real music

November 11, 2010

Two weeks ago, Elton John and his “friend and idol” boogie-man Leon Russell played the Hollywood Palladium and L.A. Times’ Pop Music Critic Ann Powers picked up an interesting quote from the night.

Their album “The Union,” produced by the golden-fingered T Bone Burnett, is a critical and commercial success that’s gotten John saying that from now on, he’ll be making “real music” instead of the Top 40 fodder that made him a household name.

The fact that John considers his new Russell-infused music to be “real” when millions of his fans would probably argue that point brings about the debate of authenticity in the age of recorded music. As Greg Milner points out in his book Perfecting Sound Forever, sound recording started “as a means to document a musical performance, to offer a representation of the ‘real.'” Real, in this case meaning the live act of performance. It is this phonograph-era ideal of “real” music that John’s comment refers to, but it is one I find most problematic for a pop star like John.

The top 40 “fodder” that made John and so many others famous is the result of changes in recording technologies that have allowed artists to move away from the purity of a recorded live performance by giving them the power to tamper with the sounds and make them perfect. Some could argue that this power disconnects the artist from the final output, but I think it also disconnects them from the listener. And if one was a recording purist, the idea of using “editing capabilities of the recording studio to at least make things presentable” could be seen as a form of dishonesty.

Recorded entirely from live, in-studio jam sessions, The Union, John and Russell’s album, seems to hark back to these concepts of maintaining authenticity and integrity in the recording process. The music to John is more “real” than his other stuff because it is not “dependent on recording technology for its inception and dissemination” and is instead a “snapshot of a live performance,” which is how records were originally conceived. The irony here, however, is that while the album was culled from recordings of live performance, the entire process was overseen by celebrity producer T-Bone Burnett, who no doubt infused his own soundboard tweaks and adjustments into the album’s final cut.

So while John thinks he is now playing music that is more authentic and real than the processed pop music he has been creating since the 60s, he is still in many ways a slave to the recording process that he had tried to escape from. The Union is not only a collaboration between John and Russell, but also includes producer Burnett, whose responsibility it is to make sure the recorded version of the live sessions captures the magic in the room. But if it takes a big-name producer to infuse the record “with energy imparted from the interaction of human personalities,” how real of a representation of that aura is it? After all, records aren’t necessarily “reprodctions of anything; they are realities in themselves.”

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