“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”[1] (hopefully): doing vulnerability

In a previous post [2], I mentioned in passing the importance of developing resilience; as a crucial part of becoming a musician-self and also in relation to gaining valuable experience as a live performer. In a series of posts beginning next week, I’ll explore this in closer detail. Today, though, I’ll focus mostly on its assumed antithesis: vulnerability.

As regular visitors to this blog will know, I complain frequently about my dislike of theoretical and conceptual dualisms! To quote the wisdom of the legendary Ferris Bueller; “ -isms in my opinion are not good. A person should not believe in an -ism, he should believe in himself”[3]. Amen to that 😊. There’s little escape from such issues today, though, since I’ll be discussing the problematic dichotomy that is resilience/vulnerability, and the ways in which this is both essential to and an inescapable part of being a musician. Mapped onto it is another persistent and particularly annoying binary opposition – active vs. passive – which, I shall argue, properly interferes with how we come to understand the processes of becoming and then being a musician in terms of self and identity.

Before I get stuck into all that stuff, I wish to rant briefly about the notion of ‘being discovered’, the concept of which seems to me to be highly bothersome for several reasons, despite its prevalence in contemporary media discourse. Without falling irretrievably into a vertiginous poststructuralist hole (f**k you, Foucault!), it’s worth taking a moment to consider what it even means to say that a musician[4] has been ‘discovered’. Short of being excavated during an archaeological dig, the process surely involves having (presumably deliberately) made concerted efforts to make oneself sufficiently visible to others in the first place? Even the notorious fast-tracked bedroom-performers-to-superstars came about largely as a consequence of the artists in question having shared their creative pursuits in a (virtual) public space, be that busking outside WHSmith, or via social media/ the internet? It’s a term that implies passivity, but is only made possible through active, agentic behaviour. And don’t even get me started on questions of institutional power. Annoying, like I said!

I digress. As usual 😊

My argument is that being a musician or, indeed, a creative artist more generally, demands taking up a rather peculiar subject position in relation to the active/passive binary, not oscillating between the two in any organised or consistent way, but perpetually negotiating the ‘essential tensions’[5] between them. I also observe that dominant discourses around popular music and musicians typically frame the vulnerability/resilience conundrum as an unwelcome struggle that must be mastered and overcome in order to achieve and maintain success. What’s less well documented and, I think, under explored, is the magical process of transformation that takes place within the – ongoing and ever-present – struggle itself. I think that’s worth contemplating in greater detail.

The concepts of resilience and vulnerability are often paired with one another and understood in the context of how we respond to risk. According to Rutter[6], the qualities of resilience can usefully be described as: “having a sense of purpose, future, aspiration, self-esteem, self-efficacy, mastery of beliefs, sense of autonomy, positive outlook, optimism and a sense that one can accept challenges”. Makes sense to me. I can resonate with much of that, and the next couple of weeks’ blog posts will be dedicated to a closer exploration of resilience, using a few carefully selected lived experience examples from my own gigging history.

Firstly, though, what about vulnerability? Thanks to Brené Brown’s excellent work and the publication of her 2015 book Daring Greatly: how the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead [7], conventional conceptualisations of vulnerability are beginning to be challenged and opened up to reinterpretation. Eschewing our tendency to equate being vulnerable with being weak, Brown encourages us to embrace it as a form of courage and strength and, more importantly, as a fundamental part of our everyday lives:

“Vulnerability is not weakness, and the uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure we face every day are not optional. Our only choice is a question of engagement. Our willingness to own and engage with our vulnerability determines the depth of our courage and the clarity of our purpose; the level to which we protect ourselves from being vulnerable is a measure of our fear and disconnection.”[8]

This has proved to be a helpful book for me. I was brought up (as I suspect were many Generation X-ers) to associate vulnerability not merely with weakness, but with abject failure. Whilst that equipped me with many valuable life skills – determination, psychological and physical endurance and a hardcore work ethic, for instance – it has also meant that I have struggled for most of my life with chronic shame[9]. Only in the last four or five years and after a great deal of reading, learning, and some truly excellent psychotherapy have I come to understand the impact of that on my sense of self and on my intimate relationships. Lessons now gratefully and gracefully learned, I might add. I think that the very concept of vulnerability has unique implications for creative artists. This is perhaps especially so when you’re a singer, not least because our bodies are our instrument, and so we tread an interesting path along the vulnerability/resilience continuum, as it were.

In her 2011 paper[10], Jackie Wiggins argues that, for musicians, vulnerability has both positive and negative connotations. We music people need to be open and sensitive to the music that we create and perform, of course, but we must also be open and sensitive to the ideas and perspectives of the other musicians and professionals with whom we write and create. On top of this, the sonic nature of music as an art form means sharing it with others (co-writers/producers) even when you don’t feel ready, because if no one hears it, then it ain’t going anywhere, quite frankly! Wiggins observes that there is “no private doodling”[11] in music, which is a rather lovely way of putting it. Part of music-making therefore involves: “baring one’s musicianship, one’s musical identity to others, often in the context of seeking validation from those one respects”[12]. The process of ‘seeking validation’ for professional purposes is a necessary part of being a musician when it comes to writing and recording activities and, obviously, subsequent engagements with audiences, be this via live performances or virtually mediated interactions. This sits in continual and sometimes uneasy tension with the innate human tendency to seek validation on a more personal level and, if you’re not careful, that can be an emotional minefield. Like Brown, I have learned the hard way to look after myself in that respect. These days, I too: 

“…only share when I have no unmet needs that I’m trying to fill. I firmly believe that being vulnerable with a larger audience is only a good idea if the healing is tied to the sharing, not to the expectations I might have for the response I get.”[13]

Sound advice indeed.

Nevertheless, my personal and private stuff is deeply intertwined with the professional and ‘public’ aspects of the musician-self that I share with others. That’s entirely a matter of choice, of course. As a lyricist, I often draw on autobiographical material, and it’s fair to say that many of our songs (sometimes our entire albums) have served as important cathartic vehicles for me that way, notably Karnataka’s Delicate Flame of Desire[14] and my new album with Three Colours Dark, The Science of Goodbye[15]. As a consequence, vulnerability and resilience always dance closely with one another when new material crosses the threshold and makes its way out into the world. My heart and soul are deeply invested in the music that I co-create, and a great deal of love is embedded in it, which is why I always hope that it will be embraced with love and kindness in return. I continue to be overwhelmed with the warm welcome that The Science of Goodbye is receiving this year so far, but I am of course well aware that it’s a tough old sea out there, and there’s little point setting sail at all unless you’re prepared to weather the potential storms, such as they are.

This is where the resilience part comes in, I guess! Holding all of the above complexities in mind, it’s interesting to reflect on some of the many, many moments that have contributed to the development of my tough-yet-tender musician self. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts (and in keeping with Brené Brown’s philosophy), I think that greater transparency around these formative experiences would be beneficial for anyone contemplating the journey themselves. The realm of live performance is probably where the richest material is to be found in terms of illustrating resilience-in-practice, and in the next few weeks’ posts I will select and explore a few key experiences that (I think) serve as interesting and useful anecdotal examples.

“Altered oceans, the sun sets on the other side / sure as I am, as I’ve ever been, and more alive…”


REFERENCES

[1] Kelly Clarkson. Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You) RCA, 2011

[2] Getting yer gig on. And off [23.05.2020]

[3] Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. John Hughes, 1986

[4] I note that this process may well (and probably does) operate and apply differently in non-music related contexts

[5] See my blog post dated 16/05/2020: Wake up time: on becoming ‘good enough’.

[6] Rutter, M. (1990). ‘Psychosocial resilience and protective mechanisms’. In Rolf, J., Masten, A, Cicchetti, D,and Weintraub, S. Risk and Protective Factors in the Development of Psychopathology pp181 -214. New York: Cambridge University Press.

[7] Brown, B. (2015) Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead. Penguin.

[8] Brown, p44.

[9] See, for example, DeYoung, P.A. (2015) Understanding and Treating Chronic Shame: A Relational/Neurobiological Approach. Routledge.

[10] Wiggins, J. (2011) Vulnerability and agency in being and becoming a musician. Music Education Research 13(4): 355-367

[11] Wiggins, p358

[12] Wiggins, p358

[13] Brown, p185.

[14] Karnataka. Delicate Flame of Desire Immrama Records, 2003

[15] Three Colours Dark. The Science of Goodbye Firefly Records, 2020

Girls just wanna have fun: being ‘one of the boys’.

In the past couple of weeks’ posts, I have considered the extent to which being the frontwoman of a (mostly) all-male band was meaningful for me in terms of my gender and sexuality. I discussed how –  and to what extent – I think that I was complicit in my own “to-be-looked-at-ness” in the ways that I chose to mobilise my femininity onstage, and explained that I experienced this not as a form of resistance or acquiescence to patriarchal ideology, but as an actively enjoyable process. I concluded by noting that – paradoxically – I also wanted to be ‘one of the boys’ during my time in both bands; a desire that conflicted with my frontwoman identity in some interesting ways.

Being one of the boys is perhaps another curious identity (or subject position) for a girl[1] and, in my case, I guess that applied to all aspects of being in a rock band except for the onstage part, where it was my professional duty – and my absolute pleasure – to construct and playfully (re)produce a version of something more akin to a contemporary ‘ideal’ femininity. In her recent paper, Shelley Budgeon argues that today’s transformations of gender ideals have “materialised in the figure of the ‘empowered’ and autonomous yet reassuringly feminine woman”[2], which would indicate that holding onto seemingly contradictory gender identities of the kind I’m describing (frontwoman vs. ‘one of the boys’) is, in principle at least, acknowledged as a possibility. As with all things in life, however, possibility does not equal probability, or even actual potential. Rather, as Budgeon observes, an imagined feminine subject position of this kind inevitably circulates within a discursive field that continues to be “constituted by oppositional forces which position an imagined ‘new girl’ who is assertive, dynamic and free from the confines of passive femininity against the image of the vulnerable, voiceless and fragile girl who is too concerned with pleasing others to realise her own self-esteem”[3]. Ouch.

