12 Feb 2012

Performing Autonomy: Revisiting John Maus and tUnE-yArDs post-Occupy

Towards the end of last year, I wrote a fairly long post discussing tUnE-yArDs, John Maus and politics, especially with regard to the Occupy movement which was, at that time in London, still fighting for its right to remain encamped around the skirts of St Paul's. That was before I saw John Maus perform live (at Tufnel Park Dome in November), a pretty challenging experience that made me want to expand some of the ideas in that last post. So here's a sort of follow-up, although it might also be a kind of corrective.

I spent a lot of time discussing the contrasting elements in the two artists' recorded music, and how these suggest contrasting political praxes, so I was all the more struck (and excited) by how radically different - even polarised - their performance practices are. tUnE-yArDs' Merrill Garbus, in an attitude similar to that of Owen Pallett, effectively reconstructs her entire tracks by herself, using vocal loops, drums and guitar. We watch her record each voice one-by-one, layering over the last, to produce a one-woman choir that can be conducted by foot pedal.

The looping technology that she uses is a facilitator for the arrangement of authentic 'acoustic' sounds, not a mystic sound-producing force in its own right. Its demonstrably simple record-playback functions are related to common 21st-century appliances (cameras, camcorders, mobile phones, mp3 players), rather than the specialist tools of sound synthesis, sequencing and sonic manipulation with which John Maus works. Instead, we experience her live music as being built from the beat up - transparent and accountable at every step. We are shown how its texture, however complex, is the result of relationships between identifiable, human-produced elements, results of musical actions whose provenance is familiar, even if they are achieved with an unusual, artisanal skill. There is a bassist as well, and some saxophones, but their contributions are no less clear or orchestrated than Garbus's.

For a large part, tUnE-yArDs' performances - like Pallett's - are virtuoso displays of control. Whatever carnivalesque excesses burst out of her recorded tracks, her deconstructionist performances render these as ornamental blossoms stemming from a network of roots which all emanate solely from her. As she (almost) single-handedly builds a 'live' sound work in front of our ears, as the sounds flow straight from her body and are only facilitated by looping and amplification, she retains total control. She shows her power and ownership of her recorded music, those entities removed from time and space, by demonstrating her ability to personally reconstruct each track to a spectacular degree.

John Maus's live practice couldn't contrast more. Perhaps unique amongst all musical artists in history, his performances involve his singing along (with a microphone) to his complete recorded tracks, as they appear on his records, that's vocals and everything. It isn't unusual for electronic artists to perform alongside totally pre-recorded tracks, but by leaving vocals on the tracks Maus takes these performances into entirely new and quite difficult conceptual terrain. It is such an extreme performance choice in fact, running totally counter to the ideas of musical liveness, 'authenticity' and performance 'skill' that are still fundamental to the genre, that it can't help but provoke theorisation.

Maus's is a performance in which he relinquishes all control over the music (beyond, possibly, choosing the order of the tracks). He has a microphone and a stage - around which he stalks and crouches and marches and punches the air - but beyond this, he has about the same ability to control the music as the audience does. The processes behind the making of the music are entirely hidden, blank behind the faces of the monitors which might just be visible around the stage.

Even without a background in performance theory, I think a great deal can be discussed concerning the implications of these radically difficult performance practices(/praxes), as politically-charged attitudes on their own and in relation to my previous investigations of the ('music itself') recorded tracks. At the same time (and I think this is a key role of both politicised music and politicising music critics like myself), the artists' performance decisions, political or merely 'artistic'/'aesthetic', can be used as good illustrations of particular political conceptions, especially as they relate to contemporary anti-capitalist movements and the artists' aforementioned 'embodiment' of some of their principles and attitudes. I'm going to try and do this by focusing on the different political ideas implied in three sets of relationships within performance: 1) the relation between live performance and studio 'performance', 2) the relation between performer and audience, and 3) the relationship between what we hear and 'the song itself' - (i.e. its 'true' idealised form, the essential 'text' to which all performances relate, the Platonic 'form' of the song).

so here we go:

