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A Question of Pretentiousness and Theatricality

PostPosted: Fri Apr 27, 2007 1:25 pm
by howard male
A Question of Pretentiousness and Theatricality

"A question of pretentiousness and theatricality? He's off again - what's he on about this time! How pretentious can you get?"

Well, there probably isn't any top-end as far as pretentiousness goes, but I find this a very interesting area when it comes to the arts. If we decide to label someone as pretentious, or if our gut instincts tell us someone is pretentious, maybe the problem's with us. Maybe we're just not on the same wavelength as the accused.

Take Bjork for example. A good example because there's some lovely fresh quotes from her in today's Guardian. First let me state my position on the Icelandic daydreamer. I don't mind her. I loved her for a couple of Sugarcubes albums and her first couple of solo albums, and then I just got tired of her. She was the same old Bjork, but I'd had enough. But is she pretentious, and if so, does it matter? For arguments sake, I would say no. She is who she is. She's certainly on her own planet, but such people add a bit of colour to this planet. Here she is talking about some tracks on her new album:

"I think of the tracks as characters, like my friends. This is the track with lilies that are dying, past their prime, and black and kind of sexual... and then another track is the happy one with all the kites and childlike energy."

Now, I have no problem with any of that. I sometimes see music as sculptural. It helps me write about it. Ostensibly that could be considered a pretentious thing to say, but it's the truth. And when Bjork goes on to describe a song as a pink song, although I don't understand exactly what she means, I do understand where she's coming from.

What fascinates me is how upset people get by the likes of Bjork and Camille - they seem positively affronted by their very existence and outraged that they should be granted any credibility at all. They're not murderers, just songwriters and performers doing there own thing. They perform, that means they pretend. They just happen to take pretending up to another level.

It's interesting that good old Garth also finds theatricality in music distressing, despite being a fan of the most theatrical of all musical forms, heavy metal. Pretentiousness and theatricality seem to be interchangeable, derogatory terms in his critics lexicon. Theatricality implies pretentiousness, and vis versa (correct me if I'm wrong, Garth. These are assumptions I've made based on memories of conversations I've had with you.)

It's as if music were some pure, higher form, and any kind of exaggerated performance (which I suppose is what 'theatrical' means in the context of music) is a sell-out or dumbing down, rather than an enhancement of the music.

Pretentiousness can also refer to someone who is ostentatious. But isn't the very act of getting up on a stage and singing your songs to an audience, ostentatious? I've always liked musicians who bring something more to the table when they perform their songs live. To me it demonstrates a respect for the audience, and, in a curious way, a kind of self-effacement: "You don't just want to watch me and a bunch of poorly dressed musicians replicate the album now, do you? Let me give you some 'theatre' as well, and some back-projections made by a filmmaker friend of mine which you can watch during the slow numbers."

The pretentious artist is the artist who is most true to themselves. I don't believe either Bjork or Camille could be any way other than they are. The word 'pretentious' says as much about the person using it, as it does about the person it is directed at.

What say you?

PostPosted: Fri Apr 27, 2007 2:48 pm
by Con Murphy
I think when artists are accused of pretentiousness (or is it pretension?), it’s meant in the pejorative rather than literal sense, ie everyone knows that there’s an element of pretence in musical performance, that’s a given. It’s when it tips over into conceit or affectation that accusations of pretentiousness rear their head. In my opinion it’s not self-effacement so much as self-awareness, and the ability to communicate it, that usually determines where the line is drawn. A genuinely self-deprecating sense of humour is usually a good indicator of self-awareness, and it sounds like Camille’s tongue-in-cheek approach to live performance is her get out of pretentiousness jail card - unless, of course, that’s all an act. In which case…

PostPosted: Fri Apr 27, 2007 7:01 pm
by Adam Blake
George Orwell once wrote that everyone is political, and that saying you're not interested in politics is in itself a political statement. I think something similar can be said about this subject. Every performer is just that: a performer. Some are more obviously theatrical about it, some make a big fuss about not being theatrical - which in itself is theatrical.
I agree with Con about pretentiousness. Conceit or affectation are unforgivable unless they are recognized as part of the act. I can't stand Bjork but I know exactly what you mean about people like her making the planet more interesting. I object to the fact that she ripped so much off Ari Up without ever crediting her (as far as I know). Yes, I'm biased because Ari is a friend of mine but I think she was a true original and she has never received the recognition she deserves precisely because her relentless theatricality (she truly lives her whole life onstage) puts people off. She's too much. She's never "off". A lot of Artists (as opposed to artistes) are like that. They can't help it, and if that seems affected or pretentious, that's just who they are. And they DO make life more interesting!

