Contemporary Music-Making, The Lonely Crowd and Sincerity
"Surpassing sales of one million units combined, the musical phenomenon that is Celtic Thunder have just been hailed as BILLBOARD's Top World Music Artist, along with Top World Music Imprint and Top World Album of 2011 for their most current disc, Heritage."(from the Celtic Thunder webpage, advertising Voyage, the 2012 DVD release for this ensemble)
Celtic Thunder launched back in 2008, with five lead vocalists, several musicians, and a luscious mix of pop covers, Phil Coulter tunes, and arrangements of traditional Irish and Scottish songs. Every album they have released has been very successful in the United States, and they have had great success as well in Australia. So far, this group sounds like simply one of the many popular music acts in contemporary music. But, just as with Josh Groban's "Grobanites", Celtic Thunder's fans, self-styled as "Thunderheads", are just a bit more loyal, dedicated and personally engaged with Celtic Thunder and its members than would be expected if they were ordinary fans.
In their book The Lonely Crowd David Reisman, Nathan Glazer and Reuel Denney describe a shift in society from 'inner-directedness' to 'other-directedness'. One aspect of this dynamic which they lay out in some detail provides an interesting perspective on the contemporary music scene. These authors suggest that the popularity of contemporary performers relies heavily on their 'sincerity' as perceived by their audience. "Popular emphasis on sincerity ... means that the source of criteria for judgement has shifted from the content of the performance and its goodness or badness, aesthetically speaking, to the personality of the performer. He is judged for his attitude toward the audience, an attitude which is either sincere or insincere, rather than by his relation to his craft, that is, his honesty and skill.(225)"
Here is at least part of what makes Celtic Thunder so successful and so deeply appreciated. This ensemble group was built up intentionally through auditions. Actually, having grown up with a step-sister who loved one of the New Kids on the Block members, I was leery of Celtic Thunder at first because it was a canned group, not one which grew out of a group of friends in a garage somewhere. But, the music heritage of Ireland sets a high bar for musicians, and perhaps these high standards, along with the good judgement of those in charge, brought together a collection of men who are all very talented musicians, and who also have the charisma necessary to charm new crowds of strangers every night. Thus, we get 'sincerity' plus the skill and taste that generate their addictive music.
The Lonely Crowd also touches on what 'sincerity' means, and why this is so important, and again Celtic Thunder's performers would make a great case for the authors' argument. "The performer puts himself at the mercy of both his audience and his emotions," the authors say. "Thus sincerity on the side of the performer evokes the audience's tolerance of him: it would not be fair to be too critical of a person who has left himself wide open and extended the glad hand of friendliness." Indeed, many fan comments left below Celtic Thunder's facebook status updates and blog posts echo the above sentiments. But the Thunderheads don't just 'tolerate' George Donaldson, Neil Byrne, Ryan Kelly, Keith Harkin and Emmet Cahill. They love these men, and even once they move on from Celtic Thunder to do other things, Celtic Thunder singers keep their fans' love and loyalty. Paul Byrom and Damian McGinty did not leave the Celtic Thunder community when they left the Celtic Thunder stage, and though Colm Keegan has not yet been on a Celtic Thunder stage, he has already begun to be adopted into the hearts of the Thunderheads.
The book The Lonely Crowd was published in the early 1950's, back when Elvis and the Beatles were setting the standards for current rock & roll. In the decades since then, musicians have grown up knowing that fans want their singer-celebrities to be 'real' and in every decade musicians have watched as the untalented but 'real' pop stars are showered with glory, outshining all those who actually know how to play an instrument. Public relations is an integral part of most successful contemporary artists' careers, and all PR professionals know that their clients must be seen to be real people, stylized just enough to be ideal but accessible. Tabloids, and nowadays almost all mainstream news sources as well, report daily, even hourly, on the marital lives, drug scandals, traffic tickets and new pets of the celebrities whose careers are built off of the images fans can create of them.
Against all this, the guys of Celtic Thunder are refreshingly real people. Many fans reacted with charming distrust at first when they realized that the Celtic Thunder guys actually write and send their own tweets on twitter, post their own status updates on facebook, and write their own blog entries on the Celtic Thunder website. All the guys in this group have made an effort to be accessible to their fans through live twitter chats, video-chats and various other events. And, while it is possible that this is all a ploy to make themselves seem more real, I doubt it. In a world of 'sincere' music, the Celtic Thunder performers are ordinary, real people who happen to play guitar (and other instruments) and sing for a living. They are actually vulnerable, actually at the mercy of their audiences, and their emotions bleed through their tweets and posts anytime they are excited or upset or just bored. Sincerity is not just an act for them, so it is not just an act for their fans either.
My step-sister may no longer remember the name of the New Kid she once intended to marry, but I'd be willing to bet that the Thunderheads will still care about the Celtic Thunder guys long after they retire. I'm not sure yet where that leaves the 'other-directedness' argument that Riesman et al presented, but it is an interesting lens for studying contemporary society. The rest of the music scene may be governed by that vast, lonely, ever-shifting crowd of half-hearted fan supporters, but for those people who have become Thunderheads, and Grobanites, for that matter, music and the musicians who create it, have built up lasting communities.