You're simply the best / Better than all the rest / Better than anyone / Anyone I ever met...
Fight fans will recognise Chris Eubank’s signature entrance as Tina Turner singing her pretty little lungs out. In refraction of its context, a vainglorious aside turned into a theatre piece when Eubank pompously show-boated through audiences to his opponents. The catch-all term for this – vanity – is additionally a cornerstone of the grass roots project, the spit ‘n’ sawdust organisation, something which can never be eschewed for as long as insecurity exists. Resulting, it becomes forever exploited by those with the controls, for manufacturing to wider audiences, and this reality holds true for music too – just ask Lana Del Ray’s salarymen.
But then, aren’t fighting and artistic vanity quite different? Yes and no. Fighting is part show, part wearing the trousers after the talking. But what surrounds the fighter can be seen and heard through words, lyrics, songs, gimmicks. Plus, a performance on any stage is greeted by nerves, a psychological toodle-pip-to-perfect-pitch. As well as that: the naked skin overtone transcending to its format, in companionship with imagery, character and subversion of normal personality, is what music has always held in tandem with academic principles of artwork composition, whereas that’s something fighting ubiquitously can’t evolve. Because: spectatorship in music scenes turns to internal concerns such as sensitivity, safety and sensibility, rather than vim, vigilance and violence. Though all the same, there are times when these qualities cross, and no one fighter, or speculatedly vain person is quite the same.
“I used to manage a live space in Shinjuku, Tokyo 10 years ago, and it was a major project to do: 3 or 4 events a month”, Jan Linton, an artist whose “Sendai” Japan benefit EP is released on Entropy Records in April 2012, explained to me 20 months ago for the second planned SubVersion event. “I remember one time I punched the manager of the the club, but I apologized immediately after. Though in true Japanese style, my apology wasn’t accepted – one major disagreement – that sometimes tends to be the end of a relationship in Japan, I think. Confrontation is to be avoided, it seems. And in retrospect I can be a bit too confrontational when it comes to things I passionately believe in, especially music”. We can all relate to snapping built up over time when under stress. But ostensibly, is there a reason for confrontation in relation to dual egotism? Whether it’s emotive abrasion in the recipient, where they can’t take any more careless rejection or downtreading, or overtly curt dismissal from the other, there’s bipolar argument: vanity’s pretence is counterproductive at one extreme, and actually beneficial to growth on the other. As by being vain, at a level, you’re thinking an audience will like everything you like. So, you might release more “great” records as a label owner. Then, the vanity attribute is at other times an awkward transmutation that leads to tunnel vision – too much of one thing, or too much of everything, as it was for Jan and his manager – making it unfair in our context.
Like what fighting did for egotism on the way up, experimental music does for deflation on the way down. Being a medium for universal expression, rather than a constrained pride exercise, its public receive adrenalin rushes from picking up a desired album, whether it’s physically obtained or otherwise. The pride of owning a collection of timeless artefacts if the former, and digital transmissions into the unconscious in either. Nonetheless, the general audience buyer has no fiercely attuned directive, on where experimentalism goes, in any scene. So perceptions the “Experimental” scene’s full of big heads; that the music got lost on the way; that the humility, down-to-earthness and intellect has evaporated in place of corporate torpor, ghostwritten agendas and bare-faced arrogance, means these three by-products play a part in scenic integration, where personality is at odds with populace. Too, they speak for one individual’s conduct with others; a collected history of dilemmas, distractions and excitations that resolve and unfurl only how the artist knows.
The experimental music producer operates on the grass root, awaiting their inspiration, finery or folly, and all of it can be converted to sound. And all, via some channel in the 21st century, can make its way into the world untarnished by the trappings of vacuous celeb culture. But all is susceptible to vanity, for good or bad, and every situation is emotionally cross-possessive, where a possessed impulse – vanity; a wish to showcase one’s talents – brushes new formatting shoulders, as well as junctures with the media. Ultimately then, vanity is inherent with processing different personalities, previous achievements and agendas. And firstly it depends on how you interpret the word. Linton’s recent “Buddha Machine Music” mini CD release, for instance, saw him manipulating samples from Fm3’s lauded ambience device with considerable skill. Did he feel it a conscious process of personal gratification, and self-love when deciding approaching a renowned name’s Ambient work? He answers globally: “The light pours out of me; I just let the art flow out.”
