Challening Performer/Audience Roles
from Even If Your Voice Shakes – Issue #1, Spring 2007
We live in a society dominated by pop-culture stereotypes, assumptions, and interactions. We also live in a free-market society, where we learn early that our goal should be to profit, to achieve business success, and to attain a social standing that is considered appropriate by the media and the government.
As we grow up around these media-images and the pressure to fit into molds, we have to choose many sides, and have many sides chosen for us. We have to decide to be Republicans or Democrats, students or soldiers, “mainstream” or “alternative”, etc. Then we have ideas imposed upon us by the media and society, where we are beautiful or ugly, smart or dumb, Hard-working or lazy, powerful or powerless. We grow up around this pressure and more then often, we grow to fit the mold perfectly. The process of schooling, the job market, and the great “ladder of success” teaches us every step of the way how to act out these decisions and how to fit into society without questioning injustices or desiring (let alone knowing how to go about achieving), alternatives.
This dynamic is replicated in the music world in the relationship between “the performer” and “the fan”. The corporate record label-world is obsessed with the fan and consumer society is obsessed with the performer. The performer sets the image the corporate-media feeds to society, which generates consumer demand and thus profits for the record companies. The fan is the helpless giver of labor and time, in the form on money, to the company. In return they get commodified and packaged art, if they are lucky, and they enter the cycle to have their thoughts, desires, opinions, and emotions dictated and manipulated by the media. The performer is stripped of their art and message, and reduced to a series of numbers in the annual reports of the business. The company utilizes both of them to its advantage and dominates the cultural, artistic, and social fabric of the music world.
As a sort of stab at major labels, lots of scenes emerge out of “nowhere”, with local bands, personalities, politics, and products. The DIY punk scene and the underground hip-hop scene are two clear examples, and there are countless others. These begin as movements, in an often vocalized but indirect response to the major labels. As time goes on, these movements either make it or break it, in other words, they build a strong independent foundation and an alternative culture, or all their bands sell out, their participants enter the consumer-cycle, and their politics and culture are glossed away by the forces of the profit machine.
What I am discussing here is the unhealthy dynamics between the crowd and the musician, the audience and the entertainer. I select this from the mess of problems because I feel it is at the root of the sell out problem and a leading factor in the destruction of alternative culture art movements. Other factors include the disassociation of art from politics, the greed derived from opportunities offered by record companies, and the seemingly unavoidable stress derived from movements that combat popular culture, corporations and government.
THE PERFORMER/FAN DYNAMIC
As part of our participation in pop-culture, we learn early to choose sides in the game. We are either “fans”, “up and coming” artists, or “stars”. The “fan” is taught that they are far below the star, and to always be taught, talked to and mesmerized by the star, but never to take that power into their own hands or feel equal. The “up and coming” artists are to never be content to perform in their current form, but must practice, decorate themselves, and compromise their ideals so that they can be swept into the waves of stardom by the media and recording industry. The “star” is taught to be the almighty, to be desired and respected, to entertain, to be a role model, and most of all, to serve.
A role model is someone whom you choose to model your roles after, imitate, and try to achieve the status of. This is fine when it’s a respected peer or elder or someone whom you have much to learn from, and it is not a bad thing by default. When a role model is looked up to in a healthy way, the individual makes decisions based on an understanding of themselves and goes through a process of challenges that ends with their attitudes and lifestyles changing. When a role model is looked up to in a negative way, the individual imitates behaviors and attitudes with little-to-no analysis of why they are enacted, and little-to-no understanding of the effects they have on other people’s behaviors and attitudes.
When a role model is in a position of power based on external forces like the market, media schemes, and dominating stereotypes, you will be led to enact behaviors that lead to the downfall of healthy social relationships and you will recreate yourself as a prop for the system.
This is not to say that the idea of having an audience watch a person’s art and words is bad or that it’s bad to relate to someone’s art and return your respect for that. It is not to say that the idea of a bunch of people sitting in a room listening to someone’s thoughts is unhealthy, or that every show should be an open-stage for all. It is to say that these interactions must be based on voluntary actions and mutual respect, with no side assuming any sort of power or authority over the other, and with each side gaining from the interaction.
This argument can be extended to the payment discussion. At a “real concert,” the artist automatically assumes that they deserve payment for their art and the audience assumes they should pay, with no analysis of why and no understanding of where that money is coming from and where it’s going. This is a capitalist model, with the artist producing and everyone else consuming. A healthy performance model would mutually benefit both parties, based on a respect that the artist expresses their thoughts through their medium, and the audience learns or becomes inspired or entertained by the experience, creating a circle of benefit.