 . . . R E I F I E D    M U S I C

Like all commodities, recorded pop songs run the risk of what Marx calls commodity fetishism. In the various attacks on the pop industry, not only from twentieth-century Marxists but also from 'apolitical' 'high art' aficionados, the pop song has been seen as a pure example (or even a symbol) of the capitalist commodity at its most problematic, or at least as the most paradigmatic example of it within contemporary Western culture. It is, supposedly, disposable, interchangeable and subject to the irrational whims of the 'market forces' of fashion and pop cultural trends. What's more, it can be seen as highly fetishised (especially compared to live folk or classical music). Its 'real' origin in a place and time is obscured by the multi-tracked and manipulated process of recording, its relations of production (between songwriter, producer, session musicians, engineers, etc.) are obscured by the 'image' creation of artists, marketing and branding, its 'true essence' as the musical dialogue and collaboration between various different craftspeople is reified to make it appear as a material 'thing' - the single, the record. In this way, all its origins within market research, profit-maximising strategy, the corporate power of major labels, the collusion between media conglomerates and taste-makers, and the actual working conditions of the artists, are conflated within one aestheticised object and its exchange value. This is (one aspect of) commodity fetishism - when social relations amongst people are expressed as economic relations amongst objects.

Bearing all this in mind, tUnE-yArDs' performance practice can be seen as good Marxist practice, in that she effectively 'reveals' the labour behind her commodities. This is a key function of all live music performance in general, demonstrating the 'authenticity' of music (fundamental to its appeal) by showing that it can be recreated by a group of humans within a unity of time and space. But Garbus takes this factor to an extreme - her performances are exaggerated 'song-smithing' demonstrations with each line being added one at a time, a vision of music as organic, local, sustainable. This sort of performance can be read as a symbolic gesture in praise of a new consciousness of the human relations behind art and commodities, a breaking open of the secret knowledge behind song production as well as a liberation of the unseen labourers vulnerable to exploitation in their invisibility.

(Of course, a deeper Marxist assessment of the song as actual (rather than symbolic) commodity would have to take into account the labour involved in the production of all the instruments and sound equipment, the source of funding behind the label/studio, the politics between the venue and its locale/workers, etc. As with all art and politics, there are implications not only to an art work's form, content and context within a tradition/culture, but also to its production, dissemination, reception and legacy.)

Thinking about Maus on the same 'symbolic' register though, we could perceive his performances as making an ambivalent, potentially ironic statement on that same fetishisation process. Maus has said:
I believe a music is part and parcel with the kind of structures of power at any given time. Romanticism was perfectly part and parcel with the bourgeois individualism... and of course the Renaissance and Medieval music was perfectly part and parcel with the church as the dominant structure of power. So today the dominant structure of power is Capital, capitalism, global capitalism, so music takes on this commodified quality, it answers to that and that alone, but if we want to enter into a conversation with those pieces, with those works, we have to do it through our own objective historical moment, using the vernacular which is - as far as I can tell - pop music. (Pitchfork TV, 19/1/2012)
Maus is aware that his music is entering into a conversation with the processes of capitalism. It is self-conscious in its commodity form, and, in stark contrast to tUnE-yArDs' deconstruction, it enters onstage in that very same reified commodity form, presenting itself as an object to be fetishised, totally intact and whole and impenetrable, proceeding from the dark blank faces of the speakers.

Irony is invoked when we consider the lo-fi quality of the original tracks, not pretending to be anything other than solo 'bedroom' products. With these recordings elevated to unchangeable totemic objects, Maus plays with ironically reifying his own labour processes, sacrificing the products of his 'flexible' bedroom creation practice - the new, liberalised, globalised, networked production relations of choice - on the altar of commodity fetish. This is driven home by his decision to perform 'outside' of the recorded tracks, in no way recreating or deconstructing his own (comprehensive) role in their creation.

This irony is redoubled when it comes to a track like 'Hey Moon', which is itself (as a recorded entity) the result of his singing along to a pre-existing recording by Molly Nilsson. Despite the fact that he then ends up singing along to himself singing along to someone else's song, a live performance of this track suggests more than an exercise in self-conscious, postmodern meta-commentary, but continues the record's investigation of the serious aspects of our own personal relationships with (and co-option of) songs-as-cultural-artifacts (i.e. as objects), a key but by no means unproblematic aspect of any art form that has a 'material' textual element.

It is, more often than not, these recorded objects that we fall in love with as pop listeners. Maus draws our attention to our overwhelming desire to hear these objects recreated (or replicated) as accurately as possible when we go to see live shows, even while we need proof that every element of the arrangement was produced authentically and organically, through explicable human processes. This approach would suggest that the recordings 'are' the songs, and it is to these that live performances should defer, despite the fact that all recordings are really enactments of fantastical, perfected and imaginary 'live situations' (i.e. they must maintain the illusion that all these sounds could have been produced at the same time in the same place, we don't hear (or comprehend) them as a juxtaposition of disparate tracks). Hence the huge attraction of 'live' electronic mixing, and bands featuring various live synthesisers, in which artists go to great lengths to reproduce the original tracks faithfully.

