TAKE IT TO THE LIMIT

Fic­tional mu­si­cians bend re­al­ity to suit their needs and artis­tic vi­sion, but are they push­ing the en­ve­lope far enough?

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - BY CHRIS RICHARDS chris.richards@wash­post.com

In the noisy jun­gle of pop mu­sic, many artists speak their truth by pre­tend­ing to be some­body else. Singing from the per­spec­tive of an al­ter ego has be­come standard prac­tice for the likes of Lana Del Rey, the Weeknd, Lady Gaga and ev­ery rap­per whose stage name doesn’t match what’s printed in­side their pass­port. A few ex­cep­tion­ally mul­ti­tudi­nous souls have even gone to the trou­ble of as­sign­ing al­ter egos to their al­ter egos: Nicki Mi­naj be­comes Ro­man Zolan­ski, Eminem trans­forms into Slim Shady, Kool Keith mu­tates into Dr. Oc­tagon, and on and on.

Still, we rarely lose track of who’s who. Per­haps that’s be­cause adopt­ing an alias sim­ply grants a pop star per­mis­sion to ex­plore dif­fer­ent realms of the self — the more they can ex­press from a pseudony­mous point of view, the more they can tell us about who they re­ally are. Or maybe it’s just that mu­sic it­self is a kind of sonic fiction, so it feels nat­u­ral when it comes flow­ing from the mouth of an imag­i­nary char­ac­ter.

Ei­ther way, the pos­si­bil­i­ties be­gin to mul­ti­ply when we’re lis­ten­ing to the work of fic­tional mu­si­cians — that is, when the mu­si­cians don’t ex­ist in real life, but whose mu­sic does. Most of the time, these imag­i­nary mu­sos orig­i­nate as char­ac­ters in movies or tele­vi­sion shows, and their mu­sic fun­da­men­tally ex­ists to help ad­vance a story be­ing told on screen. Some­times they’re hu­man (the Par­tridge Fam­ily, Spinal Tap, the cast in most Broad­way mu­si­cals), some­times they’re not (the orig­i­nal an­i­mated Josie and the Pussy­cats, Ker­mit the Frog singing “Rain­bow Con­nec­tion,” the char­ac­ters in most Dis­ney car­toons).

And while fic­tional mu­si­cians are com­mon­place in pop cul­ture, we rarely pay any mind to the spec­tac­u­lar fact that their mu­sic leaks out of a fic­tional space and be­comes a part of re­al­ity. Why isn’t this more as­ton­ish­ing to us? Prob­a­bly be­cause most of the songs that sur­vive this freaky meta­phys­i­cal tran­si­tion aren’t all that freaky in and of them­selves. And that feels like a wasted op­por­tu­nity.

So how should we mea­sure the work of fic­tional mu­si­cians? We could start by weigh­ing the mu­sic’s nov­elty against its art­ful­ness, and its fa­mil­iar­ity against its strange­ness. I’ve cho­sen nine fic­tional acts to put to that test — not be­cause they’re the great­est make-be­lieve pop acts to ever (not) ex­ist, but be­cause cer­tain as­pects of their work ini­tially made the line di­vid­ing fiction from re­al­ity go fizzier than usual. This is fic­tional mu­sic that might help us bet­ter un­der­stand the breadth of what’s al­ready out there, and what could still be.

And yes, this graph could be plot­ted on a three-di­men­sional ball to bet­ter ac­count for the zones where nov­elty be­comes art­ful and fa­mil­iar­ity be­comes strange. A lot of great pop mu­sic reaches for those mys­te­ri­ous spa­ces. More fic­tional mu­sic should.

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