicted transgender former child prostitute is more lavish than typical rock star posturing. Still, in pop, the relationship between person and persona has always been complicated.

As the music nebulously classified as "indie" again inches toward the mainstream, a funny thing has happened to image-making. The everydude archetype established in Michael Azerrad's Our Band Could Be Your Life and later standardized by 1990s indie rockers like Pavement and Guided By Voices has remained the persona of choice. It's almost as if bands today are competing for the most authentic DIY story. A recent essay on took a hard line, equating big indies like Sub Pop and Matador with major labels and bemoaning the marginalization of "truly independent music-- music written, recorded, and released independently." In certain circles, the image of not having an image carries more currency today than it has since 1991-- and even grunge lionized smelly weirdos like Kurt Cobain and Layne Staley. Today's indie rockers want to be just like you.

The most prominent example of DIY becoming PR is English buzz band Arctic Monkeys, whose debut album, Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not, set UK sales record upon its January release. "Hype isn't really the right word to describe the Arctic Monkeys phenomenon, which began with sold-out local gigs and homemade CDs passed from old fans to new ones," raved The New York Times' Kelefa Sanneh. Internet file-sharing helped, particularly when Domino Records hosted the band's demos on its website in the months before the album's release. AM's songs focus on the everyday problems of small-town UK youth: battles with bouncers, girl troubles, and a conflicted desire for the romance of somewhere, anywhere else. On "Fake Tales of San Francisco", they deride the alleged inauthenticity of their peers. But it's a sign of the times that the Arctic Monkeys' organic success story now sounds like heavily focus-grouped spin. Indeed, Stylus Magazine paradoxically denounced the foursome as "the most cynical band ever." Maybe the band's handlers protest too much. "There's been hardly any promotion," Jonny Bradshaw at Domino Records recently told London's The Guardian, disagreeing with the idea that the band's popular website fueled its success. "It's all old-fashioned word of mouth."

Regular readers of this website can probably think of other examples. Brooklyn's Clap Your Hands Say Yeah received nearly as much attention for the self-released nature of their debut as for its clever, spastic brand of frog-throated pop, even as similar acts like Spinto Band coasted barely under the radar. "The same hands that jangled the guitars, rattled the drums, and tinkled the toy piano are the ones that boxed and shipped all the records," wrote The New York Times' David Carr, adding, "That's serious DIY credibility in indie rock circles." It's true: My colleague Brian Howe, in giving the album a 9.0, couldn't help remarking on the business angle after four paragraphs describing the music. He concluded, "Maybe this is how it's supposed to work!"

English duo The Boy Least Likely To also handled their recordings and distribution themselves, before gradually developing a worldwide audience. Jonny Kaps from +1, which now does the group's publicity, credits the recent spate of DIY breakthroughs to the way the internet and blogs have changed how fans interact with new music. "How do you even create a myth when there are so many avenues for someone on the internet to call bullshit?" he wonders.

Any number of indie rock groups fit the anti-image image, consciously or not. The ubiquitous Shins sprang quietly from Albuquerque, N.M., to change your life. My Morning Jacket are shaggy, Spoon are brainy, and the Constantines are Canadian, but all come off as groups of fairly regular dudes, not rock stars. Even relative eccentrics like Fiery Furnaces love their grandma. Okkervil River made one of 2005's most haughty Americana-tinged albums, but in interviews frontman Will Sheff frequently discussed his financial woes and itinerant, hard-working lifestyle. Even Belle and Sebastian have cast off their air of mystery and become frequent interview subjects while their songs leave the bedsit for the UK top 20.

Time was, pop stars exaggerated to make themselves larger than life, as Frey and "Leroy" did. Morrissey cultivated a studied sexual ambiguity amid Thatcher's England, eventually pledging himself to celibacy decades before Rivers Cuomo lamed up the idea. At the same time, songs like "This Charming Man", "Still Ill", and "Pretty Girls Make Graves" explored gay themes with delicacy befitting an Oscar Wilde disciple, while the album title Bona Drag is cribbed from 1960s London gay slang. Madonna made image construction an art form in itself, reinventing herself from album to album-- naughty NYC club kid, "Material Girl", auburn-haired blasphemer, Hollywood heroine, English-accented Kabbala mom.

Earlier, too, musicians lied to make themselves more interesting, not less. A young Robert Zimmerman told a Columbia publicist that he was from Illinois, worked construction in Detroit, and traveled by boxcar, which of course was "pure hokum-- hophead talk." Or so Bob Dylan told us in his own recent memoir, itself as detached from notions of autobiographical truth or falsity as Vladimir Nabokov's Speak, Memory. The Beatles, like Dylan, helped usher in the rock-era requirement that performers compose their own songs. But in other ways they were as stage-managed as the crassest Lou Pearlman puppets, from their early matching suits and haircuts to an endless string of Beatles paraphernalia and films used to brand the band to John Lennon's initially keeping his marriage a secret at manager Brian Epstein's behest. Going back further, there's larger-than-life stars of stage and screen such as Bing and Sinatra and Elvis, as well as Robert Johnson-- oh god, not that "Crossroads" myth again.

