Legitimacy and legacy: Wu Tang’s new concept album

Wu Tang Clan are in the process of releasing two albums. One will be standard fare and the first single sounds pretty good. The second is something entirely different.

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The ‘conceptus‘ on the album’s website argues that musicians today are not held in as high esteem as their contemporary artists while Beethoven and Van Gogh were both considered equal. Exclusivity versus mass replication is one reason, they argue, for the devaluation of contemporary musicians in contrast to artists such as Damien Hirst. They propose a Renaissance-style approach to music production where albums are a commissioned commodity which is performed live but where there is only one original copy of the album. Music technology has led to this devaluation and they want to work against this model. They conclude: ‘Simultaneously, it [this approach to music production] launches the private music branch as a new luxury business model for those able to commission musicians to create songs or albums for private collections. It is a fascinating melting pot of art, luxury, revolution and inspiration.’

While I am a Wu Tang fan this idea is strange. Certainly it is a reflection of RZA’s more cerebral intentions with respect to their music but there are 4 reasons why I believe this is misdirected effort:

1. The association between elitism and art are a function of wealth structures in previous centuries and not necessarily a reflection of how art is produced now. This production process reinforces these elite power structures in the service of two aims: legitimacy and financial reward. RZA and the rest of the Wu Tang Clan can certainly make this move but they have to own that rather than trying to sell this as provoking a conversation. It is certainly not revolutionary but rather quite conservative.

2. Music no longer needs to be niche to have legitimacy. In fact, Wu Tang’s earlier albums will be influential in discussions of the history of music for some time to come not because they were niche but because they were popular.

3. RZA does not articulate why is it so important that creativity has such a high monetary value? The fact is that very few (painters) artists make the kind of money they hope to obtain through this production process (estimated to be ~$5m) and most struggle to survive. In contrast, the music industry seems to support many more individuals and some of those make astronomical sums of money, more than most artists. It is simply not clear to me why RZA is upset with the current financial model. At least superficially, the music industry appears to support a larger and much more varied groups of producers than the art world.

4. RZA recognises that he is sacrificing ‘the masses’… ‘for the benefit of reviving music as a valuable art’. This seems like a dangerous trade-off.

What then is RZA trying to accomplish? He seems worried about his legacy. He sounds like he wants to position himself in the same camp as Beethoven and other great musicians but is worried that his mass appeal will undermine that. In this he might be partly right, he needs elites to talk about his work to have that kind of legacy and this move, if nothing else, is potentially something that will give future musicologists something else to discuss and debate. While this album will certainly add some fuel to that dialogue, it will only be rather minor because it distracts from what Beethoven, Mozart, etc. built their reputations upon, their music.

Wu Tang have the good fortune of being very wealthy, highly respected, and popular. Whatever else they want to accomplish, I do not think this will do it – unless, of course, they simply want to upset their fans.

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