Abstract: The music industry has always looked down on musical ‘faces’ who have nothing to do with music production or creation. Is this snobbery justified or are they different skills that should be treated with different forms of appreciation? Or should this distinction warrant a new kind of appreciation for creators – one that’s separate from admiration of the performer?
Here’s a (probably) familiar situation for any independent music fan (you are Y):
Y: Yeah, her music’s pretty fun, but she doesn’t write any of it so…
X: Who cares? She’s way better than [insert cool unsigned artist Y likes here]
Y: Well, at least they write their own music though – like, I have way more respect for people who actually write their own stuff.
X: But Rihanna’s such a great performer – she’s a part of the music without being a part of the music, if you get me.
Y’s defence is one I have used more times than I can count in my lifetime, and I doubt it’s one I’m likely to stop using, but, to be totally honest, it’s not one I’ve actually examined in much detail at all.
I always take it as a given that, in some sense, all performers are created equal, and those who also write their own music have a skill not possessed by performers alone, which makes them well, just…better.
For example, imagine that there are two identical parallel universes, Universe A and Universe B, and furthermore, in each of these universes exists two popstars; call them Rihanna A and Rihanna B. everything is identical here: the Rihannas put out the same music, perform in the same way and are in relationships with Chris Brown A and Chris Brown B. The only way to distinguish between the two Rihannas is that Rihanna A writes her own music.
Which Rihanna do you prefer? Rihanna A, obviously.
This kind of case is all well and good when we’re comparing identical popstars, but the real world doesn’t give us cases like these to compare, and as much as I hate to say it, not all performers are created equal.
This, however, doesn’t change the fact that, as music fans, appreciation of an artist’s performance skills should surely be secondary to our appreciation of their songcraft. This prompts some interesting questions and potentially more interesting answers suggesting that our approach to music appreciation as, well, the human race, is fundamentally wrong.
I do, however, recognise that in order to give a full and exhaustive account of all the different kinds of appreciation regarding performance and music, it would probably be preferable to give some kind of classificatory or prescriptive account of taste too.
I’m gonna come out and say it now, though: I’m not going to give any account of taste and how it factors into this discussion. There are a few reasons for this:
1. I have not entirely made my mind up on the issue
2. I’m only offering a preliminary account of appreciation kinds
3. I’m not convinced I need to: I can propose a sort of hierarchy of appreciation kinds without factoring in taste
4. To be honest, I want to hear your thoughts on the matter and would like some help about where to take this discussion
Just so that we’re clear about where I’m going with all of this, here are a few things I’m interested in covering:
1. If a performer doesn’t write their own material, should we think less of them?
2. If yes, should we direct our appreciation towards the writers?
3. Does this mean that performers are made, in some important way, redundant?
4. If no, how should we appreciate performers?
5. Which kind of appreciation is the strongest/best/[insert superlative here]?
6. And other things like this
[WARNING: the word ‘appreciation’ and derivatives thereof are going to appear in this article A LOT. I’ve just read back this first section and it’s already cropped up a million times. It is advisable to keep a dictionary nearby or ask the Internet what it means at regular intervals in case you experience that weird phenomenon where a word just becomes a sequence of sounds/letters and loses all its meaning because you’re seeing it too much.]
[NB: This article may come across as Rihanna-bashing. That is not my intention: I have no beef with Rihanna. She’s just a convenient example.]
So, let’s first think about all these people we appreciate in relation to music, and how their relative appreciation factors stack up against one another.
Performers who don’t create
So, these are your Rihannas, your Britney Spearss, your Justin Biebers: people at the top of their financial game and whose fans’ appreciation of them is synonymous with appreciation of their music. Ignoring the fact that artists like these tend to be commercial entities above and beyond their music, for the most part, when people say ‘I love Rihanna’, we assume they are referring to Rihanna’s music so that it translates to ‘I love Rihanna’s music’.
Anyhow, this isn’t controversial, and most Rihanna fans would probably say that that’s what they meant every time they exclaimed their love for her. At the same time, though, it’s pretty common knowledge that she doesn’t write any of her own stuff and even uses auto tune and whatnot (indeed, where would rihanna be without auto tune?)
