More Thoughts on Personae and Musical Environment

I have just given a lecture on the development of musical personae (mainly influenced by academics such as Cone, Auslander and Moore) and its resonance with musical texture. We began by suggesting the following two types of musical texture

  1. Texture can be ‘physical’ (descriptive sound) and/or ‘rhetorical’ (carry extra-musical meaning).
  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 very interesting in other examples anyone can offer.

Regarding musical personae, 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/Character: 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.

An interesting discussion point was the early images of Bob Dylan – who to most peoples minds conjures up notions of authenticity. These images portray lack of record industry mediation, lyrics than have real concerns, no gimmickry etc. However, it is interesting to compare these to Woody Guthrie – how does this impact our view of Dylan’s ‘authenticity’?


I am interested in any examples of

  1. Examples of ‘Inert’, ‘Active’ and in Particular ‘Oppositional’ Environments
  2. Discussions of songs which involve ‘Real Person’, Persona’ and  ‘Protagonist. How do they work together? How does the real person display elements of their self via a personae and protagonist/character?

Listen to the lecture below for more detail:

Also – here is a Spotify playlist with some of the music discussed.

About Paul Carr

Academic working at the University of Glamorgan
This entry was posted in Musicology, podcast and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to More Thoughts on Personae and Musical Environment

  1. Ross Knight says:

    1. Inert: Blondie- once I had a love
    Active: Nerely all rock and metal music e.g. Bring me the Horizon- Shadow Moses. The heavy music helps convey the heavy message of the lyrics.
    Oppositional: City and Colour- harder than stone. The lyrics are dark and how life can be really hard but the music is upbeat, melodic and major. This is a common feature in music from city and colour and is one of the features that sets them apart from other artists of this genre.
    2. A good example of an artist with a seperate persona was Beyonce with her persona Sasha Fierce. Sasha fierce was constructed to hilight women who are being sexualised in the media by creating her own characature of this steriotype to challenge it. Her album “I am Sasha Fierce” has that continuing theme through it. She also portrays herself in this album as “Beyoncé” as a binary opposite to Sasha fierce in aid to portrey that she shunns this steriotyping of women


  2. Rohnan Whitebeam says:

    I think the song “How Does It Make You Feel” by Air features both active and oppositional environments. While the chorus has quite a normal vocal melody with rich vocal harmonies which I believe reflects the love theme of the main lyric, the melody in the verses is ‘computerised’ spoken-word which creates an uneasy oppositional atmosphere, since the rest of the song is a fairly standard set of chords with a simple rhythm and drum beat.

    Perhaps the singer of the band used this computer-voice effect to change the way the listener interpreted the personae of the person singing?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s