This Record is Dedicated to Me: Rufus Wainwright’s Ego. Katherine Williams (Leeds College of Music)
[abstract] Canadian-American singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright comes from a long family tradition of publicly expressing emotion and anxiety through song. While Wainwright does not explicitly continue the pattern established by his mother (folk singer Kate McGarrigle) and father (folk singer Loudon Wainwright III), the majority of his songs use the first-person singular pronoun. In combination with the increasing prominence of his voice in the production of subsequent albums, this adds up to an overblown sense of ego and identity. This exaggerated ego is emphasized by the visual and musical flamboyance of Wainwright’s musical performances and output. Many of his songs contain explicit or indirect references to opera and the classical music tradition, which offers another avenue for drama and excess. His 2009 opera Prima Donna brought his name and music to new audiences, and is revealing (in subject matter and idiom) of his perception of himself as a leading figure in multiple musical styles.
In this paper, I will explore my hypothesis that the increasing prominence of Wainwright’s voice in the produced mix through his seven studio albums can be attributed to his ego and his growing comfort with his place in celebrity culture. By combining detailed analysis of his output with the philosophical perspectives of Barthes and Freud, alongside Allan Moore’s and Ruth Dockwray’s work on the ‘soundbox’ and the spatialisation of recorded sound, I will relate Wainwright’s sense of self to his music, providing a new perspective on the role of autobiography in indie rock.
Katherine’s paper begins biographically, describing Rufus personal and cultural background. We hear ‘Danny Boy’ – a track from the eponymous debut album (1998), and see an analysis of its soundfield (after the work of Dockwray and Moore). By 2001, with the second album Poses RW had embraced the ‘pop star lifestyle’; the vocal is higher in the mix and this is inferred to be a representation of a rising egocentricity in the approach. Katherine notes many different producers for Poses and we hear an audio excerpt of the title track. The number of in-jokes on the album’s credits are noted and briefly discussed.
Biography and discography continue to be interwoven in the run-up to the release of the third album (more than 30 songs were recorded). Want One had simpler credits [JB note – this was my own personal introduction to RW’s work, and I particularly became interested in the lovely vocal, melody (and referential arrangement) of What a World]. It is on Want One that we see in the credits Katharine’s subtitle ‘this record is dedicated to me’.
We next see a soundscape of Old Whore’s Diet from fourth album Want Two (2004) and the paper notes the ‘Gay Messiah on tour’ character. We next hear Do I disappoint you? From Release The Stars (2007), with a commentary that observes the contradiction between the lyric theme and the performance/mix. The large number of collaborators on this album is noted, and an additional soundscape is provided.
The album All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu (2010) is contextualised with the death of RW’s mother and we hear the song Martha, which Katharine describes as a triangular mix, or perhaps a linear mix. After a little more biographical detail (which includes RW’s daughter) we hear Montauk from Out Of The Game (2012). A brief lyric excerpt follows;
One day you will come to Montauk and see your dad wearing a
kimono and see your other dad pruning roses
Hope you wont turn around and go
One day you will come to Montauk and see your dad playing the piano
and see your other dad wearing glasses
Hope that you will want to stay for a while
Don’t worry I know you’ll have to go
Katharine concludes that RW’s apparently growing ego can arguably be represented in soundbox terms, and provides references including Barthes, Lake (RW’s biographer), Moore, Moore/Dockwray, Moore/Schmidt/Dockwray (spatial soundbox work).