Political art is driven by the alarm of urgency and the need to express standpoints and info on important subjects, while mainstream art is driven by the desire for wealth and the power-drive of having people desire your media-personality.
THE PERFORMER AS A ROLE MODEL
As an “up and coming” musician you are taught to achieve “success” by selling your words and art to a major label, playing to larger crowds, making heaps of money, and furthering yourself from the personal connections with folks who attend your events. You are supposed to have “fans” and interact with them as “fans”. You learn to build up an image of yourself that is different from who you really are, to act out roles that you don’t really embody as a person. A cult of personality is built around you and this is considered good because it means people care about you and are interested in who you are. This is considered good by pop culture, as it maintains the dominant/submissive archetype that holds up this system of power.
What is really happening is that you are fulfilling the demand, by a capitalist market and an authoritarian consumer society, for a superstar personality, a fake, lifeless entertainer who will make big bucks for corporations and avoid real interactions that could lead to social relationships, and a role model for folks in the future to take your role and maintain the stereotypes and behaviors that bring the profit to the companies. The big record labels build stables for their workhorses and show them off like prizes, with untouchable faces and unattainable abilities.
To question this dynamic would be to realize that talent and ability, artistic genius and technique, knowledge and compassion, have nothing to do with the record industry’s definition of “success”. To the industry, the marketability and profitability and of an artist determines their status. Companies don’t buy artists because they are good people or because they can play piano well or have amazing lyrics, they buy them because they sell. The record companies have about as much care for music and art as McDonalds does for food quality and health, or Exxon has for sustainable energy. Profiteers co-opt things that previously don’t exist as commodities, and they commodity them, i.e. they turn them into products to be sold and profited from.
THE OFFICIALIZATION OF MUSIC
The man on the street with his hat out for change makes music 10 times better than the one on the TV with his face painted, but remains unnoticed. This is because our culture has been taught by the schools and media to only give special attention and care, not to mention money, time, and labor, to that which is official. Raising children or working in a community garden growing food is not considered “work” because it is not legally sanctioned as such by the state or a corporation.
Our definitions and understandings of ability, skill, genius, artistic expression, and labor are based on media-images and state or corporate “officialization”. If the man on the street got a record deal and had his face plastered on a few walls, all of a sudden a crowd of those same people who previously ignored him would emerge proclaiming their admiration and respect.
When a new CD comes out, posters, placards, and life-size replicas emerge, urging the consumer to buy what is “hot”, what is said to be quality. Our minds say, “If they went this far to promote this, it must be good”, while the media says “Buy this, it is the best thing yet”. Simply by making this statement, the industry sets the standard that then becomes our opinion. We buy it, and if we aren’t impressed, our impressions are created by the media. We grow to like it, because we are passive to the media, the star, and the market.
THE MYSTIFICATION OF THE PERFORMANCE
The “mystification of the performance” refers to the media-image of the “unattainable” skill of the “untouchable” star. It describes the situation present from the large rock concert to the backyard punk show, where the performer is seen as an almost nonhuman image, to be desired and respected by default without regards to their words and actions.
We have already discussed a bit about what I call the “two bad roles”. These are the “dominating performer” and the “submissive fan”. These roles are repeated everywhere, in every scene, on every screen, and on every level, and they are the social basis of corporate music and some of the strongest roots of the mystification of a show or performance.
Often the only thing holding an artist from “going big” is the social relationships they hold with the people who like their music. No one in their right mind would rip-off their friends by selling them over-priced shit to profit from it or would treat their friends as passive admirers and disposable statistics on a ratings sheet. That is why the companies need the artist to be in the wrong mind, with their heads in the bank or on TV, to seize and co-opt their art and turn them into servants.
“Going big” is the final goal of the artist in the corporate game and it often becomes the goal of the garage band or the “up-and-coming” performer. Two processes combine to create this status, usually occurring at the same time as each other. The first we will call “stepping up”, the process through which an artist betrays their friends and separates themselves from social relationships with “their fans” and assumes a position of power over them. The second is “selling out”, the process through which the artist voluntarily, or via the record-company, turns their art into a commodity for profit. Together, these 2 forces create the mass-media version of art, the disposable and profitable alternative to independent culture.
THE DOMINATING PERFORMER ROLE
But we cannot only blame the companies for this process, just as we cannot only blame the government for racism, sexism, homophobia, and greed. The government seizes upon weaknesses in our society and exploits them, often feeding us the bait and profiting from the actions that we take on our own terms. In this same way, the record industry seizes on weaknesses in our alternative cultures and scenes, and watches their downfalls unravel from afar.
