By The Landlord
“Look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under it.” — Lady Macbeth, Shakespeare
There is currently a media-hyped fuss about the latest episode of Games of Thrones, the TV adaptation, now full-steam ahead of George RR Martin's book series, A Song of Ice and Fire, and about to reach its broadcasting climax, or otherwise. But don’t worry – no spoilers here. The “fury” is stoked because of the behaviour of one key character means they have not quite turned out as some viewers had hoped. But why? What might people expect? Surely the clue is in the title, and the whole success of the series, which I’ve enjoyed, despite certain more recent plot weaknesses, has come from its shock value, a refusal to please or pander to expectations, and that favourite characters can suddenly be killed off, happy endings are unlikely, that life is nasty, brutish and short, and that people are not as they seem. They are in disguise, on purpose or unwittingly, and that they often disappoint, that they break hearts, and that despite appearances to the contrary, above all they cannot, but ultimately be themselves.
The jarring of appearance is something we experience throughout our lives, in work, play and love, so no wonder that it’s not only big on the telly, in film, books and art, but also a massive theme in songwriting. What hopes we project on others can be wrong. “You’ve changed!” And we can perhaps even go further on this. Our identities are not fixed, but are constantly altering, whether we know it or not. In fact there is a theory that none of us are one person, but many, each existing in separate places, according to differing perceptions by others. The brain is not a computer with fixed patterns, but, like our identities, beyond appearance, it is actually a quantum field of flux.
Woah there. That’s getting in deep for a fun music topic that you may be reading over breakfast, lunch or dinner, so let’s get stuck into appearances, deceptively false or otherwise, in a musical context. Many performers are highly conscious of how they come across, so much so, some have worn masks. Masks have been a theatrical part of culture since early African tribal dancing, to the medieval courts of Europe. The masked mystery identity is all-pervasive theme, from the 19th-century novel, Man in the Iron Mask, by Alexandre Dumas, inspired by L'Homme au Masque de Fer, the name given to an unidentified prisoner who was arrested in 1669 or 1670 and subsequently held in a number of French prisons, to the masked superheroes of Marvel comics.
David Soul of 1970s Starsky & Hutch fame began a changeable career by escaping his strict Lutheran parents in Chicago to hanging out in New York with louche characters on the Andy Warhol scene, and came initially to a form of fame by trying to come across as a serious singer as The Covered Man, appearing bemasked on on The Merv Griffin Show in 1966 and 1967, explaining: “My name is David Soul, and I want to be known for my music.” Yeah of course.
And many others have done it since, with make-up and more. The most recent artist, who is a prolific songwriter for others as well as singer is Sia, known for her face-covering hairdos, and even performing with her back to the audience.
The Masked Singer, meanwhile is a massive music game show franchise, in which famous artists come on disguise in an act of self-publicity, if you see what I mean. All is revealed eventually. It originated of South Korea programme of the same name, and is far bigger in Asia, especially Thailand and Indonesia than in the west, but now in the US, and becoming a new behemoth on Fox:
Or if you can’t be bothered to watch the cringworthy presenters etc, here’s a picture of some of the disguises. They are probably the best thing about it:
But are masks deceptive or part of the art? Or even harmful? Many might argue both in the case of the brilliant funny, but definitely obsessive Chris Sievey, also known as Frank Sidebottom.
“He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it,” wrote George Orwell, and indeed yes, that is a danger
“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth,” said Oscar Wilde, and that’s not the last we’ll hear from him today. But what truth is that?
“I don't understand why the press is so interested in speculating about my appearance, anyway. What does my face have to do with my music or my dancing?” said Michael Jackson, checking himself in the mirror. But perhaps there was always something disturbing about the mask of his skin makeovers and nose jobs beyond the undoubted brilliance of his performance skills and music. What was he hiding? Well perhaps now we know.
Boy George has appeared in the Bar, and while certainly self-conscious about his appearance, and big on dressing up through his career, has also managed to be undeniably and confidently himself. And he comes up with a musical appearance he most admires, which some may find surprising. “Beethoven had a great look. It was very much about the drama of appearance,” he says.
Meanwhile the humorous American pianist Oscar Levant has also popped in from the past, to have a tinkle on our joanna. In between songs, he remarks: “Underneath this flabby exterior is an enormous lack of character.”
The comedienne Jo Brand is also in, talked about more for her large size by some in the press, sadly, than her actual razor wit and intelligence, has something to say about that: ”I think my comedy, the put-downs I do to hecklers, are the accumulated bitterness of years of people feeling that it's perfectly acceptable to make a comment on your appearance when they don't even know you.”
So not everyone is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, or a devil in disguise. Deceptive appearance is far more complex than that. At its most shocking, as in The Metamorphosis (Die Verwandlung), Franz Kafka (1915) novella in which Gregor Samsa who wakes one morning to find himself inexplicably transformed into a huge insect, it’s still not clear what this all means. Does his new appearance express his true self, and the life he has been leading?
Appearance is a very profound and regular theme in Shakespeare, as characters stab each other in the back, but then suffer for their actions, as occurs in Macbeth, and most plays, whether comedies or tragedies. Perhaps it is most famously portrayed in The Merchant of Venice, where:
“All that glisters is not gold;
Often have you heard that told:
Many a man his life hath sold
But my outside to behold:
Gilded tombs do worms enfold.”
And where also we hear the question:
“So may the outward shows be least themselves:
The world is still deceived with ornament.
In law, what plea so tainted and corrupt,
But, being seasoned with a gracious voice,
Obscures the show of evil?”
False appearances can get you into deep water. “They muddy the water, to make it seem deep,” says one of our regulars, Friedrich Nietzsche.
