Popular music has always been about putting on a show. From the psychedelic fantasias of 1970s rockers Pink Floyd to Madonna's many Vegas-like tours, KISS' relentless pyro attack, the boy-band glitter parades of the early 2000s and the over-the-top plans for Michael Jackson's never-mounted This is It farewell shows, major artists have always tried to pony up a big show for their fans.
And now, thanks to a new generation of visually acute music stars, we could be living in a new age of the great pop spectacle. From Muse's massive stadium light show to Lady Gaga's Monster Ball outing and Pink's Cirque du Soleil-like Funhouse Tour, artists are going above and beyond in an effort to give their fans a never-ending, eye-popping extravaganza.
"We were missing a real element of showmanship [in music] for a while, but you see it in Gaga and her elaborate costuming and in artists like Pink," music-industry veteran Jeff Rabhan, chair of recorded music and an arts professor at NYU's Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music, said of Gaga's now-legendary meat dress and string of outrageous getups at Sunday's MTV Video Music Awards.
He also pointed to the positive reaction for Kanye West's visually stunning VMA performance as further proof that audiences were thirsting for a return of the pop spectacle. "It's been lacking, and that's the reason that people are drawn to it," he said of the chatter that inevitably follows one of West's unique set pieces. In fact, the rapper has more in store with his 40-minute film-noir project in support of the "Runaway" single, which is not surprising coming from an artist who has always been very tuned in to the importance of having great visuals to accompany his music.
In rock music, bands like U2 have always understood the importance of giving their fans something unique, from their PopMart Tour in the late 1990s to their most recent 360 Tour, which included the largest, most elaborate stage ever built for a live show. More contemporary acts like Britney Spears have also done their part, hitting the road for her Circus extravaganza with a stage full of magicians, tumblers and glitzy costumes. On a smaller scale, "American Idol" runner-up Adam Lambert has made glitter bombs and gender-bending videos and performances part of his pop calling card, earning him the distinction of outpacing his onetime rival, season-eight winner Kris Allen, in album sales and concert tickets.
What sets some of today's stars apart, according to Robert J. Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University, is the immersive way they live their public lives. "Artists like Gaga and Ke$ha are always in costume," Thompson said of the outrageous makeup and outfits those pop stars, and other such as Katy Perry, model every time they go out in public. "We have returned to the age of P.T. Barnum, no question about it. But I suppose these things go in cycles, a case you can make if you look at the biggest acts of all time, which were all spectacle-oriented: Madonna, Michael Jackson."
Thompson said outrageous characters have always played a part in popular music, but with the dawn of the video age in 1981, artists had a new medium to explore with flashy videos that added another layer to their radio hits. Then, with the rise of the Internet, the decade-long contraction of the music industry and a renewed emphasis on singles-oriented artists over the past nine years thanks to iTunes, the ability to reach a mass audience just through radio and video began to disappear.
"We went into a period where music was being consumed not with a visual spectacular or with the visual of a big album cover, but as an à la carte thing you listen to with earbuds," Thompson said. "There was naturally going to be a kickback from that."
With Gaga as the most prominent example, many artists began to realize that with so many entertainment options — from online video to TV, movies, video games and portable devices like the iPad — the only way to rise above the din was to be bigger, bolder and louder than everyone else, all the time. "Lady Gaga is much more about her look and character and clothes than about the songs," Thompson said. "There are a lot more people out there who could recognize a photo of Lady Gaga in a minute than if you played them one of her songs."
He also acknowledged that grim economic times also draw fans to artists and performances that allow for some fantastical escape from the day's news. And with the increasing hikes in the cost of concert tickets, cash-strapped music fans are also more likely to part with their meager cash reserves if they think they're going to see something jaw-dropping. "You have to put on costumes and a spectacle if you're going to get any attention these days," Thompson said.
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