Gesture and performance

energetic photos of a male guitarist waving his drumsticks and a female guitarist with her hair flying out as she flicks her head back

Drummer (left image) © iStockphoto.com/Jacom Stephens and
guitarist (right image) © Stockphoto.com/Curtis J Morley

Gesture is another key way that meaning is created and re-enforced through the visual performance of popular musicians. Gestural conventions take many different forms. There are those that re-enforce the performance setting as a communal experience (waving at or beckoning to the audience, shaking hands with the front row, raising fists in acknowledgement), and there are those that accentuate emotional aspects of the music itself (a particular facial expression, a singer caressing or leaning back from the microphone etc). Other gestures stress the virtuosity or power of instrumental playing (an exaggerated arm movement by a guitarist, the intense hunch of a piano player, etc).

Like many others, this element of performance is subject to a whole host of conventions. There are physical movements that through their constant use have become associated with different types of music. Heavy metal and hard rock performers, for instance, usually draw upon a prescribed set of movements. Firstly, there are somewhat exaggerated gestures that accentuate the physical playing of their instruments, serving to highlight the virtuoso musical performances that are part and parcel of the rock and metal genres. Then there are other rhythmic movements such as headbanging and slamdancing, which suggest a visceral, bodily engagement with the music.

In many respects, this way of accentuating physical action in music was a logical progression from developments that had always been important to rock performance. In the rock era, performance increasingly operated as visual and aural proof of an act's ability to play its own material. This function was particularly pressing as developments in studio technologies led to the ability to create recordings that were difficult (or impossible) to produce live. This focus on live performance in rock also served to separate authentic rock musicians from the trend toward the manufacture of acts based around image, whose music was in reality the work of behind-the-scenes producers and session musicians. For example, Auslander (1999) positions the ability to play live as a key way that rock performers demonstrated their authenticity. He notes that:

"The visual evidence of live performance, the fact that those sounds can be produced live by the appropriate musicians, serves to authenticate music as legitimate rock and not synthetic pop in a way that cannot occur on the basis of the recording alone; only live performance can resolve the tension between rock's [and the listener's] knowledge that the music is produced in a studio." (1999, 79)

However this stress on physical action as providing authenticity and legitimacy is just one strain in popular music performance. Other genres and traditions with other preoccupations have had gesture and movement at their core. Dance played a significant part in various stage acts from the 19th century, including the 'clog and grotesque' of English music salons, the dancing in blackface minstrels shows (designed to suggest the dancers were black), and song and dance men such as George M Cohan who made their name in vaudeville (see Leonard and Strachan 2003a). In the big band era of the 1930s many musical acts had dance at the centre of their stage routines. Band leaders such as Cab Calloway were known for their exuberant stage moves whilst Duke Ellington featured many well known tap dancers (such as Geoffrey Holder, Bunny Briggs and Buster Brown) in his touring revue and preferred to employ musicians who were accomplished dancers (ibid.).

Many other stage acts have been built around highly choreographed routines with sophisticated dance moves and coordinated movements. Both male and female soul groups of the 1960s, for instance, tended to appear on stage in identical or coordinated outfits performing slickly choreographed dance routines, which added to the excitement of the performance. The Motown label employed the highly regarded choreographer and tap-dancer Cholly Atkins to fine tune the routines of many of its major acts, including the Temptations and the Supremes.

Choreography continues to be important in the visual presentation of pop acts. Often routines are derived from new street dance styles in order to give the acts an air of authenticity and relevance. Pop stars from Michael Jackson to Christina María Aguilera have adopted street styles, melding them into slick routines for stage and video performances.