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Philip Auslander's "In Concert" says Bob Dylan's fans rebelled when he did embrace their image of him as a protest singer.
Fans of Bob Dylan (with Joan Baez at the 1963 March on Washington) created his protest-singer persona, Philip Auslander says in his new book, then rebelled when he shifted to rock 'n' roll. (Photo by Rowland Scherman -- U.S. Information Agency/NARA)

Philip Auslander’s “In Concert” offers revealing look into personas of musicians

In any artistic medium there are structural conventions that develop naturally over time, often passed intuitively from one generation of creatives to the next, until some enterprising scholar identifies those principles and codifies them.

Stories from the mythological to the mundane followed the course of the Hero’s Journey for thousands of years before Joseph Campbell came along with The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Actors had been digging deep into their own hearts and minds long before Konstantin Stanislavski laid the groundwork for Method acting. It is, however, in precisely defining what has been occurring on the subconscious level that insightful analysts become innovators of thought in the realm of the arts and humanities.

Philip Auslander's "In Concert" coverSuch is the case with In Concert: Performing Musical Persona (304 pages, University of Michigan Press) by Philip Auslander, professor in the School of Literature, Media and Communication at Georgia Tech. In this groundbreaking work, Auslander explores the often observed but never truly examined phenomenon of the performing musician and the “musical persona” they inhabit onstage.

“It is something that is constructed specifically for the purpose of playing music,” says Auslander, discussing his concept. His interest in the topic builds on the foundation laid in his 2006 volume Performing Glam Rock: Gender and Theatricality in Popular Music (272 pages, University of Michigan Press), which deals specifically with the glam-rock personae established in the 1970s, specifically by English rockers David Bowie and Marc Bolan. 

“There I made it very genre specific, and I took a close look at British glam rock and the nature of persona construction within that,” he says. “This book takes a much broader view and isn’t anchored in any specific genre.”

The concept is immensely intriguing. Who are these exaggerated characters that musicians become when they step before a crowd? How much of that persona is an outgrowth of the musician’s personal character and how much of it is a natural mold established by the requirements of their genre? There are the outlandish extremes of Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust character or the hypersexual exploits of Lady Gaga, but what about classical players or swing-jazz musicians — the suit-and-tie mainstays so often taken for granted?

Philip Auslander wrote "In Concert"
Philip Auslander, a Georgia Tech professor, says a performer’s persona can help them but also hinder them if they try to change their fans’ expectations.

It in his consideration of the mundane that In Concert reminds us that musical persona is a constant, whether consciously considered by the performer or not. “The black outfit that classical musicians wear is part of their persona,” says Auslander. “I’m trying to talk about as broad a spectrum as I can.”

That spectrum is wide enough to cover the performers themselves and their symbiotic relationship with audiences. “I think ‘symbiotic’ is an excellent word,” he says. “The book is called In Concert for two reasons. One is the obvious, which is that I am talking about the live performance. The other is that the audience and the performers work together — in concert — to create the performance.” 

Auslander devotes a whole chapter to discussing the nature of the audience’s investment in a performer and how it shapes that performer’s persona. “For example, Bob Dylan, especially earlier in his career, had a persona imposed on him by his audience,” says Auslander. “His audience wanted him to be this highly political figure. That wasn’t his idea. But that’s what his audience needed him to be. So in a sense that’s what they made him.”

The constant battle between the evolving persona of the performer and the rigid expectations of the audience becomes the larger framework for Auslander’s insights. It is the age-old battle between the sellout and the person of integrity and individual vision that has played out in the psychosocial realm of archetypes and symbolic interactionism.