My band, Kites, once had a slogan, which read 'All style; no substance'. At the time, this mantra was designed to be facetious. You see, I have unveiled contempt for performers who are so consumed by their own highfalutin that they forget to create a show for their audience. They tell us, with bellicose condescension, that they are subverting the zeitgeist or some other dross. I can never understand what they mean but, like Doubting Thomas, I need to see physical proof before I will be swayed by fishy words.
The true test of a musician is what they can recreate at a live concert. This is why Enya inspires so little respect; without 83.5 carefully multi-tracked vocals, she is nothing. Conversely, watching David Byrne during 1984's Stop Making Sense Tour is like watching a masterclass in the conception, design, and delivery of a musical miracle.
Equally, we should not disregard the exploits of Lady Gaga, Madonna, and just about every other titillating banshee that has awed the masses. But then, how far can a lavish spectacle dupe the audience into believing that they have witnessed an authentic performance and, if so, does it really matter whether the display is genuine or not? David Byrne is a genius but I cannot say with any certainty if, given the choice between the Talking Heads and Madonna in 1984, I wouldn't be more impressed by a conical bra and the simulation of fellatio. What can I say, I have a simple mind.
Eddie Izzard - another virtuoso of the stage - used to proclaim that performance is:
"70% how you look, 20% how you sound, and 10% what you say."In life, I have taken this axiom quite literally. I am even prone to describing my guitar as a fashion accessory in order to rile the proprietors of every music shop on Denmark Street. I cannot begin to describe the pleasure I derive from entering a guitar store and announcing that I will be selecting an instrument based on its colour, rather than on the quality of its bespoke Humbucker pickups. At a concert, no audience member will ever be able to distinguish the difference in sound between a vintage '82 Telecaster and a Fender Squire but they might remark, with knowing approval, that the hue of my guitar fetchingly compliments my magnificent burgundy bow-tie.
My insufferable ego aside, there is something compelling about the way we exhibit ourselves. Clothes are our costumes, our armour and, most importantly, the greatest expression of our personalities. This is what it is to be truly personable and I mean 'personable' in the most literal sense of the word. As with so much else in the English language, people nowadays misuse this word in the belief that its definition is 'to be sociable'. It isn't. As the word would suggest, it means that one's 'person' is pleasing to the eye. I would argue that the reason people confuse this word is that, tellingly, if one's appearance is likeable it somehow follows that they will also be affable characteristically. Obviously, this assumption is flawed, but then, Homo-sapien man is flawed as a species. Regardless of whether we are willing to admit to the sin or not, the simple truth is that we judge on appearances. Who cares what's 'on the inside' if it can't be represented externally?
Once a musician has grasped the essence of what they are and managed to express that visually and physically, as well as aurally, they have grasped the rudiments of their trade.
Last week it was announced that the V&A is to curate a retrospective exhibition dedicated to the cultural impact of David Bowie and his various aliases. If we really want to understand the fundamental relationship between performance and presentation, I suggest we all buy our tickets forthwith.
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