I then deduce from him: “Though in fact I am quite vain (about my looks), perhaps not my music, though I am a perfectionist. Perhaps that’s an interesting take on it?” Certainly by introducing ideas of reservedness and being vain cohabiting together, we have one viable argument that to be humble, you also have to be vain as well, at certain places, at certain times. Just like an adult matures from a possible previous alpha male existence, no black and white thinking is necessary. Since humans morph their characteristics like chameleons. Following on, it can be said vanity invites mental irritants – such as poverty or prosperity – to shrivel due to heightened self-consciousness. The mind reacts to external stimulants, such as music, films, books – life as a whole last. Afterward, it decides what to do with the matter. Then depending on progress of the person, vanity intrudes like an involuntary light switch to drive or reverse the progress of the scenario. This causes vanity’s interdependence on others by way of never satisfying one’s craving for success. And although any scene is constructed on foundations of unconditionality – sharing stages, gear, production tips, recommendations – the transient of money being what empowers change, creates potential over-expectancy, and over-dependence, on others to reach an individual goal. “I’ve never really made ‘money music’ though”, Linton counters, “I.e songs created to sell – mainly as I cannot write to order and songs like that always sound crass and cheesy anyway, regardless how polished and technically well played they are. I just cannot produce a Mariah Carey type track for the life of me!”
Psychological wellbeing can hence be seen as a springboard and pedestal-tipper of decision-making, progressing to vaingloriousness, and through the ages of composition, stories of excess and solace spawn every decade.
Carly Simon’s lauded Rock icebreaker “You’re So Vain” obliquely addressed more than the “I bet you think this song is about you” mantra; those indulging in psychotropic drugs or experiencing madness access alternate realities, where like Chris Eubank’s context, words formulate new entry and exit gates on existentialism, to 2D; the listener is entranced and thinks the song is talking to them, literally and figuratively. Music scene reliances on beverages, masticate trade with venues normally. But the natural desire to reach inner ennui whatever religion, is consequentially higher, and here’s where the egotism ruminates. With Daniel Thomas Freeman, formerly of Rameses III, manic depression was the psychological condition that idoneously made him partial to introverting into his own ego-world. And as written by Fluid Radio’s Dean Rocker upon Home Normal releasing “The Beauty Of Doubting Yourself” in July 2011: “Dan Freeman has certainly suffered for his art.”
As a fellow sufferer of manic depression myself, one important vanity-encircling aspect of living is the idea: when you’ve got more time to do things, they can mean less to you. Things seem “in vain”, and meaning turns to another trajectory of “vanity” – that the subject matter is hollow or worthless. This leads to a connection between more time, more depression, so I ask Freeman if it was the same for him when depression struck. “Depression has inflicted itself on me at various points in my life” he states, “and, although it has never been major enough to affect the execution of functional tasks, it has blocked my creativity at its extremes as it has – falsely – led me to think that music is ephemeral, useless and a waste of energy. In fact I would argue that music is at its best when it is functional. I learnt through rave culture that music which does not communicate directly to people’s need is anchorless and now I concentrate on trying to give each piece of music I write a functional core: a weight, density and intensity that can imprint itself deep into the listener if they choose to let it.”
This perception of depression shouldn’t be confused with vanity. However if the occupier is particularly vain, depression as output gives them an inclination to grieve over their underachievements. Magnifying the concern for self-attributes more than the “normal”, non-vain state, it is rather a realistic slide into the mundane. “I would venture that even the choice of musical style can involve ignoring your own vanity.” Freeman extends. “It took me well over a decade to realise the music I was born to make was quiet, slow and spiritual. Although I had loved music such as the first This Mortal Coil album ‘It’ll End in Tears’ (4AD) in my teens, the music I made from then through to my early thirties barely reflected this, and instead spoke of my then desire to be part of the current stream of more visible music, even though my abilities lay elsewhere. It was only when I re-grouped with my old friends Spencer Grady and Stephen Lewis to form the band Rameses III that this realisation started to take place, and even then it was mostly through the inspiration of the other two. The real tipping point came when Spencer wanted to start introducing drone elements into our previously avant-Folk sound. Whereas before my contribution to Rameses III had been engineering, co-production and some very subtle keyboard work fitting around Spen and Steves’ guitar interplay, now I was being asked to extrapolate gentle expansive swathes out of our performance and I realised that this was what my hands were best at sculpting (you can hear this happening from the ‘Jozepha’ mini-album onwards).”
