Grammy nominations for 2017 have just been unveiled, and as expected, Adele’s record-breaking 25 is a key frontrunner for a number of major accolades, including the coveted Album of the Year. With two consecutive albums each selling more than 20 million copies across the world, Adele is by far the most successful musical act in the past four years. Gone are the days when popular culture revolved around Katy Perry and her cotton candy wig from “California Gurls” or Lady Gaga emerging from an egg-mobile in the Grammys of 2011. These aesthetic stunts, while once seen as creative and revolutionary in the peak of social media, have quickly been cast aside in favour of what can best be termed as “realism.” Adele does not use over-the-top outfits and blatant sex appeal to top the charts—the realness of her melancholia and the powerful nuance in her voice are enough.
Adele is not the only artist to embrace this low-key mode of performance to achieve mainstream success. Previously outrageous icons have shifted to “going real” in response to this emerging trend. In a promotional teaser for PRISM in 2013, Katy Perry is depicted burning her iconic pink wig, favouring a darker and apparently more “natural” image. Even Lady Gaga, a once-renowned provocateur, has decided to channel sartorial simplicity for her latest full-length album, Joanne, which unusually delves into the personal details of the icon’s family and past. The theatrical, electronic glitz and glam of Gaga’s earlier efforts have faded along with her meat dress.
In essence, there is nothing inherently wrong with this movement to a more subdued aesthetic in pop music (although, I’ll admit that I’m quite bored with the scene right now). There are a number of valid reasons for why someone might dislike all the theatricality. After all, the costumes and the convoluted video plots can make it difficult to take a musician seriously, and may distract from the product core—the music. What is problematic, however, is the prevalent perception that having a toned-down aesthetic means that an artist is more authentic.
A SUPERFICIAL DEFINITION OF SUPERFICIAL
It is common to degrade personalities as pandering or superficial when they have “too much going on.” To some extent, there is indeed most likely a deliberate marketing effort behind these outsized looks and antics—what is seen as shocking or controversial normally garners media attention. At the same time, however, to suggest that all aesthetic elements are merely gimmicky add-ons creates a false dichotomy, whereby “internal” qualities are considered real and true while “external” features are inauthentic distractions. In actual practice, the lines between internal and external are much blurrier than these criticisms entail. Visual theatricality can easily be a valid expression of an artist’s interiority—the external can be a reflection of the internal, not necessarily a distraction.
Lady Gaga’s infamous meat dress, while plausibly meant to get the cameras rolling, is also likely to be a valid expression of artistic intent. In previous interviews, Gaga has referred to fashion as a long-held childhood passion, and has attempted to interweave visual art with music through her creative sartorial choices. As a big fan since the advent of her mainstream success in 2009, I can attest that her seemingly bizarre outfit choices are never really arbitrary. Different looks are tailored for specific album arcs—for instance, the garish, yellow-blonde wig Gaga wore throughout The Fame Monster era references Marilyn Monroe as a doomed starlet, tying in with the EP’s thematic focus on the trappings of fame.
PRETENSION CAN GO BOTH WAYS
Even without all the costumes and theatrics, icons like Adele still run with an aesthetic nonetheless. She has a professional makeup artist, a competent publicist, and a tailored social media presence—the supposed everyday woman is no stranger to the marketing pap the pop music universe demands. Adele still has a fine-tuned exterior to display, albeit a subdued and unsurprising one. Her mature, introspective image—while not necessarily inauthentic—is still a partially manufactured one that keeps its audience in mind.
True authenticity doesn’t have a face, and the same arguments about being “real” can be made against icons who don’t wear lobsters on their heads. I’m sure we all have that one friend who is devoted exclusively to indie music, refusing to listen to that new Beyoncé track because pop music is supposedly full of sell-outs. In truth, all art forms are performative, and it is no longer productive to ask ourselves whether an artist seems ‘real’ or ‘fake.’ That grungy underground guitarist who vigorously shakes his head while strumming is performing just as much as Nicki Minaj twerks on stage. By limiting our impression of what is real to the the type of “look” a public persona conveys, we are essentially shaming and muting particular modes of expression without bothering to understand what makes that character human.
LOOKING BEYOND THE “INSIDE VERSUS OUTSIDE” NARRATIVE
Outside of the music world, this problematic mindset can be seen in everyday life. Women who wear a full face of makeup everyday are often ridiculed for hiding their “true self” behind a superficial mask. In contrast, those who go for the more “natural” or unpolished look tend to be positively associated with realness. Both aesthetics, in fact, are equally valid modes of self-expression, and the act of denigrating one as superficial is superficial in and of itself.
It goes without saying that some images are louder than others, but that doesn’t mean they should be confronted differently. Whether they are global superstars or everyday netizens, people should have the social agency to portray themselves with whatever aesthetic they choose. The “outside” is not always meant to hide or distract from the “inside”—both are integral facets that construct a human persona.
In her music video for “Million Reasons,” Lady Gaga trades the otherworldly outfits and theatrical murder plots for a black t-shirt and denim shorts. She later explains the simplicity of her approach as an attempt to strike a more “human connection” with her fans. But ultimately, with or without the costumes and bling, Gaga has always been human (her early material has some pretty deep stuff), and the onus shouldn’t be on her to tell the world that. We, as listeners, should strive to avoid confining entire identities to what our eyes see. There is definitely more beyond that.