Music as expression and the role of artist anonymity in the listening experience

By Shawn Kim || Contributing Writer 

Music is a form of expression for an artist, which is why listeners often look into the lives of the musicians to understand what a song may mean. For example, when listening to XO Tour Llif3 by Lil Uzi Vert, it helps to understand that the song is directed toward his ex-girlfriend Brittany when deciphering references in the lyrics and understanding its heavy tone. However, if music was created only for an artist themself, there would be no point in releasing songs for the public. The only motivator in this case would be fame, itself. Therefore, music that becomes popular tends to be relatable and universal, appealing to the general public. Comedian Bo Burnham even satires the excessiveness of this in his song, “Repeat Stuff” when he sings,

“I love your hair, I love your name, I love the way you say it / I love your heart and you’re so smart ‘cause you gave away it / I love your sis, I love your dad, I love your mom / But more than all of that I love the fact that you are dumb enough / To not realize everything I’ve said has been said before / In a thousand ways, in a thousand songs, some with the same four chords.”

Burnham satires this because he recognizes that music industries have noticed this relatability and have exploited it, specifically by making their artists produce ambiguous songs solely to generate profit.

However, as ambiguous as certain lyrics may be, they can always be traced back to the life of the artist for interpretation. Taylor Swift is notorious for this i.e. mentions of a seemingly unimportant “scarf” that can be traced back to her relationship with Jake Gyllenhaal in “All Too Well”. In this way, songs become closed off and prevent a listener from placing their own feelings and experiences into the music. And so, this is why Shiloh Dynasty and H.E.R., artists who seek to do the opposite, are so captivatingly powerful in their music.

Anonymity is not a passive choice in music; it is a powerfully active element. This is shown specifically through Shiloh Dynasty. “Shiloh Dynasty” is an artist who uploaded videos to Vine and Instagram, starting in December of 2015, and began to receive millions of views for his ethereal singing. Shiloh never revealed his face in his videos, but rather let his music speak for himself. As of 2018, his identity has still not been revealed or discovered. Though Shiloh’s presence on social media disappeared in the August of 2016, his music from Instagram and Vine kept being remixed into a plethora of songs on platforms such as Soundcloud. XXXTentacion’s “Jocelyn Flores” is the most popular song that uses the audio from one of Shiloh’s clips. Shiloh’s anonymity was active in creating a mysterious aura around his music, which made his songs universal while preserving its intimacy. People could place their own interpretations and experiences into his music. Shiloh tweeted on May 4, 2015, “I just want to make good music”, and this remains true as all his social media platforms provide no real evidence as to who he is. Anonymity of the artist makes music more interesting and more universally relevant; it cuts through all the conventional and gaudy celebrity excess that may have influenced the creation of a song.

H.E.R. also recognizes the benefit in remaining anonymous (though people have discovered her identity). Regarding her name, she said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, “The mystery is a metaphor for who I am, or who I was at the time of creating the project…I feel like oftentimes we don’t like to be open as people about our emotions or things that we are going through”. H.E.R., alongside Shiloh, recognizes the potential of music to evoke pure emotion even when it is unattached to the artist. Even her artist name- H.E.R. proves this; it ironically stands for “Having Everything Revealed” -through her name she is having nothing revealed, but through her music she is. It’s even purposefully ambiguous because when she is verbally referenced, she is referred to as “her”- not, “H-dot, E-dot, R-dot”.

Shiloh Dynasty and H.E.R. have incredibly unique and delicate voices that are emotionally provocative, but their music just wouldn’t retain the same power it does without the element of anonymity. Their music is similar to popular music in that it is seemingly ambiguous and relatable, but their anonymity differentiates them by making their music pure.

In an interview with Rolling Stone, H.E.R. stated, “I am a voice for women who feel like they’re alone in these situations. This project came from an emotion, and that’s what I want it to be about – not what I look like or who I’m with, but the raw emotion and support for women”. Shiloh similarly tweeted out, “Music speaks for those who can’t find the words”. Both artists use their anonymity purposefully to allow their voices to become the voices of their listeners, becoming vessels through their music.

Freshman Shawn Kim is a contributing writer. His email is skim2@fandm.edu.

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