“The water is always deeper than what it reflects,” responds Marty Rubin, author of The Boiled Frog Syndrome, and so now we stray now into the areas of self-deception in reflection, social manipulation and politics with false appearance. All clear?
On that, Samuel Butler reflects: “Let us be grateful to the mirror for revealing to us our appearance only.” And Jean Jacques Rousseau is also ordering wine here too, adding: “Nature never deceives us; it is we who deceive ourselves.”
So while we are on these naturalistic metaphors, Abraham Lincoln is also in the Bar recalling that famous tree-chopping incident. “Character is like a tree and reputation its shadow. The shadow is what we think it is and the tree is the real thing.”
Abe knew plenty about keeping up appearances of course, with that famous line: “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time.”
But now Will Durant, that American historian and philosopher retorts; “It may be true that you can't fool all the people all the time, but you can fool enough of them to rule a large country.”
Indeed. Somehow, god knows how, that appears to be true. And here comes that wine-sipping regular who makes a few punter shudder, but still can’t helped but be seduced by his charm, Niccolò Machiavelli: “Every one sees what you appear to be, few really know what you are.”
This week he’s drinking with that 18th-century French author, Vauvenargues, who pours a little more on the subject with this top-up: “The art of pleasing is the art of deception.”
Fooling the people is indeed all about seeming to know what you’re talking about, and saying what pleases people, what they want to hear. Or popularism as it is currently known. “Yes. Nothing succeeds like the appearance of success,” adds the historian Christopher Lasch. And there’s the rub. Here’s John F Kennedy on it too: “The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie – deliberate, contrived, and dishonest – but the myth – persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic.”
Arthur Schopenhauer agrees: “The discovery of truth is prevented more effectively, not by the false appearance things present and which mislead into error, not directly by weakness of the reasoning powers, but by preconceived opinion, by prejudice."
And here’s Blaise Pascal "The two principles of truth, reason and senses, are not only both not genuine, but are engaged in mutual deception. The senses deceive reason through false appearances, and the senses are disturbed by passions, which produce false impressions."
So that’s another dimension to the situation we find ourselves in today, from Brexit in the UK to Trump in the USA. It’s the myth makers who seem to wield power. Beware of those who accuse others of fake news and lying. They describe themselves down to a tee (especially on those on constant trips to the golf course).
That’s not to say that fake news isn’t constantly in circulation. “The window to the world can be covered by a newspaper,” sums up Stanislaw Jerzy Lec, the Polish author, rather succinctly. Media is all part of the Trump and co appearance brand.
The writer Kurt Vonnegut puts another spin on it: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”
We’ve an absolutely ram-packed Bar today, with many more visitors eager to enlighten us on this very topic, great minds literally fighting for space to get served and have their say.
“It's not what you look at that matters, it's what you see!” shouts the philosopher and write Henry David Thoreau.
“We should look to the mind, and not to the outward appearance!” replies Aesop from the other side of the room. “Hey, well look at you!” says Mae West, checking him up and down, and causing him to blush.
Also blushing is the sensitive but brilliant Jane Austen, recounting her character Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility, who frets over society’s games, and says: “But to appear happy when I am so miserable — Oh! who can require it?”
Perhaps she should take a lesson from the tale of Beauty and the Beast, as shown in Disney films and books. “She warned him not to be deceived by appearances, for beauty is found within.”
“Just remember that people who are known for their looks are rarely known for anything else,” says CJ Carlyon, quoting from their book, The Cherry House.
Appearance certainly rules many lives, and that can have a profound effect on the pocket as well as the face.
“Too many people spend money they haven't earned, to buy things they don't want, to impress people that they don't like.” remarks Will Rogers.
It also governs the world of work, and surely we’ve all known people who play this game as summed up by the great Joseph Conrad in The Secret Agent: “As a general rule, a reputation is built on manner as much as on achievement.”
So where does all of that connect to songwriting, poetry and art? “The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance,” remarks Aristotle, continuing the debate.
“Sometimes the heart sees what's invisible to the eye, scribbles Alfred Tennyson, striking a pose with quill and candle, and trying to emulate the great Greek philosopher.
“My dear,” says Oscar Wilde, returning for more with a mischievous smile, and addressing his fellow writer. “No great artist ever sees things as they really are. If he did, he would cease to be an artist.”
But where then does this all go back to the conundrum of Game of Thrones, backstabbing and dragons? Thinking about the battles between warring parties, the Sun Tzu, the 5th-century-BC Chinese general & military strategist marches manfully into the Bar to give some advice on appearance in that context: “Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak.”
Oh now, darlink,” says that great actress and seductress Zsa Zsa Gabor, stroking his leg, as the Chinese great looks at her in fear and astonishment. “Have a leetle drink with me, darlink. And remember. Macho doesn't prove mucho!”
Military strategy, dragons, sex, love, appearance, masks, deception, politics, power? Where does this take us now? “Humanity is actually under the control of dinosaur-like alien reptiles called the Babylon Brotherhood who must consume human blood to maintain their human appearance,” says David Icke, popping back again to put out his conspiracy theory. Well, perhaps then we’ll end on a song, not about dragons but a snake, and one apt for this topic, but previously chosen for another on storytelling. Don’t forget, if it looks like snake, it is one. Over to you, Al Wilson:
So then, sorting out the snakes from the doves, the sheep from the wolves, the false appearances from the true, I’m delighted to welcome this week’s truth seeker and selector of your songs on this subject is the superb Suzi! Place your song suggestions in comments below. Deadline will likely be on Monday, but watch out for the exact calling of time as the weekend progresses. We appear to have great topic on our hands …
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