x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

The real deal

All the world's a stage, so why won't pop artists admit it's just an act?

Let me entertain you: Jacques Brel, the legendary Belgian crooner, knew the power of performance.
Let me entertain you: Jacques Brel, the legendary Belgian crooner, knew the power of performance.

Between attacks in the press for alleged racist comments and having to abandon a recent London show halfway in, Morrissey's not had a good time of late, but I for one still think of him, if not with warmth, at least with respect; it's getting harder and harder to agree with anything he says, but his self-belief remains a thing of wonder. I had the pleasure of experiencing it first hand when I interviewed him a few years ago and asked if he still loved to perform. He was outraged. "I never perform," he said.

I've been reminded of those words on more than one occasion in the past few weeks. First when I heard the revelation that Akon, an R&B singer who has made much - and that's much as in, talked about it every time he opens his mouth - of a long prison sentence, had invented the whole thing. It happened again when I saw a picture of Pete Doherty, UK punk-rock firebrand and former beau of Kate Moss, on his release from jail on drug- related charges. And there they were once more as I read that Amy Winehouse, Britain's other tabloid favourite and a recent winner of five Grammy Awards, had been unable to complete her song for the next James Bond film due to continuing troubles with drink, drugs and unsuitable men.

Like Morrissey's comment, these events all say something about the bizarre way in which musicians and we, their audience, view what they do. The three of them - Akon, Doherty and Winehouse - are all playing variations on a similar game. Akon's was conducted according to the harsh rules of gangsta rap, where players need either a gun wound or a jail sentence to proceed. His decision to pretend he had what it takes is perfectly understandable but, like Vanilla Ice before him, can he really not have considered the consequences of being found out, and the chances? I mean, did no one see him for the three years he was supposed to have been locked away?

That said, Doherty's legend - which, if it could talk, would be saying, "I am guided by forces you bourgeois fools can't begin to understand," probably in a French accent - has only been bolstered by his all-too-real jail sentences, even more than by his appearances with puffy eyes outside supermodels' houses and reading William Blake aloud on TV documentaries. Winehouse is much the same, though her model is not Byron via The Clash but the heart-broken black soul diva, and she expresses the pain of her life as a white British woman through Motown pastiches sung in an American accent more ludicrous even than Elton John's. Or at least, she did until her husband was arrested for assault and she became unable to perform, devoting her time instead to being photographed leaving her flat, beehive tottering, eyes heavily ringed and sulky mouth muttering cockney obscenities at the pavement. Like Doherty, she appears to be talented, but it's impossible to tell for sure through all that illusion and delusion (not to mention the collusion).

You see, somewhere along the way, these three all forgot that they were meant to be putting on a show. That doesn't have to be a tacky or schmaltzy thing: watch film of Jacques Brel perform - all spit and agony and excess - and it's hard to conceive of greater passion, but it's theatre. Likewise the great soulmen: James Brown would collapse of exhaustion onstage every night without fail, while studio outtakes witness Al Green working himself up before recording, getting "the feeling", as he'd call it. That's what it's about: art picks on a kernel of truth, and exaggerates it to bring out its universality. These three, and many more like them, seem to have got stuck at the truth bit.

Which is not to say this is a new phenomenon. Bob Dylan, for example, didn't become Spokesman for his Generation without first swapping a happy, middle-class childhood for that of a train-riding orphan hobo, and that was a good 45 years before Akon picked up a microphone. Around the same time, The Beatles were kick-starting the vogue for autobiographical song that would lead to Amy Winehouse living in a soul melodrama of her own making, and 15 years later punk's obsession with realism would be confusing susceptible young romantic Joe Strummer, future role model of Pete Doherty. In fact, this obsession has been around since the beginning of popular music in the early 20th century, when the white cultural historians conducting field recordings chose to favour the most primitive, "authentic" blues practitioners and ignore the more sophisticated, effectively forcing the blues into a dead end.

If that sounds outrageous, consider that we, as the audience, are just as guilty as those historians and as the performers. The desire for authenticity has gone beyond rock, soul and hip-hop to even the most nakedly commercial pop music, with boybands fresh from stage school feeling the need to act like gang-members or devoted musicians. Even on the kind of TV talent contests where fame is the only goal, backstage footage focuses on those with anything approaching a problem - a little extra weight, divorced parents, recently dead pets - as if that makes the emotion they're expressing onstage more real and therefore better.

It's really not so far from there to Morrissey's "I never perform." Indie music, of which the former Smith is still a prime example, has always been preoccupied with authenticity to an extraordinary degree; there, the concept of performance, of putting on an act, is such a taboo that audience and band almost conspire to pretend that what is happening is totally spontaneous - won't be repeated in venues across the land - and that the band are unaware of being watched.

As indie music becomes ever more mainstream, so does this collective delusion. In drama it's called the "fourth wall" or "suspension of disbelief," the audience's willingness to believe in a fiction, and it's both important and harmless. But, unlike the audience for a play, audiences for pop music expect its effect to continue offstage, for the performers to have written the play, and for them to have done so about their own genuine experiences. It's disbelief suspended forever. No wonder they're losing the plot.

James Medd writes for The Guardian, The Independent and Esquire magazine.