LABBS Quartet Day and the Subversion of Performativity

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Elena from Sonic gives the executive summary of this postElena from Sonic gives the executive summary of this postFancy title, eh? This is what happens when a familiar event takes on an unfamiliar form: you learn all kinds of things about your ‘normal’ experience that might not have come into focus without the contrast. And sometimes the things you learn inspire the use of poncy words to articulate them.

The familiar event in this case is the quartet day at the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers convention. In a normal year, this would involve both the semi-finals and finals of the quartet contest, featuring those ensembles who had qualified to compete at a Preliminary event back in June that combines elements both of contest and of coaching. This year it was replaced by an invitation for all quartets registered with LABBS to submit a video of up to 5 minutes; and almost 40 quartets ended up contributing.

Watching these videos brought home to me how much the polish of performance we see in a normal year can act as a mask. I used the word ‘performativity’ in my title because I’m thinking here both of the vocal polish of a carefully-rehearsed song, and the performative polish of femininity. Barbershop’s characteristic sonority of lock and ring can erase individuality within the sound of the performing unit, while the conventions of dress, make-up and coiffure smooth over individuality of appearance and demeanour.

The challenge – indeed, the goal – of the Performance Category in barbershop judging criteria is to transcend these performative techniques to establish human connection despite them.

But the quartet videos, rather than transcending the mask of performative conventions, often subverted them. The variety of approaches makes it somewhat hard to generalise, but it was striking how many quartets chose to actively break the 4th wall, and to share some level of essential indignity.

We saw lots and lots of candid pics from quartet life off-stage, lots of larking around, and many also chose to address the viewer directly, either talking to camera or through adding narrative via on-screen text. We saw direct subversion of femininity in Tartanagan’s spoof of Bond-girl clichés, and of quartet performance in Something for the Weekend’s rake-as-mic-stand. The still of Elena from Sonic squatting over a cowpat offered possibly the most perfect and concise combination of imagination and vulgarity.

This deliberate refusal and by-passing of artifice met a real need on this occasion. As a virtual convention, we could enjoy hours and hours of prepared material, but had a very limited chance to interact with each other. We didn’t get the chance, as we normally would, to head out of the auditorium and go hang out with the people we’d just seen putting themselves on the line onstage.

Which in turn draws attention to the way, in a normal year, a lot of the emotional richness of the event comes from the contrast between the jeopardy of live performance and the pursuit of perfection on stage, and the dropping of the mask in the afterglow. It is the experience of risk-taking in performance that gives the traditional LABBS Saturday night themed fancy-dress night its edge.

So, I don’t know whether the live event needs the kind of subversion of performance conventions the quartet videos brought to us. It has other ways to create a sense of connection and intimacy. But I am endlessly grateful for all the ways that LABBS quartets found to reach through the screen and reaffirm bonds that we couldn’t refresh in person.

The thing is, in competition, we all have to conform to the judging criteria and agreed conventions. It’s only in our private rehearsal space & perhaps afterglows where can start to show our true personalities.
I’d really like to see a convention that’s a celebration of performance and song, rather than something that’s confined to the rigours of competitive judgement. Let’s make that happen in 2021!

Turns out that about a decade ago I was arguing that you need the constraints to get the fun out of transgression...

But you're right that this year's experience has opened up all sorts of new possibilities we might not otherwise have thought of and that we should learn from for when we get back together in person.

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