Performing the Ironic Listener

In Performing Rites, Simon Frith proposes three layers of the pop music performer: the real person, the persona, and the protagonist. The real person refers to a human being who is a musician (ex. Robert Zimmerman). The persona is the performed identity on stage (ex. Bob Dylan). The protagonist is the character of a given song (ex. Bob Dylan performing from the perspective of a farm worker in “Maggie’s Farm”). We could easily question parts of this formulation (for example, the tidiness of the “real person”), but many have made good use of this tripartite conception (see: Philip Auslander’s Glam Rock).


We might consider some of the implications of Frith’s formulation for the listener, as well. This proves especially useful if we consider listening as a kind of performance—a way of demonstrating emotion to others, something we learn to do, something that relies on social conventions to be meaningful.

We might think of the “real person” as a human being in the audience. This seems simple enough.

We might also understand listening as the performance of the socially conventional role of the “audience member.” This role involves dressing in a certain way for concerts, orienting one’s body in a certain way during the concert, standing in a certain place, speaking in a certain way and at certain times, and gesturing in acceptable ways to indicate emotion (ex. clapping, air guitaring, feet stomping, wailing, etc.). These are codes that audience members perform just as much for each other as they do for the performers on stage, and these conventions differ in various contexts—the violent mosh-pit shoving in a Metallica concert would not be appropriate at an Enya concert, for example.


One of the ways that Frith’s formulation proves useful is that it helps locate irony in performance, which can emerge from a tension between these layers: David Robert Jones performing David Bowie performing Ziggy Stardust (this is Auslander’s example).

With this in mind, I wonder to what degree people listen to air guitar performances ironically.

In air guitar competitions, performers certainly employ irony. During the air guitar qualifier in Boston 2014, air guitarists seemed to operate with a tension between deep emotional investment and a simultaneous reflexivity about the conventional ways that this emotional investment is conveyed. For example, Danny Tanner Tantrum performed with dramatic facial gestures that suggested both an emotional investment in the song, along with a kind of caricature of the way guitar players contort their faces as they perform strenuous parts of the music (like Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock). The judges, too, performed as personas, providing false details about performer histories and their own credentials. In doing so, the judges seemed to offer a metacommentary on talent competitions, such as American Idol or the Voice. The irony among judges could be found in the tension between the fact that they were actually judging performances and, at the same time, offering a reflexive performance of judging itself.

But I think the irony extended to the listeners, as well, because they seemed to provide a kind of over-the-top performance of fandom and affective engagement. Arms flailing in the air, bowing in submission to great performers, and grabbing onto the legs of air guitarists were all familiar audience tropes that harped on the conventions of listening and audience membership. During a performance, I even overheard one audience member shout: “We’re not worthy!”


Yet, as with performers and judges, a certain amount of sincerity could be found underneath (at least, based on my interviews thus far). It was as if audience members felt a sincere emotional response to the music, but they felt that the semantic codes and conventions that dictated how those responses should be expressed felt awkward, outdated, or perhaps just insufficient. The irony, in other words, appeared to be a rejection of the typical avenues of expressing affective investment—not an indicator of a lack of investment altogether.

Thus, through thinking about ironic listening, we might begin to see a tension between affective response to music and the simultaneous self-aware encoding involved in translating the response for others to see.


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