PostPosted: Tue May 08, 2007 11:21 pm
by Gordon Neill
Howard provoked:

The pretentious artist is the artist who is most true to themselves


My first thought was the exact opposite of this statement. Pretentious people are, almost by definition, fake. And that's why most folk find pretention a bit of a turn-off.

But my second thought was that maybe it's that pretentious artists are simply those who aren't actually very good at their art (and, in a sense, are 'most true'). Clearly, folk like Howlin' Wolf and Aretha put on a act. It's just that they were good at it. The pretentious brigade, on the other hand, lack a certain skill and we are more aware of their rather clumsy, heavy-handed efforts and their ego. So it becomes more about the singer than the song.

As it happens, I rather like Camille's album. I'm not affronted by her existence. I haven't suspected her of murdering anyone. She doesn't upset me. But her album could have been so much better if she didn't keep getting in the way. The thread going across her face on the CD cover; the tone going throughout the entire album. Yes dearie. We get the point. We get it after about 5 seconds. After that it just gets tiresome. And spoils some really lovely songs.

I'm even less happy with Lila Down's 'La Cantina' album, which I bought a few weeks ago. If it was possible, I'd reach inside my speakers and give her a hard slap. She's ridiculously theatrical. Almost every bloody track opens with some sound effect or spoken section. And all delivered in her over-the-top dramatic style. The songs don't stand a chance. She just murders them all, one by one. By the end of the album there's a pile of corpses, with Lila sitting on top of them, adjusting her stage make-up and preparing herself for her next collection of victims.

PS I didn't have any third thoughts. Two is quite enough for one day.

PostPosted: Wed May 09, 2007 2:43 am
by taiyo no otosan
As so often, I find myself agreeing with what you say so well, Gordon. Especially the bit about two thoughts a day. I hope to be able to achieve such heights myself eventually.

As for Lila Downs, I also got that CD a few weeks ago, slapped it on the CD player with great anticipation....and got thoroughly pissed off with all the excess and theatricality. Yep - she ruined some great songs with her need to be quirky. Apart from the last one, which doesn't even get credited.

Then, after a few days, I gave it a second chance and found I really rather enjoyed it. My son does - and who am I to question the judgement of a six-year-old? Actually, I am reminded of your incisive review of Diwan 2. What annoyed me at first became the very stuff that set it apart from the pack. All those quirky bits actually invigorated the - ahem - listening experience. Great music to cook to.

Then again, those same idiosyncrasies may well drive me mad in time.

Tomorrow, when I might get a chance at a new thought, I'll give it some stars.

PostPosted: Wed May 09, 2007 8:52 am
by howard male
Gordon N wrote -

My first thought was the exact opposite of this statement. Pretentious people are, almost by definition, fake. And that's why most folk find pretension a bit of a turnoff.


What I was trying to say was that pretentiousness is nearly always in the eye of the beholder. My Devil's advocate argument is that most so-called pretentious artists can't be anything other than pretentious if they are to remain true to their pretentious spirit, and therefore, in a sense, they are not being pretentious - except as far as the person they have offended with their art, goes.

Gordon N then wrote -

But my second thought was that maybe it's that pretentious artists are simply those who aren't actually very good at their art


Another interesting angle on it, but artistes like Bjork, Jeff Koons or Tracey Emin could never be said to be 'not very good' at what they do - in fact they are excellent at what they do, or are trying to do. But it still comes back to whether we, as art consumers or rejecters, can take it or not.

I disagree completely about Camille overstating her case on 'Le Fil' - I think she gets the tone (pun intended) just right - it's not like it's a loud feedback frequency. She wouldn't be making her point at all (which, I think, is that all these very different songs can grow from the same seed of B-flat, or whatever note it is) if she didn't have the note continue throughout the album. Perhaps the thread on the cover was unnecessary, but it least it makes a change from just having some run-of-the-mill pouty lads' mag shot.

