In 2010, Lady Gaga wore a dress made of raw meat to the MTV Video Music Awards. Falling somewhere between full-on performance art and Björk’s red-carpet mood board, the Gaga meat dress was an emblem of everything she stood for at the time. It was a headline-making outfit with a vaguely feminist message behind its design and aesthetic ties to a fine-art tradition of women and raw meat. But more importantly, it was a look that required serious effort and construction. Whether she was wearing a dress made of Kermit the Frog heads or performing in a cloud of plastic bubbles, Gaga became as famous for her high-concept weirdo outfits as she was for her chart-topping synth-pop.
But in the wake of 2013’s unsuccessful Artpop, pop-star Gaga seemingly went into hiding. In her place emerged a Tony Bennett–collaborating jazz singer. Even Gaga’s hair, which at any time could have been blue, purple, or highlighter yellow, has now settled into a Marilyn Monroe–blonde (sans Coca-Cola cans, even!). She wore a minimalist white gown to the 2015 Oscars. So is Gaga undergoing a quiet transformation, effectively ending her career as a banger-churning pop iconoclast and hit machine? Probably not, and Mark Ronson’s potential collaboration on her upcoming album could be proof. But her move post-Artpop to ditch the red-carpet antics and opt for looks that are more acceptably “natural” or “classic” speaks to a larger trend in pop music style and beauty.
Pop music in the late ‘00s was full of color and gimmick, as stars fully embraced personas, whether it was Beyoncé introducing us to her freakum-dressed alter ego Sasha Fierce in 2008 or Lana del Rey self-identifying as a “gangster Nancy Sinatra” in 2012. The bright-eyed pop songs on Katy Perry’s 2012 Teenage Dream (and its accompanying videos) cast Perry as a bubbly, youthful party girl whose blue wigs and whipped-cream-cannon bustiers looked like she was freed from a Candy Land game board. Eight-year-olds could bop to “California Gurls” like they could a Hannah Montana song; high schoolers could enjoy it, too, while catching all the PG-13 symbolism. The songs about airheaded tabloid sex symbols on the Marina and The Diamonds 2012 album Electra Heart seemed like parodies of Perry-style pop Americana, but singer Marina Diamandis’s pastel-pink-obsessed, gray-haired Barbie-doll look became reblog catnip for a generation of young women who post Valley of the Dolls stills to their Tumblrs. And Nicki Minaj’s 2010 debut Pink Friday found her trying on alter egos like the gay, male Roman Zolanski and the naive, pink-haired Barbie.
But in the ensuing years, the women who rule the pop charts have begun to scale these personas back. Minaj was suddenly fresh-faced with long black hair in the 2014 video for her soulful “Pills n’ Potions,” which put her estimable singing voice at the center. Marina Diamandis told the Guardian she had “killed Electra Heart,” dyed her hair brown, and for the first time began writing all her songs herself, sans label-approved writers, for her 2015 album FROOT. Katy Perry cosplayed as Cleopatra for a hot second on Prism’s lead single, “Dark Horse,” but the album’s visuals placed her in sunlit flower fields. “The only thing that is on my mind when creating music is being authentic and vulnerable and making sure that it connects,” she said of working on her next album. Artists like Lorde and Adele, widely championed for making pop music that steered clear of gaudy pop opulence, climbed charts and seemed to set the path for how pop stars should present themselves in the early 2010s. And of course there was always Taylor Swift, whose experimentation with fashion has been as groundbreaking as trying red lipstick or cutting her hair into a bob. But Swift definitely has an identifiable persona, that of the carefully crafted girl next door. One of the wealthiest and most visible pop stars in the world has made her own “Sasha Fierce” that of a totally normal suburban white girl, a persona that’s so successful because teens could actually imagine being her.
Ellie Goulding followed suit, ditching her Skrillex side-shave hairstyle last year for tousled blonde hair and stepping out in figure-hugging pale pink slip dresses; press photos placed her in nothing but a nude fur jacket. Selena Gomez appeared naked on her Revival album cover, and her music videos have been minimalist, with her in underwear and white shirts, a far cry from the bright, Bollywood-inspired vibe of her 2013 album Stars Dance. Even Kanye West, who dressed like an ‘80s video-game character during the Graduation and 808s and Heartbreak era — shutter shades, Lego accessories, and bright colors — is now into comfy sweatshirts and earth tones, and worships down-to-earth designers like Phoebe Philo. Unless you’re Rihanna or Beyoncé, from whom we still expect a revolving door of aspirational looks, understatement is in, and dressing like a character from Jem & the Holograms is out. The totally out-ness of this trend might best be exemplified by Miley Cyrus, who is dressing like this about six years too late.
The #natural approach to pop-star style has trickled up from broader trends in fashion and beauty. Trends like wearing no makeup, “non hair” or “rich girl hair” (which is just straight hair — seriously), and the conversation surrounding natural hair began making headlines long before pop music’s makeunder. The must-have beauty products now are for skincare, like Korean sheet masks and the balms of “It” girl brand Glossier. Beauty routines are seen as forms of self-care, with an emphasis on taking care of your body and showcasing your natural self. Normcore, the trend of dressing as bland as possible, is now cool, and now we have athleisure, in which gymwear such as leggings are more than acceptable to wear as normal clothing. Nowadays, people look to see what celebrities are wearing courtside at the NBA playoffs, not on the red carpet. Fashion and beauty in 2016 is all about looking like you’re off-duty, even if you put hours into your hair and makeup to make it look effortless.
This super-laid-back style so many stars seem to be adopting is also a defensive strategy for how the media treats artists who dress outlandishly in the first place. Even when Gaga took fashion risks, she still faced criticism for her outfits, or even just the fact that she was “trying too hard.” Now, everyone can play Fashion Police from their Twitter-account perch, and the economy for “hot or not” blog posts keeps getting bigger and snarkier. For artists like Gaga and Katy Perry, the move toward projecting a sort of unembellished, more “authentic” appearance is that it may be an attempt to steer the conversation toward their music, not their kitschy and often-criticized personas, which have run the risk of overshadowing their talent. Because while Gaga was just as good of a singer on The Fame as she was singing “The Sound of Music” at the 2014 Oscars, some were surprised to hear such a great voice coming from someone who had previously been known for a weirder strain of pop performance.
While down-to-earth beauty and minimalism may be en vogue at the moment, the style seems sort of drab on pop stars, who we expect to take risks and live lives much larger and weirder than our own. Thank god Rihanna is still out here wearing baby-pink furs. The time will come soon for pop-music trends and red-carpet events to circle back to artifice and over-the-top spectacle, filled with costumed personas and weird wigs aplenty. And when it happens, Gaga will probably be there, with many new tricks up her sleeve.