There’s been a bit of an attitude- a condescending, chuckling, eye-rolling sort of business- towards theatricality in popular music, and to be honest, that’s a bit puzzling.
Great music has come in all forms over the years, from the uplifting and soothing, to the angry and incendiary. But great art has sprung from dispensing with safety.
The Beatles wrote timeless songs that we will cherish forever, but Sgt. Pepper is the record that we refer to when we want to describe the innovation of the band. David Bowie’s music has been immortalized in everything from Pepsi commercials to Flight of the Conchords, but without Ziggy Stardust, we might not have Lady Gaga.
Which brings me to the point- even if you don’t particularly enjoy a certain artist’s work, you must respect when that artist casts caution to the winds and takes a swing- a big swing. Because without the strikes, we wouldn’t have the home runs of Tommy, The Wall or The Amsterdam Bed-In.
Still, despite history’s proof that time lends credence to the epic grandeur of musical theatricality, there is scoffing. Fans of current dispassionately ironically retro bands that seem to almost smirk at their own efforts find comfort in the fact that the musicians they listen to are as cynical and emotionally impassive as they themselves. They say Lady Gaga is a ball of overblown antics, My Chemical Romance is a kids’ emo band, and 30 Seconds to Mars is an oversexed actor’s vanity project.
What they fail to see is the passion- Whether it hits or misses, the raw emotion that these artists bravely lay bare for their listeners is what keeps those ears riveted.
When Gaga climbed into a plastic egg and was carted off by her retinue, she was completely aware that she was opening herself up to ridicule and derision.
When Gerard Way and company decided that they would assume the colorful identities and ray guns of the Fabulous Killjoys to make a conceptual post-apocalytic record and comic book, they did so with the full knowledge that many would write it off as childish and pandering to a young crowd.
When Jared Leto wrapped women in leather and ball gags for 30 Seconds to Mars’ video ‘Hurricane’, he knew that some would decry it as shock tactics and narcissism.
What all the critics failed to realize is that even IF each of those efforts was exactly what they accused them of being- they were all still victories.
Because NO ONE was apathetic- People formed opinions.
They were made to think, to argue, to discuss, to admire, to recoil. Listeners and viewers were challenged, and in the end, that is what elevates mere media to art.
If we are to find expression for and make sense of our increasingly confused emotions, in an increasingly complex world, we must embrace the pioneers who are willing to put their hearts on their sleeves for us and give voice to the complicated feelings we harbor about society, values, and our relations to each other amidst the rapid changes in both. We cannot settle for merely being entertained. We should seek to be edified. Unless we want to become touch-screen humans in a digital world.
The good news is- there is a growing number of people who are realizing the dangers and are opening their minds to performance art and musical theatricality as a vital expression of our humanity for posterity.
So up and coming artists- write that rock opera about artificial intelligence. Glue tapioca to your face and tap dance in blue paint. Create sculptures out of recycled toilet paper that you cover with chocolate sauce while the gallery plays your new CD in the background. Die your hair pink and sing blues songs with symphonic metal tendencies in your indie web series;).
The world may not always get it, but it will be watching…and listening.