As David Bowie announces his retirement, Odessa Paloma Parker wonders why outrageous male performers have been replaced by relatable – dare we say bland – boys next door?
Mick Rockb courtesy of Taschen
Hotline Bling, Drake's ode to iPhone booty calls, became the fall's most successful song not only because of its memorable hook and his meme-worthy dance moves, but because of the odd turtleneck– and-sweatpants ensemble he sports throughout much of the video.
Fashion followers recognized the sweater's origin – it's from hip, high-end Stockholm house Acne Studios – but he's just wearing a fancier version of what we all put on for a post-breakup Netflix binge. Although the sweater's pedigree is capital-C chic, it's still ultimately couch potato fare, sported by one of the world's top-selling male musical artists. Drake is sad, and he's got the drawstring pants to show it. Drake: He's just like us.
The Canadian rapper/singer currently enjoys a level of fame that David Bowie did during the 1970s, when his revolving door of personas captivated a worldwide audience. Taschen recently released a 300-plus page tome, Mick Rock: The Rise of David Bowie 1972-1973, a title with a $700 (U.S.) price tag and appropriately holographic cover. It mimics Bowie's ability to shape-shift, transform and utilize theatricality in a way that no other artist has ever been able to duplicate – though some, like Lady Gaga, have tried. (In October of this year, news came that Bowie would retire from stage performance despite the fact he will release a new album in early 2016.)
To be fair, that era had its share of flamboyant male stars, from Elton John to Elvis, in his final bedazzled incarnation. They topped the charts and captivated hearts, solidifying what it meant to be a "rock star" with a larger-than-life presence. But today's top male musical acts, be it Mumford & Sons, Sam Smith, The Weeknd or Drake, have adopted a more refined, subtle and approachable attempt at image. And after decades of grunge, Brit pop, conscious hip hop and other genres that rely not on flash but on substance, this new generation has all but signed the death certificate for the flamboyant male rock star.
"There was a glamour, mystery and excitement in what celebrities and musicians wore in the '70s," says Toronto-based stylist Nadia Pizzimenti, who's worked with musicians ranging from Shad to Ian Thornley. Back in Bowie's era, "the general public only got a keyhole view into [a celebrity's] world. It was far easier back then to create an image and say, 'This is me,' without being scrutinized."
Pizzimenti points to the rise of social media as a culprit for why we now crave a crooner in designer jeans and T-shirt instead of fishnets and feather boas. "While their generation of celebrity once dictated style, now the public seems to control it," she says. "Ed Sheeran, whose rise to fame can be attributed to the popularity of his YouTube videos, is a prime example of society creating its own relatable celebrity. We have an obsession with the idea that someone like ourselves can reach a level of success and fame."
A new generation of music consumer wants to filter out the noise to find those who most reflect their deepest fears, desires and dreams. "It comes from a sense of what's considered credible," says Paul Stokes, assistant editor at Bauer Media, the London-based firm that owns music magazines Q and Mojo. Today's top acts don't aim to astound with over-the-top personal presence – a pyrotechnic display at a concert or bevy of backing dancers can do the work for them. Instead, artists like Justin Bieber and Bon Iver want to connect with fans on a basic level. Consider it peak "authenticitude" – the mere projection of authenticity is now more important than actually being authentic.
Alan Cross, who catalogued The Ongoing History of New Music for Toronto radio station CFNY 102.1, blames the rise of the "hair bands" of the late 1980s as the beginning of the end of the ostentatious male performer. Hair metal's all-gloss, no-guts approach to rock gave way to the ultrasincerity of grunge, where looking as rough as the tunes they produced was mandatory for musicians. "It became very unfashionable to be fashionable," he says.
For those lusting for the dazzle of days gone by, kicks now come from Katy Perry shooting fireworks from her brassiere. "It's the female pop stars who have claimed that territory," says Ken McLeod, associate professor at University of Toronto's department of music history and culture.
Just as Bowie did with Kansai Yamamoto, the Japanese designer responsible for crafting the sartorial sensibility of Ziggy Stardust, Perry has aligned herself with Jeremy Scott, the American who brought extreme pop culture to Italian fashion house Moschino. Lady Gaga has worked with Nicola Formichetti, Diesel's creative director, and Beyoncé counts Gucci and Emilio Pucci among her stage-wear collaborators.
In the 1970s, the most popular musicians in the world, both hetero and homosexual, were flaunting sequined jumpsuits. Now, we're lucky if Sheeran combs his hair before getting on stage. Surprisingly, though, fan devotion is just as strong for Sheeran as it was for someone like Todd Rundgren, the American whose ballad Hello It's Me peaked at number five on the Billboard Hot 100 music chart in the early '70s.
When Rundgren performed the song on television's The Midnight Special, his hair was dyed a multitude of colours from pink to blue, and pheasant feathers adorned both his outfit and his eyelids. "I remember spending hours painting elaborate designs on my nails," says Rundgren, reflecting on the peak brio his solo stage persona achieved. It was a glam-a-fied departure from his look while playing with the band, Nazz. "We wanted to look the part," says Rundgren. "So somebody would see us and think, 'They look like a rock band.'"
Nazz's image was a common one for bands in the late 1960s: ruffled shirts, trim trousers, and slightly shaggy haircuts. It worked for The Kinks, it worked for The Who, and then it worked for Nazz. But the early '70s sparked a revolution, driven by glitter and animal print. Rundgren and other acts like Roxy Music, Marc Bolan and T. Rex, and Bowie all swerved away from mod and hippie tropes and turned velvet bellbottoms into velvet jumpsuits. Crowds couldn't get enough. For a time, at least.
McLeod points to the waning ability to sell music as a culprit in killing off these stardusted dudes. Although Bruno Mars and Miguel have a dash of flash to their look, it's nothing titillating or controversial. Musicians now make money through stage shows and promotional opportunities and, as performers, must seem mutable – but not beyond approachability.
Would Apple have allowed Drake to display their product in the Hotline Bling video if he were more outrageous? Most likely not – the smallest hint of subversion for a mainstream artist can signal trouble.
McLeod points to Adam Lambert, the former reality star who endured controversy after a "scandalizing" performance at the American Music Awards, where – dressed in silvery three-piece suit – he kissed one man and simulated fellatio with another.
In the '70s, Bowie's antics were just as salacious – but ABC wasn't in charge of staging his concerts. Since the incident, Lambert's traded in his glitter and studs for button– down shirts and leather pants. The eyeliner remains, but that's hardly outlandish in 2015. Even though Bowie's stage exit is fresh, his style of on-stage bravado has been missing for decades.