Monday, October 28, 2013

Musical Personae

Lady Gaga is not a person.
A figment of our imaginations.

This is not an insult. Stefani Germanotta is a person. But Lady Gaga is obviously a sort of persona of Stefani’s; an act she puts on; a kind of character she plays. If there was no other evidence, there would still be the
simple fact that what she does is literally staged. Doing things on stage for an audience is inherently artificial; inherently planned. So, even if Stefani would dress and act like that in private, doing it in public, for the public, makes it an “act”.

But, what is the act? The characters that musical performers invent and play are just as much artifacts as their lyrics and melodies, and just as subject to consideration. Like Bruce Wayne, Stefani Germanotta, Jeffrey Hyman, and the rest have become ideas.

Very much like Bruce Wayne too, because the ideas they’ve become are rather vague and emotive. Batman did not become the design for a new air-conditioner or a convincing argument for practicing virtue. He became a scary, dangerous, man-shaped bat that hurts criminals. When Batman strikes people, the idea he represents doesn’t do so with any clarity. But it is definitely an idea, rather than a man. And whatever idea Lady Gaga is produces visions of nightmarish horrors and bondage, and leaves behind catchy dance beats.

Jeffrey Hyman’s idea is a bit easier to discern, but it is still seductive and vague like a dream or a feeling.

In case you are not a fan of punk-rock (or haven’t googled him yet) Jeffrey Hyman is Joey Ramone. Before researching this article, I didn’t realize how well the Ramones supported my point: none of their surnames was Ramone. They didn’t even use their first names in the band. They cultivated not only individual personas, but a group persona (as many bands do) with a strange sort of familial connotation.

I’m not sure what all having the same, fake, last name is about, but what The Ramones and punk-rock are about seems about as clear as such things get, and it has my sympathy.

The Ramones are angry. But the anger is a pervasive, slow burning anger. They aren’t angry the way a death-metal band is. They are angry the way the people of an occupied nation might be. They are hemmed in, oppressed, and focused on the unbearable nature of the current situation even if they aren’t clear exactly what’s wrong, or have a clear alternative in mind. The Ramones’ technique, in the face of this, is not to give a damn about anything.

Sunglasses (drawing the shades on the windows to the soul), ripped jeans (the clothes could fall off their backs for all they care), unkempt hair, blank expressions, and the distinctively careless quality of their music all convey this. They exude nonchalant, lazy destructiveness.

This is an attitude adopted by many a young person. Some people might try to blame the Ramones’ for putting the idea in kids’ heads, and while I’m sure they did propose it to kids who hadn’t heard it before, that reaction to perceived (and actual) oppression is an obvious one.  Jeff and his gang just staged it and became its icon.

The thing about the ideas these bands represent is that they aren’t necessarily good ones (even if they are natural), and the fuel that keeps them going is emotive without needing to be rational. Both a serious militant anarchist and his opposite would disapprove of wallowing in frustration because you feel oppressed.

© 2013 John Hiner III


  1. That's a very interesting point you make about punk rock music being more of a reaction that is not thoroughly thought through but is a sort of confused frustration at something bad.

    1. I'm glad you find it so, Valentin.
      I want to assert a slight difference between punk rock itself and the reaction your talking about. The person commenting below suggests that "...some punk rockers are just presenting their own feelings to some extent..." and that might very well be true in a certain sense.
      But, I think that the crafting of an artifact (like a punk rock song), even if it is a response to a feeling or elicits that feeling, is not the same as the feeling. So, a punk rocker might write a song because he is frustrated and confused, but the song itself is not frustration and confusion. And, certainly, once he poses for a photo shoot and appears on posters he cannot claim simple, authentic reaction. There is something else going on.

  2. Fascinating subject - I think your observations are right on. Its strange to think the kind of impression punk-rockers or a lady gaga are trying to give. I could imagine that some punk rockers are just presenting their own feelings to some extent, while Lady Gaga and Marilyn Manson appear to be highly contrived and out of line with any relatable experience. What's it mean when we are interested in or amused by these characters? Do we have a natural inclination to like these ideas, or is it a manufactured interest? And how much does it affect the rest of their own lives, I wonder.

    1. Thanks, I try.
      The question of what effect these personae have on the lives of the artist is definitely an interesting one. It seems to me that the relationship of the performer to the role could be the same as that of the audience. At least, because it is put on and separate from the person playing it, the role might be an external object for them both. There is the question of duplicity and alienation for the person playing, but the audience might be attracted for the same reason: they can feel alienated from themselves.