All of this could nicely be understood as another example of the Winnicottian “essential tensions”[4] that I have discussed in previous posts. Indeed, I never struggled with those apparent contradictions of gender myself; quite the opposite. I enjoyed the complexity of it all. It’s also worth noting that ‘being one of the boys’ means something quite different in a rock music context than it does in other spaces conventionally coded as male. I’m sure that (for example) female athletes, lawyers or business entrepreneurs would have their own stories to tell in that respect. The whole notion of masculinity in relation to rock music is also a worthy discussion topic in and of itself, of course! Any willing collaborators for a future blog post please step forward…

Peculiarly, the entire notion of how and, indeed, where my frontwoman/one of the boys dual identity was considered acceptable or comprehensible was far more often a topic of fascination and/or discomfiture for those outside the band(s) than it was for any of us on the inside, so to speak. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I acknowledge that my (known) status as ‘wife-of-a-fellow-band-member’ necessarily altered the ways in which I was perceived in terms of my female gender and my sexuality. Nevertheless, questions that I have actually been asked by audience members and music media people alike – and, no, I haven’t fabricated these! – include “what are the band’s sleeping arrangements when you’re on tour, then?” and “who does the hoovering at home when you and your husband are both on tour at the same time”?

It’s probably just as well that I’m not a feminist activist.

So what exactly do I mean when I refer to ‘the boys’, and to my experiences of being one of them as part of my bands? This is potentially inflammatory subject matter, I know, so I reiterate that I aim to share only my personal memories, thoughts, feelings and experiences in this blog, and nothing more.

Over the years, I have observed some interesting perceptions, assumptions and beliefs about the role of the girl in a band (beyond her onstage duties), and I think this is especially the case when she’s the lead vocalist. Such assumptions extend to said girl’s contribution to the music-writing process, as well as to the extent of her involvement in logistical, organisational and marketing activities, and the (literal) heavy lifting, all of which form significant parts of the gigging and touring experience[5]. As I’ve said before, every band and every individual artist is different, and there’s no ‘norm’ when it comes to this stuff. I was happy to contribute to it all.

This relates once more to questions of personal agency (the extent to which we feel we are able to exercise control over our own selves, our actions and our behaviours); a topic close to my heart, as regular visitors to this blog will know, and one that I explore often in these posts. I shall tiptoe around the quagmire of feminist theory today (too deep and sticky to invoke for now), but it seems to me that agency is attributed very differently to female singer/songwriters and to women whose band names are eponymous, than it is to women who front mostly male bands, regardless of their actual role and contribution to the creation of the music. Perceptions about this are also invariably shaped – sad, perhaps, but nevertheless sometimes true – by the physical appearance and the public ‘image’ of the female in question, all of which is of course often carefully constructed as part of the ‘package’, as it were. An unfortunate term but, without cynicism, let’s be realistic here about the business aspect of the music industry which surely applies just as much to small-level bands – as we were – as it does to some of the biggest household names. Now wouldn’t that be a lively discussion to have over a few bottles of wine?!? As a female who is reasonably petite in terms of bodily stature, and in possession of a relatively soft vocal style and sound, my chosen role and corresponding behaviour as ‘one of the boys’ probably created a bit of cognitive dissonance for our critics and for some of our lovely and dedicated audiences and followers. Hence the aforementioned bedroom and hoovering questions, I suppose.

Some of the characteristics that might stereotypically be associated with boys in a rock band include, but are not limited to, boisterous behaviour, excessive alcohol consumption, interesting personal hygiene habits, aggression, frequent and creative use of swearing and, in some cases, Other Naughty Behaviours. People, however, are not stereotypes, and I wouldn’t for a moment suggest otherwise in relation to the men with whom I was lucky enough to share a band. As I write this, I recall a key scene from the movie Labyrinth (one of my all-time favourite films)… “Did she say it?!?….”. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zv8uCYr1L3A. Not to worry. I rarely kiss and tell. 😊      

I will however happily say that I was fully involved in the boisterousness, and in the drinking and swearing parts. Also, on some occasions, there was little choice on the matter of personal hygiene, such as the one where we spent the night in the band bus in a Dutch road lay-by (not a euphemism), following an epic navigational fail the previous evening.

It’s not so much participating in certain actions and behaviours that constitutes being one of the boys in this music-related context, though; it’s the general sense of ‘being in the world’[6] and the shared energy of the entire experience. As I remember it, I was on the whole warmly accepted into this ‘boys’ realm’, and treated accordingly by my bandmates, which I loved. I pulled my weight – literally – and helped with the actual heavy lifting, loading and unloading the gear and equipment before and after every gig, along with everyone else. Despite being on the petite side, I’m actually quite physically strong, and can now deadlift 75k and squat 30k, later-life achievements of which I am very proud. In the immortal words of Shakespeare “…and though she may be but little, she is fierce”[7]. Indeed. My awesomely cool thirteen-year-old niece bought me a pin badge bearing that exact quote as a gift for my last birthday, in fact.

I’ve never been what some might describe as a girls’ girl, either. Despite, or maybe precisely as a consequence of, being the eldest of three sisters myself (which has thus far been a decidedly un-Shakespearean experience, thankfully!), for much of my life, outside of my family and with few exceptions, I was more comfortable with and more relaxed in male company than I was among women. Large all-female groups still make me want to run for the hills. And stay there. Quite simply, I felt that I belonged among the boys, and wouldn’t have had it any other way.

The elements of my identity that I’ve described above are comfortably assimilated into the (female) musician-self that I am today, and they continue to signify her existence, even when she’s off duty, as it were. This is the case not least via my just-for-fun nom de plume Dr.Doris, who sometimes expresses herself symbolically via my avid enthusiasm for and comprehensive knowledge of beer – especially the deadly Belgian varieties – and my often distinctly unladylike use of expletives, both of which, I have discovered, are generally better appreciated when in male company. I’m very fortunate to have developed a few wonderful new female friendships in this later life period, too; with strong, independent, beautiful, funny, clever women, who inspire me greatly. Some are as passionate about music as I am. Some of them know and enjoy their beer. A few of them comfortably embrace the use of swear words, and most have curious, incisive minds and seriously impressive intellects. I’m still the odd one out, though. I’ll always be one of the boys at heart, I guess. And that suits me just fine 😊

“Me myself I / quid pro quo”[8]


REFERENCES

[1] Again, I acknowledge today’s much greater fluidity of sex and gender categories, and reiterate that I am writing from and about my own personal experiences in this respect

[2] Budgeon, S. (2014) The Dynamics of Gender Hegemony: Femininities, Masculinities and Social Change. Sociology 48(2): 317-334, p317

[3] Budgeon, p330

[4] Winnicott, D.W. (1971) Playing and Reality. London: Tavistock Publications

[5] See my post dated 30.05.2020: Beyond the lighted stage: what’s in a gig?

[6] See my post dated 19.04.2020: “You had me from hello”… maybe, in which I discuss the phenomenological work of Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty on the subject of ‘being-in-the-world’.

[7] Shakespeare, W. (1595) A Midsummer Night’s Dream

[8] The Reasoning. ‘No Friend of Mine’, from the album Adventures in Neverland. Cherry Red Records, 2012

For your eyes only?: on being looked-at

In last week’s post, I raised some questions about when, where and to what extent it’s considered acceptable to incorporate humour and mischievousness into a live show, especially when your band is affiliated with and (in some ways) belongs to the Progressive rock genre. I also reflected fondly on the two-girl stage shenanigans that were a part of our performances during my years in Karnataka, and described how I think these worked to complement the music, as well as gradually becoming woven into the band’s image.

Recent posts have explored how being the frontwoman of a (mostly) male band was meaningful for me in terms of gender identity and sexuality, and have grappled with some of the well-established relevant theory, including poststructuralism, psychoanalysis and feminist theory. Today, I’m going to write about the concept of scopophilia – erotic pleasure in looking – and will discuss its relevance to my own music-related experiences and activities.

By its very nature, being onstage as part of a band brings with it a powerful element of “to-be-looked-at-ness”: a term coined by feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey in her polemical 1975 essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema[1]. Mulvey argued that the very apparatus of cinema facilitates a voyeuristic process of objectifying its female characters. I acknowledge that these ideas have since been widely challenged although, interestingly, some scholars maintain that today’s social media saturated culture renders them “more relevant, and more dangerous, than ever”[2]. Such disputes aside, Mulvey’s highly charged notion of the ‘male gaze’ has proved persistent and has certainly made its way beyond the academic curriculum and into contemporary discourses of popular culture.

To summarise, the ‘gaze’ in this context refers to the engagement of viewers with visual media. The ‘male gaze’, then, invokes the sexual politics of said process, and implies a sexualised way of looking that empowers men and objectifies women. Popular music studies literature has mobilised these concepts as a way of exploring music video, and I made good use of that (the literature, not the gazing 😊) during my lecturing days at Cardiff University’s School of Journalism, Media and Culture (JOMEC). When it comes to live (music) performance, the whole concept is a little trickier, given that being onstage and performing music you’ve co-written implies a fairly significant level of personal agency. Passive subjects we musicians certainly are not, regardless of our sex or gender! Nevertheless, to perform a gig means, obviously, being fully aware of the extent to which you’re being looked-at as well as being listened-to. That’s precisely why I’ve always enjoyed putting plenty of thought, time and effort into my stage image, as described in my post dated 06.06.20.  

