There’s a tendency, I think, for established bands to comment less and less on their music during concerts. It’s a trend driven by the self-awareness that comes with an understanding that your music will always be bigger than you are. No matter what you have to say about your music, someone else will believe it means something else. This is a tendency common to bands that have less to say about their songs than their songs say on their own. When your music speaks for itself, you don’t need to introduce it, make apologies for it, or defend it.
This trend towards less explanation receives a respite during small concerts, intimate performances, and special anniversary shows. For some bands, on the contrary, the need to explain what’s happening in the song before they perform is different. For the Mountain Goats, every song’s introduction lends a new interpretation to the tune. Sometimes it’s a simple introduction that John gives before a new song (“In professional wrestling, there’s something called a battle royal.”) sometimes, it’s a longer ordeal that explains why the song was written, how it used to be performed, or how the audience ought to hear it. Typically, audiences don’t want to be told how songs are meant to be heard. Those audience don’t listen to performers like John Darnielle.
Music in Three Parts
It’s no secret that I’m a fan of the Mountain Goats (stylized, as Darnielle has made clear, with a lower case ’T’ beginning ‘the’ in the band name). But explaining why some bands can get away with substantial stage banter (Frank Turner, the Mountain Goats, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen to name a few) and others avoid it like the plague requires a little bit of philosophic background on the role of art in a subculture. Please bear with me for just a few paragraphs.
The basic aesthetic hypothesis of the later 20th century breaks art into three distinct facets. (Regrading music, Jaques Attali in his book Noise is particularly influential in understanding the way that each part interacts with the others.) Art, and it’s substantive mediums including music, is broken into three parts: production, reception, and circulation.
Production: This is the kind of artistic creation that audiences seem to be familiar with. When artists write a song, or record a track, or otherwise perform the actual process of making new music they are engaging in artistic production. Production doesn’t exist in a vacuum and artists are likely to draw on their surroundings, past experiences, and culturally shaped imagination to create the particular song that they do. The fact that music (all art for that matter) isn’t created ex nihilo (from nothing) shouldn’t diminish the spark of genius that theorists often suppose needs to accompany this stage of the process. Taking and remixing old pieces is often just as complex and worthy of admiration as creating something wholly new. After all, if this were not the case, Mondrian would be a distinctly terribly painter (Too many basic shapes! What’s with all the primary colors? Can’t you stop just painting squares everywhere?). The important feature here, however, is that the productive process is (according to philosophers and artists alike) a marriage of conscious and unconscious activity. This means by definition art isn’t comprehensively explainable by the artist. In less technical language: just because the artist made it, doesn’t mean they have a monopoly on explaining it. There are processes embedded in the art that even the creator couldn’t predict and can’t explain.
Reception: Reception, on the other hand, accounts for the idiosyncrasies of the creative process that the artist themselves can’t predict or explain. People engaged in listening, in any context, are part of the receptive tradition of a piece of music. In fact, it’s a particular feature of my own philosophy on the issue that I think properly listening to music takes practice, and getting the right kind of people to listen to your music in the right kind of way is an indication of mastery over the creative process of artistic production.
Let’s look at an example really quickly here: Pretend your a garage-rock performer trying to write a post-punk hardcore/grunge album. If you sign to a mainstream label, and Top 40 listeners really love your music, that’s a good indication that something went wrong in the creative process. It’s not that your music can’t have wide appeal or that Top 40 listeners aren’t discerning enough to appreciate your music. What went wrong is that you wrote an album aimed at a specific sub-culture and instead it appealed more to a completely different audience that you hadn’t intended to write music for.
Reception is part of the artistic process partly because the kind of reception the artist predicted is an indication that they did the production part right and partly because the art itself relies on meaningful engagement by a discerning audience. After all, music that languishes unpublished is hardly music at all and certainly can’t be incorporated into the larger corpus of the artist. Reception helps to illuminate those parts of the art that don’t fit quite right with the intentional meaningful aspects of a song or album. Reception illuminates the unintended meaning embedded in a song.
Circulation: Finally, it’ s a curious feature that songs need to include circulation in the meaningful facets of it’s artistic composition at all. However, circulation is often as important and meaningful as either production or reception. Just because it reaches outside of the purview of the song “in itself” so to speak doesn’t mean that it doesn’t play a big part in the meaningful aspects of the work. For example, the unintentional leak of Fight Off Your Demons and the eventual realize of the Leaked Demos 2006 by Brand New is as much a part of the album and its story than either the production or reception. Where, when and how (or even if) official releases happen is as much a part of the art as the songs themselves. An indie release, for example, signals something about the music that an official label release might otherwise obscure. Countercultural tendencies in the song can be amplified by an official rejection of major labels, and an acceptance of major labels (like, for example, in the case of Green Day) can signal a rejection of old social scenes that are no longer accessible to the band (Gilman St. performances, in the aforementioned example).
So what does this have to do with stage banter?
Ultimately, stage banter is a subversive action on behalf of the band. It’s a rejection of the organic nature of musical evolution and often an attempt to fill in, shape, or flesh out the trifold practices that constitute a work of art in the music scene. Things go wrong when artists try to control the reception and circulation of a song or album too rigidly. No one wants to be told that they’re listening to a song wrong. Especially at large concerts, the illusion of the performer/audience split is important to the construction of the art. Breaking the 4th wall the way that stage banter does isn’t always tolerated. (The cinematic performances of My Chemical Romance, for example, seem ill suited to intimate stage banter.) Smaller shows admit more banter though, the 4th wall seems less important and with it, the dichotomy between performer and audience isn’t so important. The performer is much more a part of the reception and circulation than in large venues. I suspect this is for two reasons.
Regarding circulation, the idea that small concerts are meant to be attended and not distributed limits the kind of reception that’s possible. No one is going to be listening to those recordings in their car, or on their home stereo, or in cheap earbuds on their way to class (or that’s the idea anyway). No one attending the show needs convincing that the album is worth listening to, the artist isn’t trying to recruit new fans. Small, intimate concerts allow for more banter because the circulation is practically nonexistent. The delivery is more direct, and always aimed at the so-called ‘true believer’ fan.
Regarding reception, the bands that admit for more stage banter are those that write purposefully generalizable songs about specific events. This is perhaps particular to singer-songwriters and their tradition, but the idea is that when artists perform songs about a specific event or set of events but aim the song at a feeling they have the leeway necessary to tell a story. Good stage banter, and the reason it’s easier to find at small concerts, doesn’t curtail the possible receptions of a song. It’s an acknowledgement that the song came from somewhere and is about something, but that it can be received in more ways than one. It gives the audience the background information they need to appreciate the song the way the artist intended without telling them how they ought to listen to it.
I’m particularly fond of stage banter and song introductions. I don’t think stage banter works for big bands and I don’t think it’s necessary for really specific songs, but I think that there’s a middle ground where it really helps. When it reinforces the connection between production and reception and strengthens the bond between the performer and audience, I think it’s doing its job. It’s not really useful when the band is constructing a 4th wall, and it’s not really useful at huge shows or for radio play where the audience is too unpredictable to really guess well at what the reception is that night/day/week. But at small concerts, it’s important. It lets the audience know that they’re not alone, that the artist is struggling with the meaning and importance of a song as much as they are. That the meaning isn’t fixed, and that just because it’s a sad song today doesn’t mean it will be tomorrow too.