But ask Rihanna fans who wrote her songs and why they don’t direct their admiration their way instead, and most of them will give you a tumbleweed stare, which is actually pretty weird when you think about it.
Now, I acknowledge that some people might actually enjoy the way she sings, and perhaps Rihanna fans are a particularly vacant bunch, but at least some of their enjoyment comes from the writing, suggesting that some of their appreciation should be reserved for the writer.
What to make of all this? Well, I guess figuring out who deserves more appreciation really depends on how to judge the value of singing against that of songwriting, but since I’ve no idea how to go about doing that, I’m gonna go with my intuition on this one and say that the songwriter still trumps the singer.
Performers who don’t create Appreciation factor: LOW
Is the performer then pointless? Possibly not.
It seems reasonable to think that there might be some, IMHO, very sensible creators, who think that fame is a horrible thing and want to get down to what they’re good at (I.e. writing crowd pleasing, chart-friendly music) without the risk of Perez Hilton posting pictures of their crotch. Fair enough really.
What’s the sound of a song that noone is around to hear, as that old proverb goes? This leads me quite neatly onto the next tier of appreciation…
Creators who don’t perform
Imagine a brilliant songwriter, the most brilliant songwriter in the world who writes songs that literally everyone on the planet could and would love were they released to a mainstream audience. Imagine now that this person hates performing, can’t sing, doesn’t want the unfortunate attachments that come with mega stardom. So this songwriter’s songs are never played because there’s no one to perform them.
Now, unless you think performers who just perform are categorically disgusting and sick and wrong, then you’ll find this thought kind of sad. This suggests that, while performers don’t necessarily deserve appreciation specifically, they can serve an important purpose.
Consider Brian Higgins, Xenomania bigwig and longtime Girls Aloud writer. He, presumably, doesn’t wanna sing songs about being a sexy lady, but he’s damn good at writing them and if it weren’t for Girls Aloud, plenty of people wouldn’t be able to enjoy his music.
Or what about Dev Hynes? He’s a good example! He used to perform his own stuff, but these days writes songs for Solange, suggesting that, even if you like performing, part of respecting the musical art form is understanding when a song is or isn’t right for you, but perfect for another, and allowing this person to perform it. You have to put the music first, and all that, rather than your own ego.
Now, obviously, for every Brian Higgins, there’s a Jessie J who spends years writing commercially successful songs for a myriad of teenage Disney club (or whatever it’s called) brats and secretly wants to gyrate around in their underwear on MTV themselves, which, to be honest, probably acts as a great argument for keeping creators and performers strictly separate.
But let’s not get this confused: the brilliant songwriter case I talked about at the beginning of this section is only sad because their music isn’t getting heard, so their music is what we care about here.
Creators who don’t perform Appreciation Factor: HIGH
Performers certainly serve a purpose in cases like these, but as music-lovers we are obligated not to hold them in as high a regard as the writers.
Creators who perform
Well, obviously, given my discussion thus far:
Creators who perform Appreciation Factor: VERY HIGH. THE HIGHEST.
But, when I say this, I’m not saying this categorically. A brilliant creator who doesn’t perform is still better than an OK creator who does, but all other things being equal (like Rihannas A and B) will always make me prefer a creator who performs.
There are bound to be many middling cases where some creators perform their own stuff but also just perform, and I don’t wanna belittle the skill of performance, but the reason I’ve deliberately side-stepped the issue a bit (well, more than a bit) is because I am only really interested in our appreciation of music – as music fans, surely that’s what we’re most interested in.
In this way, I’ve probably been a little dismissive to the value of performance in and of itself. That said, I believe this value has very little or no direct influence upon our appreciation of music itself, so I’m sorry but I’m not sorry.
Instead, I’ve tried to suggest that performers, perhaps, do play an important part in the creation and enjoyment of music; it’s just not in as straightforward a manner as the architecture of the music industry may have us believe.
Performers, overall, increase the net amount of music that gets put out there, by functioning as living alter egos for creators who either have no interest in performance or direct credit, or those who, in some instinctive way, respect that their music would be better in the hands of another. And the most elitist of elite music fans really ought not to behave as though the music industry would be better off without them.
So, no: performers shouldn’t only be creators.