Was I aware, then, that – as a frontwoman – I was performing partly for the visual pleasure(s) of the audience? Of course. Last week, I noted that both of my former bands Karnataka and The Reasoning were warmly embraced by the Prog rock community, as is also proving to be the case for Three Colours Dark. As a music genre, Prog has traditionally been thought of as rather male-centric in nature[3], and it’s certainly true to say that the audiences attending gigs by Karnataka and The Reasoning were usually predominantly male. Does that mean that, as a frontwoman, I have always been somehow complicit in crafting my own potential “to-be-looked-at-ness”, in full awareness of its scopophilic connotations? Probably, yes. Am I in any way uncomfortable with that at a personal level? Definitely not. Careful and contextually appropriate handling of it all is, I would argue, precisely what makes for a really good gig.

As regular visitors to this blog will by now know, some of my main areas of interest as an academic are identity and ‘selfhood’. I’ve written here quite frequently about subject positions; a more fluid and dynamic way of conceptualising identity ‘roles’, in which selves are understood to be located (positioned) in various discursive and ideological contexts. It occurs to me that ‘rock band front-woman’ might well constitute its own unique category. As do we all, I take up, or “invest in”[4] a variety of subject positions as I go about my everyday life: woman, musician and nerd, to name just a few. Daughter and sister, of course. If you wish to include ‘ex-wife’ as well, then you may do so 😊.  

For me, to be the frontwoman of a rock band was to invest in an ever-changing kind of professional identity, in which many of those positions jostled for attention, all of them gendered (and sexualised) in complex ways. Judith Butler, whose work I mentioned recently[5], argues that categories of gender identity are necessary fictions; part of the ritualised and socially constructed ‘norms’ to which we ascribe meanings[6]; performances that are constantly remade. I’m interested in exploring the specific ‘norms’ that characterise what is known and understood about being a female rock musician, especially as part of an otherwise mostly-male band. As it turns out, there’s a notable lack of any academic literature that takes an autoethnographic approach to this topic. There are several great autobiographies available, published by women who have contributed to and informed the largely masculine landscape of rock music over the years, but precious few attempts to theorise such experiences in any detailed way. Note to self… potential nerd-gap to be filled…

As a frontwoman, then, I have always been very happy to invest in a subject position from which I felt able to express and enjoy my female gender and my feminine sexuality and I enjoyed mobilising both in a playful way as part of our live music performances. In some ways, as I mentioned in my post dated 06.06.2020, this could be interpreted as a form of ‘resistance’ to the ‘male-coded’ space of the bands, or as a refusal on my part to take up a masculine identity position, although it never felt like either to me. On the other hand, it could be understood as an acquiescence to the inevitably patriarchal and heteronormative ideological structures of the music ‘business’, which serve to marginalise and objectify women.

For me, investing in that ‘frontwoman’ identity position has always felt like a fully agentic and purposeful experience. I could attempt to theorise all of this in a psychoanalytically-oriented reflexive way (and contemplate my own unconscious motivations for taking up some subject positions and not others), but I suspect that’s a theoretical wormhole best addressed another time, when we’ve all had more coffee!  

In next week’s post, I share some of the trials and tribulations of wanting to be ‘one of the boys’ during my time in both bands, and consider how that desire conflicted with the ‘frontwoman’ identity that I’ve described here today.

“But I think you know / with just one look, you’re breaking the fourth wall…”[7]


REFERENCES

[1] Mulvey, L. (1975). “Visual pleasure and narrative cinema”. Screen 16 (3): 6–18.

[2] Oliver, K. (2017) The male gaze is more relevant, and more dangerous, then ever. New Review of Film and Television Studies 15(4): 451-455

[3] I note with great happiness that female-fronted Prog bands have begun to increase in number and popularity over the last 20 years or so

[4] Hollway, W. and Jefferson, T. (2000) Doing Qualitative Research Differently: Free Association, Narrative and the Interview Method. London: Sage.

[5] See blog post dated 06.06.2020, Dressed to impress, but for whom?…

[6] Butler, J. (2011) Bodies That Matter. Routledge

[7] The Reasoning, ‘Breaking the 4th Wall’, from the album Dark Angel. Comet Music, 2008

To laugh, or not to laugh, that is (probably not) the question…

In last week’s post, I discussed some of my experiences of being the frontwoman of a (mostly) all-male rock band, shared a few of my outfit-related SNAFUs, and explored the various pleasures and tribulations of creating a stage image, especially as this related to my gender and sexuality. The recollection of some of the accompanying behind-the-scenes anecdotes led me to think about how, when, and to what extent musicians might reasonably incorporate an element of mischievousness into their live shows. It seems to me that the notion of ‘professional’ is often conflated with seriousness, whilst open displays of fun and humour during a band’s live show are sometimes perceived rather more critically and/or linked to evaluations of their proficiency. But why?!? I’ll interrogate that in today’s post.

Where to begin? I think that all of this can usefully be explored in relation to questions of music genre, for starters.

As some readers of this blog are probably already well aware, both of my former bands, Karnataka and The Reasoning were – and their music continues to be – warmly embraced by the Progressive rock community. It was in fact the Classic Rock Society: a dedicated and passionate UK organisation with a love of all things Prog, who were instrumental (pardon the dreadful pun!) in helping to introduce Karnataka to a brand new audience, thereby broadening our profile. Much support has also been provided by Prog magazine[1] over the years, who are helping immeasurably with the promotion of our new Three Colours Dark project, too  https://www.loudersound.com/news/three-colours-dark-release-trailer-for-debut-album-the-science-of-goodbye. I am of course very happy with the Prog association and appreciative of said community’s warm embrace, although I wouldn’t necessarily situate either of my bands’ music strictly within the parameters of the genre’s conventions. The topic of what should and shouldn’t be considered ‘Prog’ is another lively debate, far too vast and contentious for this blog space, and best addressed elsewhere. I think it’s safe to say, however, that there are certain expectations that come with it in terms of performance style, stagecraft and modes of audience address. I don’t think we adhered to many of those, either, probably particularly so with The Reasoning, and that definitely led to a few interesting gig experiences, during which we evidently subverted audience expectations about the kind of music we might play. A notable example was The Reasoning’s slot at the Rites of Spring Festival (RoSFest) at the Majestic Theater in Gettysburg, back in 2011, and the promo photo we chose to use at the time illustrates everything that I’m about to say perfectly! https://rosfest.com/previous-years/the-reasoning/

That experience and the whole trip to the USA within which it took place was fantastic, and I will be forever grateful for the gift of such a brilliant opportunity. As I’ll discuss in future posts, interacting with an audience gradually became one of my favourite parts of performing live. I wonder, however, whether audience members sometimes forget – or are perhaps unaware – of how visible they themselves are to the artist(s) they’re watching. That holds potential rewards for both parties, but it has its pitfalls as well. From the first couple of chords of our punchy set-opener at RoSFest that afternoon (Hyperdrive[2], I believe, but will happily stand corrected if needs be!), there were many bemused, if not downright dismayed, facial expressions in the first few rows of the packed and all-seated theatre. The stand-out moment for me was when one chap sitting directly in front of me yawned, put his actual Stetson hat over his face, leaned back in his seat and, I assume, went to sleep. The memory still amuses me greatly: it’s important to be able to take such things with the proverbial pinch of salt, in the name of self-compassion! On a personal level, I find it virtually impossible to take myself too seriously. Said inability most definitely extends to my musician-self and to my onstage identity, which is sometimes a useful strategy.

In terms of music genre, there is seemingly a perceived dichotomy between ‘serious’ and ‘fun’ when it comes to live performances, and Prog rock is often positioned alongside the former rather than the latter. There’s some lovely reading on the definitions and characteristics of Prog music here http://www.progarchives.com/Progressive-rock.asp#definition. For the purposes of today’s post, though, it’s the association of Prog with the notion of ‘artistic credibility’ and ‘epic’ or ‘grand’ performative and conceptual themes that matters the most. Examples of flamboyant (and sometimes downright bonkers-in-a-good-way) theatrical ‘comedy’ in Progressive rock are well documented, but I would argue that those are perhaps appreciated for their cerebral and intellectual merit, rather than merely for their humour. Again, I am more than willing to be challenged on that point: t’is merely my own opinion <<deploys virtual Headguard, just incase>>😊. My personal vexation is that, in a wider sense, the categories of ‘professional’ and ‘unprofessional’ are often unfairly mapped onto the ‘serious’/’fun’ binary. Told you these dichotomies were a nuisance! I have never understood why experienced, professional, skilful bands should not openly enjoy themselves in a way that suits them during a live show, if they wish. I still don’t get it.

The two bands of which I was a part were of course very different in terms of sound, image and, importantly, personnel and attitude. Consequently, there was far more space for humour and mischief in The Reasoning’s live shows than there had been in Karnataka’s, but that was always in addition to and never instead of our musical proficiency and dedication to our stage craft. There are multiple forms of ‘performing art’, after all: from classical ballet to pantomime, stand-up comedy and everything in-between, and it seems perfectly plausible to me that a rock band might draw on elements of many such things, even during the course of a single show. Surely that’s the essence of being ‘creative’ at its best? Ultimately, as long as the dynamics of the music and the lyrical messages of the songs are properly represented in its live delivery, then so what?