Maus ultimately alienates his audience from his music by over-identifying with this desire for total replication and demonstrations of authenticity, presenting us with our beloved song-objects in their entirety and then pasting over this an exaggerated sense of 'liveness', in the form of his bellowed karaoke vocals and hyperactive stage performance. In this sense, the commodity fetishism involved in our relationship with pop music is problematised.

. . . S U B J E C T I F I E D    M U S I C

By singing and moving along to his own music (as performed by a distant, digitised him), Maus brings himself down to the level of his audience. He effectively relinquishes his power over them, as the talented artist-genius 'creator' above their faceless rabble fandom. In a massive counter-movement to the conventional function of pop performance, he removes his own persona from that of his music, distancing his body, face, image, personality, speech, clothing etc. from the product which is 'John Maus'.

Politically, this is a timely gesture in concert with the 2011 (Occupy/Arab Spring/anti-austerity) emphasis on a leaderless multitude, the total distrust of all elites and imposed ideologies, and the massive importance placed on 'horizontality'. It can be seen as a rejection of the pop auteur as charismatic creator and controller, imagining that the 'music' is that movement or event which is subject to control, but it also chimes with his late modernist streak, removing all personality, biography and personal history from the music (which isn't seen to emanate from one single human creator), in order to open it up to a listening in which its 'autonomy' is privileged.

He is afforded some power, of course, given his stage and his microphone, but he appears as more of a leader from within - the most enthused and committed activist at the rally, megaphone in hand, leading crowd chants along to his sloganesque choruses. In a sense, he 'performs' the character of the perfect audience member, the ideal response to his music, heroic yet anonymous. If ever we registered any coolness, detachment or nihilism in his voice, we are instantly proven wrong by his radical, shameless sincerity, dressed down in his grad-student outfit and floppy hair, holding clichéd heroic poses, a sweaty mess.

Maus characterises his own performance attitude as that of the 'hysterical body' - 'exemplary in its affirmation of...what we all really want, to see one another and to be seen' - above all, to 'appear'. In this sense he is aiming at becoming an exemplar not for the genius of human creation, technical skill, sexuality or radical subversive identity, as many pop artists aspire, but for resisting biopolitical systems of control, and in appearing as a mirror of his audience, demonstrating no greater skill or privileged knowledge than them, he can suggest his own attitude as one to imitate. 'Appearing' has also been a key aim of Occupy and all the protest movements of recent years, for dissent to appear as visible to the national and global establishment and to our fellow humans, and for that to signal the possibility of resistance.

Merrill Garbus takes a different approach. Strong, relaxed and perfectly in control, she's unashamedly a leader at her shows, but she enacts a positive vision of future leadership. She addresses the audience, front-centre, face on, not detached in the kind of self-involved clique in which some elite four-pieces appear and to whom the audience's very presence at gigs can feel like a rare privilege (and sometimes even voyeuristic). She addresses us clearly and cheerfully, and - with her incredible feats of compositional coordination - she offers us her music as an example of the product of a creative, dedicated and autonomous individual, the potential of skilled artists with basic tools. Her music, which is often direct, instructive, interrogatory and celebratory, is fitted to this mode of unpatronising and inspirational power. She shows us her production as an example of progressive autonomism, just as Maus shows us his body as an example of biopolitical resistance.

. . . M A N I F E S T O    M U S I C

The two contrasting performance practices of John Maus and tUnE-yArDs also seem to support my previous argument about their musical practices embodying contrasting approaches to Leftist politics - the 'idealistic'/revolutionary vs. the pragmatic/critical. Garbus proposes her music as practical action, railing against injustice and calling for the mobilisation of all our available resources, to work towards progressive change. This attitude is enacted in her live music practice, if we imagine her recorded songs to be the 'ideal' versions of her songs (as most listeners do - the 'definitive' 'ur-song' to which all subsequent performances aspire). Garbus's practice is to get as close as possible to realising these 'ideal' songs in a real, live situation, given the limitations of resources (players/instruments) and the practical capacities of human ability and sound technology.

