Saturday, September 1, 2007

Auteur theory

In this A.V. Club Crosstalk, Noel made a valiant effort to defend reality television against the charge that it is uniformly worthless. A thankless task, to be sure. But one commenter said something about American Idol that bears some scrutiny:
And my biggest problem with Idol is that I think being a musician isnt (sic) about being able to do "entertaining" covers. I think musicianship is about writing songs, playing instruments and working hard, not being gifted with a contract because you happened to carry a tune for one song, four or five weeks in a row.
That seems to be a widespread assumption, at least here in America -- that the more the song is the product of one person's efforts (writing, playing instruments, and singing), the more worthwhile it is. We have a theory of singular genius in this country which holds that the ideal form of creativity is that which springs from one person, working alone, or at the very least contributing all the ideas and using others simply as tools to get tasks done.

When we map that theory onto popular music, though, it privileges singer-songwriters and the rock tradition. I wonder if people who reserve true musicianship for these lone auteurs realize that they are excluding just about all of rhythm and blues, soul, and dance music. (It also excludes most country music, though I doubt the people who make these claims care -- they're usually urbanists who claim they like "anything but country.") Until the seventies, almost no one performing in the black pop streams wrote their own material, and only a few more played instruments. And even though a stronger auteur strain emerged thereafter, it's still merely an eddy in an industry that relies on packaging together writers, producers, instrumentalists, and performers, all drawn from different pools.

We do love our jacks-of-all-trades. I'll admit that when an artist carries off two or more jobs with flair, my respect rises (the director who serves as his own DP, the pop star who plays every instrument). But do you want to say that the entire stable of Motown stars don't count? How about the singers of the Brill Building pop factory? What about Donna Summer, Janet Jackson, Madonna, Elvis Presley?

I hate to say it, but the denigration of the well-pedigreed pop tradition of singers who are not songwriters or instrumentalists is a subtle form of racism and classism. It privileges a kind of "authenticity" that arises from one strand of the American experience -- that of the white entrepreneur, the self-made man. Even the folk traditions that eventually gave rise to this dominant assumption were built almost entirely on collaboration (the performers didn't write their own songs) -- it's just that we now elevate to the top of those traditions the ones who were the midwives of the rock tradition: the auteurs like Dylan. Surely we can appreciate what those artists do so well without relegating to the trash heap all the other ways great popular music comes to be.


Paul C. said...

You know what other director serves as his own DP? Peter Hyams. I doubt many people are heralding him as an awesome jack-of-all-trades.

In other words, I'm with you. It's great when you write the songs you sing, but isn't performance an act of creation in itself? It's one thing to put the song to paper, another entirely to sell it with your voice. The greats don't necessarily write everything they sing, but they nonetheless make it theirs.

the secret knitter said...

Agreed on reality TV and those who are "just" vocalists. One could even make a case that the singers have the more difficult job than the instrumentalists on their songs. Pop music playing usually doesn't produce virtuoso level performances.

I'm curious what you think about technology's impact, though. Whither auto-tune and its effect on new and future generations of singers? If being able to hit the proper notes is no longer necessary--no pitchiness with computer correction--are they deserving of the same respect or any respect at all?

Adam Villani said...

You are 100% correct. There are a lot of people who take the norms of rock music and assume that that's what all music needs to be judged against.

And it's not just pop music where they run into problems--- the whole singer-songwriter thing doesn't really work for classical music, either.

I think these are some of the same people who will claim that synthesizers aren't "real" instruments.