In my opinion, all that really matters is that the performance style complements the music and doesn’t detract from it. In a review by Voiceprint records[3] – which has just recently been brought to my attention – of Karnataka’s Strange Behaviour[4] album, our live performances were described as “sensual, spiritual and unrestrained by musical boundaries”, which I think is an eloquent and accurate description. There was a more mischievous quality to The Reasoning’s shows, yes, but that was carefully and tastefully handled; glitter gun misfirings at The Borderline and the accidental marmalade spillage at (I think) Leamington Assembly notwithstanding. Our playful band/audience interactions during the popular set closer Aching Hunger[5], for instance, never overshadowed the darker, more melancholic or dramatic live performance of tracks such as Breaking the 4th Wall[6] and Shadows of the Mind[7], or the emotional rollercoaster of Adventures in Neverland. Our gigs were often a boisterous affair, though 😊. There’s a nice example from the video archives here, recorded at a packed London show in 2012, during which we were accompanied by the supremely talented Dave Foster on guitar: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4eYLDZ38SbU .

Obviously, there are no definitive answers to the many questions that I’ve raised here. The experience and meaningfulness of music is a very subjective thing, after all. And so I return to the topic of my own gender (and sexuality) as a part of those shows.  In last week’s post, I reflected on some of the ways in which my erstwhile bandmate Anne-Marie Helder and I very much enjoyed creating and developing a stage image, as that pertained to elements of wardrobe, hair and make-up. 

Our two-girl onstage ‘frolicking’ was also considered – by some – to be a little controversial, hence the “sensual” reference in the aforementioned Voiceprint review, I guess. Whilst such things surely exist somewhere, I’m not as yet aware of any gig reviews that criticised our choice of stage behaviour for being contextually inappropriate. Most people rather enjoyed it, as I recall, and quite rightly, too: so did we! I think it brought the songs to life and helped to illustrate their musical textures and soundscapes, much as any choreographer would seek to do although, in our case, the whole process was very organic. Although we naturally developed some loose ‘routines’ to certain sections of particular songs over time, most of them were genuinely spontaneous and not in the least contrived. Also, when you’re a singer and there are lengthy instrumental sections in your live set (that’s Prog for you!), it’s all very well learning to do interesting things with percussion, but either you retreat to the wings for a bit, or you find an alternative. You can’t just stand there for the entire duration of a guitar/keyboard solo and look gormless! As a frontperson, it is absolutely your job to express and perform the band’s music through your body which is, in effect, your instrument. If there happen to be two of you, and there’s another lovely body with whom to frolic then, well… so much the better, if you ask me. Thank you, Anne-Marie, for the beautiful journey 😊.

In next week’s post, I’ll expand on these ideas a little more. I will also brave the topic of scopophilia – erotic pleasure derived from looking – and its significance for me as a professional (female) musician. I promise to try very hard not to get myself into trouble in the process…

“Wild is this ride / I’ll take you anywhere…”[8]


REFERENCES

[1] https://www.loudersound.com/prog

[2] The Reasoning, ‘Hyperdrive’, from the album Adventures in Neverland. Comet Music, 2012

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voiceprint_Records

[4] Karnataka Strange Behaviour. Immrama Records, 2004

[5] The Reasoning Awakening. Comet Music, 2007

[6] The Reasoning Dark Angel. Comet Music, 2008

[7] The Reasoning Awakening. Comet Music, 2007

[8] The Reasoning, ‘Script-Switch Trigger’, from the album Adverse Camber. Comet Music, 2010


Dressed to impress, but for whom?: playing with the boys.

In this post, I provide plenty of autobiographical anecdotes about being female in a predominantly male rock band. I shall be invoking quite a bit of theory today as a means of better articulating some of my experiences, too. You may wish to fill up your coffee mug!

As I mentioned briefly last week, a key part of the wider ‘gig experience’ was, for me, the construction and development of a stage ‘image’ as both of my bands’ frontwoman. The fact that we were working under our own steam, i.e. on our own independent record labels, was a somewhat ambivalent situation. On one hand, it meant doing without any externally provided financial backing and resources but, on the other, it was extremely liberating when it came to our creative freedoms around decisions about how the bands should sound and look.

Being the only girl in an otherwise all-male band was a great adventure. I acknowledge that my personal experiences in this regard were perhaps not entirely conventional, given that I was married to a fellow (male) band member during my time in Karnataka and again during my subsequent time in The Reasoning. There are a multitude of pros and cons to that arrangement – I’m sure most couples who work together in any context would acknowledge the same – but I have no doubt that it provided me with a certain degree of protection not always available or afforded to female peers in similar situations, and that’s something I didn’t take for granted.

During my later years with Karnataka, I was fortunate to front the band alongside Anne-Marie Helder, which enabled the two of us to be really playful and experimental with our appearance, outfits and onstage antics. As I’ve said of other memories described in previous blog entries… good times, fondly remembered. Photographs and videos from those years document the many chapters of our evolving image, from layers of lace, billowing sleeves, ribbons and (literally) flowers in our hair, to PVC leggings, vinyl miniskirts, leather corsets and New Rock boots. We weren’t afraid to push a few boundaries, and it was highly enjoyable and exciting. I learned some important clothing-related lessons along the way, such as the more unusual uses of gaffer tape, and the hazards of going braless during a set that involved much cavorting around onstage 😊.

I was The Reasoning’s only female for the vast majority of the band’s lifetime, and so I was usually left to my own devices when planning, sourcing and – occasionally the most challenging part of all! – actually getting into and out of my stage outfits; an activity not for the fainthearted. There were plenty of image changes then, too, from silky dresses paired with the aforementioned New Rock boots, a pair of Gucci hot pants, fishnet tights and the feathered black wings, whose image became synonymous with our album ‘Dark Angel’[1]. I also eventually re-discovered the joys of performing barefoot; something that I’ve always liked to do in the studio, because it makes me feel centred and grounded when I sing. Outfit-related lessons learned during those years included remembering to check that both legs of my tights had actual feet in sufficient time to change them before gig time (not kidding), and how to apply stage make-up in the poorly-lit toilets of a strip club next door to the venue. Also not kidding. Such incidents maketh the woman: there’s no question about that! 😊

Plenty has already been written on the topic of female rock musicians and the ways in which they come to inhabit a space that is ‘socially coded’ as male[2], although much of it takes a feminist perspective. Whilst I fully understand that there still exist serious structural inequalities for women within the music industry – and elsewhere – I choose not to use my blogging space for the purposes of close engagement with wider political debates on that subject. Importantly, I reiterate that I’m only able to write from my own personal experience. I make claim to my own personal story and no-one else’s in doing so.

Theory-wise in this post, I think it’s useful to draw on various understandings of gender identity. This seems relevant to an exploration of what it might mean and, crucially, how it feels to front a rock band comprised mostly of men when you are yourself a woman[3]. I observe that plenty of the material published on this topic, in keeping with its feminist orientation, emphasises the ways in which being that woman could be considered transgressive or controversial, for example by focusing on how women have challenged or subverted music-related practices that are traditionally considered to be male.

Viv Albertine, who I was lucky enough to meet at an author event in Waterstones last year, recently published her memoirs[4],[5] in which she shares her experiences of being in the all-female punk band The Slits[6]. Both of her books make for fascinating reading and are disarmingly, if not brutally, honest: I highly recommend them! She reflects on many such apparently subversive behaviours; practices that feminist theory might categorise as forms of ‘resistance’[7],[8]. In this context, resistance is understood as a form of agency – and power – that involves the construction and negotiation of (gendered) subjectivity. Approaches of this kind are often used to explore women’s struggle to resist, subvert or contest patriarchal gender ‘norms’ and inequalities, focusing upon the personal dimensions of political power (e.g. [9], [10]). As helpful as these constructionist conceptualisations may be, they leave little room for consideration of our inner worlds, and I’ll come back to that bit later on 😊

There’s also a binary to be observed in the study of female rock (or punk) musicians. By this, I mean that women’s experiences in this context are often understood either as (active) acts of rebellion, or as (passive) feats of endurance against a backdrop of perpetual objectification. Returning visitors to this blog will already be aware that I have an aversion to epistemological bifurcations of this kind (told you I was weird). In my blog entries dated 9.5.2020 and 16.5.2020, I made use of Winnicott’s concept of ‘essential tensions’ to justify my preferred perspective, and he will crop up many times in forthcoming posts, too. In today’s post, I find myself similarly oriented, taking up a position in-between those two opposing subject positions, in which/from which my female/feminine identity is both experienced and performed.

I wrestled with some of these theoretical points in my PhD thesis[11], which includes a chapter detailing how film viewers are ‘psychosocially gendered’. There, in a (very small) nutshell, I suggested that gender is made meaningful (to us) for complex psychodynamic reasons, and that both postmodernist and psychoanalytic theory have a great deal to offer in exploring this idea, despite often being polarised. From this viewpoint, gender is constructed and experienced within our outer (shared social) and our inner (individual, psychological) worlds. Borrowing again from the field of psychosocial studies, I quote Stephen Frosh, who writes that gender is:

“both a position in discourse, a category of culture to be contested and an intersubjective and intrapsychic element of each individual’s sense of self[12].

When it comes to theory, I favour this kind of cross-disciplinary approach because it opens up a space for exploring some of those really tricky and slippery ideas. Psychosocial frameworks help to challenge some of the binary ways in which gender is sometimes conceptualised, e.g. active-male/passive-female[13]. Additionally, from a psychosocial point of view, it’s possible to think about how we ‘invest in’ certain gendered subject positions and, importantly, how these investments are motivated not only by heteronormative ideologies, but also by the unconscious anxieties, conflicts and phantasies that inform our own individual biographies[14]. Such investments come to form part of our cultural ideologies of self and, drawing on a cross-disciplinary range of theoretical concepts, valuable ideas are to be found in poststructuralism – check out Judith Butler[15] and the alarmingly ever-present Michel Foucault[16] -, J.L Austin on the philosophy of language[17], the field of discursive psychology[18] and, of course, psychoanalysis (various, depending on your personal alignment!).

Again: why does this matter, who cares, and how is it relevant here?

