I Me Mine : Hidden Selves in Music
Words by Jamie Ryder
Image by Ruby Bateman
“Do you like press interviews, in general?”
“You shun publicity?”
“You tend to keep to yourself?”
“No.” Somebody else chimes in from across the room:
“Why are you attending this one, Lou?”
The familiar, uncomfortable silence returns. It has proven durable today, persisting in spite of the best efforts of the journalists. Their job is to keep people talking, to curtail silence, or at least make sure that if silence does occur it’s the kind of silence that tells you something. They have so far been unsuccessful on both counts. He lifts his gaze above the assembled heads, staring into space for a moment. It’s not quite an eye-roll, but it communicates much the same thing. A simple, universal “Duh.”
“They told me to come in here,” he says.
It’s 1974, the middle of August, and Lou Reed is taking questions from members of the Australian press. His hair is bleached and cropped. He wears a skimpy yellow t-shirt and a large, opaque pair of aviators, which remain (no doubt in part due to their association with Reed) the glasses of choice for artists who want to demonstrate remoteness and taciturnity. He doesn’t laugh or smile. His chin and lips are thrust forward in a pout which yields only when he leans down to sip his drink. He’s deeply cool. But it’s an unstudied coolness, and we know that it’s unstudied because it slips sometimes. Here and there the impassivity shades into petulance, into the kind of adversarial mulishness you might see when a teenage boy decides that you don’t understand him. “I don’t care what you think of me!” such a boy might say.
“What message is it that you’re trying to get across?”
“I don’t have one.”
“Most singers do. They usually sing about something, and have some kind of way of getting through to the people.”
(I like to imagine that here, upon the delivery of this humdinger, the journalist curses himself inwardly.)
“Well, most singers.” (More cursing.)
The silence returns, and the reporter is rescued by a colleague who asks Reed whether his music should be considered “gutter rock”. (Yes, he says, it should.)
Lou Reed, of course, was not interested in anonymity (which is not the same thing as privacy). His well-known combativeness in dealings with the media, while entertaining, could do nothing to detract from the impact of music so candid and direct it is almost threatening. To listen to Reed is to sit back, sometimes in delight and sometimes in horror, as a stranger rips his clothes off in front of you. Once naked he comes up so close you can feel his breath and invites you to look into his eyes, his mouth and nostrils, check his teeth, review his fingernails and hair. He grabs your wrists and makes you feel him all over; he wants his body and mind explored. You showed up for the tour, and you’re going to learn something. It’s equal parts gross and titillating. His art, critics all seem to say, is an extraordinary example of a kind of songwriting which insists on the value of communicating personhood wholesale. The shameful, the offensive, and the mundane are as important as any ecstasy or romance or tragedy. Embellishment is cowardice, as is equivocation. Anything less than the stickiest intimacy is a moral failure. I am here, it says. You will know me.
But the person of the song and the person talking to the Australian press that day in 1974 are not the same. How can they be? They have brevity in common, but the blonde obstructionist before the cameras appears to share nothing else with the individual on the record. The person on record, it seems, will die if he’s not allowed to explain himself. To expose himself, because he believes in the curative exhibitionism of recording and performing. The person before the reporters is tight-lipped and flatly reticent. He’s so uncooperative that you think he might be enjoying it, but search as you might there’s no visible indication that he finds sullenness fun. When you are “alone together” he reaches unceremoniously into his psychology. Why then, does he show such disdain when there’s a real person to talk to? Where are the mercilessly graphic disclosures you’ve come to expect? Put simply, where is the intimacy you’ve been taught to swallow?
Reed’s case is pretty easy to understand if only because he was so open about it. The work was the thing, he said. The art contained everything you might want to know, and everything that he wanted to share. What, then, was the point of these elaborate junkets at which hordes of interchangeable men (and women, but mostly men) asked you similarly interchangeable questions? The art was its own justification. Further, Reed felt, a journalist’s faith lay first with the scoop (and indeed with the fiscal rewards that accompany the scoop) rather than with truth, whatever they might tell you. Anything that you said to them could conceivably be twisted and embroidered in service of the scoop. Therefore a journalist was a person to mistrust rather than with whom you might discourse freely.