And, Julian (taiyo no otosan), your post kind of supports my argument.

Your opinion varied dramatically as to whether the theatricality of Lila's album spoilt it or not, which brings us back to my feeling that this whole area is down to personal taste rather than any inherent flaws of character or aesthetic judgement in the artist or artiste.

My personal breaking point is Tracey Emin. I'm still not sure if I'd call her pretentious or not, as she's clearly just following her own flimsy instincts, but I do find her intensely irritating - which is usually the first symptom of a response to perceived pretentiousness.

And she just seems so damned average as an artist - there are a thousand equally pretentious artists pursuing equally half-arsed, lazy and depressing conceptual paths in art schools across the country, now, and over the past half century or so. So, perhaps it's pretentiousness combined with lack of originality and talent which becomes the last straw, as far as I'm concerned. Emin just seems so predictably 'modern artist' in everything she does, which, paradoxically, makes her very old-hat and tired.

A third thought

PostPosted: Wed May 09, 2007 12:05 pm
by Gordon Neill
Howard claimed

most so-called pretentious artists can't be anything other than pretentious if they are to remain true to their pretentious spirit, and therefore, in a sense, they are not being pretentious


Now that's what I call a handy argument! 'Look at me, I'm not pretentious because I'm being genuinely pretentious'! It's a bit like a politician being honest about his deceitfulness.

artistes like Bjork, Jeff Koons or Tracey Emin could never be said to be 'not very good' at what they do


I like a challenge. The word 'never' seemed a bit dodgy to me. So I was tooling up with some cutting criticisms of one of them when, strewth, someone beat me to it:

My personal breaking point is Tracey Emin....flimsy instincts.... intensely irritating... so damned average as an artist.... there are a thousand equally pretentious artists pursuing equally half-arsed, lazy and depressing conceptual paths.... lack of originality and talent..... very old-hat and tired.


Of course a lot of this stuff is down to personal taste. But I don't think that this means that these folks all get an automatic get-out-of pretention-free card. It's just that some of us are more tolerant than others. I think you must be a nicer person than me, Howard. You would never slap Lila Downs.

I will try and persist with Lila, taiyo no otosan. You have given me the will to try again. I may be gone for some time.....

PS Oh. After a night's sleep, I managed to have a third thought. For me, music works best when it is emotional and about feelings. It all goes pear-shaped when it tries to be intellectual (or pretentious). Intelligent - good. Intellectual - bad.

PostPosted: Wed May 09, 2007 12:46 pm
by Con Murphy
Gordon Neill wrote:PS Oh. After a night's sleep, I managed to have a third thought.


I'm impressed, Gordon - it's taken me nearly a week to have a second one about this subject. Which is, on seeing that Mike Leigh's wonderful, scathing play Abigail's Party is about to be remade for TV, I was wondering if we are stretching the definition of pretentiousness a bit too far. In its purest form (ie, the monstrous Beverly as played by Alison Steadman), pretentiousness needs not only to be false but to have a mistakenly elevated view of its own importance or worth. I'm not sure that most artists mentioned in this thread - however artificial or contrived they may be - can confidently be accused of that. Tracey Emin, maybe, but to be honest I think that in truth she's exploiting others' pretentiousness.

My idea of a pretentious musician would be Bono (and Bob Geldof to an extent) - mainly because of the G8/Live8 thing. He (they) genuinely believed they were influential enough to have effected change, when in reality they were doing no more than dancing to the Blair/Brown tune, but were too full of their own self-importance to notice. I’m sure others can come up with further examples.

PostPosted: Wed May 09, 2007 1:23 pm
by Dayna
People like Barbara Streisand, Frank Sinatra, & other Las Vegas types, right? I have never been impressed by them. They don't really even seem like artists too me.
They seem more interested in getting rich & showing everyone how important they are, rather than creating anything. Don't you think?
I know there is a difference between real actors & Hollywood celebrities. The real artists seem to like being recognised for what they do, but don't seem to crave the spot light so much.

We went over all this in a theatre class I took in college. What is Pop Culture & what is art? Art will be here for generations & something that's Pop Culture will be gone eventually.