Retro to a fault, the White Stripes are probably the most prominent contemporary heir to old-time rock 'n' roll smoke and mirrors. Jack White and Meg White have referred to themselves as brother and sister, but everybody knows by now they're actually ex-husband and wife. The two even went so far as to establish an official color scheme: red, white, and black. White did, however, tell Detroit's Metro Times in 2001: "It's the best color combination of all time. It's just more powerful." Central also to the band's mystique is its stripped-down approach, characterized by a lack of bass guitar, Meg's guileless drumming, and an unrelenting ludditism in terms of production techniques. It seems fitting that a band staunchly committed to the baby boomers' pre-ironic brand of myth-making happens to be among the most musically arch-conservative.

These days, however, if the most critically acclaimed recording artists are just like you, they're also just like me. A number of recent Pitchfork faves blur the line between critic and performer. LCD Soundsystem, led by the DFA's James Murphy, defined this approach with 2002 single "Losing My Edge". Clocking in at nearly eight minutes, the track name-checked such critics' favorites as Captain Beefheart, Modern Lovers, and Can (in Cologne, in 1968!). Murphy's narrator frets that the kids are catching up to him, then challenges, "But have you seen my records?" It's both parody and apotheosis of so-called "record collector music"-- a pejorative for bands that tastefully reflect the "right" influences, usually at the expense of their own music's vitality. More recently, the band's "Daft Punk Is Playing at My House" celebrates the French duo while "Movement" ever-ironically condemns bands with the style but not "the discipline of all of the discipline"-- even as Murphy cops Mark E. Smith's vocal tics. Meanwhile, Brooklyn avant-pub-rockers the Hold Steady steep lead singer Craig Finn's raucous shouting with more familiar allusions. "Tramps like us, and we like tramps," Finn observes on "Your Little Hoodrat Friend", from last year's Separation Sunday.

South London's Art Brut in some ways take the artist-as-critic concept furthest, beginning with a debut single called "Formed a Band" about-- well, by now you know what it's about. In "Moving to L.A.", the band borrows "California Girls" harmonies as playfully as the Beatles did for "Happiness Is a Warm Gun" while finding a way to mention both Morrissey and Axl Rose. The title track to last year's Bang Bang Rock & Roll finds frontman Eddie Argos declaring, "I can't stand the sound of the Velvet Underground!" This potshot against trendy revivalists like Bloc Party and their clones got updated to "Gang of Four" on the group's U.S. tour. Argos tells Pitchfork his songs are especially harsh because he wrote many of the lyrics before he even had a band. "I'm petty," he explains. In concerts, he's taken to singling out Libertines frontman Pete Doherty, the living embodiment of the drugs-as-rock-star cliché, which the UK tabloid press still eats up. "Why can't he take this world, and take it straight?" Argos deadpans, channeling Jonathan Richman's anti-hippie declaration "I'm Straight".

An obvious exception to the trend of recording artists' images becoming more accessible can be found in hip-hop. The biographies of most successful rappers, whether true or exaggerated, contain swashbuckling details distinctly alien to the experience of their audience. Gunshot wounds shape the personas of both 50 Cent and The Game, a pair who also parlayed a great deal of media mileage out of their noisy feud last year ("G-Unot"?). Jay-Z and Nas played up a longstanding animosity-- until it recently fizzled into a profitable partnership. Then there's the relentless focus on drug-dealing in the tales of coke rappers like Clipse and Young Jeezy. "Clipse are closer to Scarfaces and spaghetti western gangstas than mere get-out-the-ghetto hustlers," my colleague Nick Sylvester recently wrote in the Village Voice. Aficionados continue to debate the truth or falsehood of an artist's street bona fides, but the line between fact and fiction has never been less clear.

But perhaps hip-hop isn't as exempt from the larger trend as it appears: Artists can cash in these fiction-like experiences for the currency of credibility. It's the unreal, in a sense, that makes these performers real. The hip-hop community has long batted around questions of who is gangster and who really ran the streets as badges of, yes, authenticity. In a different way, critical and commercial darling Kanye West touches the same philosopher's stone, transforming the after-school-special drama of his tragic 2002 car accident into pop gold. His death-defying feat, more run-of-the-mill compared to 50 Cent or the Game, helped enhance his everyman image. His "Through the Wire" single and video, inspired by the accident, only cemented this image, which may have helped West ring true despite his lack of bullet wounds. Since then, of course, he has spun wildly in the opposite direction to the flashy, politically blunt, Grammy-wanting, Rolling Stone fake-controversy-mongering entity he is now-- another player in an old promotional game, hate it or love it.