Did “The Beauty Of Doubting Yourself” adapt itself in comparable ways in Dan’s view? He comments: “Elements which took many months to complete were rejected and elements which had seemed inconsequential at the creation point were brought into focus.” Maybe pride has some part to play, but Freeman has other ideas. “The most extreme example of this was the title track of the album, where I did not even remember creating the track which had been part of a much more complex unfinished piece. My concept for the original piece had to be jettisoned in favour of the almost unconscious simplicity of the forgotten fragment. Musicians often speak of receiving rather than writing music (I remember Bernard Sumner of New Order once commented in the British music press that he thought he had an invisible aerial on top of his head) and certainly much of the best writing seems to occur when ego is forgotten or deliberately avoided.”
Jan Linton echoes this externalised feeling of Bernard Sumner too. “Actually with the new ‘Sendai’ EP”, he says, “the original tracks really were channelled; I didn’t eat or sleep for 2-3 days and I just played these freeform tracks into the sequencer (no editing), and when I played them back they sounded…’unearthly’ and certainly not from me.” It can then be believed that beneath ego, we’re infused with what’s instinctual: language turns to knowledge, knowledge turns to power. But after – and as would be expected of anything in power – you only have to look at today’s politicans for the dos and dont’s of public relations – power builds to egotism, and it’s this substansial gravitas that I see as necessary to be broken down. Luckily with these two interviewees I haven’t encountered anything near negative yet.
Fluid’s Dean Rocker also wrote in 2011 in his review of “The Beauty…” that: “Many people are drawn to the arts in order to fulfil a desire for acceptance and affection from their audience; they need that confirmation in order to feel good about themselves. But having a love affair with thousands of people you don’t know is bound to lead to discontent, despair and distress – often as soon as you exit the stage, or go home to an empty mansion.” Detachment from reality inside the studio, like any reclusion gives certain flight to the bizarre, as if one’s solitary efforts are reinforced as solitary efforts no-one else has done before. With the Experimental scene, the processing time may be greater, but there’s still fast workers, and much of the same rules apply to appreciation of a producer’s own work as it would do with a Pop musician. What’s more, the external influences surrounding popular music decrease the more experimental something is, giving increased flight to a self-worth that, if in the right environment, becomes a grand inflation of the music’s worth subsequently.
While Freeman’s album contains much stellar musicianship, from string work to dense masses of drone, we nonetheless know instruments don’t have souls. But – they can evoke and respond to emotions, and vanity thus creates a plateau in the musician where escapism is possible. However, as a result of humans always being connected to our emotions, whether subconsciously or otherwise, there’s a danger of pulling back too hard into realism when luck doesn’t go our way socially. Say a casual criticism or half-there remark is uttered from a disgruntled or indifferent spectator, and the vanity complex latches onto the negative, in chronological reverse to the positive. Additional praise is hence required to keep the vanity complex at bay, the musician making what they want to make – with no compromises – and a moving forward on all accounts with their business. And then the basis for whether that remark, or further remarks was their business, should turn to dust. That’s not what always happens though. Freeman is lucid on his relationship with his audience. “A reduction of ego has equated to a respect for the listener for me. Even within the experimental music scene where tastes can thankfully be very wide I think there is a responsibility to present unique and individual music which speaks to the audience’s needs without descending into some sort of market-researched compromise. Relevant criticism is a very useful tool in this process, keeping the music focused on the essential.”
To turn to a criticism of articulating vanity itself, you could analyse any two people and superimposing vanity would be partially in vain. This happens since internal-mind-monologues that build authentic vanity, are veiled underneath other human traits such as introversion, extroversion.
Then middling task-banded behaviours such as greed, under-reading, presuming and outright fallacy to do jobs properly. These four task-banded behaviours can also be observed as a timeline-reflective example of one theory I have on sociological chronology. It goes like this. The first category of people are strangers, the second friends, the third partners, the fourth – and most telling difference in magnitude – those with perceived psychopathy. To communicate with each category, one has to increase the size of the message attempted to convey. So the stranger only needs a nod, for instance, whereas on the other end the exhibitant of perceived psychopathy needs a lot more – even an inquisition. This theory can be used as a counter-measure to weed out who’s acting in vain and who’s genuinely out of their mind in any industry – including the top 1% of businesspeople, as reported in The Guardian in 2011, who profit most from movements which “Occupy Now” couldn’t topple.
