Right now, I'm reading Francine Prose's Goldengrove, with this wonderful passage toward the beginning of the book:
"Nico... with her chalky, disappointed voice. It was strange how she sounded... hollow and checked out, and with a foreign accent that made it seem she was learning the words as she sang them."
Aside from reminding me how much I love stumbling upon pop-music asides in the middle of a non-music-themed novel, it also got me thinking about mystery and the mysterious. Nico is a perfect example. No matter how much you've demystified her persona with hagiography, she remains wraith-like and dimly lit, at least in one's imagination.
The notions of myth and mystery have always been crucial to the worship of music. The unknown elevates the art, removing it from the terrestrial realm, deeming it untouchable and holy. Sometimes, it's the musicians themselves who nurture the oblique; they are frustratingly ambiguous, spouting double-speak, peddling caprice. Or it can be their death that foments the uneasiness, leaving too many questions unanswered. Perhaps strange events befell the band. Some entire lives remain mysteries.
Robert Johnson, Bob Dylan, Badfinger, Sam Cooke, Brian Jones, Syd Barrett, Jandek, Bjork and Prince are just a few of the names that come to mind for me.
But where is the mystery now, and who embodies it? Certainly, in a time of relentless self-amplification, being mysterious could be a liability. With fans' attention spans being so short, and new music pouring in by the hour, bands (whether on their own or with pressure from their labels or managers) must feel the need to be available and present in order to stay relevant; the pursuit of relevance is a constant and exhausting endeavor. Yet updating your MySpace page on a daily basis, posting photos of your recording session on Flickr and writing a tour diary doesn't leave much to the imagination.
Maybe the definition of "mysterious" has changed to be more akin to "enigmatic." That allows for Jack White, M.I.A or Lil Wayne to be "mysterious," even though we can read about their comings and goings in the tabloids and on blogs.
Or we can think of mystery as a superficiality or costume. Then we get Marilyn Manson, Insane Clown Posse, Cher and Buckethead. But does makeup really cover anything other than self-consciousness? Certainly it doesn't mask intention. I mean, I'm pretty sure no one ever wondered what Kiss was about.
So maybe mystery isn't a requirement for loving music, for exalting it. Maybe it's the songs that we want to explore; for them to perplex us, not the artists themselves. But the age of overexposed musicians also means that the songs have to be better. If the artists are transparent, we need the songs to transcend what we know to be the authors' alternately pedestrian or outrageous lives.
That's when I go back to wanting a little more mystery overall, for there to be more elements to the music and to the musicians that leave me wondering, "Where did this come from?" And sometimes, I want the answer to be that I might not ever know.
So, which artists still remain mysterious to you?