Power vs. Celebrity

Power vs. Celebrity

Juxtaposition can be a¬†powerful illuminating force. In the past couple months, I’ve played shows on bills with performers that I would charitably call “new” or “young.” But what they really are is game-show contestants. And when they perform, the scene always the same: the front of the stage is swamped with young (mostly) girls. When the performer is announced, the girls scream and the singer launches to the front of the stage powered by the instant adoration. They sing, they high-five the front row, they cycle through a bunch of I-IV-VI-V songs, and, sure, they come off as stars. Or even idols, if you will.

Peter Murphy

I usually think little of it. Singers come and go; it’s no big thing and there’s plenty of room in the world for superficial fluff. But the deeper falsehood of the experience was greatly underlined for me when I happened to catch a performance by veteran artist Peter Murphy. I like me some Bauhaus, and I like me some “Cuts You Up,” but I’d be lying if I said I’d gone to this show as a fan. But the command that Murphy exhibited that night was, frankly, stunning. I left the show a fan, for sure.

And setting aside matters of taste, demographic, etc., the key difference between watching an artist like Murphy and people who learn to perform in front of a studio audience is this: with pre-fab pop idols, the audience is in control. When not prattling standard front-person jive (thankyouyourethebestaudienceeveromigod), the singer is always merely responding to the audience’s as-seen-on-TV enthusiasm.

Some guy on the TV

In contrast, as soon as Murphy stepped onto the stage at the Roxy, he made it quite plain that he, and he alone, was in control. He snatched memorabilia that fans were waving right out of their hands and discarded it blithely, immediately and effectively telling the punters that the thing to see was right there in front of them, right now. Fuck your totems. He prowled the stage constantly, gazing out at us ominously, and we could not look away. And this isn’t even taking into account his voice. That voice. Jeebus.

As if pretending for a moment that this was just another big rock and roll show, Murphy ended with a cover song. When Bauhaus covered Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust” (yes, PM’s voice definitely leans a bit DB) back in 1982 it was a pretty ballsy move. And this night’s version was mighty. Right on the penultimate chord clang, there’s that hold, where we all expect a vibrato-fuled finale of “Ziggy played guitarharhhrhrhrhrh!” But Murphy stares out at us, hanging on that ringing chord. And after what could have been an eternity or a split second, he whirls around and strides off the stage. Lights up. Show over. We are slain.

Complete. Control. That kind of presence is rare. And charismatic teen-to-twenty-somethings are a dime a dozen. At some point, we as a culture will remember that. ‘Til then, Bela Lugosi is still dead.