Enigmatic performers through time: art as an extension of oneself
Subscribe
X

Get the latest from Beat

Enigmatic performers through time: art as an extension of oneself

The art of performance is an intoxicating phenomenon; there is something inexplicably magnetic about musicians who create an atmosphere around their music. There’s a reason why artists like David Bowie, Prince, Grace Jones and Stevie Nicks remain so iconic, their art wasn’t limited to the stage. That awe-inspiring energy and enigma of their music leaks into every facet of their public image, which subsequently blurs the line between them as a person and the art they create.

Of course all musicians are ‘performers’ in their own way, but it’s that certain charismatic essence and eccentric behaviour that some artists portray which demands the unwavering attention of everyone who encounters it and keeps them in our hearts. Artists such as Bjork, Mac DeMarco or Kirin J Callinan have an elusive pull which evokes intrigue – our interest is not confined to their music but who they are, what they do and how their minds work. This is why we pore through interviews and news articles about them, we hang off their every word and action because they hold this strange power that simultaneously puts them on a pedestal and makes them feel so accessible.

Artists such as Prince and David Bowie led the glam-rock revolution. Their flamboyant dress-sense and protest against stereotypical gender roles, in the grand scheme of things, are what set them apart from other musicians. Of course what they were doing musically was important for cementing their status, but they never would have reached the heights they did if it weren’t for what they did outside of their music.

In the world of pop it was personalities like Grace Jones and Bjork who expanded the genre and our expectations of it. Grace Jones has been echoed through time, the legendary Jamaican model turned popstar and actress is renowned for her famous flattop haircut and extravagant looks, serving as Andy Warhol’s artistic muse for good reason.

Icelandic popstar Bjork is further proof of the point, despite the fact that Nordic artists rarely breakthrough the mainstream charts in the US, she managed to find her place and keep it. Bjork often toyed with gender roles through hyper-feminine looks or taking the opposite approach with ‘boyish’ looks forgoing makeup and adopting traditionally masculine hairstyles. Although Bjork’s unique, childlike voice and musical abilities are what garnered the orbit which formed around her, it’s her art-deco aesthetic which sticks in our minds.

Without these artists and their fervent attack on conservative ideals, like gender constructs, we wouldn’t have contemporary acts such as those we see today. Performers like Lady Gaga, Kirin J Callinan and many others that are pushing the boundaries today would not have the space to do so if it wasn’t for those who opened the floodgates for this type of ‘music as social change’ movement. We now regularly see music as a platform for everything from political protest, thanks to the punk revolution, to a safe space for non-binary, transgender and LGBTIQ people to express themselves through their art. 

Equally, there are negative effects when the media is so obsessed with relaying these artists’ every step. Take Kirin J Callinan’s recent Aria’s flashing, for example. Callinan’s overtly masculine persona is a parody of the way men are expected to behave, to be brutish, emotionless and physical above all else. His social media accounts and film clips play heavily with the archaic notion that a man’s physical features are their most important asset, as further implied with lyrics such as those featured in ‘Embracism’:

 “When a boy grows up he’s still the same, he’s still the same, but he’s a man and a man is physical and a man has to put his physical body to the test”.

Yes, flashing his genitals in a public space was a questionable choice to say the least, but isn’t the shock factor of these personalities at least part of we love about them? Yet when Mac DeMarco hangs from the ceiling of his performance, pulls down his pants and sodomises himself with a drumstick, Grace Jones slaps an interviewer on television for not providing her enough attention or Bjork physically attacks the paparazzi it is remembered in a more comical or admirable light.

Again, it’s this intense media speculation which led to things like Stevie Nicks being branded a witch. Her bohemian style, the way she danced around the stage and the mysterious energy she emanated had, presumably, rational adults convinced that she was in fact an otherworldly being. Perhaps we expect too much from these artists and forget that they are human just like us, capable of making mistakes or not living up to our expectations from time to time.

Furthermore, Bowie exclaiming he was gay in an interview with Melody Magazine in 1972 – when homosexuality had only recently been legalised and was still largely stigmatised – alongside his reputation for bending the concepts of gender through his androgynous appearance was not understood or accepted by everyone at the time, but it opened a conversation about sexuality and gave the LGBT community a voice, despite whether he was gay or not.

Whether it’s Mac DeMarco stripping down to his underwear and burning off his body hair with a lighter or releasing a track containing his home address and an open invitation for fans to pop around for a coffee or Prince changing his stage name to a symbol or performing disguised with a fake goatee and straight, black wig, we want to know what these artists are going to do next and, much of the time, we yearn to understand what fuels these acts.

It’s in our nature to be enticed by entertainment value, but it runs deeper than that. Perhaps it’s the confidence and charm these personalities exude that holds such allure, or maybe it is simply that they offer something different in a world brimming with people desperately seeking fame that we admire. Rock’n’roll wouldn’t be what it is without ostentatious frontmen like Robert Plant and Mick Jagger, their ability to own the stage was what had screaming fans filling arenas again and again. We love a challenge, and these artists all force us to think and question the world around us, as well as the art that fills it.