PostPosted: Thu May 10, 2007 1:16 am
by garth cartwright
Hi there, sorry for arriving late at this one - i think the title put me off! Anyway, my two pence - there's only good and bad music and it doesn't really matter if something is theatrical or pretentious if the sound is good.

As for heavy metal - yes, i love the first 4 Black Sabbath albums and lots of 70s AC/DC but i don't know if i would call either theatrical, it's more bodgie, just white working class boozer music adapted to stadiums. Definitely not pretentious. I guess AC/DC's cannons are theatre but they're more vaudeville than kabuki.Seen Sabaff a few times and no theatre when i saw 'em beyond Ozzy being as bonkers as ever. I love those huge grinding riffs and those 2 seem to work. Unlike Kiss - who i admit to liking for a moment when i was 11 - or Iron Maiden. So, H, keep my metal loves to the stuff that's big on riffs and low on spectacle, ay?

Agree with Gordon on Lila Downs: first time i saw her in concert she was insufferably pretentious. I love Mexican music but find she comes at it like an academic who has had a few sherrys. She's a honey but that does not mean i like her muzak.

Bjork: first heard her in punk days when she sang with a pre-Sugarcubes outfit. Didn't like them - of the SC (who always seemed very amateurish as a rock band) - and her solo stuff is insufferable. She's extremely pretentious which would be OK if she recorded the occasional memorable tune. But she doesn't. I like the occasional - just occasional - Joni Mitchell tune and she's the grandma of pretentious white female musicians. And i like a lot of jazz and Miles and co' could be well up their own asses but once you got beyond the pose the music kicks in. With Bjork - and the insufferable Camille ("I'm so clever and chic") - i just hear an art student with attitude let lose in a recording studio.

What about pretentious men? I really like Radiohead - but maybe they should be seen as very serious musicians which is different from pretentious. Quite like Krautrock too. Pretentious or simply German? Tom Waits is extremely pretentious and theatrical - not too keen on much he's done since the 70s but only cos i think he's forgotten how to write engaging songs and puts a rather static theatrical concept first. I mean, even as a teen buying Foreign Affairs i knew it was all cabaret. But good cabaret. Charlie once championed Darko Rundek who i felt was bad cabaret ie Waits once had songs you wanted to sit there in silence and follow through, a good sense of narrative. Rundek you could feel the confines of the cabaret but no liberation in the songs.

Gee, i even like a bit of Kate Bush but unlike Bjork and Camille i can hear a tune that holds me. Those 2 strike me as "ego artists" - if you don't connect with the ego on display then there's little to engage with. Like Tracy Emin then.

Dunno where this discussion is going really. Just the old good/bad music divide. Never heard anything by Bjork or Camille i consider "good music". And, believe me, i have sat and listened.

PostPosted: Thu May 10, 2007 9:41 am
by howard male
Gordon N wrote -

Now that's what I call a handy argument! 'Look at me, I'm not pretentious because I'm being genuinely pretentious'! It's a bit like a politician being honest about his deceitfulness.


Obviously I didn't make my handy argument clear enough. I was trying to come back to my point that with some artists pretentiousness is part of the essence of who they are - or, rather - perceived pretentiousness. Garth and others here, won't give the likes of Bjork or Camille the time of day for being who they are. Whereas if B or C went away and picked up an acoustic guitar and started writing lyrically direct songs about how naughty nuclear power is - that would presumably make them OK. Whereas in fact they would be them being pretentious (pretending) in relation to their true selves.

Gordon N wrote -

I like a challenge. The word 'never' seemed a bit dodgy to me. So I was tooling up with some cutting criticisms of one of them when, strewth, someone beat me to it:


I wasn't contradicting myself here, just following one of my original points that we all have breaking points as far as the so-called pretentious artist goes. I'm still saying that Tracy Emin may well be a good artist, but I don't get it.

As for Con bringing Abigail's Party into the mix, that takes us to a whole different place. This is where one comes to realise the limitations of language. Abigail's pretensions are surely aspirational, and as such also innocent, but in a very different way from the artists we've been discussing. There really should be different words for different kinds of pretention.

Con wrote -

My idea of a pretentious musician would be Bono


Has anyone else seen one of the few highlights in the new Harry Enfield show (along with the subtly portrayed Notting Hill guy who owns a junk shop called 'I Saw You Coming') where Enfield and Whitehouse playfully (and therefore more effectively) knock a hole a mile wide in the Bono and the Edge double act?

