Necessary Enemies: Fear & Failure in Popular Performance

imagesby Franz Nicolay

When I was five years old, I got a magic set as a birthday present: a black plastic box about a foot square, honeycombed with primary-color trapdoors and sliding innards; a short, white-tipped wand from which, when you pennywhistled the plunger, sprouted a nylon rose; and a black cape and a top hat to get you in character.

I mastered a few tricks – the work of an afternoon – and immediately decided that the next step was to put on a show. I Magic Markered a flyer: “Magic Show. Saturday, 1pm. 162 Mt. Israel Rd.,” and added some yellow and blue stars for emphasis. My father made a few dozen copies at work, and drove me around in our pickup so I could post them on the thumbtacked community boards downtown at the library, post office, general store, and my elementary school.

I set up a folding table in the driveway in front of our house, and draped it with black cloth. Behind it, a swing-set impersonated a proscenium, and I hung a white paper sign from the top rail, saying, in case anyone had forgotten why we were here, “Magic Show.” We dragged out a misfit array of chairs – wicker backs, orange canvas director’s chairs, white plastic miniatures from a child’s ladybug tea table set – and screwed them into the gravel.

Come Saturday, and wouldn’t you know it, some cars pulled in; and soon enough the chairs were occupied by a handful of distracted toddlers in overalls and their indulgent parents. I took the stage.

The first act went well enough: I produced the flower from the wand. I picked cards from a deck and a handkerchief from a fake finger. I took a red foam ball and placed it behind the yellow door, reached into the back of the box and hooked my finger around the tab that would slide it behind the blue door for the triumphant reveal.

The lever stuck. I opened the door, and the red ball was still where it started, though shoved halfway to the side. Mortified and panicked, feeling, for the first time, the hot sweat of the performer in trouble, I shoved my hands in the back and yanked on any plastic protrusion I could feel. “It’s just the magic rattling around,” I assured my audience.

Failure is the defining characteristic of live performance. It’s 21 in a hand of blackjack: the game is to toe the line without tripping over it. And it’s the dark heart of the essential divide between performer and audience: the former fears failure, and the latter (in a way, and under specific circumstances) welcomes it.

Whenever the lists of universal human fears are compiled, the fear of standing in front of a crowd of strangers with a live mic ranks right alongside spiders and standing on the edge of a hundred-foot cliff. Yet every day, hundreds more people try to arrange their lives in a way to ensure that they’ll be doing it almost every night for the rest of their days, and hundreds more pay to see it for the same reason they pay to see other people swing from one trapeze to another.

People come to live performance to see failure. When you talk to just about any pop music fan about their most memorable shows, they will tell you about the overwhelming spectacles and the emotional moments, but they will also tell you about the time the band had to stop in the middle of the song, crack a joke, and start over; or a cover a band tried to play from memory and ended up in two different keys. Or, about the time when they went to see an artist they love and only five people showed up, and they got an amazingly intimate, practically private show.

Ask the person on stage about the same show, and they’ll remember the post-show recriminations about who screwed up, who started drinking too early, or who wasn’t reading the set-list right. They’ll remember showing up at the club, asking the promoter about pre-sales, and hearing, “Yeah, man, well, it’s kind of a slow night, the students are on break,” the fake on-stage smile, and the unreturned emails next time they try to book the same venue.

But there is always an antagonism between a professional performer and the audience, as the critic Simon Frith points out:

“[A] sense of alienation from the audience becomes, in turn, a kind of contempt for it. This is, in one sense, a sociological response: what is work for the musicians is play for the audience; the very rhythm of their lives is different, in terms of day and night, let alone status and attention.” (Performing Rites: On The Value of Popular Music, Harvard University Press, 1996)

The performer faces a different and unknowable audience every night, and must develop a hair-trigger ability to size up the (literal) atmospherics of the room (is it a loud, smoky bar; a quiet, candle-lit cabaret; is it a hungover Sunday night or a rowdy Friday; does the stage boom when I stomp on it or is it carpeted) and the sensibilities of the audience (middle-aged rock fans, teenage punks, college kids cross-legged in front of the stage) and calibrate the set-list, between-song banter, and performance style appropriately. The audience, since this particular performer at this venue on this night is a unique experience for them, is looking for a unique performance. The performer, one of whose primary challenges is to create a string of commonality in a peripatetic lifestyle, tries as best he can to make a recognizable routine out of a daily unknown. He offers an unspoken barter: for you, a set of guaranteed crowd-pleasing routines or songs; in return, your indulgence in the things (new songs, an “arty” instrumental number) that please him. Frith again:

“[T]he bases of musical appreciation are also different, a necessary consequence of the power relation involved: on the one hand, musicians learn to read and manipulate audiences, to please them with tricks and devices that they, the musicians, despise; on the other hand, the musicians experience rejection by audiences, often of the things with which they are most pleased. As Art Hodes puts it neatly, ‘They don’t always applaud what knocks me out; they applaud what knocks them out.’” (ibid.)

