Monday, February 1, 2010

"From the start it has been the theatre's business to entertain people ; it needs no other passport than fun." - Brecht


Most definitely remarkable for the dominance of women across all categries and in virtually all the peroformances, the 2010 grammys were however most notable for two things; collaborations and theatrical quotations.

Apparently live art has taken over pop music, so we get Gaga (surely the movement's figurehead) in her own version of a Robert Lepage production, Beyonce surrounded by clone soldiers, and Pink suspended on silks. Spectacle and a focuse on stagecraft has become of central importance to a star's identity now, since it is one of the few modes of expression that cannot be digitized, compressed and circulated (legally or illegally). The "show" of showbusiness is back in a big way, as a direct response to the so called digital crisis (really more of a digital missed opportunity on behalf of greedy and terrified stone-age corporations) and it is warmly welcomed from my view point, as relief from all the horrible "authenticity" that has been washing around for the past decade, conjured up by stripped down, boysy rock'n'roll and equally by identikit rap. Spectacle is liberating, keeping it real is not, nor are the Kings of Leon.

The numbers were from the start more performance art, than rock show and there were mercifully few (yet still too many) of those classic, aesthetically murderous performances the Grammys are so famous for. Several of the performances at the ceremony took place away from, or moved away from the area demarcated "stage". The most popular breaking of the fourth wall was to have the performer walk down the aisles, in amongst the audience, a device that comes straight out of Brecht and has been used constantly ever since, to say "This is not what you think". (The strange thing about seeing this breaking of boundaries is of course that the vast majority of the audience saw the performances on television or online, ie, from behind a different wall). Then we had another classic of experimental theatre, the mimicking, mockery, celebration and reworking of endless theatrical formats; Opera and Classical music (from Jamie Foxx and T-Pain who burst forth from guises as operatic hero and conductor respectively to perform, Blame it on the Alcohol), Circus (from Pink who sang Glitter in the Air suspended from the ceiling), and Broadway revue (from Lady Gaga with her chorus line of dancers and undeniably cheesy faux Fritz Lang set) to name a few.

This reappropriation, loving and otherwise, of other genres is a well established trademark of contemporary theatre. We're familiar with Pina Bausch's characters dancing jives in the audience and Holly Hughes' ludicrous reworkings of melodramas, but who expected such riotous postmodern uproar to form the centrepiece of the Grammys? The Grammys for goodness sake - an event which usually reaches fever pitch upon the unveiling of Sheryl Crow's new hairdo. You can blame it on Gaga with her "I love art" soundbites if you like, but it's a trend that has been bubbling under for a while, since the non-event that was electroclash's crossover into the mainstream. (You can take it back of course to Prince, Bowie and Madonna, even Betty Davis, all of whom made highly theatrical stage shows, but let's be honest that particular mode of musical expresssion had to a large extent died out over the past 10-15 years).

The recent surge of popularity enjoyed by burlesque and cabaret most definitely influenced this new interest in the theatrical as a source of quotations for pop music, and both trends point to an eagerness felt by both performers and audiences alike to see/present work on a more immediate, interacitve way. The desire is to break away from a corporate, manufactured pop system, away from air brushed, vocal perfection, to connect with and to create something more real.

Oh, oh.

The real is of course staged, it HAS to be. Nobody is seriously interested in a Britney Spears video in which she cleans her teeth, takes a nap an worries about if she looks too fat (or whatever else approximates a typical day for her). No, the "real" has to be staged as something old fashioned, some pre-commercial dream, before MTV corrupted us all. The return of the performer, and the death of the spoilt diva. We want to feel that Mariah Carey is slogging her guts out in these difficult economic times, having to hustle harder than ever to get her record into the charts, we want to go right back to the start of the whole silly fantasy again, in the hope that we'll be washed clean by it, that it'll have a better ending this time around.

Hence the success of so many pop stars mining the blues tradition right now, specifically white soul/blues singers, girls who mimick Billie Holiday, Etta James and Ella Fitzgerald. This is not just the expected theft of black culture (not just) but a marvelous way for us to collectively indulge in a hallucination of the good old days that never were when everyone sang and acted as they really were (and please do ignore the irony of that sentence). And moreover let's not forget the inspiring success of Rage Against The Machine over the X-Factor winners in this year's Christmas chart. Wasn't that a true victory for real music? Actually no, it was a total double bluff, a herd of unthoughtful right-ons! steaming headlong into support for the alternative over the commercial, and proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that there is no difference. The authentic is always far phonier than the artificial.


This replication, the phoney clones, (brought to our attention at the top of the show with Gaga's army of automatons) was best expressed in Beyonce's army of soldiers, the SWAT team who accompanied her onstage. A nod to the video for the song she was performing (If I were a Boy),the performance managed to be both self-referential and also an acknowledgment of source material (Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation for one). The countless replication of a single loaded image or object (in this case police) is of course a live art trope, but furthermore it acts here as an interesting restaging of Beyonce's own life, onstage. If you've ever been in the presence of someone as famous as Beyonce you'll know that the amount of bodyguards, and handlers surrounding her is not terribly overexaggerated in the number of soldiers escorting her at the Grammys.

(I'd like to go further and propose that Beyonce's show was a political one, a call for attention to the US' military ambitions in light of the new political system in Haiti, a call for action on Blackwater and an ironic image expressing her distaste for cultural imperialism - but maybe I'd be going too far). The oscilation between, the real and the fake, the authentic and the artificial, the staged and the natural is another well loved device of live art which has been borrowed (but not acknowledged) by pop.

Lady Gaga and Elton John

There was also an almost constant use of that other postmodern favourite, the smashing together of apparently incongrous texts. Again, Opera and hip hop, rock and rap, and Beyonce's hugely unnecessary (and very much cleaned up) rendition of You Oughtta Know. I'm all about intergenerational artworks, and I love collaborations, but was Stevie Nicks' appearance onstage with Taylor Swift at all necessary? (As far as I'm aware all it did was underscore the deep lack of character in Swift's songwriting and expose her frankly dire voice). Of course Ms Nicks was not the only grandmother to be pulled out of the pop music deep freeze, she was not the only lunatic to be dusted off and brought down from the attic. Slash made a pointless appearance with Drake, Eminem and Lil Wayne, a performance really only noteable for being the one part of the song not entirely blanked out by the silence of censorship. Likewise, Gaga had Elton John, who only a few years ago was tinkling the ivories for Eminem at the same ceremony. The two of them covered in ash, inside the pop culture incinerator was almost witty, though the deeply uninspired rendition of Your Song was as pointless as can be imagined.

Thrilling and spectacular as they were, off-the wall and at times unexpected, to be frank most of the performances (in their keeness to focus on star as performer) came off as contrived, overworked and yet fantastically empty. About nothing, purely stylistics (ironically, probably the hallmark criticism of the post modern theatre so many of the performances were mining) and lacking beauty, which is really what performance tries to achieve. The exceptions I suppose, are Drake/Eminem/Lil Wayne who really gave it something, and Pink, who's performance was so simple but breathtaking. In her nude Bob Mackie bodysuit, she was the essence of the whole body in performance, and she used that body to sprinkle the audience with a fine mist of water as she span above their heads. She presented something literally none of the other performers were capable of and she did it with a beautiful, trained poise, at once investigative and expressive. Hers was the perfect marriage of pop and theatre.



Brilliant blog. You've managed to convey a hundred thoughts I've been having about performance/spectacle/theatre/Gaga/Beyonce/X Factor blahblah in this one post.

La JohnJoseph said...

Thanks! If you have anything to add to this scramble of ideas, please do!