Pop Presence and the Faceless Artist
by James Christensen
Much of the cultural capital exercised by what might broadly be called ‘pop music’ is grounded in the idea of presence. I am reminded of a conversation I witnessed between a high school teacher of mine and another student. Our teacher had recently been to see a Britney Spears concert, having garnered the tickets free of charge from an acquaintance unable (or unwilling) to attend themselves. My classmate was jealous in the extreme— ‘What was she like? Was she incredible?’ In short, no. The report of the performance we received was scathing. ‘She wasn’t singing!’ complained our teacher. ‘You could tell it was lip-synched. And her dancing was nowhere near as good as some of the back-up performers.’
‘Who cares?’ exclaimed my peer. ‘She’s Britney Spears!’
By contrast, when South London electronic producer Burial released his self-titled debut record in 2006, by his own admission there were about five people in the world who knew he made music. Burial kept his identity a secret despite the mounting attention the album accrued (The Wire named the record their album of the year in 2006). He had a clear network of influences, artists he admired and with whom he was in contact, but this was conducted via email. None of them had seen his face.
The record is dark, incessant and industrial. Thumping jungle beats underpin edgeless bass drones. The sampling work is rough and ragged; the needle crackles across vinyl samples as if about to skip wildly at any moment. His meandering compositions veer between ideas and motifs fluidly and spontaneously, while sampled rain sounds or thrumming city sound scapes settle in underneath the musical texture. Listening to Burial is like taking a long walk through metropolitan streets at night—as though the music has just happened to bleed out from dingy laneway nightclubs or house parties along the way. Moments of silence or reprieve, such as the entirely synth-based and meditative ‘Night Bus’, become tiny oases of solitude amidst the cacophony. Everything about Burial’s music seems both mutant and organic. A life-force all of its own. Melded together from the grimy offerings of the city streets. And all of this is possible because we are largely denied the sense of a singular artist, governing our listening experience and creating the sonic world of the album. The artist disappears, and only the environment remains: discreet and wholly autonomous.
This sensation is bolstered by virtue of the fact that all vocals in Burial’s music are sampled. Whether snippets of spoken word or distorted melodic fragments, the ‘voice’ of Burial’s music is in fact many voices, stitched together in a Frankenstein of manufactured consciousness. These voices are often frightened, disaffected or alone. On ‘Spaceape’ a deep voice mutters aggressively about alien viruses destroying our clarity. ‘We are hostile aliens immune from dying’, he spits. The ‘Untitled’ track that concludes the album is comprised only of an audio sample. Footsteps approach and a frightened man confides in us: ‘I woke up. I went into the bathroom to get some aspirin and I happened to look in the mirror and … I swear to god, I see something I can’t describe. But it sure as hell is not my reflection.’
Burial’s many voices don’t coalesce into a cogent set of ideas or concerns as much as they create an aural landscape of anxiety, desperation and the breakdown of identity. In the urban mesh of Burial’s music, the individual dissolves and becomes part of an industrial mechanism. In later releases, Burial has gone on to delve more explicitly into thematic content. 2013’s Rival Dealer EP explores ideas as diverse as religious epiphany and the experience of transgenderism. But at this stage of his output, voice becomes another mode of immersion into a faceless, chaotic world.
There is no room for authorial presence in this kind of composition. If Burial’s personal presence were too vividly felt by an audience, I am tempted to predict the immersive effect of the record would be ruined, or at least severely damaged. Obviously the titling work on Burial suggests the record should be interpreted programmatically, as a musical imitation of real world events, environments or experiences (‘Distant Lights’, ‘Night Bus’ and ‘Broken Home’ all feature as titles on the album). But beyond the narrative quality of the album, Burial‘s anonymity suggests something further about the intended listening experience. In a rare interview with The Guardian in 2007, he remarked, ‘I love that with old jungle and garage tunes, when you didn’t know anything about them, and nothing was between you and the tunes. I liked the mystery; it was more scary and sexy, the opposite of other music.’
When you listen to Burial, you’re encouraged to forget about the album as an album, and to enter into the world of the music. His anonymity is as if to say, ‘forget about me, forget about how the music is made and by whom, just listen and engage.’
Burial forcibly subverts the cultural premium placed on presence in pop music, the presence that both embellishes and overpowers the music we hear. This is in contrast to artists such as Sia, who similarly has often concealed her identity, but for whom, I would argue, this actually results in an intensification of the sense of presence. Her voice is unmistakable, her live performances are elaborate and popular, and the patented image of hair obscuring her face has become a voracious mode of branded identity construction.
Burial does not play live or perform DJ sets. He has no associated branding imagery. When he collaborates he does so obscurely and without ceremony. His voice is absent from his music, and he emerges very seldom into the public eye. This was how I discovered Burial’s music: stumbling upon it online and knowing nothing about him, but connecting with the landscapes his music creates. Burial‘s identity was revealed several years ago after mounting attention and notoriety caused The Independent to speculate correctly based on collaborations and relationships with other artists. But I won’t ruin it for you here. Enjoy the mystery!
James is a musician and theatre maker living in Melbourne. He composes and plays music with his band Diana’s Foresters, and enjoys writing in his spare time. You can find his band on Facebook with @dianasforesters