Perhaps second only to bubblegum music, Abba has been the target of much derision. Perhaps as a glutton for punishment, I decided to listen to a lot of it back and forth with my Bubblegum therapy infusion, and along the way I picked up this news item about them reuniting (sorta) for a virtual tour. This got me thinking about what people really get out of a “live” performance these days and whether something like this would qualify as “live”?
If you read through the article you’ll see that there is no actual real-time performance by the original musicians. In fact they won’t even create a single newly recorded live backing track. What you’re watching in its place is really just a 3D movie or 3D videogame projection that is enhanced by anonymous backup musicians. My reaction?
I grew up in the 80s which was the era of synthesizers and the rise of sampling. I was pretty out-of-step with that at the time, preferring instead to listen to Led Zeppelin bootlegs. I developed a keen appreciation for live performance, for musicianship. I can’t imagine something like this virtual tour would be viable if today’s generation had not largely stopped caring about musicianship. The only form of actual musical talent people seem to care about is singing, and even then, only in rarefied situations like The Voice. When it comes to even their favorite pop stars, they mime and lipsync as much as Milli Vanilli.
Spectacle has always been a part of a live performance. As long as something interesting is being shown, people are usually willing to tolerate some degree of canned material and/or lipsyncing. That’s not to say I, personally, like this, but it’s what the unwashed masses expect. When the fakery is exposed, however, people tend to get a bit upset, ala Milli Vanilli. But usually the first casualty is the backing band. When people come to see a performance, they are there for the singers, who they perceive as the “real” stars. This is why even talented musicians like Prince wound up grinding his joints into oblivion in order to perform the physical moves that audiences expected of him, and getting him hooked on painkillers.
The clash between spectacle and music was on full display recently at the AMAs. I have found little actual evidence to prove categorically that Pink actually sang into that headset mic while dangling off a building, but I doubt anyone really gave a damn one way or the other.
I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with theatrics in music. I think it’s fine up to a point but I do not want to go to a show to hear canned music, canned vocal harmonies, canned vocals, auto-tuning, or any other crutches. I also don’t like rock bands being surrounded by extra no-name musicians except maybe when they need an orchestral backing like Page/Plant Unleded, but even that is now a well-worn gimmick.
Even Kiss in their heyday, as much as they were about the show, were at their core still just performing as a 4-piece, only relying on a backing track when Peter Criss sang Beth.
Nevertheless, today there’s a very blurry line between a band and, let’s say, musical theater. The Who have converted Tommy and Quadrophenia into musicals, and Green Day did one for American Idiot. Once things go into a musical direction, the original artists no longer participate, hence it can be an easy cash-cow. Now sure, the ultimate of that might be a live album or movie of a show, but historically speaking those haven’t made the sort of money that live events do.
To me, the whole point of going to a live show is to physically be in proximity to the stars. At a minimum, they have to be there. You lose that when things go virtual.
My opinion is that the best compromise for aging stars who don’t want to physically tour is to do some sort of pay-per-view or live-streaming. And yet, even there, you have a sense of something being in the now, and yet you aren’t actually seeing them with your own two eyes. Even though the cheap seats at a live show rely on the jumbotrons, it’s still better that way. I remember when I saw the Police Reunion at Dodger Stadium in 2007. That was a big deal. You got a sense that here were people who had put aside their differences for a brief window of time and you were invited to experience history. That is what some sort of Abba show should be.
I am not an Abba fanboi so I don’t know the drama behind all this. What I do know is that they aren’t exactly paragons of aging gracefully, and that may play a big factor in their reluctance to do a true reunion victory-lap and instead to rely upon idealized CGI mannequins, not that they haven’t already indulged in that. That still doesn’t excuse them from not even performing new live renditions. So it seems to be a combination of vanity and laziness.
What I expect, however, is that it will STILL make tons of money, just because when it comes to fandom, people willingly allow themselves to be exploited like this. And so I am really concerned that this will open up a whole new genre of crass profiteering on the part of retirement-age musicians who want the proceeds from touring but will not rock til they drop the way Chuck Berry (or heck, even David Cassidy) did. So brace yourselves for the next step in the unraveling of the music industry as we know it.