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.