The Environment and Persona of a Musical Mix

This week, I have asked students to consider the ontological gap between a singer and the ‘environment’ or textual  backing. We started with two simple points:

  1. Texture can be ‘physical’ (descriptive sound) and/or ‘rhetorical’ (carry extra-musical meaning). It is the ‘extra- musical’ aspect that we focused on today.
  2. What is the need to consider the relationship between the singer (or lead instrument) and the ‘environment’ (the backing)

Based on Allan Moore’s 5 point scale (2013) – I suggested a more concise 3 point typology of musical environment:

1.Inert: No real impact on meaning. Sets the Style, Genre and Time only – no ‘extra lyrical’ impact on the personae singing it. Examples listened to included ‘Crazy’ by Patsy Cline (1962) and ‘A Million Love Songs’ by Take That (1992)

2.Active: Supports the position of the singer/lead: Examples discussed included Annie Lennox ‘Walking On Broken Glass’ (1992), Feist  ‘The Water’ (2008), Joe Cocker ‘With a Little Help from my Friends’ (1969), ‘Machine Gun’ Jimi Hendrix (1970), ‘Every Breath You Take’ The Police (1983)
3.Oppositional: Where the background environment conflicts with the lyric. We used some of Sting’s songwriting as indicative examples – but I am interested
We also spent some time considering how the person singing a song can be categorized as follows:
  1. The ‘Real’ Person/Performer singing a song: For example David Jones, Reginald Kenneth Dwight, Gordon Sumner, Saul Hudson, Robert Plant, Michael Jackson and –
  2. The Performance Persona: The character the performer ‘puts on’ when performing – distinct from the ‘real person’. David Jones = David Bowie, Reginald Kenneth Dwight = Elton John, Gordon Sumner = Sting, Saul Hudson = Slash, Robert Plant, Michael Jackson and –
  3. The Protagonist: A character that is portrayed in a song – often no identity outside of song.

We discussed the relationships between these factors, and how their union or lack of union can impact notions of authenticity.

More on this next week, but in the meantime I am interested in any examples of

  1. Examples of ‘Inert’, ‘Active’ and in Particular ‘Oppositional’ Environments
  2. Discussions of songs which involve discuss ‘Real Person’, Persona’ and  ‘Protagonist. How do they work together?

About Paul Carr

Academic working at the University of Glamorgan
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6 Responses to The Environment and Persona of a Musical Mix

  1. Josh Evans says:

    I believe that this Frank Turner track is an example of an Oppositional Environment. The lyrics are that of a break-up song, attempting to recover from said break-up. The background music on the other hand are up-beat, folk rock..

    Foster The People – Pumped Up Kicks is about a young man, neglected by his father, finding his father’s gun, taking it to college and shooting all of his class mates.. Yet it was a very popular song a couple of years ago! There are a few musical features that contribute to this story, such as the haunting distorted vocals, the swooping synthesised noises and notes that mimic siren noises in the verse, but the chorus is quite cheery and has a very catchy hook. I therefore believe this to be half active, half oppositional.

    Regarding the persona question:
    ‘Almost Here’ by The Academy Is… tends to mix these through out the album. Dying young before getting famous/noticed for your talent tends to be a recurring theme through most of the songs, take for example the song The Phrase That Pays, a song in which the Protagonist is told by his doctor to make the most of his time and to ‘make it big’ as he’s dying from an incurable disease (The lyricist and lead singer William Beckett hasn’t died and therefore I presume it’s a protagonist). The theme crops up in other songs such as Black Mamba (‘We’ve got one chance to break out and we need it now’ etc.), Classifieds and Almost Here, but this time they seem to talk about his previous job ‘selling fashion to housewives’, I’m guessing that this was true in some way and so these songs show the ‘Real Person’ side of his persona. Throughout the album many references to being famous, Hollywood and it’s stereotypical lifestyle crop up… as this record was released on an independent label I’ll take it that this is just a part of Beckett’s snide persona and stage presence as a performer.

    I hope that this is all clear and correct, and that I have explained everything clearly as it was all a bit off the cuff!
    Interested to hear anyone’s thoughts.

    Josh Evans

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  2. Paul Carr says:

    Thanks Josh – interesting and valid comments.

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  3. Daniel Godden says:

    Wanted Dead or Alive by Bon Jovi, is a great example of an active environment. The use of the 12 string guitar emulates the sound of the ‘wild west’ well, as well as the use of chimes and long sustained drones. Towards the end of the track the band transforms into a hard rock band with the use of overdriven guitars, heavy drums etc. This supports the singer as the lyrics describe the bands life on the road being like an outlaws in the wild west. Great Track!

    Daniel Godden

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  4. Chris Evans says:

    I often think that singers who can emulate their emotions into songs have a greater impact. This would come under a “real” performance. An example of this is Letlive in the song “Muther”, which is a song about the singer Jason’s mother cheating on her husband with another man and him walking in on the incident. Live, he tells the story the audience and breaks down each time, which I personally think gives the song such a deeper meaning.

    Another example of this would be Korn “Daddy”. Although popular to belief, the song is not about the sexual abuse singer Jonathan Davis suffered from his father, but from a family friend and his father refusing to believe him. Being that he actually breaks down at the end of the song because of the torment, it makes the song so much more disturbing to hear a grown man pouring out his feelings and crying. Because of the personal meaning of the song, this might be a reason it has only been played live once.

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  5. Daniel Evans says:

    I’d like to quickly highlight the textural and rhetorical significance of Leonard Cohen’s adaption of Emmanuel D’Astier de la Vigerie and Anna Marly’s freedom/rebel song ‘Complainte Du Partisan’. Firstly I’d like to state that I believe, from a musicological perspective this song has an ‘active’ environment. Despite the scarcity of instrumentation throughout, I feel the song’s texture and emotion perfectly evoke the desperation and sadness of a French Partisan fighter who has absconded his home to take up arms against an invading force, to fight for the freedom of his Country. The nylon string guitar and the accordion accompaniment could be analysed as significant in the sense that they are both mobile instruments, the song could be argued to give such a level of intimacy and claustrophobia that it is almost like you are ‘on the run’ with the Partisan/Musicians. (input Paul McCartney joke).

    In terms of rhetorical significance I think it’s quite easy to listen to the lyrics and deduce what is happening, there are no hidden meanings or sub-textual plots, unless you argue that Cohen intended the song to relate to a Neo-political event of the time he recorded the song (1969); many folk musicians have used the song for their own social and personal sedition over the years but I don’t feel that this is the case with Cohen’s version. He performs the song from the protagonists point of view for example “I have changed my name so often, I’ve lost my wife and children”. He is very much the character of the song during the performance, and the lamenting spoken word style of which he is renowned for, perfectly fits this musical environment. The last thing I’d like to highlight is the return of the song into it’s original language (French). This is a very powerful and for those of us who don’t speak French, mysterious musical device. For me, the way the Language is used validates the Cohen as the Protagonist theory as well as supporting the textural environment already created in the song.

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  6. Paul Carr says:

    Excellent observations Daniel.

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