Another exception consists of pop acts who revel in their machinations, which critical opinion has ceased to completely condemn. As recently as the early 2000s, rock bands like Jet were widely dismissed less for their music than for assumptions that they were somehow inauthentic. By last year it was possible for "American Idol" alum Kelly Clarkson to land on Pitchfork's Best Singles list, get covered by Ted Leo, and make Blender's list of the 100 best singles of the past quarter-century. Iconic Australian diva Kylie Minogue paved the way for likeminded electro-pop artists Annie, Rachel Stevens, and Alison Goldfrapp, all of whom trade in icy electronic production, whispery vocals, and strong melodies rather than vocal chops. Similarly, a growing number of critics have come to support more mainstream pop groups like Girls Aloud, Sugababes, and the recently reunited All Saints. Despite fellow Pitchforker Brent DiCrescenzo's recent column on the trend toward retro girl groups, 21st-century girl groups might be a better bet.

In this era of post-Milli Vanilli chart-pop, a curtain has been lifted. Everyone knows there are mechanics behind pop stars, and they've become part of the package, coming into focus on shows like "Before They Were Rock Stars", "Cribs", or "Making the Video". We've grown accustomed to seeing the process as well as the pop. The "Idol" phenomenon paradoxically rages against this model by allowing listeners rather than the suits to select their pop stars, even as it apes the traditional formula by guaranteeing performers out-of-the-box success. Granted, very few made-for-TV artists have really flourished. Most have either fizzled out or bombed straightaway, though exceptions include Clarkson, Will Young, Girls Aloud, and perhaps Carrie Underwood. No longer would fans be shocked to learn the Monkees didn't at first play their instruments; the fabrication has become part of the act. In a crucial twist, as pop stars expose their manufactured underpinnings it becomes ever easier to imagine that beneath the stagecraft they, too, are like us-- or at least as like us as Arctic Monkeys.

If demystification sells, both in DIY indie and in done-for-them pop, the causes of its popularity are less clear. A possible reason is the rising value of even the humblest truths in a media landscape devoted to spin and paid prevarication. The New Yorker music critic Sasha Frere-Jones makes this point in a recent blog post. "The increased obviousness of something we will call lying (see Ari Fleischer) jacks up the need for something that might not be a lie," he writes. This view assumes that the driving factor is extrinsic, present in our environment rather than in ourselves. Another explanation is based on demographics, and more than a little creepy. The corporate world has long understood that members of the so-called Generation Y, or "echo boom"-- the 60 million children born from 1979 to 1994-- simply don't respond to the massive image-building campaigns that emblazoned such brands as Nike and Levi's into the minds of their parents. The idea is for young people to feel like they've discovered something on their own. Toyota reportedly spent 70% of its promotion budget for its youth-oriented Scion on event sponsorship, not advertising. "One of the things with this generation is word of mouth," marketing consultant Jane Buckingham of the Intelligence Group told CBS News last year. "Buzz is more important today than it's ever been." Sound familiar? It should.

Of course, the crafting of persona begins at the lyrical level. Johnny Cash never shot a man, and neither did Bob Marley, though those portrayals undoubtedly affected how each artist was perceived, whether as an outlaw or a righteous spiritual rebel. Hip-hop isn't all "real" even if the impression is necessary, much as with Leroy's writing. Indie rock isn't necessarily grounded in personal reality, either, though some listeners value that-- which is fine, of course, but not inherently exalted.
Performers like the Arcade Fire, Cloud Cult, and Antony and the Johnsons have all based albums on personal tragedies, but the very act of presenting those woes publicly as song, while potentially the most intimate of acts, nevertheless inherently fictionalizes its subject. The inevitable presentation at the core of musical performance imbues emo histrionics or Bruce Springsteen blue-collar folksiness alike with cognitive dissonance. The Streets' Mike Skinner has billed his forthcoming The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living as autobiographical, but that's likely another fish-and-chips story. Ultimately, it's all about the music. If the artists don't deliver the goods, no one will be talking about them. But pop music has always been about more than recordings, encompassing as well the relationship fans form with the performers, whether larger-than-life heroes or shy girls next door.

An even more intriguing persona is on the rise: Artists unafraid to compete in the world of heavily processed pop, but who also retain a certain level of DIY freedom. To be sure, many more pop stars write their own songs than in the 1960s, among them Christina Aguilera, Justin Timberlake, and Shakira. More to the point, Swedish phenom Robyn has Destiny's Child beats and songs that veer from Missy Elliott rap to heartbroken ballads, but she also writes her own tunes, set up her own label to release her records, and inexplicably lacks U.S. distribution. Is the ideal 2006 chart pop star then Skye Sweetnam, who sounds like Avril Lavigne but is not only a singer and a guitarist but also involved in the writing and producing of her songs? Pitchfork's Arcade Fire reviewer David Moore has called her "the greatest thing to happen to popular music since the Arcade Fire." That's something neither Frey nor Leroy could make up.

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