A delightfully ambitious and thought-provoking book, Tracy McMullen's Haunthenticity gives us so much more than a critique of twenty-first century musical reproductions and tribute bands. Above all, this is a book about our fear of the Real, and it offers a more healthy and productive way of living with the Real. At its most stimulating, this book urges us to face the conceptual and affective consequences of living in a world of total flux, a social world of fracture and dislocation. This is what McMullen means by the Real—impermanence, instability, and death. No wonder we fear it. But her book is not nearly so dour as a sermon by Jonathan Edwards. Instead she walks us through a series of intellectual puzzles, with our pathways informed by thinkers ranging from Hegel, Butler, and Baldwin to Susan Sontag and Thich Nhat Hanh. The puzzles start as descriptions of re-performances of Genesis or ABBA or David Bowie or Glenn Miller or Led Zeppelin. But each of those descriptions leads us to an engagement with one aspect or another of her central analytical concept of Replay. Replay is intensified re-performance, a form of artistic engagement that anchors authority and meaning in the past and that grounds that anchor in the painstaking reconstruction of endlessly accurate details: exactly the right clothing, maybe even the exact same costume designer; exactly the same moves on stage, enabled by years of dedicated study; exactly the same instruments, even when that means a reduction in the ability to replicate the original sounds. Replay is nothing less than an effort to freeze time, to stop change, and to ward off death. You might think, well that is obviously a failed project, something easy to critique. But McMullen warns us early, “This book is not about how such rigorously mimetic reenactments fail. Of course they fail. It is not interesting to me to point out the many ways in which we will find rupture and failure in these attempts at perfect reenactment”(7). She is, however, interested in our continual efforts to achieve the perfect recreation of the past despite these obvious failures. She shows us how deeply entangled we are with fantasies of stability, how easily we are moved by promises of security, with what depth we long for the comfort of repetition and certainty. And why music is such an inviting cultural practice for working through those needs.
Musical performance is the ideal form through which to explore the consequences of our need for stability and security because musical enjoyment opens our bodies, slipping through the boundaries that we use to separate ourselves from others. As McMullen puts it, “Music is feared because is it like the feminine; the feminine is feared because it is associated with the body, which is associated with exotic racial otherness, and so on. But all are feared because they are associated with the Real, the dissolution of Reason's boundaries” (15). If performers can recreate decades later the exact experience of attending a Genesis concert from 1975 or David Bowie's final concert as Ziggy Stardust, they have seemingly managed to capture and contain music's power. They can point to the distinct object they have created and say, “Look at this, this is art!” When female bodies perform exactly the same moves, creating exactly the same sounds as Led Zeppelin, then they recreate (in reverse) the same erasure of musical history that enabled Zeppelin to be credited with originating “cock rock” even as they copied Janis Joplin and Big Mama Thornton and Bessie Smith. The struts and howls of Lez Zeppelin reveal the mystery whereby white boys with guitars absorbed the feminine into their performance of hypermasculinity. Plant's and Page's flowing locks and scarves served to acknowledge their real inability to perform “the hypermasculinity they had inscribed onto black men.”(141) McMullen suggests that Lez Zeppelin's ability to replay “Good Times, Bad Times,” (“In the days of my youth, I was told what it means to be a man”) without irony, without camping, without queering the music, focuses our attention on the equation between male femininity and female masculinity. It renders undeniable the fact that gender is a political hierarchy based only on itself. In a typical McMullen move, the chapter closes with a pointed provocation. “In their strict doubling, [Lez Zeppelin] open up the uncanny emptiness of gender, and as such, identity itself.”(150) McMullen believes that letting go of gender as a meaningful category requires us to let go of identity. And that's not a bad thing.
Each of McMullen's chapters introduces important theoretical moves that, linked together, inform her conclusion. The last chapter begins with an analysis of Jason Moran's “In My Mind: Monk at Town Hall, 1959.” As McMullen tells us, Moran refused the initial commission to perform a “historical re-creation” of that show but found a way to incorporate that request into a multi-media collaboration with the impossible presence of Monk's spirit. In this piece, Moran plays with the past—in places improvising against the background of the recording itself, noisily indicating the struggle that musicians face when they encounter the Real of the tradition of which they are a part, and “demonstrating how the past is a relationship of which we are made”(163). Relationship as a fundamental quality of being becomes the final central concept that brings together her critique of our desperate grasping onto identity, permanence, and stability.
In the final pages of the book, she argues for a profound rethinking of the dominant model of the self, asserting, “The concept of the self-standing individual is no longer tenable for anyone.”(164) In the realm of cultural theory, we find it relatively easy to think of identity as a fiction. We are familiar with the philosophical problems that accompany a model of the self that presumes stability. But McMullen wants us to follow through on the deconstruction of that concept, not simply think it. In a few quick pages, she identifies a simple logical flaw in the dominant Hegelian model of the self, pointing out that the demand for recognition is not required by the co-constitutive relationship with an Other. The desire for recognition drives so much of our destructive neediness and maintains our desperate longing for stability and permanence by projecting an illusory stability onto that Other. Can we live without it? In place of the drive for recognition, she asks, “What if we conceived of the other as the one to which we give?” If we can make that shift, “We can rewrite Hegel's description thus: self-consciousness exists in and for itself when, and by the fact that, it so exists for another; that is, it exists only in its giving to the other” (167). The model for a self that is based on a relationship of giving comes, of course, from musical practice. True improvisation is “a practice of generosity, one that works to dissolve the specious boundaries instantiated in our modern world”(168) by emphasizing the fundamentally relational nature of being together. Improvisation requires deep listening. It demands an openness to the neediness of others. And it forces us to live with the presence of the past in our current lives and the impermanence of the relationships from which we create our ever-changing self-awareness. All that from a book that you might think is about tribute bands. Don't be misled.