Over half a century ago, Andy Warhol earned his spot as one of the most revered artists of the modern era when he introduced the world to his visual art movement “Pop Art.” Warhol’s now-famous paintings of key elements of American popular culture of his time (i.e. entertainer Marilyn Monroe and Campbell’s soup cans) reflected his attempt to infuse common elements of American popular culture into fine art, combating tradition.
In November 2013, pop icon Lady Gaga released her fourth studio album ARTPOP. Despite the album’s comparatively low sales and mixed critical reactions, the message of the album introduced a concept that was communicated coherently and in a big way to the general public at last night’s Grammys; for those willing and able to recognize it. The album reflected Gaga’s plan to contribute to a “reverse Warholian experience,” in which respectable art was transfused into a popular culture presently characterized by auto-tuned music and mindless reality television. Gaga herself recognized that she was merely contributing a name to a movement that was already in motion. A movement that has only gained momentum since the album’s release and dominated last night’s Grammy Awards.
The focus on superfluous details of the life of an artist rather than the art they produce is not a new phenomenon. At the start of the millennium, people preferred to talk about Whitney Houston’s and Kurt Cobain’s drug use than their breathtaking talent, and discussions of allegations child molestation against Michael Jackson’s overshadowed the music that made him the King of Pop. This culture obsessed with scandal has made human beings into venerated stars as quickly as it has shredded them down, literally taking their lives as victims with the cause of death arguably being fame.
After years of an EDM-dominated landscape in popular music, alternative artist Lorde was the big winner at the 2014 Grammys, while the soulful Sam Smith snagged a large share of the attention at last night’s 2015 show. But this trend of the rise of a more authentic and artistic sound can be seen in music throughout the past year. Hozier’s Take Me to Church and Mark Ronson’s smash collaboration with Bruno Mars Uptown Funk! are the latest examples of more experimental and classical forms of music finding their way into Top 40 radio. Last year, former Fordham College at Rose Hill student Lana del Rey showed impressive sales with her third album Ultraviolence with minimal promotion. The rise of this unique “indie pop queen” into mainstream music is just another example of the general public’s enthusiasm for a more natural sound.
In addition to newcomers garnering popularity from their pure sounds, music stars who have already established a name for themselves are embracing the trend. Last year, Nicki Minaj, known for bringing together pop and rap in past years to create radio hits like Super Bass, debuted the lead single Pills N Potions from her new album The Pinkprint. The song, a heartfelt ballad, was a departure from her previous work that simultaneously shocked and delighted critics and fans.
The rise of a more stripped-down sound on popular radio indicates the public’s readiness for a more authentic culture and focus on true talent; a readiness for ART to enter the world of POP. It seems as though Rihanna and Gaga, known for their experimental artistry and lack of sensitivity to being panned by critics, have recognized the transition that their industry is undergoing and are experimenting with testing public reaction to see just how ready the world is for a cultural shift.
Rihanna has had a similar tone in the past weeks as she promotes the lead single of her currently untitled eighth studio album. Despite churning out hit after hit across an impressive seven albums since she was 16 years old, the public seems to focus mostly on Rihanna’s personal life such as her tumultuous relationship with Chris Brown, her suggestive photo-shoots, and comical posts on social media. Rihanna’s new single “FourFiveSeconds” indicates her frustration.
Although the public may take the song at face value to be a playful tune about a relationship (like Gaga’s “Do What U Want”), a deeper analysis shows that Rihanna is upset with her career and how the public treats her. “I’m four, five seconds from wildin’/And we got three more days ‘til Friday/I’m just tryna make it back home by Monday mornin’” Rihanna belts. “I know that you’re up tonight/Thinking how could [she] be so selfish” she continues. Rihanna is close to going crazy, just wanting the work week to end and make it home to be alone and relax out of the spotlight. To the public, she knows it may seem selfish to sound like a blue-collar worker frustrated with their schedule and eager for weekend relaxation when in reality she has the fame and fortune that most people can only dream of. Although she is sorry that some cannot understand why she is feeling this way, she can’t help feeling frustrated with the public’s image of her and inability to focus on what she wants them to - her music.
Rihanna’s new song and impressive performance with two indisputably colossal talents - Kanye West and Paul McCartney - featured not much background music and a simple black and white treatment. However, a simple Google News search of Rihanna this morning spawns countless articles about her dress and few about her song. Rihanna’s controversial gown gained attention across social media because it could be spotted from the nosebleeds and took up three seats. She shoved this dress in the public’s face along with an amazing performance, and the public chose to focus on the gown rather than her performance with two fellow music giants and a display of raw talent.
In general, the show saw almost every artist abandon their signature style and show a more stripped-down side. Katy Perry ditched her usual colorful antics to deliver a ballad in support of raising awareness for victims of domestic violence. Rising pop star Jessie J belted out a duet with Tom Jones. Adam Levine and Gwen Stefani, Usher and Stevie Wonder, Hozier and Annie Lennox - it seemed as though the entire show was influenced by Gaga and Bennett’s collaboration and introduced the public to unlikely duos in a big way.
This ongoing cultural revolution extends beyond music and into fashion. Jeff Koons, a prominent modern artist who collaborated with Gaga to design the ARTPOP album cover, had a promotional campaign with H&M last year. The sold-out leather Jeff Koons handbag dons Koons’ iconic balloon animal sculpture (which sold for $58.4 million in 2013, becoming the most expensive piece to ever be sold by a living sculptor). Similarly, retail store Uni Qlo has a whole line of t-shirts and dresses inspired by the art of Andy Warhol displayed prominently in their location off of 5th Avenue in Manhattan. Just this month, Converse announced a Warhol-inspired collection featuring a high-top sneaker donning Warhol’s famed Campbell’s soup can paintings.
Pharrell Williams donned an Adidas short-suit on the Grammy red carpet, reflecting the growing popularity of street-wear and a more casual/formal look in comparison to the more over-the-top looks that were common in past years.
There definitely is nothing wrong with enjoying the catchy, digitally edited work of today’s pop princesses, or indulging in mindless reality shows all day on Netflix, but the infusion of ART into POP is something refreshing. Sure, maybe Rihanna and Lady Gaga are not that smart at all, and are simply making catchy songs about their relationships and this is a completely over analytical look at the state of the music industry. And maybe the obsession with art in fashion and rise of soulful artists on mainstream radio is just a fad. But maybe the biggest artists of our time are trying to tell us that there is something seriously wrong with the respect, or lack thereof, that we show for them. It is hard to say if a more effortless look in high fashion and a more stripped-down sound on popular radio is the work of cultural geniuses like Lady Gaga, or merely the evidence of cultural cycles that naturally occur - similar to the climate cycles that critics of global warming claim naturally happen as decades pass.
Regardless, it is refreshing to see a heightened emphasis on talent, simplicity, and pure art. Hopefully last night’s Grammy awards was just the beginning, and the public for artists to bare their soul rather than their skin in the second half of this decade.