Lori Burns: Genre, Discourse and Narrative in the Concept Album Spectacle #arp13


Coldplay’s Mylo Xyloto on stage.

Plenary 1: The Art of Persuasion: Genre, Discourse and Narrative in the Concept Album Spectacle. Lori Burns, University of Ottawa

Lori begins by quoting Douglas Kellner’s definition of the ‘media spectacle’ and acknowledges his debt to Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle (1967).

She states that the paper addresses the idea of the Concept Album Spectacle, and asks three questions – how the artist shapes cultural commentary through it, how the materials are culturally productive, and how these texts carry out persuasive work.

This paper grows from Lori’s previous work, which has dealt with Kanye West’s 808s and Heartbreak, Pink’s Funhouse Tour, and (from forthcoming work on) Lady Gaga’s Fame, Fame Monster.

Peter Tschmuck described “a new asthetic paradigm”, which Lori connects to Patrik Wikstrom’s term “the audience-media engine”. The example she uses is Coldplay’s Mylo Xyloto, and then provides a brief contextual/historical background on the band, situating the work among contemporaries (Radiohead, Blur, Oasis, Arcade Fire, U2 etc). There follows a brief tour of the band’s first five albums, with brief discussions of the waxing and waning of producer relationships and the development of sound. It is implicit in Lori’s presentation that the sonic development evident in these five works is partly the result of changes in the production team. The optimistic nature of MX is noted – from positive or negative perspectives – in contemporaneous press reviews.

Next, Lori charts a 6-month timeline, beginning with the release of Every Teardrop is a Waterfall, leading up to and following the release of MX, placing the album release itself [I infer, the star of the ‘spectacle’] around two thirds of the way along. The ETIAW video production techniques are compared compared to Snow Patrol’s Take Back The City. The ‘indie heritage’ claimed by ETIAW is discussed; we see excerpt from both videos, and to make aesthetic production inferences as regards their similarity.

There follows an analysis of Coldplay’s setlist from Glastonbury on 25 June 2011; Lori notes the exact points in the running order where the MX tracks appear, and suggests that their placement is significant [I infer in the intentional ‘construction of the spectacle’]. The stage set, created by London graffiti artist Paris, is analysed conceptually in relation to the lighting design (neon colours on black).

The next single under discussion is Paradise, and Lori describes the arrangement and alludes to the ‘expansive’ songwriting. There follows a description of the narrative plot of the Paradise video [the journey of Chris Martin as unicycling elephant, noting that the elephant head is removed so that he can show us that he does his own unicycling!];

The content of both singles is now placed in the context of the strategic launch of the album; Lori is implying [and I completely agree] that these elements combine intentionally and strategically to manufacture the spectacle. The 26 July 2012 Montreal show is described, where each of the four Coldplay shows’ setlists are shown, from the Main stage show (opening with MX and ending with God Put A Smile Upon Your Face’. The small-scale stripped-down performance on the penultimate stage is deliberate, throwing the final main stage spectacle into sharp relief [the classic way one builds a setlist!].

There follows a discussion of the MX Comic Book series, written by Mark Osborne and illustrated/coloured by Alejandro Feuntes and Steve Hamaker. The ‘story of Mylo’ has been critically described as literarily incoherent; Lori acknowledges this but states that her interest is not in any narrative specificity but rather in the way the comic books contribute to building the spectacle.

We now take a brief meta-research slide; Lori asks what tools can academics use to achieve a coherent analysis the concept album spectacle. Coldplay’s music is situatied in the Indie genre ref Fonarow’s Empire of Dirt (2006) description of ‘indie’, noting particularly the genre’s distrust of consumerism and high production values and contrasting this with the mainstream success of many aesthetically (if not commercially) ‘indie’ bands. Lori calls this the ‘paradox of indie rock’, citing Mark Beaumont’s 2008 NME review of the band;

“They yearn to be recast as outsiders violently opposed to the mainstream hegemony but can’t see that by dint of their incessant knack for a stadium-sized chorus they’re so deeply entrenched in the mainstream that they’re our men on the inside, making the most offensive indie racket palatable to the masses with a sprinkle of their melodic fairy dust.”

We now move back to our theoretical framework; the analysis is now situated within John Frow’s analytic methods, after Foucault, noting formal features, thematic structure and rhetorical structure. Acfter Machin & May’s work on Critical Discourse Analysis, Lori’s work identifies ideas, values, identities and sequences of activity. Mieke Bal’s term ‘Narratology’ theory is cited.

Lori synthesises these approaches into five parameters for her ‘Genre-Discourse-Narrative Framework’ – space & time / narrative & themes / voice & address / norms & values (how choices represent the world) / gesture & activity. These can be applied to four domains – music, lyric, video and performance.

We now return to Coldplay and their songs – the next example is ‘Charlie Brown’;

I stole a key
Took a car downtown where the lost boys meet
I took a car downtown and took what they offered me
To set me free 

I saw the lights go down at the end of the scene
I saw the lights go down and they’re standing in front of me
My scarecrow dreams
When they smashed my heart into smithereens 

I be a bright red rose come bursting the concrete
Be the cartoon heart, light a fire, light a spark
Light a fire, a flame in my heart
We’ll run wild, we’ll be glow-in-the-dark 

All the boys, all the girls, all the mess in the world
All the boys, all the girls, all the mess that occurs
All the highs, all the lows
We’ll run wild, we’ll start glowing-in-the-dark
So we’ll run wild, we’ll be glow-in-the-dark

Lori now undertakes a partly literary analysis of the lyric [I infer this is ‘Narratology’] and then plays us the track, showing the ‘more interesting than just a sausage shape’ waveform on screen (noting that this is essential for a conference of this type!). Looking at the ‘Music’ domain only, we look at the song through the three analytical tools of Space & Time; Voice & Address; Gesture and Activity. The observations are fascinating when received holistically/simultaneously, especially when the track is playing – I won’t summarise them here in case I misrepresent the detail, and will await Lori’s paper for this. [although I note how pleasingly non-subjective most of the observations are – there is no attempt to infer authorial intent].

We now, with the echoic electric guitar & synth tone clusters of the CB outro still ringing in our ears, hear the organ/guitar intro to U2’s Where The Streets Have No Name [prod. Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno], followed by a similarly echoic/anthemic guitar production aesthetic in an excerpt from Arcade Fire’s Half Light I. The similarity is sonically compelling; Lori is clearly implying CB is making deliberate cultural allusions to these production ideas, if not necessarily to these specific works. A rapid and efficient harmonic analysis follows, with a brief discussion of harmonic dissonance and elision, contextualised with the earlier Narratology approach of a central character’s journey. She suggests that further theoretical analysis of voice leading in relation to characterisation might bear fruit [I note Lori’s historical interest in voice leading – see her (2000) paper on Tori Amos].

We now switch domains, and see (and briefly analyse) the CB video;

This segues into a section where Lori applies all five elements of the Genre-Discourse-Narrative Framework to [concert footage of the] Live 2012 concert performance (watch from [3:52]0;

Lori concludes with a summary of what we may learn by applying the five analytical tools to the four domains, and which embodied ‘spectacular’ ideals can be unearthed through doing so. She concludes with a reference to David Hesmondhaigh’s political aesthetics of music, where he lists parameters for music’s powers to be affective of its listeners. Lori suggests that all of his parameters are evident in the building of the concept album spectacle.

Questioning discusses the future of the concept album, the extent to which the spectacle is not merely an album with additional media outlets, and the extent to which the gestures in the four domains are cultural memes or deliberate referential copies of existing works.

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