3 Oct 2011

On Aesthetic Imagination

Enjoyed this article, which touches on the kind of thing that I've ended up writing about quite a lot here:

The writer explores the distinction between what he calls the 'aesthetic imagination' of pop on the one hand and indie on the other. In doing so, he touches on the depth to which signifying styles and tropes are expected to permeate musical and visual personas in each culture, and how far an artist's 'theatricality' can extend before appearing 'inauthentic'...

Pop music treats imagination roughly the same way stage musicals do: You can take up the trappings of any aesthetic you like, roving anywhere through style and history, costume, and theme. But the music is always bedrock; it always needs to function as pop. This is how, say, Katy Perry can put across her Candy Land-pinup persona, and Ke$ha can put across her futuristic junkyard-rat persona, while both sing fairly similar songs, co-written with the same guy. It's also how the songs in musicals can take on the flavor of any setting, genre, or mood, from the Victorian to the hair-metal to the Oklahoman, but always sound, fundamentally, like the kinds of songs one finds in musicals. There's some underlying formal purpose they have to stick to, and if a musician strays too far from it-- if she, say, passes over the trappings of "being inspired by the 20s" and begins to sound too oddly of that decade-- listeners feel imposed upon; the artist seems trying, ungenerous. 

With indie musicians it's the opposite. The music itself is allowed to follow its aesthetic imagination off in strange directions, but the artists are often expected not to. The artist is always just an auteur, the creator of a fiction: She might make an album totally committed to theatrical concepts, but she'll show up to interviews in normal clothes, explaining her ideas like a normal person. Persona, imagination, ideas about style-- listeners expect them to be packed into the sound. It's when a musician tries to embody them in person that fans start grumbling about being imposed upon, or asked to believe in something ludicrous. Pop alter-egos, like BeyoncĂ©'s Sasha Fierce, rarely make an appreciably different kind of music from the stars who spawned them; indie alter-egos tend to be goofy notions concocted to let someone play with an entirely different aesthetic.
Nitsuh Abebe, Why We Fight: The Imagination of Lana Del Rey

I do actually kinda disagree with his final judgement of Lana Del Rey. It would be reductive and near-sighted to suggest that a signifying aesthetic imagination doesn't have some impact on the more fundamental substance of pop music, beyond a few clichéd timbres or gestures. Moreover, as he points out, Del Rey is mixing up the whole mid-century thing with a YouTubey, 21st-century thing - the presence of the 'video games' themselves is a case in point. In fact, I think much of the power that comes from experiencing song and images together comes from the severe dislocation of experience on a more complex emotional level: a chorus lyric of emphatic adoration, a series of disconnected and oblivious archive clips, and all the deadpan-ness of Del Rey in between, heightening the ambiguities within the song itself. It might not extend to the rest of her music, but that track at least is re-imagining its aesthetic quite creatively and at some depth.

I'm sure there are quite a few artists who genuinely do exist in the middle-ground too, extending their theatrical personas from their media life right down into their musical forms. Maybe a discussion for another day...