Saturday, 21 July 2012

An inaccuracy of love

I read an article by Tom Sutcliffe in yesterday's Independent which deserves to be quoted at length here, as it ties in with a recent post about Ben E King and the theme which has interested me for yonks, namely the tension between the performer's and audience's expectations.

I suppose it's partly about the melancholy of time passing. I recall a family holiday in Spain and seeing a fairly young guy singing and playing accordion in a pub, giving out flyers which seemed to be of the group he was formerly part of. I must have been around ten, but I think I caught a sense that something sad was going on: I mean, he hadn't printed new flyers of his own, so his fortunes since the split obviously hadn't been that great, and he was sort of trading on our supposed knowledge of his past. I seem to recall a sense of desperation at one point - unless it was just that he was putting all his passion into the climax of a certain song. Or both. I could be romanticising the vaguest of memories, but I hope he endured.

When I grew a bit older and became interested enough in fifties rock'n'roll and doo wop to try to see those heroes who were still around I soon became aware that parting with my 50p or however much it was could as easily be an occasion for sadness as joy.

Or maybe not so much sadness as numbness or puzzlement: sitting bemused while everyone around me seemed to be whooping it up, lost in the fifties tonight, with no sense of the yawning gulf between the energy and delight on the records and the cold rehashing of those feelings onstage. I  tried to write - and may even finish sometime - a play about a former child star who becomes aware that it almost doesn't matter what he does onstage: the audience will fill in from their stock of memories. Once he twigged that, he sings a new song for himself and exits for good. "If memories were all I sang, I'd rather drive a truck," as another teen idol succinctly put it.

The Independent article is interesting because it suggests a reason why some critics react, in print, in much the same way as those starry-eyed audiences. The columnist distinguishes between two critical vices. The first involves writing about what what - in the critic's mind - the piece ought to have been.
 The other version [...] consists of reviewing the performance you hoped you might get before you actually turned up ... or, to put it another way, of reviewing the performance you'd love to say you'd been at. This too involves critical inaccuracy but it's driven, in this case, by an admiration for the artist in question rather than an indifference to his or her intentions. The review I'm thinking about in this respect was one that followed Paul Simon's Graceland concert in Hyde Park the other night and which, in the course of a 360-degree rave, described Simon's voice as "faultless".

I went to that concert, very much enjoyed it, and found myself in tears at at least two points [...] But I don't think I'd have described Simon's voice as "faultless". He's 70 years old now and it isn't what it was ... but that hardly mattered. Its frailties were integrally part of the emotional content of the show. That critic, it seemed to me, wasn't reviewing what he'd actually heard, but what he wanted – in his admiration for a great singer-songwriter – to be true. His was an inaccuracy of love, not condescension.

I suspect that the second kind of wishfulness is the one we're most prone to as consumers of art. We like to feel that we've invested our emotions (and our cash) in something worthwhile and we're disinclined to confront any evidence to the contrary – even when that evidence doesn't really amount to a contradiction at all. So we tell ourselves a little white lie about what we've seen. The best critics though – and the best readers and watchers too – don't tell lies at all.

Full article here.

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