The performer must also be blamed as an enactor of the star syndrome, just as society must also be blamed for the actions of governments. The performer builds up their ego and then enforces it, often perpetuating the media-image on smaller terms. They assume roles of dominance, talk down to people, stop caring about social interactions, and often wear their sex appeal on their sleeves and exploit the passive roles of the “fan.” The performer props themselves up on these crutches and finds power in the molds of the star, even when they are just playing for a few people in a basement, and that’s how it starts.
The performer must work on every level they can to challenge this behavior, to recognize the manipulation that is inherent in the corporate media, to refuse the power that is available through ignorance, disempowerment, and subservience, and to be conscious of their position of power as a role model, to use it wisely and respectfully, and to take criticism as a public figure. There is a lot of power in the hands of someone who gets the social space to express themselves through art, which is allowed by those who give that person that space. To abuse this power is to turn your back on those folks, to seize it, and to exploit those people. The record industry is the master of this process and urges people to take the power for themselves, to not give it back out in the form of empowerment, education or healthy entertainment.
There are a million external pressures and opportunities urging the performer to switch sides, to betray the people and work for the corporations, and it is the responsibility of the conscious performer to deny this privilege and participate in the construction of alternative culture, with respectful and mutual interactions and social relationships.
THE PASSIVE “FAN” ROLE
The “passive fan role” describes one manifestation of an attitude and set of behavior-patterns that people enact in our society when faced with hierarchy. When someone assumes power over someone else, both sides take on roles that fit that interaction. For instance, when the principal tells you you’re in trouble, you become in trouble, on your own terms. Your thoughts become the thoughts of a criminal and you take on the personality that has been assigned to you. There are power-figures all over the place trying to make you feel weak and powerless, but the final decision resides inside of you. You can change those power dynamics by recognizing the situation and refusing to play the passive role.
We grow up to desire comfort over anything else, to not raise too much fuss over anything, to accept how things are and to try to fit in somehow. We are never taught to question social interactions, to dream of a different culture, to stand up for ourselves. I’ve seen teachers treat students like shit because they don’t pay attention in class, treating them like they are stupid. In turn, I’ve seen those students enact behaviors that fit this label. Their hope and self-worth are crushed by power-figures and they submit to the standards of the box they fit in. They become what the power-figure wants them to become, because that’s the easiest thing to do. Attempting to change a social-dynamic that is the foundation of our culture is a revolutionary act and is something that will be eternally criminalized by this society.
This role transfers to the performance, where performers so often try to assume dominance over the crowd, to put themselves in a position of power above them. What happens on the crowds’ side is that many folks assume the submissive roles that they learned in school, and the cycle repeats. This gives the power to the performer, allowing them to disconnect themselves from society and see themselves as higher ups, to not be questioned. As mentioned above, the performer is obviously a main source of blame for this, but it’s not a black and white picture.
We, as mass society, are to blame for the acts of the powerful because their power is literally derived from our submission. You cannot attain power without being given power. Power exists the same way that energy exists; there is no destruction or creation of it, its just there. When we give our power away we allow other people to dominate us. We must struggle as individuals, and as a group, to take our power back from those who have it and build ourselves back up as strong people. The individual is the most important thing in society, and a strong society is made up of strong individuals. The whole is equal to the sum of its parts.
SHARING THE BLAME
When you deal with opposing forces, like a master and a servant, there are two main behaviors that lead to certain outcomes. The dominant role of the master is to dominate another and hold them in subjugation. The submissive role of the servants is to grow to accept their oppression and act out the part of a servant. One holds the majority of the blame but one holds the majority of the burden. The attitudes of both affect the other and the social relationship between the two can be the difference. The master can wear a friendly face and be seen as a respected father figure to maintain power or can be the abusive, outright oppressor. The servant can accept subjugation and make the best of it, or resist and act in a role that challenges the master and puts the master’s hold into question, and ultimately liberates them from servitude.
We must challenge every aspect of the recording-industry, which is dedicated to the destruction of social-change, people’s art, and alternative culture. We must recognize what it means to play into their hands, what alternatives look like, how our social behaviors effect the commodification of our art and culture, and how we set ourselves up to be exploited and fall for old tricks. We must recognize how we enact the roles that are set out for us by the industry and learn to destroy them in ourselves so we can build a strong alternative culture that questions everything that capitalism stands for. We must learn to respect each other as individuals and respect each other’s art without falling into submissive roles, and learn how to assist each other in this mutual effort