J.Views, 401 Days, track 3 ‘October’. From the booklet:
I downloaded the album before I got the CD, so I heard this dialogue before I read it. It’s spoken not sung. I heard a slightly teasing, slightly sleepy tone. They’re talking about inspiration as something sensory and immediate. What does it add to know that it was ‘recorded in bed, Brooklyn, NY’? That this is, seemingly, a real dialogue between Jonathan Dagan (‘J.Views’) and his partner? That, whatever prompted him to record this – maybe to make a memo or to have something to reflect on – he’s given us here a little moment from his intimate personal life?
In the context of this particular album it makes a lot of sense to do this. The process of making the album was documented while it happened on the DNA project website. The album is presented as ‘a memory, a postcard, a footprint left from a journey’ (another quotation from the CD booklet) and all along it has been richly infused with the moments of Dagan’s life, the places he’s travelled to, his memories, his creative explorations and the changing seasons. None of the clips I remember from the website mentioned Dagan’s relationship, but presumably it too fed into the album – especially if inspiration is indeed as much about experiencing the moment, using the senses and trying to see truly as this little dialogue suggests. (Though she is slightly taking the piss out of him. ‘Woman (imitating Man)’. Should he be trying to theorize inspiration at all? Should he just be enjoying the morning?) Art is personal. Art is exposing.
But I do wonder what’s at stake in using one’s life in art, both for the artist and for their audience. This isn’t a new question – in fact it’s one of the oldest questions around – but I’ve been thinking about it in relation to some other recent examples, and particularly because in current music, more than in literature, it’s common to assume art reflects the artist’s life in a straightforward way. Tracey Thorn writes about this in her book on singing, Naked at the Albert Hall, saying that when she wrote and performed ‘All the Divorces’ people thought she and Ben Watts were splitting up – but no, she was using her imagination. A song can be like a short story or a tiny play; a singer can be an actor. The song can be emotionally true without having to be literally and factually so.
And so, we have the hoo-ha over Beyoncé’s recent, and frankly brilliant, album Lemonade. What it apparently traces is her anger and sorrow over her husband’s infidelity, with eventual reconciliation at the end. This certainly got the album talked about – the cynical would say it was an outstanding example of gossip-marketing. In fact the album, especially in its incarnation as a film with all its imagery of plantations, baptism/birth, voodoo face-paint, and urban exploitation, is about hugely more than infidelity: it’s about race, it’s about gender, it’s about love and protest and power. Ash Sarkar wrote in the LRB that ‘Beyoncé uses the pain of personal betrayal to highlight the political marginalisation of black women’. But actually, it’s possible Jay Z didn’t cheat on Beyoncé – I’ve heard that view proposed. Certainly he appears in the film: as an artistic project he’s definitely in on it. And it’s an excellent, highly crafted work of art – very well constructed with a powerful emotional arc, weaving the personal story into wider themes. I’d probably rather think that the album is a richly resonant fiction, but of course that reflects my cultural prejudices: Beyoncé’s artistic achievements and political message seem more worth celebrating to me than a rhetorical demolition job on a cheating husband, and I dislike celebrity culture. For others, the idea that such a gorgeous and talented woman could share this very common experience could be something that touches them and binds them to her; plus there’s the trope that it’s shocking to ‘lie to the fans’. Does it matter either way whether Jay Z cheated? Well, for Beyoncé herself surely it does matter.
I meet these issues in a different way in the recent work of Tash Parker. Tash isn’t an international celebrity like Beyoncé; she’s someone I’ve interacted with in a minor way online and she’s real to me as a human being in a way Beyoncé isn’t – she doesn’t move in that heightened space of the staged life. Recently Tash has started performing and releasing new music after a long hiatus. So far we have the beautiful ‘Away’ by Anatole, released as a single in August 2015 – Tash contributed the vocal part and, one assumes, the lyric – and ‘The Fall’, which was filmed live and is available on YouTube. These are both very sad songs about the end of her relationship. As art, they are affecting and easy to identify with, and she performs them well – a simple, open delivery for ‘Away’, a rather more ambitious and varied approach for ‘The Fall’ (her voice has strengthened noticeably since her 2010 album). But they do seem exposing; they invite questions that seem intrusive. When she sings ‘Why didn’t you tell me I was holding on too tight’, what is that supposed to mean? It is both specific enough and vague enough to invite speculation. When I first heard these songs, given that I knew a little of the circumstances behind them, I found them quite confronting. Was it ok to read these as transcripts of Tash’s own feelings? Was I being allowed in that far – was I being allowed to care and feel sad for Tash herself, rather than just for my own memories as she awoke them, or people close to me whose experience she might crystallise? I have to admit that the songs were the more powerful for me because of that sense of contact with the person behind them, but I’m aware that sympathy and connection can blur into nosiness.
I can see how these songs might be useful ones for Tash to write. Singing about one’s exes is a well-established tradition. Writing about a bad experience can be a way of taking charge of it, being the one to define it, doing something positive with it. And, indeed, as soon as you make art out of experience – as soon as you try to communicate at all – you start to fictionalise it, to arrange and select and shape the messiness of the real. On the sliding scale from the real to the unreal, I’m not sure human language or even human minds ever get completely to either end. The J.Views extract says that, in a way. On the one hand, it’s this intimate moment, a couple in their bedroom, talking about how inspiration is to describe the beauty that you see – direct, personal, raw. On the other hand, it’s a little play-script, with directions that add meaning to what you merely hear. It was recorded and has been presented to us. It’s an inspired, intimate fiction of the truth. And it’s through such fictions that humans reach each other.