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Wednesday, December 22, 2004
So we were all talking a bit about that "outsider artist" Henry Darger on that list of ours, and someone brought up that old chestnut of an argument, "he wouldn't be anywhere as famous / successful / credible if it weren't for his backstory."

As someone who spends most of his time close to pop, I find this argument to be pretty silly. Well of course he wouldn't have! He would've have deserved to! An artist's personality--backstory, interview statements, day-to-day actions, articles, etc.--are half the fun, as important, if not more so, as the work itself, to the degree that a lot of the work explicitly comments on the personality (as opposed to subtly or inadvertantly in the underpop world). It is a primary source of pleasure. Indeed, this particular commenting is one way non-pop acts cross into Pop-I territory and enter that murky area you might call underpop. The White Stripes are striving for underpop because despite the numerous publicly consumed details of the Whites' lives, nothing has yet to surface about it in the music itself really, except for strained interpretations of "7 Nation Army" as a "I vant to be alone" cry. And there aren't a whole lot of Modest Mouse songs about being wrongly accused of rape last I checked. But there is a Courtney Love song called "All The Drugs in the World." (Courtney being, of course, totally Pop-I.) One doesn't have to go that far, but hiding little notices in the art can be as nice a pop touch as handclaps or oohs. I'm starting to get distracted with this tangent, though, so let's move on and maybe come back to it later.

The simple fact is that pop's pleasure derives in large part from its relentless reveal of personality, on its insistence on the total, or partial, well-rounded character-based reveal. It's like that line about Eminem being notable because he crashed into the public consciousness with a song that assumed he was already a part of said consciousness, addressing the mainstream as if he was in it already. And this is, yes, about not just speaking to your small little group, but also in insisting, in insanely believing, that everyone should be interested not only in what you have to say, but in you as you. It's insane but it's also plausible, because millions and millions of people do care about certain individuals. And they do so because it's fun.

As art, it's tied up pretty closely with Warhol and the 15 minutes thing, that as individuals we are little bite-sized nuggets of art, that the years and years we've put into crafting our personalities and lifestories are very interesting to other people, albeit only for a small period of time. But as entertainment, which is of course the far more important arena when you're talking about pop, the appeal lies in an initial creation and the sustaining and shaping of that particular narrative, which has an advantage the fact that it can be gleefully artificial, although never forced. You can track it pretty closely with other phenomenons of novelty, such as transgression--kill a puppy once, it's shocking, kill a puppy every day for a year, it starts to get boring; a Paris Hilton sex tape leaks, it's fascinating, four Paris Hilton sex tapes leak, well...

But this is a genuine pleasure, albeit arguably one of the few valid examples of a guilty pleasure, insofar as much of the pleasure is tied up with guilt--you have to regard it with a certain detachment to really get the full dose of pleasure out of it. (Much like with porn.) But there is simply no denying that the mass consumption of personality can be just as pleasing as the mass consumption of a song or a TV show, and of course in the cases of certain TV shows, is not entirely different.

Nor is Henry Darger, or anyone to whom the above objection can be posed. It is a sort of hook, a way of getting people interested, but not only that, it becomes the lens through which the work is viewed. For some people, this can be horrible, and certainly if you're not a nincompoop you'll be aware of this and try and manage your public presentation of personality accordingly. (And, indeed, if you want to advance your personality narrative, you will actively try and force a shift of this frame at some point in your career.) But it is also more than that. Your life story is interesting as a "story"; your character is interesting as a "character." That we appear as little different from fictional constructs to strangers should not be a surprise, at least when mediated the way personalities of artists usually are. And this is both OK and unchanging of actual really reality; if pressed, we are well aware that these people are real, but the detachment that allows us to find pleasure in their personalities (whether we admit it or not) takes the form here of sort of fictionalizing a real person, or allowing them to be fictionalized for us.

And yet some people still view the above argument, that an artist's success is somehow illegitimate if they are at all personally interesting, as valid and even cutting. I think objections of this type are made on moral and/or artistic grounds, i.e. either because it reduces a real person with real problems to a narrative and is thus cruel and inhuman, or because a work should stand on its own and that having personality in the equation taints it, clouds our vision. I think we've addressed the moral objection fairly well above, although I would also add that being concerned for Britney's welfare does me little good when I'm not really in a position to be giving her life advice so might as well enjoy the show while it lasts. As for the aesthetic objection, it's circular logic. The way to refute is to say, "Well, I actually don't care about the personality, I like the work for itself," to which of course the reply would be, "No, you only think you like it, but if it weren't for the backstory you would think it's shitty." Or, "I am totally unaware of the personality of the artist, I just think this is pretty," to which the response would be, "Well, you wouldn't even have been aware of it if it weren't for the backstory, so it's not fair." If there's no way to disprove an argument, well, you know, that sort of disproves it right there, doesn't it?

Look, we all know people who are talented enough to be famous, but because of some aspect of them-as-people, not them-as-artist--their appearance, their ability to network, their stage presence, their being totally batshit nuts, some weird miasma of loserdom that surrounds them at all times--it's just not going to happen. And we all can think of famous, successful people who are far less talented than the people we know, and this sucks. But the facts remain:

a) These famous, untalented people bring us just bucketloads of pleasure. I'm sure your friend's band is great and should be showered with naked humans of whatever gender is preferred (or clothed humans talking very intelligently about serious subjects, if it's that kind of band), but I've been to their shows, and dude, it's a lot more fun seeing Lindsay Lohan in a "SKINNY BITCH" shirt. (And no, not for the reason you're thinking, perv.) Plus, it takes less time!

b) I'm still unclear (and this is as someone whose life goals at this point include "rock star" and "famous writer," mind you) why the hell talented people not being famous is such a fucking crime. Dude, shut up and work a job like the rest of us. In the age of the internets, if someone wants to experirence a piece of artistic creation, they pretty much can, in some form; OK, you're not getting your ass indie-promo'd onto the radio, or pimped on a Book Club of one form or another, but so what? What makes you think you're so interesting that millions of people want to know about you? The only people that get to think that are the ones who already have millions of people interested in you. There's lots and lots of Great Art out there. If some of it falls through the cracks, and the creator is a resident of a modern democracy, they're going to be OK for themselves, and the work will be there for the future.

Now, there is another objection you could make on artistic grounds: that this is not valid as art because there's no conscious creation involved, it's just you living your life. But of course this is not true--there are countless numbers of conscious decisions involved, even before people become actively interested in your personality. Indeed, I think one of the most interesting things about this phenomenon is that anyone aware of the way this works can and does make pretty deliberate choices about what and how much people get to know. (Up until the point where they become super-famous, when from what it seems you're sort of open season--word to the wise.) I, for instance, have something about me that I'm well aware would probably garner me more notice than I'm currently getting in my pursuits, but I'm choosing to not talk about it, for various reasons. (I'm also not hiding it, if you're interested.) This is a choice I'm making. At the same time, I'm not sure how strenuously I would object if someone else came along and wanted to make hay with it. Something about me not being the one making the, I dunno.

Well, this sort of ran out of steam. But, more later.

PRESUMABLY LENGTHY ADDENDUM: The other interesting thing in this besides mere personality is keeping track of careers and taking a certain pleasure at the way they are run--admiring, for instance, the way Madonna has reinvented herself, or the way Britney chooses producers/songs, or whatever. A certain part of me really dislikes this, and I actually used to wholly dislike it ("who the fuck cares about Madonna's brilliant career choices when the music sucks?!?!"--I was 16, you know how it goes), but I've grown to appreciate it. I think this is partially because this particular appreciation is dependent on a certain knowledge of The Way Things Work, and specifically in comparing the way X is currently running his career as compared to the way you've seen Y run their career. This is particularly highlighted in politics, I think, where unlike in art, the endproduct doesn't bring you any particular pleasure (unless my rep pushes through my long-desired Free Bacon For Everyone legislation), but sort of abstractly obserserving the moves people are making, and trying to guess their motivations or level of knowledge, the game of guessing the outcome, taking it as a kind of reference to history, this is genuinely pleasurable.

And so it is with pop. It's awfully meta, but, you know, meta is fun. It's enjoying not only the narrative but the process of creating it. It's admitting the artificiality of the whole process and then celebrating it as such. It's (and I'm sure there's a better example of this, but I just can't think of one right now) Cary Elwes and Mandy Patinkin in The Princess Bride dueling while also commenting on and admiring each other's technique. This is what we do. It's putting our useless knowledge to good use in pursuit of our own enjoyment.

The other day I was riding the train and listening to Gene Serene, and I thought about how different aspects of an artist's...well, let's just go ahead and call it "total package." Different aspects of said total package serve different purposes at different points. For instance, I simply downloaded "Electric Dreams" from Fluxblog and liked it, the work as itself. Then a little while later, Joe posted that flyer, and we were all like, whoa, so that's what she looks like. But the simple fact is, that look is not incidental. Without that look (or a look of some kind), it's doubtful that she would've been able to get gigs or get her records put out (and, for the record, this is just as true with male artists as it is with female ones, she's just the closest example at hand), and without that, I would not have downloaded the song in the first place and would not have been able to appreciate it separate from any context.

What I'm saying is that, regardless of all the stuff above about personality or context being an additional and sometimes superior pleasure to the work itself, even if you want to view the work as a thing isolated, you have to acknowledge that it was that dreaded context that allowed it to be seen as such in the first place, that brought it to exposure. No one should be operating under the delusion any more that "good work will always find an audience," because that's clearly not true. So if you're really bothered by backstory--if you really want to make this objection--then look at it this way: personality is what allows a work to be seen for itself, separate from anything else. If the stars align, it will be this object that will sit there, waiting to be picked up by someone with no knowledge of its context. But it has to get on the table first, if you know what I mean. Context can be a pleasure, yes, but it is also an indespensable tool.