Since 1974, Reed and his contempt have been dissected and canonised, evaluated as a valuable illustration of The Real Thing in action, and musicians with personas of their own to think about have learned from him and others and adjusted their public conduct accordingly. Think of the interviews you’ve seen or read lately with famous musicians. I suspect that you won’t have a hard time remembering one in which the musician came across as comically distant, or abjectly dispassionate, or just plain rude. And I suspect further that you can remember one such interview in which the musician demonstrated some or all of the above qualities to such an extent that they made you roll your eyes and think “God, this whole aloof act is so obvious. You’re way too cool, I get it.”
I don’t mean to suggest that procedural expressions of media-hatred haven’t always been an important tool for artists invested in maintaining a rebellious image; the Sex Pistols exemplified this type of calculated dissent, and plenty of people took them seriously. The difference is that in 2019, noticing patterns of this kind is radically easier. Although Reed’s gruffness was instinctual rather than planned, his example has become inevitably absorbed and occluded by the thinking that coldness implies depth. For a medium as press-dependent as popular music, restraint can seem subversive and almost antagonistic.
If you came of age in pop at any point in the last forty or so years, you knew that a tense interview was a shortcut to being acknowledged as a ‘proper’ artist. You had probably already figured out that apathy is often attractive per se anyway. This received wisdom accumulated year on year, confirming and reproducing itself, and as a result we have as broad a crop of famous musicians as ever who perform restraint. They live their public lives at the locus of conflicting forces, exhibiting a kind of conspicuous inconspicuousness, committed to an ironic staging of indifference which, apparently despite their best efforts, garners them more attention. They cultivate fame by appearing to shun fame.
This learned aggression or aloofness in press matters can be described as a kind of tactical anonymity. The artist, with the goal of appearing mysterious, afflicted and unpredictable, picks and chooses which of their characteristics (if any) they allow to show through in their interactions with the press and therefore the public. They will, with the same goal in mind, amplify or turbo-charge the aspects of their personality that might help them to appear mysterious, afflicted and so on. For many artists and bands, the cultivation of a personal mystique is at least as important as the music they release. The moodier-than-you, I’m-twenty-but-I-smoke-two-packs-a-day, lo-fi indie softboy cares deeply about coming across as sufficiently tortured and poetic. The fifteen-year-old melodic rapper who abruptly went viral and got thirty million streams in a week has much the same concerns. An exhausting busload of stage kids needs you to remember that their parents could barely afford their second house. I hardly need to give examples.
That’s not to say that deliberately making yourself into a character is wrong; on the contrary, it’s enormously entertaining and we love artists who do it for obvious reasons. I have no interest in ranking musicians on some arbitrary scale of authenticity, nor do I think that intercourse of any sort with the press is possible without at least a dash of self-dramaturgy. But I do think that representing artistry as effortless or superficial poses decided political risks, and that the most convincingly human music is made largely by convincing humans.
We might, very crudely, divide the assembled music media personalities of the world into two general types: tactically withholding, as discussed above, and tactically sharing. The real deal, I believe, lands somewhere between these two poles. Those in the latter category often come across as weird, because we're more comfortable with exaggerated pseudopersonalities than nuance. Just a bit of caginess or just a hint of extroversion can seem fake, because we've become so acclimated to heightened, camera-ready likenesses of caginess and extroversion. The depiction seems closer to reality than reality itself. Rather than playing these games of representation, the real deal may simply exist, insofar as it's possible for a famous musician to do so.
The oversharer or willing sharer is the kind of famous musician who might be described as the reverse or negative image of secretive, withholding one. An artist who overshares, of course, may actually retain just as much anonymity as the one slouched on the studio sofa, grunting performatively with a practised curl of the lip. Both of them are interested in ensuring that the image of themselves which is allowed to reach you is as carefully managed as possible.
Famous pop stars, with a few notable exceptions, are normally of the oversharer/willing sharer type. This is because their brand is predicated entirely on appearing like a normal human being, despite the fact that they are seven feet tall in heels, eat only ice cubes and are bathed daily in yak’s milk by a team of attendants who scurry about them like a Formula 1 pit crew. These gods and goddesses have very little in common with me, but have perfected a complex sort of line-walking. They radiate power and confidence and beauty, which makes me want to look at them. But they know that if all they radiate is power, confidence and beauty, I will soon start to feel fat and stupid and pathetic by comparison and want to stop looking, and will perhaps even turn away from them in shame. To prevent this, they must appear relatable. They must be humanised and made knowable. They achieve this by carefully exhibiting certain qualities that they know I will find reassuring and familiar. As benevolent gods and goddesses, they do their best to accord to my ambivalent needs. They know that I want perfection, but not too much. They know that I need them to seem human and real, but, again, not too human – why would I look if they were ordinary?
