For most admirers of k.d. lang’s artistic “stuff”, the experience is truly inexplicable. There are no words, analogies or metaphors that can express the adventure of hearing k.d. live. This is not to ‘dis’ recordings, mind you. It is just to say that listening and watching a live artistic performance is a “whole other animal” than streaming k.d. on iTunes. In this post, I want to try and explain why women all over the world willingly “throw themselves” at k.d or believe they are in love with her. While these feelings may be real, I argue the interpretation of them is misguided. Yet with a little work, we both explain this and understand why k.d’s voice is so intoxicating.
Some may wonder why I even care to try an isolate WHY k.d.’s live performances are so life changing, or why people think they “are in love” with her. I suppose it is the true philosopher in me. But I also think that reflecting about why she performs so well, in so many contexts, with so many varieties of technique is important. It is critical that we are able to try and isolate as many tangible features as we can so that we can spend time thinking about the relationship between these characteristics and how we feel listening to k.d. lang “belt it out” on stage! I think that it is easy for many to confuse this feeling for having a crush on k.d., or for thinking that there is a “connection” with her. I believe that such statements are simply a conflation of that glimmer of the “other” with the excitement we have about seeing it.
Plato, my all time biggest philosophical influence (who may have been influenced by Buddhism), believed that music was “pure” thought, in a way. He may have been onto something. Because when someone like k.d. sings, we do feel as if we are being more than entertained. We feel that we are being spoken to, personally. We feel a Truth is being conveyed, or that we are allowed a glimpse at something “other”. And whatever it is we are privy to via k.d., it is positive and hope inspiring.
To aid in my explanation, I want to focus on the following bit I read in a book the other day:
“The living presence of the performer of song makes a decided, but little-discussed, imprint on the audience’s perception of the music. Whether conscious or spontaneous, the behavioral and kinesthetic choices the singer makes while interpreting demonstrate the degree of his subjective involvement and identification with the textual content of his song; express the singer’s attitude toward his subject, his invisible interlocutors, and his audience; and allow us to draw conclusions about the world imaged in the song by that world the singer has, through these relationships, created visually for himself and the audience (Schneider, 1994).”
Don’t worry if this passage is not that clear to you. I had to re-read it about 10 times to follow it! In short, what this person is saying is that interpretation is what brings the audience closer to the inner revelation of the music itself and to the world as the performer sees it. In terms of k.d. lang, what this means is when she sings, we get to experience the music in-and-of-itself and (as an added bonus) we get to see a bit of k.d’s view of the world. And what is really awesome about k.d., is that she has a lot of her own original music as well as covers. So this is like a double bonus for us.
The first “bonus” is, in her original stuff, she is not interpreting her music so much as she becomes a portal for us to the world as she “sees” it. The second bonus is that when she sings covers, her interpretation is such that the music as written is presented to us in a way even better than the composer may have imagined. Her interpretation allows for that glimpse in to something “other” that so few artists can really make happen.
Now, this passage talks about kinesthetic choices the artist makes. If you have seen k.d. live a few times, you will notice that she definitely makes such decisions, albeit subtle ones. The next time you are browsing YouTube, take a look at this “unplugged” show, and pay attention to her body movements. Even though this bit is “older” (1992), not a lot has changed for her in this regard. Granted, she may not be a Michael Jackson Moonwalker, but she definitely has moves and these moves tell a story about how she sees the world and Truth.
Couple her physical and musical interpretation with the sense of Truth and infinite beyond she allows us to see, and it makes sense that people think they are “in love” with her. But, what I think, is that we are really in love with that part of existence we do not get to see on our own. We are dependent on artists, like k.d. lang. to access these experiences and hence we think we are in love with the messenger. What we really love is the World-For-Its-Own-Sake that k.d. shows us.
k.d. is truly an Artist (capital A). I have heard her call herself a “singer”. Technically this is true, k.d., but few “singers” show the world Truths like you do.
Sara K. Schneider, Concert Song as Seen: Kinesthetic Aspects of Musical Interpretation (Stuyvesant, NY: Pendragon Press, 1994)