Bare songs and hearing songs

I wrote in my last post that the way the music industry structures and delivers music can make it difficult to hear songs. The song may come to us as a framework for a powerful arrangement or performance, or even as a piece of a larger narrative about a particular celebrity. But, given that context, what possibilities arise when songs are presented in a bare form?

For very popular musicians, presenting bare, often acoustic, versions of popular songs has become a familiar gesture, meant to rekindle a sense of immediacy or authenticity around songs that have been heard dozens or hundreds of times. This tactic may have peaked in the ’90s with the popularity of MTV Unplugged, but it is a standard element in the pop star playbook.

Another familiar mode of presenting the bare song is as a deliberate choice for a particular song – that is, for a performer who normally uses fuller arrangements to present a particular song in a simple way to highlight something about that song. This is the mode that I am most interested in because it seems more likely to be focused on the song itself, rather than the performer’s persona. The two modes can also overlap or one mode can masquerade as the other. What I am interested in is not particularly authenticity, but a performance mode that lets the listener hear the song better as a song. Pining for a truly authentic performance is a little like visiting the location of the first McDonald’s or Dunkin’ Donuts.