Well. Back to that thing about being the frontwoman of an otherwise predominantly male band, working in a music genre (rock/progressive rock) that, despite the recent-ish and very welcome rise of female fronted acts in said genres, remains largely male-dominated, both on the stage and in the audience.

As I’ve mentioned before, I acknowledge that my personal experiences were shaped by an important fact, i.e. that my status as wife-of-a-fellow-band-member was openly disclosed and therefore known to our followers and audiences from the start. Whilst this certainly served to ‘protect’ me in some ways, it also brought with it extra complications in terms of knowing how, when and to what extent it was appropriate to invest in and perform certain gendered subject positions as a frontwoman, especially as these related to my own sexuality. The wider debate about how and when such displays are ever ‘appropriate’ (or, indeed, acceptable) for women is too vast and politically charged to invoke in my tiny little blog, but it needs acknowledging, lest it become an unwelcome elephant here. More about elephants in future posts, as well!

I am of course very fortunate in that I never felt obliged to do anything that I wasn’t comfortable with in terms of image or performance. It was always important to us all – in both bands – that the music we created was strong and well-crafted enough to appeal to listeners in its own right, and we worked very hard to ensure that our live performances were comprehensively rehearsed and professionally delivered. Is it even possible, though – particularly in today’s image and media saturated world – to claim that image shouldn’t matter, and that it ought to have no bearing whatsoever on an artist’s success (or lack of it)? I don’t think so. It matters a hell of a lot and needs to be carefully considered as part of a band’s identity. Especially, I would argue, when you’re the girl (or one of them) who’s at the ‘front’.

Some artists and performers speak of invoking a different ‘persona’ onstage, as an actor might do in performing a role in a play or a film. It was never like that for me: my stage self has always been an extension of what I consider to be just me, and live shows were an exciting space in which I could play with that dimension of my identity and enjoy doing so.

To be continued… 😊

“Open me up, set me free / bring out the woman in me…”[19]


REFERENCES

[1] The Reasoning, Dark Angel. Comet Music 2008

[2] Frith, S. and McRobbie, A. (1990) ‘Rock and Sexuality’. In S. Frith and A. Goodwin (Eds.) On Record: Rock, Pop and the Written Word. Routledge pp 371–89

[3] I acknowledge that the categories ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are today recognised as identity positions not necessarily determined by one’s past or present biological sex. I’m nearly 50 years old, and so much of my autobiographical material is based on experiences from a time of far narrower thinking and ideas.

[4] Albertine, V. (2015) Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys. Faber & Faber

[5] Albertine, V. (2018) To Throw Away Unopened. Faber & Faber

[6] https://www.theguardian.com/music/2013/jun/24/how-we-made-cut-the-slits

[7] McNay, L. (1999) ‘Subject, Psyche and Agency’. In: V. Bell (Ed.) Performativity and Belonging. London: Sage, pp175-193

[8] de Lauretis, T. (2007) Figures of Resistance: Essays in Feminist Theory. Illinois: University of Illinois Press

[9] Lloyd, S.A., Few, A.L. and Allen, K.R. (Eds.) (2009) Handbook of Feminist Family Studies. New Delhi, London, California and Singapore: Sage

[10] Kowaleski Wallace, E. (Ed.) (2009) Encyclopaedia of Feminist Literary Theory. Abingdon and New York: Routledge

[11] Cohen, R. (2012) Cinematic Constructions of the Female Serial Killer: A Psychosocial Audience Study. [Online] Available at: http://orca.cf.ac.uk/46698/1/2013cohenrphd.pdf

[12] Frosh, S. (1994: 1) Sexual Difference: Masculinity and Psychoanalysis. New York and London: Routledge

[13] I acknowledge that a shift towards greater gender fluidity is beginning to challenge some such conceptualisations in a broader structural sense, also.

[14] E.g. Hollway, W. and Jefferson, T. (2000) ‘Narrative, Discourse and the Unconscious: The Case of Tommy’. In M. Andrews, S. Day Sclater, M. Rustin, C. Squire and A. Treacher (Eds.) Lines of Narrative: Psychosocial Perspectives. London and New York: Routledge, pp136-149

[15] Butler, J. (1990) Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge

[16] E.g. Ramazanoglu, C. (Ed.) (1993) Up Against Foucault: Explorations of Some Tensions Between Foucault and Feminism. London and New York: Routledge

[17] Austin, J.L. (1975) How to Do Things With Words. Harvard University Press

[18] E.g. Wetherell, M. and Edley, N. (1999) Negotiating Hegemonic Masculinity: Imaginary Positions and Psycho-Discursive Practices. Feminism and Psychology 9(3): 335–356

[19] Karnataka ‘Woman in Me’, from the album Karnataka. Immrama Records, 1998

“Beyond the lighted stage”[1]: what’s in a gig?

In last week’s post, I wrote about my teenage induction into the realm of live music performance and shared some personal memories about it. Today, I want to consider everything that the ‘gig experience’ encompasses… beyond the lighted stage, as it were.

It often seems to me that perceptions about what a ‘gig’ entails for performers vary quite widely. Such perceptions are obviously shaped by the status of the artist in question, as well as by the extent of the perceiver’s own music-related knowledge and experience. As always, I write only from my own experiential point of view in this blog. I make no attempt to speak for others 😊.

For me, a gig begins from the moment it’s booked, and each lives on in its own way afterwards; assimilated into memory and informing all subsequent ones, even where the conscious recollections of it fade over time, as they necessarily must. Inevitably, there are those (thankfully very rare) occasions when the conscious ‘forgetting’ part is a blessed relief, and long may those remain ‘forgotten’!

So called ‘body memory’[2], to which I referred briefly last week, has an important part to play here. Much research has explored the importance of this in understanding and treating trauma[3], but body memories also help us to form and organise our autobiographical identities[4], functioning as a form of embodied ‘tacit knowledge’[5]. In my blog post dated 19.04.2020 I discussed tacit knowledge from a phenomenological perspective and explored its relevance in relation to interpersonal connections between musicians. It extends to the gig experience, I suggest, which also comes with a whole host of particular embodied social rituals, habits, and movements that constitute contextually specific ‘norms’, all of which I’ll explore fully in future posts. With this autobiographical formation and organisation in mind, though, I like to think that every gig I’ve performed has become part of the musician-self that I am today, not only as a ‘lived’ experience, but as a deeply felt one, for better or worse, i.e. experiences that now belong to my body as well as my mind. From this point of view, I believe that, rather than being a discrete event involving actual time spent onstage, the period before and after the performance is just as meaningful as the stage time itself.

In addition to my role as frontwoman and co-writer in both of my previous bands (Karnataka and The Reasoning), I was involved to various extents in helping to run their independent record labels. This meant that, as well as scheduled band rehearsal time, I contributed quite a bit to the process of preparing for live performances, which encompassed everything from consulting on advert design and poster artwork to hotel booking, set list planning, drafting written text for publicity purposes and online promotional activities. In the early days, all of this was done alongside a full-time Civil Service job. Post-2004, I juggled it with my academic studies, my University lecturing work and PhD thesis-writing deadlines, and so the busy rehearsal and pre-production periods were often challenging. Sometimes all of it was great fun. Occasionally it was tiring and frustrating. Usually, it was a combination of all three. Hearing a live set come together in the rehearsal room just ahead of a forthcoming gig or tour is exhilarating, however, and ultimately very rewarding.

When the day arrives, and once fully rehearsed and adequately prepared, there’s the whole business of actually getting to the venue location. My experiences of gig-related travel over the years incorporate stories that are in equal parts hilarious, stressful, absurd, surreal and X-rated. Other authors have documented similar music-related exploits far more articulately and engagingly than I could ever hope to do, and I strongly recommend some of the brilliant work published by Deke Leonard[6] in this respect. Also, personally speaking, what happens on tour stays on tour, and that’s a philosophy to which I shall remain firmly committed 😊. Nevertheless, this is all part of the wider gig picture, if you like. Stepping out onto the stage after a relaxing day’s journey and a decent meal makes for a very different performative experience than arriving at a venue barely five minutes before showtime, frazzled, mid-argument, hungry and devoid of even a rudimentary line-check opportunity! The extra shot of adrenaline generated by the latter definitely has its benefits, mind you. Maybe some of those stories are worth sharing at a later point, too…

Under usual conditions (travel FUBARs notwithstanding), arriving at a gig venue brings with it a curious mixture of emotions. For bands working independently, responsibility for all logistical touring duties is typically handled by the band members themselves assisted by, if fortunate – as we were – an accompanying sound engineer (paid professional) and/or a tour manager (aka trustworthy friend often generously giving up their time for free). Said duties involve everything from unloading the bus/van/car(s)/miscellaneous vehicles and setting up the stage gear and merchandise stand, to making much needed cups of tea for everyone and doing a last minute booze run to the local supermarket before the venue doors open. All being well, there’s also a soundcheck to do, followed by the necessary process of getting oneself ‘stage-ready’ in terms of psychological preparations and make-up/wardrobe. The amount of time and level of attention dedicated to those latter activities vary widely amongst individuals, and neither are determined by the sex/gender of the performer in question, either! Next week’s post is dedicated to the topics of sex and gender specifically, and there I shall provide a bit of an insight into all that constructing a ‘stage image’ encompasses for a frontwoman… illustrated with several rather amusing autobiographical anecdotes. I’ll also address some of the issues that arise as a consequence of being the girl who’s not just with the band, she’s in it.

