The Real Put On

The thing, for me, that makes The Beatles stand out from so much popular 60s music is that they enjoyed the put on. They didn't will to be authentic, to be true, to express express themselves (most of the time). Of course, others were doing this, too — Zappa, for one. But this is not an argument about The Beatles. This is an argument about the put on.

I love Joni Mitchell's album, Blue. Fucking love it. It's beautiful — thoroughly emotional without being maudlin or cliche. I will admit that when I was a freshman in college, I listened to it everyday.

But what really gets me going is not that raw, exquisite emotionality. What really gets me going is the put on, the doubling and tripling of self, a play that doesn't relent, that will never give way to a true self. For me, the band that follows The Beatles' legacy is Ween.

Ween puts on the world. They take every genre imaginable — from Philadelphia soul to Sonic Youth to The Beach Boys to Jimmy Buffet and so on and so on. Yet they don't just play that genre straight: they take it up and let you know they're taking it up. And yet this knowing that they're donning a disguise never gives way to a revelation. There is no true Ween underneath. Who would that even be — Dean and Gene Ween?

No, the put on never stops: it's play all the way down. I know this annoys some — understandably — in that it feels false, it feels cheeky, it feels insincere, it feels like some kind of false irony.

But what's strange to me is that it doesn't feel false. But nor does it feel sincere. Ween exists in a much stranger place in which all there is is a put on — and that put on is real. In fact, what would make it insincere is if we thought that it was just a disguise, that underneath it all there they were, winking. Then it would seem like a false put on to me; it would seem insincere. But there is no there there: all there is is play. And hence there is no falsity just as there is no truth: pure play, relentless play, disguise upon disguise upon disguise.

Recently, I've become more attracted to the rap and pop music the kids love so much. What I like is the play, the play acting, the posturing, the put on of it all. It's not music that demands sincerity; it's music that demands a posture.

I love this relentless put on, this refusal to expose oneself once and for all. The 60s and the psychoanalytic nonsense it spurred (not Freud but what was done to and with Freud) created this will to authenticity, to a version of self-expression that is focused on personal emotions — think: Anne Sexton (whose poetry I like, by the way).

But self-expression can be about more than one's inner feelings. After all, it's expression: it's outward facing. So to express oneself can be about how one takes up the world, how one puts on the world, rather than how one feels and reacts to the world. Self-expression, then, would not be an excavation of self — a turning inside out — but a hurling of oneself into the swirl of life.

Of course, things that ring false ring false — and who wants that? So I want to suggest that there is this other place of the real put on. What makes it real is that there is no wink, no revelation.

Does this mean I have to love every put on? Of course not. Certain things just don't resonate well with me. This is called taste and we each have our own way of making sense of things, of enjoying things. But my criteria of taste do not involve the distinction of authentic/false. I want to begin with the put on as the basis for existence.

I love Joni Mitchell and Anne Sexton not because they're emotionally honest but because their art is beautiful, moving, it resonates with me. In some sense, I enjoy them as a kind of put on — their way of putting on the world.


Jim H. said...

'Puttin' on the Ritz.'

'Eminence front: It's a put on.'

Obversely, but what of the put upon of this world?

Are you familiar with the International Necronautical Society of novelist Tom McCarthy and philosopher Simon Critchley? Their joint statement on inauthenticity is here: http://necronauts.net/declarations/ins_inauthenticity_new_york/inauthenticity_precis.html Check it out, or, I should say, Cheek it out.

drwatson said...

This post makes me think of Tom Waits. Waits plays in all genres and if you've ever seen him in an interview it's tough to tell if he's "putting on" or if that's "just the way he is." He's by far the best musician storyteller I've ever heard. I had the pleasure of seeing him twice over the last several years and his shows are remarkable.

I remember once he said that he starts with form - "let's write a field holler or a blues or a travalogue," and then from there he takes the genre and pushes the edges out. The form is still there - it's recognizable, but it's uniquely his take on the form.

Not sure how much of his music you've heard, but I'd definitely recommend checking out his interviews on Letterman, even if you don't like his music - simple youtube search of "Tom Waits Letterman" will get you there. It's really a half hour well spent.

Daniel Coffeen said...

@ Jim: That link is fantastic — I did not know it but it's excellent. Thanks.

@ Dr: Everyone loves Tom Waits, don't they? He is a great put on — and a real put on. He's interesting, too, because he puts on authenticity — not his own, but others'. It's like he authentically dons the guises of authenticity. Or something.

I still think Joaquin Phoenix on Letterman was a master of the put on. He may be kind of a putz but his performance on the show was fantastic.

The talk show is a great venue for the authentic/put on juncture. There are those who want to express their real, achingly boring selves. And then those who realize that it's all a put on and, well, put on.

Jim H. said...

Stephen Colbert.

Daniel Coffeen said...

Colbert does a little too much nudge nudge wink wink for me. He panders rather than puts on.

Anonymous said...

I'm either too high on some shit or your a fucking genius. The art of the put on manifests itself through so many facets of society it's not even funny. How else could I get through the day? Be myself? Fucking unbearable in this day and age. It's so clear how this put on business works. And your right about late night talk shows. Do I want to see some serious actor whose banter is painfully/boringly honest or someone like news-anchor Brian Williams whose willing to 'play the game' and entertain my mundane life for a coupla minutes. But the best are the aloof put ons. You know, the ones who haven't become acclimatized to their surroundings or brain cells to know that the jokes on them i.e.the Olsen Twins and/or Sarah Palin etc. The put on also seems to fit one of my favorite recording artists: Missy Elliot. Her whole career is based on a put on without the wink and this is what's fascinating about her. Forget heartwrenching honesty, sometimes I just want fantasy and comical expression! And thanks for the Colbert assessment. Couldn't put my finger on it previously. He may need to read this article. I wrote all this while high and listening to Katy Perry. I'm a horrible human being, goodnight.

drwatson said...

I love the idea of Waits putting on the authenticity of others - that makes the concept of authenticity really interesting to think about. Because sometimes Waits is being ironic - songs like Chocolate Jesus, but often he's being sincere from a perspective he's put on - it's authentic, but it's hard to talk about where exactly that authenticity is located, originating/emerging from.