Never Understand Your Heroes
Warren Ellis, in his latest Orbital Operations newsletter, talks briefly about the mystification and demystification of artists. He’s discussing Kanye’s epic, ambitious headline set at Glastonbury, which I was in the crowd for (personally, despite the hiccups, I loved the pure rock arrogance of such a sparse, intensely focused and direct set design), but it got me thinking about another act I greatly enjoyed over the long weekend.
FKA twigs is one of the most hyperperformative acts I’ve ever seen. Her layered, abstract, restrained yet cacophonous R&B is a challenging enough listen on its own, with every part of it demanding your full attention. Her live show adds intensely choreographed modern dance, with her backing musicians and performers fusing musical production, design and performance into one tightly-planned spectacle. Not one thread of her delicate costume is out of place, not one word is uttered between songs and no movement is made which doesn’t link into the flow of the visuals. On Sunday she did all this on a stage with no screen, during the afternoon at a rock festival, and still held the audience captivated.
Twigs’ act is the complete opposite of the current trend of accessibility in music – her aura on stage is unknowable, elevated, powerful: her musical persona existing only in the moment of expression.
This contrasts with the full-time business of performance for other artists: they’re expected to be constantly accessible, their patter on stage carrying on seamlessly from their magazine interviews and back-stage behind-the-scenes videos, a constructed personal brand extending into their music and back again. Personal admission and honesty is exalted as true artistry, and if a song’s lyrics aren’t easily classifiable in their links to a performer’s life then they’re somehow inauthentic. As Ellis notes, don’t be fooled by this faux-honesty: all broadcast is performance, and the artists we think we know from their Twitter feeds are putting on just as much of a show as those who mystify us with impenetrable – or, in the case of Kanye, intensely self-centralised – musical theatre in their acts.
Currently I’m wondering: does honesty in music come from constant performative openness, or from a clear delineation between artist and art piece?