Preparation (of both the administrative and band rehearsal varieties), gig travel, venue arrival, gear (wo)manhandling, soundchecks and clothes/make-up/hair procedures therefore comprise some of the perhaps less ‘visible’, yet equally important and ever-present facets of the ‘gig experience’. And all of that comes before the show itself has even started. On leaving the stage afterwards, it’s basically the same entire process in reverse. The time available for the obligatory gear pack-down and load out varied widely for us, depending on where we’d performed. Best case examples allowed for extended beer-consuming and pool-playing sessions in the venue’s own late-night/all-night upstairs bar (RIP, Crewe Limelight), and unhurried chats with members of the audience over a drink or two after the show (especially fond recollections in that respect of the Robin in Bilston and The Point – also RIP, sadly – in Cardiff). Lowlights at other locations included having to dismantle all of the band’s equipment, pack down and load everything out of the venue within 45 minutes of finishing the last song of the set. Down a not-very-safe-at-all fire escape on one occasion. In the pouring rain more frequently. I could write an entire book about all of the amazing experiences that fell in-between those two extremes over the course of nearly three decades, and I may well do just that in due course.

Basically, though, after showtime it’s a question of taking down the stage gear, packing everything away and loading it back into the bus/van/car(s)/miscellaneous vehicles and then driving to the hotel or, if necessary, all the way home. Recollections of that spaced-out weirdness that you feel under the oh-so-cruel neon lights of motorway service stations at 4am are, I’m sure, deeply etched into the memories of many fellow musicians, and the days of doing that before all night coffee franchises became a thing were quite the spectacle!

The process of attempting to ‘come down’ and switch off after a show is an interesting one and, again, maybe best addressed more comprehensively in a future post. The performance-induced adrenaline high is a well-known phenomenon, as are the various ‘strategies’ – nice euphemism, Dr.Doris – via which performers choose to manage it. One of the many, many advantages of being part of a band is the opportunity to share such things every night on tour. It’s lovely to burn off some of that lingering energy in the company of your fellow boys (and girl, when that was also the case) with a few… ok, several, drinks, some ridiculous and usually nonsensical conversation and, more often than not, a great deal of laughter. For us, the scope and duration of these aftershow sessions also ranged from small and mostly well-behaved, to reasonably riotous and a bit naughty. Locations of said sessions were similarly varied, from the ridiculous to the relatively sublime. Decent parties have been had in tiny Travelodge rooms, a kebab shop opposite the just-played venue, a dormitory in The Netherlands and (once) aboard the band bus, which was parked in a Soho alley. Some may also recall the random drive-by burger incident in Rotherham – that’s got to be a story for my nieces and nephews once they’re old enough to make the sharing of it appropriate. More glamorous, yet equally messy, aftershow efforts took place in VIP festival tents and an expensive hotel bar in Norway. We enjoyed all of those things and more. There were difficult times too, of course – c’est la vie – but I feel truly blessed to have had those opportunities in my lifetime and, as the years roll on, the memories that remain for me are mostly the good ones.

See ya next week.

 

“Now there was a different lifetime / where no-one knew your name…”

 

REFERENCES

[1] Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage. Sam Dunn & Scot McFadyen. 2010

[2] E.g. Tewes, C. and Fuchs, T. (2017) Editorial Introduction: The Formation of Body Memory [Online]. Available at: https://www.imprint.co.uk/editorial-introduction-the-formation-of-body-memory/

[3] E.g. Van der Kolk, B. (2015) The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Brain and Body in the Transformation of Trauma. Penguin.

[4] Fuchs, T. (2017) Self across time: The diachronic unity of bodily existence, Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences16: 291–315.

[5] Merleau-Ponty, M. (1962) Phenomenology of Perception. Trans. Colin Smith. Routledge

[6] E.g. Leonard, D. (2000) Maybe I Should’ve Stayed in Bed? The Flip Side of the Rock’n’Roll Dream. Northdown Publishing.

Getting yer gig on (and off).

In several previous blog entries, I’ve shared my thoughts and experiences on various aspects of what ‘being a musician’ means, and has meant, to me over the years. In these next couple of posts, I want to focus specifically on live performance as an aspect of that meaningfulness. In doing so, I’ll include not only the being onstage part(s), but also the many other less visible elements that comprise the ‘gig experience’ in both process and content. As usual, I’ll borrow some theoretical ideas to help think about and discuss the topic, in terms of how it has informed – and continues to inform – my own identity, my sense of self and my life story. I shall pay particular attention to the significance of gender in this context and will discuss what it’s like being the ‘frontwoman’ of an (otherwise mostly/all male) band. There’s some respite from the theory stuff in today’s entry, but plenty of it to follow in imminent geeky ones, where you’ll find some poststructuralism, psychoanalysis (of course), the philosophy of language and feminist theory.

Saturday confession #1: I was not a born performer, and certainly don’t believe that I have ever possessed any of those enigmatic or remarkable artistic qualities that are sometimes attributed in retrospect to artists who go on to be hugely successful. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, my own journey into musicianship was circumstantial rather than by design, and with the exception of a couple of school choir performances as youngster, I was a true novice when I first set foot on a stage.

I use the term ‘stage’ loosely, since my first live performance was at The Coach House[1] in Swansea, South Wales; a then notorious music venue located on the city centre’s equally notorious Wind Street. Alongside the two co-writers and musicians with whom I’d later go on to form Karnataka, our three piece band Angel Heart featured bass, keyboards, a four track tape recorder synchronised (sometimes unreliably!) to a drum machine, and me. The performance space in the venue was at the far end of a hot, sticky, and filthy cellar bar, fondly known as “the dungeon”, and the ‘stage’ was raised about three inches or so above floor level. I had just turned eighteen at the time, had yet to find my sea legs fronting a band, and was, quite frankly, terrified! That was 32 years ago, and I have few memories of the finer details of that evening. I don’t recall there having been any performance-induced existential revelations, and I’m sure we were barely even noticed by the <<polite cough>> ‘lively’ audience, whose real interest was in the headlining band for whom we were opening. The experience must have been a biographically significant one for me though, because it set in motion, albeit almost unconsciously, a curiosity about live performance (I’m not sure that the affective qualities of that were strong enough to be described as a ‘desire’ back then) that kept me coming back for more over the next two and half decades.

The last time that I performed live was with The Reasoning in 2014, during the Trinity Live weekend at The Assembly Leamington; a far cry in all respects from the Coach House days of 1988. Between those first and last gigs, the venues and locations at which I performed with both bands were many and varied…. from a pub in Fishguard that was empty except – literally! – for one man and his actual dog, to the stages of Waterfront Hall in Belfast, Colston Hall in Bristol and Shepherd’s Bush Empire. Other international performances and locations (listed in no particular order) incorporated some of the following: an unplugged acoustic show in a breathtakingly beautiful Manhattan loft, and festivals at the Patriot’s Theater in New Jersey and The Majestic Theater in Gettysburg. Many adventures in some of Europe’s best loved music haunts, including the Paradiso in Amsterdam and the 013 in Tilburg. Late night sausages after a riotous beer-filled show at the Bergkeller in Reichenbach, and a 3am sultry Spanish summer night set – after way too much Sangria – in Cadiz. Several thrilling, boisterous and packed headline gigs at some of London’s legendary and now sadly extinct venues, including The Mean Fiddler and The Borderline. And plenty besides those. Wonderful stuff.

It was hard work, of course. Sometimes it was exhausting. But it never stopped being exciting. Even now, sensory reminders of those experiences are as powerful as they ever were. A spritz of Lee Stafford hair straightening spray, a waft of Alexander McQueen’s Kingdom perfume (now also sadly discontinued… if anyone finds some available anywhere on the planet, please buy it for me!!), or that first swig of chilled Leffe from the bottle triggers a tidal wave of affectively-charged memories, transporting me right back to some of those precious pre-gig moments between dressing room and stage, where the exhilarating rush of adrenaline feels as though you’re wearing your entire nervous system on the outside of your skin. Delicious. If only it were possible to bottle that feeling and take a hearty gulp on one of life’s greyer days. In a previous post (Make It Like a Memory [Part 2 of 2], dated 22.2.2015), I wrote about the relationship between emotion and memory. In future weeks, I’ll discuss the notion of ‘body memory’ and, if you’re a super-keen nerd like me, you might enjoy the neuroscientific and psychotherapeutic theoretical references that I make in relation to those topics. In posts to come, I’ll select and reflect on a few of those gigs in greater detail and explore what made them especially memorable and/or meaningful for me.

First, though, I want to focus on the more ‘hidden’ elements of the phenomenon that is live performance. I also want to think about the concept of ‘resilience’, how I’ve had to master this most elusive of skills, and how that process has informed and been informed by my gig experiences to date.

The landscape of popular music has of course changed immeasurably since our first onstage outing in Swansea back in the late 1980s. There’s no space here to even begin to document the multitude of technological and cultural shifts that we’ve all witnessed, but the impact of both on the developmental journeys of today’s young musicians has been tremendous. In today’s (social) media saturated ‘celebrity’ culture, the entire concept of the ‘gig experience’ has come to mean something that bears little resemblance to its historical predecessors. For the digital-native, post-Pop Idol / X-Factor generations, hopes and expectations for where and how a first gig should take place have, in my opinion, anyway, become mind-bendingly distorted. In a climate of immediate gratification and Insta-fame, the notion of ‘success’ has changed forever, too, as have understandings about what it takes to achieve and maintain it. Curiously, the importance for prospective musicians (especially youngsters) of gradually learning and developing the necessary resilience and a robust set of emotional coping skills is rarely addressed. It seems to me that the very real, sometimes incredibly tough, work that comes with territory of being a musician is also often overlooked and rarely explored or discussed in much detail by those who’ve been there. That’s a pity, because I would argue that’s precisely where a great deal of the magic actually happens. If one’s first ever live show is onstage at the O2 arena alongside some of the biggest names in contemporary pop music, then what does one strive for after that?