Both sides are passing judgment. It’s no secret that audiences judge performers: is the opening band worth checking out, or should we go to the bar? Are these guys as good as when we saw them last year? Should I buy their CD, or just download it when we get home? But the performer judges the audience, too: Are they just going to lurk in the shadows at the back of the bar? Will they ever shut up and listen (or, will I ever get a rise out of them)? Are they laughing at the jokes, or texting right in front of the stage?

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When we say “success” or “failure,” it’s not just an argument of technique. In the classical music world, because of the historical divide between performer and composer, technical perfection is (more or less) the sole aim of the latter; and the metric for success shared by the performer, the audience, and the professional critic. But metrics of absolute value in the popular sphere are notoriously hard to define: there are too many nebulous iterations of authenticity, valuations of genre purity; extra-musical narratives of style, career arc, and the performer’s perceived place in the “scene” or culture at large. So, failure in a technical sense (which still tends to be prized by even those performers whose audience expects it the least) is an imperfect way to assess the failure or success of the performance as a whole.

Parenthetically: When I say “popular entertainment,” I’m using it in opposition to “classical” performance practice, with its scripted and hierarchical relations between performer and audience. I’m referring to a range of artists working in any genre that on a basic level says “it’s good if people like it,” – club-date jazz, indie rockers at the local 300-capacity club, punk rockers at the house show – as opposed to “it’s good even if, or because, people don’t like it”—that is, any experimental music, performance art, or any other performance that self-identifies as “high art” and as a result, doesn’t rely on or expect popular approval as a marker of success.

Interestingly, I would argue that the exception to my argument about the centrality of fallibility to popular performance is the glossy pop music that most people would consider the epitome of “popular” – the Lady Gagas, the American Idols, the contemporary Nashville “country” stars. They, with their auto-tuned (if not lip-synced) vocals, tightly choreographed dance routines and costume changes, and pre-recorded backing tracks, arguably have more in common with the classical music expectations of endlessly reproducible technical perfection. They, too, are by and large not the composers; so the emotional connection of the listener to the song is not by association an emotional connection with the performer as writer.

Because performance “failures,” ultimately, cannot just be failures: they need to be consistent with and feed into what their audience considers part of the “essential” personality of the musician. The public meltdowns of an Elliott Smith or a Catpower endear them to their audience, as a signifier of the emotional authenticity of their songs, in the way that the late arrivals or indifferent performances of a Lauryn Hill don’t, since the emotional core of the formers’ songs, and thus the essence of their audience’s affection for them, are based on a basic social anxiety that the audience recognizes in the performers’ onstage difficulties. Whereas, Ashlee Simpson’s lip-sync malfunction on Saturday Night Live doesn’t elicit an underlying sympathy from the public audience, but a confirmation of their existing suspicions about her legitimacy as a performer.

This sense of which category of failures are essential elements of a particular performer’s “experience” comes to bear on an audience’s fluctuating tolerance for specifically drug-related performance trainwrecks: since part of the essential narrative of, say, Guided By Voices, is a heroic consumption of beer, a GBV audience judges a sloppy, drunken show as a more essentially authentic experience as a sober, snappy one. (There is also a self-selecting aspect to this acceptance, of course: the more a performer presents themselves as a drunken partier, the more only drunken partiers are going to come to their shows. If you build it…) Whereas, a drunken rant by a Ryan Adams or a drug-addled festival appearance by a Conor Oberst are harshly judged, since they are perceived as “out of character” and thus disrespectful of the audience.

So what makes a successful performance in the world of popular entertainment? Audiences want intimacy, fallibility, a peek inside the particular humanity of the performer that allowed that individual to create the music that touches the particular listener. They want, ultimately, as close to a one-on-one relationship as is practically possible, and require the performer to be able to induce that intimacy on a nightly basis. Performers, for their part, aspire to some sort of universality: it is not that they are necessarily cynical in creating a persona with which to face the public, but that the skilled or adaptive ones are able to cherrypick and highlight aspects of their actual personality, and hide others, in order to create a version of themselves that reads as authentic to their audience, but retains enough privacy to ensure that a rejection of their performance does not imply a rejection of them.

So ultimately, the fear is the fear of the seducer, that one day his charms will suddenly cease to work. More immediately, though, it is the fear of Scheherezade, the fear that your very life depends on, night after night, re-creating a unique and irresistible story that will make a stranger love you, and approve your continued existence.

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Within a year after my first foray as an impresario, I’d started playing violin, and figured I’d try to revisit my previous success with the magic show by organizing a pickup orchestra – naturally, I’d conduct. I made the flyers, drove around and posted them. My parents spent the next two weeks fielding phone calls from middle-aged violinists: “Yes, this is the number for the pickup orchestra. But you should know, the conductor in question is my six-year-old son.” In the end, only two youngsters showed up with toy drums, and we gamely banged out “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Franz Nicolay Franz Nicolay

Franz Nicolay is a musician.

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