Music Persona and Authenticity

In last weeks musicology session, we considered three main ways in which the person singing a song can be identified. These were

  1. The ‘Real’ Person/Performer singing/playing a song: For example David Jones, Reginald Kenneth Dwight, Gordon Sumner, Saul Hudson,
  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.
  3. The Protagonist: A character that is portrayed in a song – often no identity outside of song, but sometimes based on ‘real events’.

When we consider the ways in which these areas can interrelate, it leads to questions such as

  • What is the relationship between the ‘real person’ and the persona and protagonist?
  • Is the Protagonist based on real or imagined characters in the singer/songwriters life?
  • How does all of this relate to notions of authenticity?

We then looked at artists such as Bob Dylan, Lady Gaga, John Lennon, David Bowie, Bruce Dickinson and Billy Holiday, and considered how there image and music output resonates with areas 1 – 3 above. Most importantly, we considered how they resonate with notions of authenticity. Are they authentic? Why/Why Not.

Some interesting discussions took place in the class which are too numerous to outline here, but one of the main themes we discussed was the importance of a persona being an ‘extension’ of the ‘real person’ – if it is to be considered authentic!

We finished the session with the following questions and it is these I want you to comment upon and give examples of for next time. Please comment here on this.

  • Read suggested texts by Allan Moore, Edward Cone and Phil Auslanda.
  • Consider and give examples of artists who depict ‘real person’, persona and protagonist – in particular the later. Who are the characters displayed in the text?
  • Give examples of a song where the persona and or protagonist changes mid song
  • Give examples of where the real person is outlined in the persona and or protagonist. Why do you think the artist may do this. Remember the notions of ‘strategic anti essentialism’ we discussed.
  • How does all of this make the music more/less authentic?



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The Decline of Instrumental Tuition in Wales

Although it took place a few months ago, here are a few links related to the report I wrote a few months ago into the decline of instrumental teaching in Wales. The event took part at The Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama and drew attention to a factor that has been gradually taken place over many years – the erosion of the musical opportunities of our young people. I will not document my arguments here, as they are all outlined in the report which you can read below.  I have also attached a couple of photos from the event, a short documentary and my short speech. Please also read the recent government document Hitting the Right Note – which I think has the potential to improve this situation, providing the recommendations are accepted! Aside from equal opportunity for all, I feel one of the most important changes that are required is the inclusion of popular music and MOST IMPORTANTLY – a means of assessing it correcting. I have just submitted an 8000 essay for a new publication coming out next year – and will be blogging more about this soon.



Paul Carr Speech

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The Impact of Musical Environment on Lyrics and Meaning

This post is directed mainly to my undergraduate musicology students, but I am sure other readers will find it of interest to. This week in our class, we discussed the various ways in which the ‘musical environment’ (the sounds and textures of a piece of music) impact and infiltrate the lyrical content. Based largly on Allan Moore’s thinking in his book Song Means, I proposed three environments to consider.

1.Inert: Where the music has no significant impact on the lyrics of a song

2.Active: Where the Lyrics Support the position of the singer or lyrics (Protagonist in song)

3.Oppositional: Where the Musical Texture actually conflicts with the lyric

The examples for ‘Inert’ arguably include the majority of the popular music we listen to, but Active and Oppositional are more interesting. For Active, I used the following examples

  • 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)
  • Zappa: Rhymin Man

Zappa in fact, for me at least uses this technique more than any other, describing it as ‘American Musical Icons’ in his biography. Essentially, all of these examples include the music working in a symbiotic partnership with the lyrics/singer, to substantiate the meaning of the words.

The Oppositional approach is different, as the musical texture actually conflicts with what the listen is hearing. Having recently wrote a book on Sting, I noted this is a technique that he deliberately employs as a songwriter, with his old hit ‘Next to You’ being a great example – essentially a love song juxtapositioned against a punk rock rhythm. This can’t help but indoctrinate the song with a certain amount of ambiguity.

My task for this students is this: 1) provide examples of ‘Active’ and ‘Oppositional’ in the comments of this post. Provide 2) How does this impact the ‘meaning’ in the song?

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Zappa at the Paris Philharmonie:Report and Some Questions


I have spent the last few days at a conference in Paris at the Paris de Philharmonie. Although I have not focused on Zappa’s work for a couple of years, it was great to reconnect again  with friends such as Manuel de la Fuente and Michel Delville, both who contributed to Frank Zappa and the And and are established ‘Zappa academics’. It was also investing to meet many new colleagues, who are determined to understand Zappa’s legacy. You can download the programme of the conference here.

My paper was an updated version of an essay I had published a few years back in Contemporary Theatre Review, which mainly focused on the impact of restricted copyright rights in performance and also positioning Zappa against certain areas of postmodernism. The first page of the 50 min talk is copied below.




