When Lady Gaga brought a so-called “vomit artist” on stage during a performance, she faced a backlash that led to her going onto the Today show to defend herself. And when Miley Cyrus gyrated around the stage in nothing but a flesh-hued PVC bikini, she was roundly vilified.
Does the music industry actually need more of these larger-than-life stars with their larger than-life performances?
Writing on The Guardian’s music blog, commentator Ralph Brown recently argued that the art of performance in pop is disappearing.
He lamented the lack of artists such as Alice Cooper with his unmistakable make-up and stage presence, Arthur Brown with his trademark burning headgear and the kitsch art theatre of Devo.
Brown also pointed out the current-day trend for artists to simply be themselves, saying the likes of Adele, Emeli Sandé, Drake and Frank Ocean play on the marketing tool of suggesting to fans that they are just like them.
Meanwhile, Jacob Brookman, for the Huffington Post, argues that even pop stars who do court controversy do so in a way which he describes as “authentically contrived”.
“The key difference,” he says, “is that with punk music, you actually felt like a Clash gig was a cultural event – there was an authentic social message at its heart.”
But is there anything wrong with our pop stars being a bit more like us? After all, who can relate more to the angst of a teenage girl than a teenage girl? Having pop stars on the scene like 17-year-old Lorde, whose first EP was made available for free download, validates the emotions of girls just like her.
Then, there is the way today’s pop stars find fame. The advent of social media channels like You Tube and MySpace means anyone can release a song or a video and, hopefully, find a fan base.
Justin Bieber got his start on YouTube. Trawl through some of the older parts of the site and you’ll find lots of videos showing him singing in competitions in his native Canada. He found millions of fans just from word-of-mouth. Bieber’s British counterpart Conor Maynard also gained early fans on YouTube. He was thrust into the spotlight after Ne-Yo watched a cover version of Maynard singing his track Beautiful Monster. While there has to be a lot to be said for being yourself and for pop stars acting as role models for young people to look up to and aspire to be like, the music industry has always been about pushing the boundaries.
Some of the most memorable acts in the history of music have also been the most colourful or the most controversial. David Bowie is renowned for his stage presence and his off-the-wall outfits while the Sex Pistols posturing appealed to a generation, Bjork is as much known for what she wears as her distinctive voice and Freddie Mercury’s flamboyant stage presence is legendary.
Maybe the diminishing numbers of truly theatrical music stars is a result of the behind-the-scenes pop Svengalis driving the industry.
Giving a keynote address at SXSW, the annual music and film conference held in Austin, Lady Gaga, wearing an outfit that can only be described as a set of clear bin bags, said: “As you get more successful, they push the rule book at you more. My talent matters more to me than the money does. What I have to say matters more to me than the money does. I would give it all up tomorrow if I had to sell my soul.”
There is of course, a need in the industry for the likes of Adele, who is remarkable not for her performances but for her incredible voice and for the clean cut pop acts which adorn the bedroom walls or teenagers across the globe.
But, it seems even Lady Gaga, who thrives on being one of the most outlandish characters in the pop industry, would like a bit more competition to come onto the scene in the form of more theatrical, more flamboyant stars.