Give me the Coach House any day 😊

To be continued…

 

“It might not make a difference tonight but then again, okay / take all you can…”[2]

 

REFERENCES

[1] See, e.g. https://www.walesonline.co.uk/whats-on/music-nightlife-news/blood-sweat-police-busts-colourful-17461105

[2] Karnataka ‘Strange Behaviour’, from the album Delicate Flame of Desire. Immrama Records, 2003

Wake up time: on becoming ‘good enough’ (Part 2 of 2)

Last week’s post described some of the challenges that I experienced as I sought to identify and establish new music-making collaboration opportunities after emerging from a lengthy hiatus. I continue that thread in today’s entry.

In my closing remarks last week, I made mention of necessarily – over the years – having had to learn and practice the self-promotion skills required of all creative professionals. Uncomfortable as it was, I committed to doing the learning and the practicing, both of which are very much ongoing. Being able to self-promote is a mandatory part of the (equally mandatory, I’m afraid!) business side of music and it comes with the territory, welcome or otherwise. So, circa 2018 and by then living in a new city and adapting to a greatly-changed personal life, the trickiest thing of all for me as I contemplated how best to identify and connect with brand new collaborators was navigating the “essential tensions”[1] between the need to confidently own my previous music-related accomplishments and a deeply-seated fear that, by doing so, I would be perceived as narcissistic.

The topic of narcissism deserves a post all of its own (oh, the irony…), and I’ll publish one here in due course. Anyone who’s purchased a copy of the new Three Colours Dark album The Science of Goodbye on CD will note that there’s a fully referenced reading list at the back of the booklet. Keen nerds (like myself) may also have noticed from our website[2] that we have a collaboration project on the go with The Echo Society UK https://www.theechosociety.org.uk/three-colours-dark . I’ll discuss all of that in more detail in forthcoming posts as well.

Anyhow, in 2018 it didn’t feel right, somehow, to start all over again from scratch on the music front. Having spent nearly 30 years working alongside wonderfully talented and experienced musicians, and having amassed plenty of professional experience myself as a co-writer, in the studio, on stage and on the road, knowing where and, indeed, how to pick up and continue where I’d left off was a confusing business!

One of my favourite theoretical concepts comes from Donald Winnicott, whose work – in true psychoanalytic fashion, I suppose – returns frequently to inform this blog 😊. The Winnicottian notion of “essential tensions”[3] is, I think, incredibly useful in exploring the continual struggles that we navigate continuously as part of our everyday lives. Through his focus on the interpersonal rather than the intrapsychic realm, Winnicott’s work describes the “human paradox of never-ending tensions”[4] that all of us face. He argues that the successful maintenance of basic human-relatedness depends upon our ability to balance the forces of opposites such as love and hate, sameness and difference. For media scholar Roger Silverstone, this balancing act is as much a part of our wider social landscape as it is of the space between us as individuals. He suggests that the term ‘essential tensions’ refers to “a dialectic at the heart of social reality [since]… social life is, in all its manifestations, essentially in constant and productive tension”[5]. I couldn’t agree more.

For me, that tension was felt particularly strongly in trying to instigate interactions and build connections with potential new music collaborators. I attended a few local open mic nights, merely to watch and listen. I heard some great music and sampled some excellent beer in the process, but neither helped much with finding an appropriate angle of professional approach. I joined a local Meet Up[6] group, whose primary aim was to bring together local musicians and songwriters with a view to enabling subsequent collaborative activities. The beer was great at that meeting, too. Of the ten attendees present, however, I discovered that I was the only one who’d ever actually played a gig at all, and most of them hadn’t done any songwriting before, either. The problem of autobiographical authenticity[7] showed up again. Would it be best for me to lie, and say that I was also a complete novice? That way, at least, I’d feel that I belonged in the group and shared common ground with its other (interesting and friendly) members, whose company I appreciated greatly. To do so felt disingenuous to me, so I chose to be honest about my level of experience… and then spent the rest of the evening answering questions and providing music-related advice to everyone else! A very enjoyable evening it was, too, but ultimately unsuccessful in terms of finding new writing partners.

Two different identities/subject positions became available to me at various times in the social situations outlined above: ‘experienced music professional’ and ‘newcomer/beginner’, respectively. Rather than being able to invest fully in either, I found myself engaged a process of managing the ‘essential tensions’ between them: a dialectic never actually resolved and requiring continual (and very careful) negotiation on my part. It was emotionally tiring… and a lot of beer was consumed to assist matters. There was no epiphany and no sudden enlightenment about how best to proceed, though. Instead, as we all come to do eventually, I settled for making a (yep) good enough effort, and pretty much made the rest up as I went along. Whilst I found some lovely new friends on those social occasions – and I continue to enjoy regular beer-fuelled music chats with those same people – my music making mojo was set aside again for the time being, and I got on with my life. As you do.

Gradually, I made peace with the psychological demons that had been sabotaging my wider emotional relationship with music and, little by little, music’s role as a personal “ordering device”[8] in my life began to be restored. I soon realised that I felt safe enough to turn on the radio every morning, no longer fearful of being aurally ambushed by songs that carried painful memories. I started to listen to some of my favourite artists and albums again and discovered a spectacularly heightened enjoyment of them all. I embraced all the clichés by weeping with sheer joy as I sat outdoors under a breathtaking summer night sunset with a large glass of wine and Tom Petty’s gorgeous voice in my headphones, reminding me intimately and gently that it was, indeed, “Wake Up Time”[9].

Whatever your personal music preferences, I absolutely dare you to try and make it to the end of that track without tears in your eyes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-AtcYvOz2vc

I make no apologies for the fervour of my Tom Petty fanaticism (why should I? 😊), and it was whilst watching, quite possibly for the hundredth time, Peter Bogdanovich’s fantastic documentary film Runnin’ Down a Dream[10] that I knew I was ready to get back on the music horse, so to speak. I figured that I’d recognise the right opportunity when it arrived. I was right.

“Here’s where we came in / waiting for the story to begin…”[11]

 

 

REFERENCES

[1] Winnicott, D.W. (1971)

[2] See www.threecoloursdark.com

[3] Winnicott, D.W. (1971)

[4] Chescheir, M.W. (1985:221) Some implications of Winnicott’s concept for clinical practice. Clinical Social Work Journal 13: 218-233

[5] Silverstone, R. (1994:x) Television and Everyday Life. Routledge

[6] www.meetup.com

[7] See blog post dated 9-5-2020

[8] DeNora, T. (1999, p34)

[9] Tom Petty ‘Wake Up Time’, from the album Wildflowers Warner Bros, 1994

[10] Runnin’ Down A Dream. Peter Bogdanovich, 2007

[11] Karnataka. Delicate Flame of Desire Immrama Records, 2003.

Truth and/or dare: on becoming ‘good enough'[1] (Part 1 of 2).

In my previous two-part blog entry, I discussed the ways in which my identity and sense of self were challenged and altered by taking a five-year break from writing, creating and performing music. In this post (another two-parter!) I reflect on my emergence from said break. As usual, I’ll draw on some theory, and will use this to explore how it felt to set myself on the road back to musicianship, and the subsequent processes of reuniting with and re-evaluating my own ‘musician-self’. But first, some contextualising biographical background.

As I’ve mentioned here in other posts, my songwriting and music-making endeavours have always taken place as part of a team of writer-musicians; just Jon and myself in Three Colours Dark, although previous teams involved at least two other people besides myself. Every individual works differently of course, and the alchemy of songwriting is, like all things, a very subjective experience. My key roles in those songwriting teams have been to write the vocal melodies and lyrics, and to also create the vocal arrangements; backing vocals, harmony parts, counter melodies, etc. I did exactly that on the first three Karnataka studio albums (see http://karnataka.org.uk/?page_id=81). The third one, Delicate Flame of Desire (2003), was our first experience of working closely with a producer: the highly sought-after Steve Evans. Steve taught me a lot about crafting the kind of lush vocal layers that you hear on the album and was a key contributor in creating the soundscapes of each song, too. That was also my first experience of working with other vocalists in the studio; Anne-Marie Helder joined the band in time to add her lovely voice to the album, and Heather Findlay also features as a guest backing vocalist on a couple of tracks.

During my subsequent time in The Reasoning, vocal writing and arranging were done by all three singers in the band – I was the only female this time – and the three of us shared lead vocal duties on the first two albums and onstage. I have however only ever sung lead vocals on original material where I’ve written the lyrics myself, since I personally find it tremendously difficult to deliver a sufficiently emotionally engaged performance on songs whose words were written by somebody else! Singing as part of a pair or a group of vocalists is one of life’s greatest sensory pleasures, though, and there are few experiences more transcendent than blending one’s own voice in harmony with others. It’s exquisite.

That’s an extremely circuitous way of admitting that I don’t play any musical instruments myself 😊 Despite having dabbled with violin and piano as a youngster, I never had the patience to stick with it. I can play four chords (badly) on the guitar, and that’s about it! My percussion skills notwithstanding – I own a proud collection of tambourines, shakers and other peculiar-looking objects, all of which were used enthusiastically as part of our live performances – an instrumentalist I most certainly am not. I’ve never written a song entirely by myself, and I have no particular desire to do so, either. I enjoy a good team effort very much indeed.

My relationship with music more generally was extremely complicated during the aforementioned five year break. Reflecting on this time now and trying my best to make sense of it all, I’ve found it useful to deploy some theory (of course!) and thereby to think of music’s significance for me as a “technology of the self”[2]. Taking a sociological and ethnographic approach, Tia DeNora’s fascinating work on this topic explores how we “use music as a resource for the conduct of emotional ‘work’, and for heightening or changing energy levels”[3]. She suggests that music consumption provides a means for self-interpretation and forms part of how we articulate our self-image and continually (re)construct our sense of social agency. I’m especially interested in how the music to which we listen comes to occupy an important role in our emotional self-regulation and serves as a device for producing autobiographical memory: some of the topics I discussed in last week’s post.