In addition to meeting a number of international colleagues I had never met before, it was also good to get to meet some Zappa alumni, namely Bunk Gardner and Ike Willis, both of who were humble nice guys and when interviewed, provided some interesting insights into subject matters such as the formulation of Joes Garage and history of the split of The Mothers of Invention. What is apparent, is that these guys still hold Zappa in great esteem – with Ike Willis confirming that Zappa told him to ‘keep his music alive’ – which he doing through playing in no less than 15 Zappa cover bands at the moment. Here is a photo of the interview and also of me and Bunk Gardner

When I reflect on the weekend, which finished with attending a performance of Zappa’s The Yellow Shark, I have left with a few things to think about, such as:

  • In what ways was/was not Zappa ‘postmodern’?
  • Why do so few women examine Zappa’s work and when they do, are there any ‘conflicts’?
  • Are there actually any new things to say about him – has it now all been said?
  • If the answer to my previous question is ‘yes’, how can we bring the study of Zappa into broader discussions of popular musicology?
  • When one is such a fan, how does one remain objective when attempting to analyse his legacy? This is an issue I tried to grapple with over the years when writing about Zappa, but in particular when writing my recent monograph on Sting.

There are many other questions that came out of the conference that I will be thinking about over the next few days, but what most impressed me was the high esteem his music is held in France, and it was fabulous to engage with his music both aesthetically and intellectually in such a beautiful space. It was also fascinating to see his music being taught to school children over the ‘Zappa Weekend’ – this would have made him smile I would imagine.

My three nights here finished with a performance of some of the compositions from The Yellow Shark which was performed alongside some additional Zappa material, Varese, John Zorn and other music that Zappa would have appreciated – which was nice!








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Sting: The Last Post

Well, after four years of discussions, public lectures and a number of book launches, I am now down to my last few days of engaging with my hometown of Newcastle, via the lens of Sting. I am looking forward to speaking at the Westbourne Book Binge on Sunday, where I am being interviewed by Paul Kelly, which is followed by what will be my final talk in Cardiff on Monday 30th. Although I only managed to meet Sting  once in the four year period, I would like to thank him for giving me the environment to think about my own relationship to Newcastle – which is equally as complex as his. Like Sting, mine is refracted through distance, time and imagination, but it is a nostalgia that feels very real. It is a nostalgia that reflects the true meaning of the word – a mixture of ‘homecoming’ and ‘pain’.

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I went to see the first preview of The Last Ship a few weeks back at the same venue where I first seen Sting play in Last Exit when I was 14 years old, which itself was a nostalgic experience. However, even when I attempted to distance myself from the feeling of being in the same room with several hundred Geordies, watching a narrative of isolation, escape and return, I could not help but feel Sting had tapped into something very special here – far more profound than anything he has done previously – or will probably do subsequently.


It is well documented how the various narrative streams in The Last Ship relate directly to Sting’s own past – such as his relationship with his dad, his move to London, his rejection of of Newcastle, and of course his celebrated reunion. Although Sting is exercising his own ghosts here, he is also assisting people such as myself, who has loved and hated his hometown, and was determined to somehow escape what appeared to be a wall of cultural and geographical restrictions when growing up. At 16 when I left Blaydon Comprehensive, my whole world existed around a five mile radius of the house I was born in – so ‘escape’, was the only alternative for someone who wanted to make music. However, ‘return’ is the most important part of this story to me. When I met Sting, he told me that ‘a word does not exist that describes his [now very positive] feelings for Newcastle’, and I would say the same is true for me. As I said at the start of this blog, we are partially talking about a Newcastle that is in the imagination, with parts of it not existing anymore, but it has been such a pleasure having the opportunity to think about it from a personal perspective, let alone an academic one. I hope at least parts of my book transcends Sting, and facilitates readers to consider the complex relationships we all have with our hometowns, and the ways in which artistic practice can assist both the composers and their audiences engage with the places of our birth.

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Sting Book Launches: From Northern Skies to Fields of Gold


Following on from the talks I have done in Newcastle and Bristol, during April, I have three talks coming up on my Sting book – from Northern Skies to Fields of Gold. The first is at Birmingham City University – tickets available here.  The second is part of the Westbourne Book Binge on April 29th. The fact that it is in Dorset, where I lived for a decade makes it special – so I am really looking forward to it. Tickets available here. This is followed the day after on April 30th with a book Launch at the ATriuM in Cardiff. Tickets available here. All of the talks are subtly distinct and coincide with with Sting’s tour of The Last Ship, the show that actually inspired me to write my book – as it resonated so strongly with me personally. I attended the premier in Newcastle a few weeks ago and I can only suggest that you go see it if you get the chance. Finally, in the middle of all this, I will be on BBC Radio Wales talking about the book on Sunday April 15th at 2.00. Come along/listen and find out my own insights into what it is that makes the Last Ship ‘tick’ and the inspiration behind it. Here is a shot from a talk I done a few months back from The Gosforth Hotel, were Sting played every week with Last Exit in the mid ’70s – the band he was in prior to The Police – and where many of his soon to be famous songs were tested out. Hope to see some of you at one of the talks.


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History of Popular Music in Merthyr Tydfil Exhibition: Thanks!

Well, after around two years of planning, interviewing many community members and collating close to 200 photographs, the Lost History of Popular Music in Merthyr Tydifil Exhibition at the Redhouse is in its last week of a one month run. Like I have said many times, the exhibition is the communities not mine, and it has been a pleasure and an honor to be involved with it. The next stage is to work on probably an edited collection on the impacts of lost histories of local music making. Additionally I am wanting to find a more permanent place for the exhibition and wait for it: look for another community in South Wales that would be interested in showcasing their histories – any ideas welcome. So for the moment, here are some reminders of what the exhibition looked like. Thanks  again to everyone who contributed – it is really appreciated. It is not too late to see it, so catch it while you can.




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