Garth wrote -

Tom Waits is extremely pretentious and theatrical - not too keen on much he's done since the 70s but only cos i think he's forgotten how to write engaging songs and puts a rather static theatrical concept first. I mean, even as a teen buying Foreign Affairs i knew it was all cabaret. But good cabaret.


I too realised very early on that Waits was his own theatrical creation and in fact didn't fall for his music until the early 80's when there was little else around to keep me sane. Then I realise that his songs were nevertheless beautifully structured and lyrically strong.

But when he made that stylistic jump on Swordfishtrombone from barroom piano guy to purveyor of growling cubist funk, I felt (as he did, as I've subsequently learnt from interviews) that he found himself.

So I would in fact invert your appraisal of Waits, Garth, and say, yes, he was pretentious (in the nicest possible way) in his early years, but a true creative genius since the mid 80's up until the present day.

It's not always about a good tune. Sometimes it's just about leaving an original sonic footprint, which both Bjork and Waits have done. Yet Waits still does writes beautiful melodies with moving lyrics (Take It With Me When I Go, Time, Georgia Lee) as well as marking out a whole new musical landscape which can be identified from a split-second segment (my definition of a sonic footprint.)

PostPosted: Thu May 10, 2007 9:59 am
by Adam Blake
I don't really want to jump into this one, beyond what I wrote already, but I would like to say that Tom Waits has never made any pretence about being entirely theatrical, and he'll go straight to heaven for "Walkin' Spanish" and "Get Behind The Mule" alone...

PostPosted: Thu May 10, 2007 10:02 am
by Adam Blake
P.s, Oh, and "What's He Building In There" is one of the funniest records I've ever heard, but then I do have an odd sense of humour.

Mum's the word

PostPosted: Fri May 11, 2007 10:19 pm
by Gordon Neill
Howard said:

Gordon N wrote -


Yup. Agreed. So far, so good.

Howard said:

with some artists pretentiousness is part of the essence of who they are


Yup. This is going well. We're on a roll.

Howard said:

Garth and others here, won't give the likes of Bjork or Camille the time of day


I must say that I'm appalled at this attitude. Up here in Fife, we have firm views on being courteous to pop stars, especially lady ones. I'm with Howard on this one. I'd always tell them what time it was and where to go. Shame on you folks.

Howard said:

Whereas if B or C went away and picked up an acoustic guitar and started writing lyrically direct songs about how naughty nuclear power is - that would presumably make them OK.


Um. Wouldn't that make them pretentious? Unless, of course, they have an engineering degree.

Howard said:

Whereas in fact they [sic] would be them being pretentious (pretending) in relation to their true selves.


I thought to myself:

My head is starting to hurt again. We're back on this circular argument. What can I say? If pretentious pop stars pretended not to be pretentious, I'd pretend to like pretentious pop stars. But I'm not sure if this would mean that I now liked Bjork. Or pretended to. What if my pretence wasn't genuine and I turned to actally like her? Oh dear. But at least if Bjork pretended to shut up, I'd be happy. Her very essence might still be pretentious, but I'd be prepared to ignore and forget. She sells sea shells on the sea shore. Round and round the radical road the radical rascal ran. A noisy noise annoys an oyster. Oh dear. How do I get out of this pointless discussion? Howard always has to have the last word.


But, suddenly, my mum said:

Will you get off that silly computer, and get your jammies on. It's way past your bed time!


Sorry mum.

(PS Thanks mum).

Howard's End

PostPosted: Fri May 11, 2007 11:54 pm
by CantSleepClownsWillGetMe
Gordon Neill bleated:

"Howard always has to have the last word."


That can't be true. Surely.

Anyway, does it matter if Camille's pretentious? (I mention only Camille out of the two, because I don't think Bjork is pretentious. A bit mad, yes. But pretentious, non). Personally I don't dislike Camille for her pretentiousness. I simply dislike what I have heard of her music up to now.

Nor would I be upset if the pretentiousness remained, as long as the music improved sufficiently for me to want to buy it.

Isn't it a touch pretentious to care whether she's pretentious or not?

Howard?