We music-lovers are fairly familiar, I’m sure, with the experience of choosing music that reflects and/or helps to regulate our moods and feelings. From high intensity workout playlists to lazy Sunday soundtracks, music can cheer us up, energise us, or help us to unwind after a stressful day. The research evidence about the value of music therapy in its various forms is now well documented, and recent popular science has made much of the links between music and emotional wellbeing. Some fascinating academic studies – some of them with a neuroscientific orientation – have also explored the ‘enjoyment’ of listening to sad music[4], or discussed the relationship of “maladaptive” music listening patterns to rumination and depression[5],[6]. I have my own ideas for a more psychosocially/psychoanalytically oriented research project in this area as I’ve noted in a previous post. As a lifelong ABBA fan (always proudly declared!), I am no stranger to the seductive pleasures of dark lyrical themes and tend often to produce the same in my own creative work. Nevertheless, I found music-listening to be a practice fraught with emotional danger between 2015 and 2019. I mentioned those kinds of hazards here in a recent post, and will return to a fuller exploration of them in due course.

All things shall and indeed do pass, however, and as matters improved, the first flutters of music inspiration demanded to be acknowledged. Estranged by then from all of my previous co-writers, though, and reluctant to reach out to other potential collaborators from the various networks I’d established in the past, the songwriting process presented a considerable challenge. I’m fortunate to now live in a thriving city, that’s creatively and artistically rich and diverse, and it has a lively music scene. But where to start with any of that, in terms of seeking potential new music-writing buddies?

Professional trajectories typically involve gradually building upon previous successes (however small) to develop new ones: that’s the conventional nature of things, whether one’s ‘profession’ is artistic or otherwise. In the entrepreneurial environment of the creative arts, this comes with the need for self-promotion; a task that has never come naturally to me and a skill that I have had to learn… to a “good enough” standard, at least…

I continue this discussion in Part 2 next week… with some more theory, you’ll be ‘pleased’ to hear 😉!

“It could all be different, only maybe not today / I guess it’s waiting for me out in the Otherworld…”[7]

 

REFERENCES

[1] Winnicott, D.W. (1971) Playing and Reality. London: Tavistock Publications

[2] DeNora, T. (1999) Music as a technology of the self. POETICS 27: 31-56

[3] DeNora 1999, p31

[4] E.g. Sachs, M.E., Damasio, A. and Habibi, A. (2015) The pleasures of sad music: a systematic review. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 9: 404

[5] Carlson, E., Saarikallio, S., Toiviainen, P., Bogert, B., Kliuchko, M. and Brattico, E. (2015) Maladaptive and adaptive emotion regulation through music: a behavioural and neuroimaging study of males and females. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 9: 466

[6] Vuoskoski, J.K. and Eerola, T. (2012) Can sad music really make you sad? Indirect measures of affective states induced by music and autobiographical memories. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts 6(3): 204-213

[7] The Reasoning. Otherworld, from Adventures in Neverland Comet Music, 2012

The Nobody Effect[1] and Other Stories (Part 2 of 2)

In this blog post, I continue last week’s (Part 1) discussion about identity disruptions, musician-self interruptions and ‘ontological security’ in the context of taking a five year hiatus from all things music-related.

Having moved city and home in 2016, adjusting to my restructured life meant seeking out new interpersonal connections. I thrive on social interaction – in Myers-Briggs speak[2], I’m a true ENFJ! – and one of my first priorities in my unfamiliar environment was to pursue as many opportunities for meeting people as I possibly could. Going about that didn’t present much of a difficulty but, as I gradually began to develop local connections, I realised that there was an existential hole where my musician-self (aka Dr. Doris😊) used to be. I’d always taken her for granted, I think, and it was only in the process of reaching out to introduce her to a new friend that I realised she was no longer there in the way that she’d previously been.

For starters, what’s the correct grammatical tense to use when one hasn’t actively engaged in any music-related activity at all for several years? “I am a musician” seemed inaccurate and untruthful. “I used to be a musician” made me feel desperately sad. As a result, I often chose not to mention that part of me at all, which felt evasive and insincere. Invariably, the topic of conversations would frequently turn to music, gigs, bands, etc., which would always bring up a whole host of complicated feelings. With casual acquaintances that’s perfectly manageable, of course, but it’s difficult to invest in and build quality relationships with new friends when part of you has gone missing (or, indeed, ‘for a Burton’, as they say!). This was especially pertinent when the friends in question were themselves musicians.

Even with John C Parkin’s ever-useful F**k It mantra[3] in mind, I struggled with the challenge quite a bit.

As time went by, it turned out that dating presented even more of a quandary in this respect. All of us are familiar with the need to be careful about online privacy and security although, somewhat paradoxically, it is fairly standard practice these days to conduct a rudimentary internet search on potential partners, should one arrive on the scene. I quickly discovered that simply Googling my first name, a very generic keyword about my academic research area and the name of the city in which I lived was pretty much a fait accompli of disclosure dominoes.

My University profile page – one of the main results – reveals my surname. Add ‘music’ to that search, and you get plenty of hits that include photographs taken over the past 20 or so years, multiple sources of information about my two former bands (and their respective demises), media interviews, gig reviews; the lot. And for those with keen detective skills, it also points to the fact that I’ve changed surname, which is a giveaway to the likelihood of my having been married. It’s confusing and unhelpful when meeting someone new to have to use a pseudonym and/or fabricate the nature of one’s day job, because these are all untruths that need to be remembered in sufficient detail to correct them later on, should the need arise. Also, such behaviour doesn’t inspire much faith in others about one’s general credibility. I learned that as well. I gradually realised that I had no control over how and when my autobiographical details made themselves known to those that I considered letting into my life… ultimately, it was easier to just embrace all of that. Reviving this blog has helped to make it a more constructive and agentic process.

In terms of theory, I return to Anthony Giddens, whose work has featured several times in previous posts. I want to think about the impact of the life transitions I’ve described on my sense of self; as understood by me, but also in my attempts to articulate this self to others during the transitional time I’ve described.

Giddens draws our attention to the inherently fragmented nature of late modernity. He argues that identities become reflexive as a means of coping with the uncertainty that this brings, motivating us to piece together the fragments of our experience and knowledge to create stories and narratives of self. If they are to be coherent, these stories must demonstrate a biographical continuity that is understandable to ourselves and communicable to other people. This mastery of self, if successful, produces ‘ontological security’[4]: a sense of certainty. I like that term a great deal, since it has psychoanalytic and sociological relevance, and also helps to theorise the notion of insecurity in some interesting ways.

For (the extremely controversial) R.D Laing[5], taking a psychoanalytic rather than a sociological perspective on the matter, an ontologically insecure individual may feel that:

 

“ … his identity and autonomy are always in question. He may lack the experience of his own temporal continuity. He may not possess an over-riding sense of personal consistency or cohesiveness. He may feel more insubstantial than substantial, and unable to assume that the stuff he is made of is genuine, good, valuable”[6]

 

Laing was writing about psychosis there, of course, but having myself worked through a period of serious anxiety and depression at various points during the past few years, I’d argue that those feelings also describe quite accurately the insidious and enduring nature of far less severe but nevertheless life-altering mental health challenges. Giddens emphasises that we require ontological “reference points”[7], which are themselves continually re-produced through routinised practices, if we are to maintain an ontologically secure sense of self. Major life transitions make a good job of wreaking havoc on any such efforts, where the reference points of the past seem themselves to have lost their direction and meaning.

Alongside (and partly because of) said life transitions, I removed myself from social media for a while. This was in many ways a useful means of keeping myself emotionally safe, but also had the decidedly unhelpful consequence of further loosening the connections to my own established life narrative. Writing about the nostalgia-evoking nature of social media content, Areni notes that engaging with this can help to fulfil our need for ontological security by “reintegrating memories of the past into an ongoing self-affirming narrative or ‘life story’”[8].

What to do, then, when said content is rendered absent by virtue of being – albeit temporarily – too painful to engage with? How best to reincorporate the “safe” elements of our memories, thereby fashioning them into the much needed ‘reference points’ that Giddens describes? Is it even possible to conceive of a single ‘life story’, when mine has featured multiple versions and editions that are in some ways already a matter of public knowledge (even on a very small scale)? And now, what are the likely consequences of choosing to reactivate a long dormant Facebook account for the purposes of – at last – having a new music project to share that is helping me to join up the dots of these storied-self versions?

I find that I am learning to reconnect with previous ‘editions’ of myself, and continue to do so gently, and with self-compassion. Aaron Balick observes that social media platforms have in many respects become “the new technologies of our intimacies”[9]. He’s got a point. And we’re dealing with emotional dynamite in our everyday lives as a result, it seems. Take good care of yourselves!

À bientôt…

 

“Rewrite history, you’ll get what you see / strange behaviour, indeed…”[10]

 

 

REFERENCES

[1] The Reasoning. Adverse Camber Comet Music, 2010

[2] E.g. https://www.16personalities.com/free-personality-test

[3] Parkin, J.C. (2008) F**k It: The Ultimate Spiritual Way. Hay House

[4] Giddens, A. (1991) Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age. Polity Press

[5] E.g. Laing, R.D. (2010) The Divided Self. Penguin

[6] Laing 2010, p42

[7] Giddens 1991: p52)

[8] Areni, C. (2019:75) Ontological security as an unconscious motive of social media users. Journal of Marketing Management 35(1-2): 75-96

[9] Balick, A. (2014:xxv) The Psychodynamics of Social Networking: Connected-Up Instantaneous Culture and The Self. Karnac

[10] Three Colours Dark. The Science of Goodbye Firefly Music, 2020