The 1-4 case equation impacting on the subject of vanity works complimentarily with another theory I have, of not personal status, but age related to personal status. I see 18-28 as the time when individuals actually grow up, whereas puberty and the pre-pubescent can easily be forgotten, flatten out into a straight line by apathy towards environment, and essentially not ‘grow’ an individual in the purest sense. While when reaching 18-28, men and women are free to indulge in sex, substances and stimulants, leave home in most cases, and take on roles including mother and fatherhood. Importantly to vanity’s inclusion, this all correlates as accumulated experience, tipping the see-saw between beneficial insecurity and humans’ thuds in the chest, heartbeats jaywalking a motor on highfalutin highway.
So, if we connect these preceding two theories – social typecast input and age-based experience – we get a cumulative insight into perhaps why the Experimental music scene has less vanity than outsiders may believe. There’s less psychopaths, less partners, more friends, more strangers. And the dominant mass of musicians come to prominence in their late twenties. Just take Liz Harris, aka Grouper, the Portland native and support to Animal Collective across the States. Now in her thirties like Freeman, it’s arguable the quietness of much Ambient music, and Harris’ catalogue to boot, predisposes her to a more calculated approach to music making. Within this calculation of elements belies a structural resume that causes all manner of fleeting, fanciful and downright unachieveable scales to rear their heads. Harris’ shift from Wurlitzer to tape loop systems, meanwhile, was an opposite of impulse addiction, something which formulates emptiness and extroversion-driven vanity, where the subject puffs themselves up to posture as more than they really are, trying to sweep any foibles under the carpet. Meeting Liz at Dalston, London’s Cafe Oto in November 2010, she was more than contrary to this presumption: quiet on stage, quiet off stage, but never full of herself. Musicians who sink from competition, like Harris could be seen as, or who introvert themselves per course of their own familiarity and comfort, sometimes fall to the sidelines, so it’s testament to the quality of good music that Harris has succeeded in selling so many records, and toured extensively. Indeed she was interested in answering questions for this article, but was so busy with gigging we couldn’t converse!
So we’ve firmly established vanity is possessive to the extent of safeguarding individual artistic integrity – such that one gets removed from everyday upsets – almost as if transforming yourself into an instrument. Taking that principle further, in Clarissa Pinkola-Estes’ Jungian psychoanalysis bestseller “Women Who Run With The Wolves (Ballantine)”, she writes: “‘participation mystique’ – a term borrowed from anthropologist Levy-Bruhl – is used to mean a relationship wherein ‘a person cannot distinguish themselves as separate from the object or thing they behold”. Could, then, this using vanity as a vehicle for ensnaring – or losing oneself – in the music creation process be beneficial as a long term reality, or will the Experimental scene and its dynamics become further susceptible to anonymity, where the musician struggles to express beyond ego-pump? Indeed vainglory, the archaic synonym for vanity implemented, leads into the ideation of unjustified boasts, and this poses a problem to experimental musicians looking for a rung on the ladder when stating their credentials for touring, or building a net fanbase. Vanity consequently causes these to become embittered with their surroundings; they become pseudo-snobbish, turning nose up at the world around them. Surrounding, from my experience the self-penned press release hype machine: it’s torpid enough without the imposed force of sensationalist doctrines, a “y’know, my tune wipes the floor with your Shake ‘N’ Vac”. From seeing artists like James Leyland Kirby’s path to praise, it’s not idealistic to say vanity can be eradicated for a fledgling idealist. For Kirby, from his days as plunderphonic prankster V/Vm in the 90s, sampling pigs and mashing up pop music into jellied aural screed, he managed to fight with image as well as wear the trousers with his music. A trend of albums crescendoing as subconscious mimicking of pomp it wasn’t – and there is plenty more to explore besides this lynchpin.
In conclusion, vanity is definitely a part of the Experimental music scene, but it is not as prominent as hindsight or foresight maintains. Vanity can alter the systematic procedure of creating art. Vanity subtracts artistic importance. Vanity is a cultural stigma, a news story all of its own around the story at hand. But proposed vanity, in my current sight of the Experimental music sector, is unfair.