Sunday, Sept. 29, 2013
Better than: The Urban Outfitters $375 punk-rock leather jacket.
Is all pop music contrived? This is a key question when considering Savages, a British post-punk quartet that has in the last year risen out of nowhere to claim the kind of critical acclaim and commercial success most bands, independent or otherwise, would kill for. Savages' four female members have won lots of praise for their instrumental precision and their onstage ferocity, both of which were plentiful on a crowded Sunday night at the Independent. To this much we can attest: they perform a good rock show.
But what fans, and especially critics, really seem to like about Savages is that this band espouses a set of ideas, an ideology. That ideology is well-advertised -- it was on the ticket window outside the club last night, urging you not to use your cellphone during the show ("Our goal is to discover better ways of living and experiencing music"), it's on the front cover of their debut album, urging you to shut up ("The world used to be silent/Now it has too many voices"), and it's even on their T-shirts: "The noise is a constant distraction."
In a music industry where seemingly every behavior, no matter how crass or or self-serving, is tolerated, and where few hold principled stances against anything, much less espouse any broad political or social argument, Savages' vague manifesto seems refreshing. Maybe brave. But there is a problem with it, and even the band's crisp, powerful set last night could not avoid it. The problem is this: To wholly buy-in to Savages, to take even their rather limp and problematic ideology at its word, requires also believing that they, the members, are basically sincere and genuine in promoting it. That is, sincere and genuine in a way that most of us know, consciously or not, that the vast majority of pop ("indie," etc.) music really isn't. Yet the severity of Savages' music and look, the effusive seriousness of their onstage demeanor, the utter lack of humor and vulnerability anywhere -- not to mention their big, shiny tour bus and the $20 price tag on those T-shirts -- all suggest that Savages are persona-constructing performers and aspiring, contriving rock stars like any other band. They are just better at it.
Bear with us here. We all understand that Lady Gaga is acting when she makes her body into a motorcycle onstage to forward the plot of her concert. We understand that someone like Taylor Swift, whose appeal and persona lie in seeming real, must still emphasize and suppress certain parts of her everyday self to portray maximum Taylor Swiftness. Fans accept that musicians are partly acting because those acts make the music go over more completely, and, crucially, because most of the time, real-life Taylor Swift and real-life Lady Gaga don't let themselves be seen doing things offstage that sharply conflict with their onstage personas. And because it's so widely understood that their persona is an act and not a whole person, these artists can sometimes step outside of that act, say something serious about the real world (like Gaga's advocacy of LGBT issues), then retreat back into their pop persona, with no harm done.
Now, to really believe in an artist, to take their beliefs and their manifesto and their music with the seriousness that would allow it to actually change your life, requires believing that they, the artist, are promoting said manifesto because they believe it, too, because it's coming from their true self, that it's not just part of a self-interested act. (How can it be otherwise? Art that aspires to influence reality must come from a real place.)
Some people think that certain kinds of performers, namely rockers, do not have to tweak various elements of their actual persona in order for it to agree with their music, that everything they do or say necessarily comes from a real place. This is called rockism, and like most reasonable people, we think it's basically bullshit. The vast majority of rock stars and "serious musicians" construct their personas just as much as any pop stars. All popular music consists partly, maybe largely, of acting.
And yet. It strikes us as terribly cynical and just plain wrong to think that there are absolutely no artists whose forceful, compelling, sometimes even liberating and epoch-defining public personas actually very closely resemble their true selves. Even some very famous and successful public personas, it seems, are pretty damn genuine. Kurt Cobain is a good example here, and so is Trent Reznor, and so are probably Ani DiFranco and Kathleen Hanna and Patti Smith. Artists like this may play with assumed personas in a way that is obvious, as David Bowie did. They doubtless feel pressures to shape their personas in certain ways for various reasons, and may capitulate to acting or semi-acting at times, but they often do this with a wink or a knowing comment, or do it for a while and then abruptly stop. In general, though, they are more like who they seem to be than most pop stars, and we know this partly because who they seem to be, their public persona, is complex and contradictory and ever-changing, just like real people's personas.
A band like Savages, which asks its audience to read a manifesto on the cover of an album and to put those ideas into use in everyday life, must -- we think -- make it pretty fucking clear that it is in the latter group, that it is coming from a place of genuineness and honesty, and not just spouting some line about how the world talks too much because in 2013 it's easy to say and makes the band sound edgy and radical. Because Savages build their ideology into all aspects of their music and performance, they have a special need to establish credibility on all matters human, to show us that they are who they say they are. Not just on the LP sleeve or in the song lyrics, but while onstage, by being vulnerable for a second, or cracking a little joke or saying more than a handful of expected phrases. Most bands, serious or not, pop or rock, do not have a problem with this.
But if there is a real human genuineness behind Savages, if these harsh personas are multidimensional and real, we did not see it in the people wearing them last night. They were all business. They never took the masks off. Singer Jehnny Beth said thank you, and grinned while the house burned with applause, and took it all in proudly. She did not give anything of herself that we couldn't have gotten from their records, and neither did any other band member. The human credibility that would allow us to take this as something more than a clever performance was not established. And this is why, after last night, we cannot help but regard the whole Savages thing -- the manifesto, the all-black clothing, the silence between songs, and the painful seriousness -- as a brutally effective and utterly cynical scheme to get away with charging $5 for a button that says "I Am Real." It's all just part of the act. It's all just contrived.
The crux here is whether you believe that all pop music is contrived, and thus can excuse Savages as Total Performance, or whether you think there are some popular musicians who are mostly for real, and whether you're more able or inclined to take those people and what they say seriously, especially when they're asking you to listen to them about big ideas, and whether the idea of a band pretending to be wholly sincere but probably just feigning sincerity to sell itself -- and doing a fantastically good job of it, so good that most of the world's rock critics bought in -- really, really, really, bothers you.
And another thing: Can we talk about the arrogance of a new band putting out an album -- that is, a collection of words and loud noises -- and yet simultaneously telling the world, on the cover of this album, to silence itself? Even if you don't buy the above argument about relative sincerity among pop stars and its key importance to spreading a larger message, Savages clearly have a terrible habit of trying to exercise a moral authority they have in no way earned.