Pop music is so ubiquitous now as an element in performance, video and installation art, that it’s easy to ignore or dismiss its role. Isn’t it presence, after all, tautological? Pop music is used as a medium to establish a common basis with an audience because it is, after all, popular. The medium is the message, and that’s the end of it. Or is it?
From the standpoint of affect theory, the use of popular hooks and melodies, and the participatory frisson of karaoke and the fan singalong, is all provocative grist for the mill. Indeed, opinions for and against the use of pop music in art contexts can recapitulate a standard distinction in affect theory (which also serves as a rough division of labor between two main camps in affect studies): the distinction between affects seen as impersonal, asubjective flows, and affects seen as instantiated, stylized and consciously experienced by particular subjects and communities. Music can also be divided in this way (or seen from these incompatible two vantage points that produce a parallax shift). It emerges out of and indeed is noise, particularly at its bleeding edges of distortion, feedback, and (a word made famous by American Idol judge Randy Jackson) ‘pitchiness.’ But pop is also experienced as a specific emotional response, it colors the affective tonalities of the multitude, it possesses shape, depth, organization; it envelopes and even threatens to overwhelm us with a direct address to who we are in ourselves, whatever that is. Pop is divisive because someone else’s pleasure is always threatening to earworm itself into becoming our own.
For such reasons of its power, pop is used in a variety of ways in performance, ranging from the ironic (of course) to the almost painfully sincere, from the deliberate courting of schlock to the surprising selection of pop as a pathway to musical sublimity.
This ‘Hipster Arial’ is doubly apropos for Ann Liv Young’s Mermaid Show, which I caught last Thursday at HKW in Berlin. It was my first time seeing a Liv Young show, although her reputation definitely precedes her. Someone who knows her work better described this as ‘minimal Ann Liv Young’ which I can definitely see. Underneath the hype-generating fights, scat, and naked is a rigorous conceptual experiment, and stripping down the show really brought this aspect to the fore for me.
The set piece for me occurred early on, with Liv Young, seated in a lime green kiddie pool wearing a mermaid costume and sporting fright contact lenses, is suddenly thrown a mike and begins to sing along to Katy Perry’s ‘Firework’ as two other performers — men in sailor suits — try to reel her in with the microphone cord-turned-fishing line. This worked well as allegory, particularly when prefaced by a spoken text about mermaids in folklore. Like their sisters the sirens and maenads, mermaids seduce and consume men with their sensuality and song.
We routinely call pop singers ‘sirens,’ defanging that word in the process, since the original sirens lured sailors to their shipwrecked doom. Caught on the line of the pop ‘hook,’ the mermaid thrashes as she belts out Perry’s lyrics of bland self-affirmation.
You just gotta ignite the light
And let it shine
Just own the night
Like the Fourth of July
Later on, Liv Young inserted some scary shark teeth and flopped around threatening the front row of the audience, who giggled and snapped photos until she started to tear into the real dead fish she was carrying, at which point most backed up. By the point she was being spun around by her fins in a mess of bloody water, to the tune of Willow Smith’s ‘Whip My Hair,’ the alienation/identification effect was complete.
I whip my hair back and forth
I whip my hair back and forth
I whip my hair back and forth
Here was pop lyric as found instruction piece, with Liv Young opting for the Lacanian tactic, not of simple transgression of the dominant order, but of ‘persisting to the end‘ finding in that persistence a sublime doorway onto creativity.
I went back on Saturday for a second helping of Liv Young, this time to see the Sherry Show. I continued my informal audience research on her performance. One person felt she was unable to discern the intent of the Mermaid Show because Liv Young “had a lot of trouble with her costume” and therefore the performance didn’t come off for her. That was an odd response, as I was pretty sure the grappling with the costume was part of the show. But another’s eyes lit up and called the piece “soulful” which was not the word I would have thought of, but seemed apt as soon as he said it.
Soul, r&b, and rap are certainly major components of her show, given her US southern roots. But these black musics are not delivered in anything like an Amy Winehouse or Adele ‘blue-eyed soul’ style. Instead she sings raucously over original tracks, layering her voice (badly) with the preexisting vocal track so as to prevent any comparison with the professionalism of karaoke.
This lingering in the negative allows the show to achieve moments of extraordinary force, such as one in which she confronted a male heckler until she somehow got him to talk about his deceased father, and how much he missed him calling up to ask how he is, at which point Sherry dedicated a song to him — T.I.’s “Dead and Gone.”
This is known as ‘taking it too far.’ But rather than bad taste, it rather seemed to me a palpable brand of stranger intimacy I longed for. After lingering on the edge of the performance, I scooted into the front row, but my eagerness to participate was perhaps discernable, and Sherry overlooked me for more aghast prey.
Another male skeptic (this one an art critic, poor sod), got Lionel Richie’s “Stuck on You” dedicated to his 9 month child. The humor and pathos of this particular title is only occurring to me now, as I write this.