I know deep down that if I were to try to talk to Troye Sivan he would be disgusted by me. But because I have been amply provided with videos of Troye Sivan cheerfully discussing heartbreaks and makeup and his favourite foods, and because Troye Sivan posts photographs of himself on Instagram (which I have), sometimes doing normal things like sitting in cars and playing with dogs (which I do), I can plausibly tell myself that Troye Sivan would in truth not be disgusted by me were I to approach him, and that I would not be hurled to the floor like a rag-doll by his security guard if I were to attempt that conversation. But we would actually get along swimmingly well because we are, in fact, just a couple of guys.
Let’s think about Joanna Newsom. She is an especially interesting type of famous musician. Her public persona is minimal. She is, by famous musician standards, private and low-key. An interview with Joanna Newsom, if you can ignore the lighting and microphones, is rather like a regular conversation. This disarming normality is upon the first encounter at odds with her music, which seems absolutely inhuman.
Given her work’s intricacy, it’s no surprise that Newsom is slapped regularly with the labels “mysterious”, “elusive”, “slippery”, even. But despite this, all of her fans will insist that they know her like an intimate friend. That’s because her music, while undeniably knotty and technical and befuddling in places, is so often breathtakingly frank and naked and human and crucially available, staring vulnerability and confusion in the face with such unreservedness that the inaccessible becomes accessible. Her language is still pop, and while her output rewards repeated delving and close listenings it is just as often striking, unequivocal and immediate. She is not Lou Reed, but they share the arcane ability to transfix. Reed was as comfortable as a noisemaker and shaper of shrieking feedback as he was in his popular role of humble poet-chronicler of the margins. In much the same way, Newsom is as comfortable writing a twisting labyrinth as she is an immediately gratifying five-chorder.
For all Newsom’s pushing of boundaries, for all her ten-minute mini-epics packed with exotic references and archaic words, the work retains a burning human core. Even the least listener-friendly of her songs share a resoundingly knowable emotional centre that reaches out and grips like the most efficient pop music. It may be totally unfair to compare her to, say, a Troye Sivan, who speaks a very different dialect within the pop language, has very different aims, and practises his art subject to a multitude of different stipulations. But it’s not unfair to point out that Newsom’s topics, valences and sentiments frequently dovetail with those of the top 40, even if the Juno is replaced by the harp, the riser by the kemence and the Ariel Rechtshaid by the Bulgarian tambura.
It’s in these apparent contradiction, and somewhere in the centre of the anonymity spectrum, that I think the most gratifying music lives. I can see the merits of the oversharing deities. I can understand what drives the calculating scowlers, too. But things get really good when the mask falls, the music gets weird in the way that only a real person can be weird, and the act of listening approaches the experience of a conversation. The fewer obstacles between me and the voice, the better. This feeling of intimacy is often heightened if I get the sense that the music is divorced as far as possible from commerce (though I acknowledge that this can be faked like everything else).
John Berger said that hack art is “not the result of either clumsiness or provincialism; it is the result of the market making more insistent demands than the art.” We shouldn’t take this as a suggestion that art can’t be good and popular simultaneously, but we should think about the motives of our famous musicians, the motives behind whatever style of anonymity it is that they may employ. As listeners, we can be faithful to our feelings, enjoy what we enjoy, and still consider the artist’s purpose when he or she appears in public. What do they want to say that the music can’t?
Are they compelled to appear precisely because the music doesn’t say much? And if they do play a character, is it purely for the aesthetic benefit of a broader project or for a more predictable, more mundane reason? For me the self-evident truth is that exceptional art sublimates everything to itself, including its creator. What is ahistorical in art — what has and always will be independent of genre, medium, a given cultural situation or identity — is the accuracy with which feelings are apprehended. The fullness in which those feelings are translated. And if an artist produces free-standing work of this type, tactical anonymity of every shade becomes a superficial concern and a joke. The art will speak in ways a person can’t.