PRINCETASTIC. Audience participation at its best.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how persona affects our experience of music, since performance is still (and today maybe even more so) an essential part of how we experience music, even in recorded form. Since the idea of time-shifting musical performance stemmed from the desire to be able to hear master performers anywhere at any time (think piano scrolls or the early days of radio), it makes sense that the person performing the music would be considered an integral part of the formula that makes for successful music.
If you play music long enough, you realize that the limitations of music are fairly rigid, even if you go to the microtonal or abstractionist level. Rhythm, harmony, melody and other elements are far more limiting than they appear, especially given the explosion of genrefied music in the 20th century, but ultimately what defines the difference between a lot of the bands we like may not actually be attributed to the music, but to the performer. And what makes a performer great? Persona.
For the obligatory wikipedia definition of persona, see below:
A persona, in the word everyday usage, is a social role or a characterplayed by an actor. This is an Italian word that derives from the Latin for “mask” or “character”, derived from the Etruscan word “phersu”, with the same meaning. Popular etymology derives the word from Latin “per” meaning “through” and “sonare” meaning “to sound”, meaning something in the vein of “that through which the actor speaks”, i.e. a mask (early Greek actors wore masks).
I like to define persona as making people forget that you take shits too, but I think my definition complements the above one quite nicely. Assuming a role that begs for the audience to join you in the performative journey you are going to embark on together requires that the performer seduces the audience into submission, which almost always means donning a persona that makes you larger than life.
Though we just lost Michael Jackson, his life a tragic allegory of what happens when you allow the persona to mingle far too closely to your personal life, I think the better example is Prince. The thing that is so remarkable about the above performance is how refined his persona is. This is a guy, one motherfucker of a guy, who can take his entire 30-year repertoire of synthy, futuristic, hyper-polished, ground-breaking jams and pare it down to an acoustic guitar under the guise of a more intimate experience with Prince. But it’s still PRINCE, Artist Formerly Known as a Symbol who in spite of not having all of his normal theatrics (see below), is still donning a façade that everyone in the audience knows and is familiar with. And because he has been donning this mask for so long, it doesn’t take much to remind you that he is Prince, even if it’s just an acoustic guitar, some old songs and some playful banter. But just remember, Prince shits just like everyone else.
To end, Joni Mitchell on Prince via NYMag: