Music

It Don’t Mean a Thing, If It Ain’t Got That Mach Schau

Call it "mach schau", soul, or the “swing” without which Duke Ellington warns us “it don’t mean a thing”, the physically felt component of live performance is perhaps easiest defined, if not in its absence, then in its failed attempt.

In the Beatles Anthology documentary, Paul McCartney tells of club dates during the band’s first international tour in Hamburg, where crowds booed and cried “Mach schau, mach schau!” up to the stage. When the nascent Fab Four learned that mach schau translates to “make show”, they did not have to be told twice. From then on they adopted the lively, hair-flopping stage antics that would later take the world by storm.

The emotional resonance to which McCartney refers seems distinct from visual accompaniment explicitly designed to correspond with musical performance. Acts that rely on light and video installations or Broadway-ready dancers aren’t really attempting mach schau in the same way the Beatles did or, say, the notoriously raucous shows of Bruce Springsteen. One performs, where the other exudes sheer enthusiasm. Perhaps most definitively emotive of all pop performances in this sense would be those of Little Richard, whose “whooo!” McCartney co-opted in the same way the Rolling Stones did the blues moan of Muddy Waters.

Call it mach schau, Soul, or the “swing” without which Duke Ellington warns us “it don’t mean a thing”, the physically felt component of live performance is perhaps easiest defined, if not in its absence, then in its failed attempt. The crass crooning of Avril Lavigne or Demi Lovato, for instance, is remarkably lacking of conviction. Would-be shocksters like Marilyn Manson can only dream of the deadness of the Jonas Brothers’ eyes. Such Disney deadness is more an aping than an absence of mach schau. Meanwhile performers like James Brown or Prince seem to possess a dual physicality as attached to their live shows, both the staged and the marrow-felt. But genre figures heavily into what levels of enthusiasm should be expected. The Beatles’ upbeatness, while infinitely pervasive in modern pop, isn’t any more imperative than the literate detachment accompanying Leonard Cohen’s rumbling tenor or the tongue-in-cheek winningness of Madonna’s schmaltz.

Two contemporary acts that readily demonstrate the various ways mach schau can figure into musical performance are Arcade Fire and Kings of Leon. Win Butler is the dour centerpiece to Arcade Fire’s all-singing, all-dancing supporting players, an apocalyptic prophet surrounded by a cult of wide-eyed novices. The band’s tunefully big sound and infectious earnestness plays opposite to the pointed bleakness of Butler’s lyrics, giving off a sense that anything can be overcome given enough enthusiasm. Conversely, Kings of Leon's more recent arena rock stylings veer dangerously close into the Mouseketeer end of the mach schau spectrum. Lead singer Caleb Followill’s vocals are hollowly guttural, his band’s sound less a sonic landscape than a wash of fuzzy tones and go-nowhere melodies. Onstage, they seem put-upon and bored, as confused about what happened to the fun of their previous albums as their fans. Where with Arcade Fire the clash of on-stage enthusiasm and bleak worldview makes its music seem all the more meaningful, the much less self-aware divergence of content and form on the part of Kings of Leon only adds to an already confused aesthetic.

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