It Feels Good to Be Fooled

I’m still a little irritated and confused at yesterday’s post about the implications of “pure image-making” with the Live Johnny Cash recording. And when I read this NY Times science article about how magic is being used by neurologists and psychologists to further research in the study of perception, I began to wonder if Johnny Cash might’ve been lip-syncing, too.

I’ve mentioned the perceptual process before with my Radiohead experiment. But this NY article led me to think about perception in terms of manipulation for the sake of entertainment, and how that plays into a live show, during which there can be so many things going on that we get caught up in the moment and either forgive a musician for a misstep or playing off key or end up loving the deception more than the music itself.

Going back only a week, I thought back to Girl Talk’s set at Lollapalooza and how he had toilet paper shooters blasting streams of Charmin into the air and dancing fans on stage with him. Then I thought about how heavy metal shows often use pyrotechnics and big vibrantly colored banners to add to the sensorial force of the music, or how hip hop artists use stage side costumed thugs as props and even the fan themselves when they extol them to “wave their hands in the air…” or how emcee KRS-One once explained how emcees should wear layers of clothes so they can peel them off or a hat that they can turn around during the show to add drama, intensity and suspense to the performance. All of necessary to a great show on the surface, but sometimes do we get served a slight-of-hand second rate show of hollow bling and bogus bombast?

I could list several other examples where artists intentially inject an element of manipulation designed to mess with our perception. And in most cased there’s no malicious intent and usually we like every last sonic and visual ounce of it; but what about when our perception is exploited, and done so without us even knowing? Are we cool with being manipulated? Do we find pleasure in it?

Sure, when we go to a show we’ve voluntarily given our hard earned cash to be entertained which does, as I mentioned, involve a certain level of assumed and welcomed manipulation. But what would you consider going too far? What is your threshold of expected pleasure of manipulation at a live show?

In the example of Johnny Cash Folsom Prison recording, I know the journalistic jury is still out gathering facts. But initially I was slightly ticked off when I read that I might’ve been tricked into believing what I thought was a genuine emotion outburst in the moment from the inmate was really just a fabricated holler intend to sell records and not truly capture a moment.

Sure, you might be thinking of the obvious cases of lip syncing a la Milli Vanilli or Ashlee Simpson’s 2004 Saturday Night Live “backing-track” disaster. Considering those and especially last year’s fake show fiascos of rapper MF Doom, fans do have a threshold of perception deception beyond just being entertained.

But still, sometimes we like it and let them get away with because they do it so well, while with others artists who we catch in the act, we never let those unfortunate souls forget how much we dispise them for taking advantage of our trust in their musical talent that never really existed.

When I looked at the perception, pleasure and manipulation of a live show through the lens of magic as the NY Times article suggests, I thought of how I feel when I watch the A&E show Criss Angel Mind Freak. I watch that show with a seriously skeptical eye much like I do when I go to see a show of a hyped band. But in both cases I also realized that I have a large amount of underlying pleasure that fuels and perpetuates my desire to be entertained and willingly manipulated to a certain extent. Like a Rubix Cube or playing a video game I like the challenge and in some live review situations, I’m actually having more fun picking apart the fraud on stage than I am listening to the music.

And I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve blindly believed the tunes of a hyped band or other psychological tricks of other trades, like advertising and even ones my wife lovingly plays on me to get me to either make a point or illustrate her point of view in order to penetrated my thick head. And in both cases the use of verbal or visual perception is used for the good and the bad, depending on the intentions of the manipulator and the willingness of the manipulatee.

But I ask you again Fellow Lover of Live Music. Are you cool with being intentionally manipulated for the sake of entertainment or do you get angry when you know that some artist just pulled the perceptive musical wool over your senses? Or do we as fans force artists to go to such lengths because what we expect of them live is just too unrealistic?

Here are a few links to chew on before your next live show. Enjoy and don’t be fooled again, and if you are, at least enjoy the magic of being fooled.

MSNBC: Ashlee Simpson 2004 SNL

CBS: Saturday Night Live Response

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