When performing you generally have two options - get comfortable naked or put some clothes on.
To put it another way - be Joni Mitchell, or be David Bowie.
Be the Red Hot Chili Peppers, or be Daft Punk.
Be Frodo or be Batman.
Find out who you are, or escape from / be more than who you are.
Be the best of us, or embody something beyond us.
Adele is naked but with carefully chosen lighting and camera angles. Prince was a symbol. Bob Marley really was Bob Marley. Lady Gaga is an exaggeration. Muse are theatre. Rage Against The Machine are naked and angry. Bob Dylan was so naked he went electric1. Miles Davis tried it both ways. At its absolute height, art transcends all categorisation and becomes godly.
There’s no right or wrong answer, only the gradual uncovering of who you are and what you want to achieve. Done well, each can blow our tiny minds and change the world. Each have their own risks and rewards. Most artists blend a bit of both, though there is something captivating about seeing a person torch everything to touch the extreme.
Each are regularly faked to fool punters for fun or profit. The descending Stonehenge set design. The tearfully-introduced acoustic song 2/3 of the way through the set. Is that so wrong? I remember hearing how the frontman of one famous ‘authentic’ rock band would go to his guitar amp to generate feedback every night. Secretly it was just a backing track. A lie. If that doesn’t sit well with you, fair enough. It might be a betrayal, or it might not be. Either way it achieved the same result for the crowd - they loved it. And where in the contract does it state the performer has to tell the truth? I don’t remember signing that.
For me, music was always about self-discovery.
I wasn’t really sure who I was and being an artist offered a chance to keep looking after I grew up. Basically your classic option 1.
When it goes well, it feels amazing. The acceptance / applause means my true self is worthy and loved. I’ve learned loads about myself, and never have to pretend to be something I’m not. When I write a song or walk on a stage I’m me, whoever that is today. A flop, a genius… there’s no boundary, no lie. That’s liberating.
There are downsides. Sometimes I’m meant to share my honest self but don’t know what that is. Sometimes I know what it is but lack the confidence or courage to share it. Sometimes I get lost in self-indulgence. Often there’s nothing to catch me when I fall. And when my tickets don’t sell or my music isn’t listened to, it can feel an awful lot like my true self is ugly, uninteresting or worthless.
If you look closely you can witness the performer in permanent flux, chasing their goals, succeeding and failing, everything unfolding in real time and affecting the room. It’s something to consider the next time you zone out for a bit attending a show. Is your mind actually distracted? Or did the performer just lose contact with the song? Are they unsure who their naked self is? Did the clothed character forget to believe their own act? The best performers hold your attention partly by holding their own.
Are you still with me in this email? It is all a bit risky. That’s why the more big money gets involved, the more these risks tend to get managed, smoothed out to make the show reliable for the audience, the artist, crew, corporate stakeholders. But what is performance without risk? A movie? What if there’s nothing at stake?
I was recently asked to judge a performance event at a secondary school.
Each student played a song, and I had to pick a top 3. House points were on the line.
The head of music explained that performance was about how well you played your instrument. I did my best to politely undercut the format, describe the complex role of judgement in music, and the very limited value of mine. Everyone did their best, winners were picked. Hooray for Gryffindor!
As is often the way in life I only found the right words on the journey home. What I wish I’d said was…
Your head of music is mistaken.
Performance is not a test of how well you can play2. It is not about whether you’re sharing your ‘true’ self (whatever that means?) or a construct. It doesn’t even matter if you perfect it until there’s nothing at stake and the audience are watching a movie.
What matters is that we feel something. That you make a connection. That’s what audiences are there for, that’s what artists are there for: shared experiences that feel memorable or meaningful. That can be a real person teetering on the actual brink, an elaborate extravaganza, Kurt Cobain, Björk, raw ability, old craft, naivety, confidence, vulnerability, speaking the truth, speaking a lie.
It really doesn’t matter as long as you connect. Everything is in service of that goal, the rest is just your chosen mechanic.
Which mechanic is right for you? Well I’m stuck with mine, for better or worse. The only way to find yours is to keep standing there again and again and again, being a little more naked or a little better clothed, trying to connect.
Some questions for you
This is superficially about music, but I’m curious how it lands for you in your world. Do you perform a version of this in your life, work, relationships or whatever your art is?
Which kind of artist do you connect with? Why not the other ones? What kind of performances stand out for you and why?
Is this absolute nonsense? It might be, I just made it up.
Let me know your thoughts in the comments.
UK TOUR DATES 2022:
Friday 23rd September - Totnes Barrel House. Tickets.
Friday 30th September - Coatbridge Georgian Hotel. Tickets.
Sunday 2nd October - North Yorkshire Old School House. Tickets.
Thursday 13th October - Suffolk Sprat Shed. Tickets.
Sunday 16th October - London Green Note. Tickets.
Friday 21st October - Brighton Folklore Rooms. Tickets.
Saturday 22nd October - Winchester Railway Inn. Tickets.
Wednesday 26th October - Manchester Rose & Monkey. Tickets.
Thursday 27th October - Nottingham Running Horse. Tickets.
More announced soon…
Just because we don’t understand the lyrics doesn’t mean he’s not naked. Just like how an earnest singer-songwriter can be putting on an act even with seemingly naked lyrics.
Maybe it is in some genres like classical music, but not the ones these kids were playing.