In stark contrast, Maus responds by refusing to even attempt to approximate his 'ideal' songs through live 'human' performance means, which would almost certainly fail to reproduce them with total precision. What he does instead is to restate his ideals in their entirety - playing the tracks complete - and his shows consist of their ecstatic reiteration, with Maus leading a chorus of assenting voices. In this way, as much as the lack of practical translation of 'idealised' song into 'real-life situation' can be frustrating, it means there is no compromise within his musical statements as they are delivered to the audience.

The differences between these two artists’ live ‘realisation’ of their (‘potential’) songs reminds me of various comments that Slavoj Žižek made at Occupy Wall Street during its apex last year. Žižek is a staunch critic of the hegemony of ‘tolerant liberalism’ as an ideological accompaniment to capitalism. He has decried what he calls ‘liberal communism’ - referring slightly confusingly to philanthropist millionaires who take it upon themselves to heroically redistribute the money that they make from their own brand of capitalist exploitation - and is very critical of all attempts to make capitalism ‘ethical’, seeing it as relieving the conscience of a system which is exploitative by its very core logic.

Žižek warned Occupy against ‘falling in love with itself’: not resting on its laurels, not viewing itself as an end rather than a means, but continually re-engaging with the problems of pushing forward towards total, permanent change. For Žižek, one-off carnivals and token gestures will not stand up on their own and can actually be worse than doing nothing, since they assuage guilt, absorb the impetus for real systemic change, and risk opening up protest movements to capitalist co-option, in the manner of the May ’68 counterculture.

This kind of critique was quite consistent with much of the discourse that I experienced at the centre of Occupy: maintaining horizontal structures at all cost, avoiding any reliance on the capitalist media, not declaring any alignment with pre-existing groups of questionable history and background (the movement’s relationship to the British workers’ unions was a subject of particularly fierce dissensus), remaining radically open and democratic and new and unassimilable. This, as I see it, was Occupy remaining ‘the pitiless censors of themselves’ - the Maus title taken from Alain Badiou’s Fifteen Theses on Contemporary Art - which, I’d assume Žižek would agree, is particularly important under permissive ‘tolerant liberalism’. Occupy could so easily have aligned itself to one cause, to one party, to one debate, and ended all the tedious complaints in the press about vagueness and confusedness. But they resisted, and this resistance must be understood for what it was always intended to be, not as some accident of disorganisation.

Maus represents such a resistance in his shows, refusing to break his work down or commit it to some particular, limited instrumentation or live configuration. We are merely allowed to encounter it, as a promise, in its totality, and to simultaneously celebrate our commitment to liveness as such, to the possibility of live music experience and its emancipatory realness.

Elsewhere, Žižek warns against the compulsion to act. In the face of violence, he suggests, we should be very wary of jumping up and acting impulsively in the moment. These are the moments when action is least advisable. He recommends, instead, learning and reading and thinking, the kind of proposition that many radical leftists (and ‘activists’ by definition) cannot abide. The same infuriation that we might feel in Žižek’s injunctions can be felt, I feel, in watching videos of interviews with John Maus - his erratic flow of interdisciplinary theory, his apparent detachment, his second-guessing of his own statements. But I think this attitude can take an active form in art, and John Maus’s live shows - anything but detached - can be viewed as very positive examples of this.

Garbus could be seen as taking the opposite approach, more integrated into resistance networks as we experience them contemporarily, as a multitude of different groups taking small, specialised actions internationally. Many would suggest that this kind of network is the real cradle of revolution in the age of globalisation (and I use the word 'multitude' with specific reference to the writing of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri). tUnE-yArDs' music could be heard as spreading a message of practical, constructive resistance (against economic equality, against patriarchy, against the control society) from playlist to playlist, blog to blog, stage to stage. Her live shows demonstrate that this kind of resistance begins with the human body and its explosive creativity, and that such resistance can be enacted by anybody and everybody, autonomously. In contrast to Žižek, this is a political strategy of endless tiny actions from the microlevel of the body up, coalescing in new and constantly shifting communication networks.

Both these approaches to art as politics are very timely, both are increasingly prevalent, and - though they sometimes seem to counteract each other, replicating the arguments which still divide left-wing movements - both are important. Personally, I'm still of the opinion that artists should be suggesting new politico-aesthetic strategies on all fronts, just as resistance can be proposed at all levels. More important, for now, is to draw attention to them and to reflect upon their potential, preventing them from sinking into the obfuscating murk of ideology ('it's just pop', 'it's just entertainment', 'it's just music', 'you're reading too much into it', 'Pseud's Corner' etc etc.) and instead drawing out their radical potential.