Theatricality and glamour

row of men in a field wearing dinner jackets and surgical face masks, each holding a balloon above their head

Clinic © Jason Evans

In contrast to the bands who adopted and adapted the casual style in order to make deliberate connections with street culture, other acts have used style and fashion to create a look that has artificiality and performance at its core. Of course, the look and fashions of popular music performers have had a longstanding relationship to theatrical costume. Throughout the history of popular music, live performance has involved the need to be seen in front of large crowds of people, and this has led to artists adopting costumes that make them (quite literally) stand out from the crowd. As a consequence, artifice was at the heart of much visual representation within popular music from an early stage. In the stage shows of the 19th and early 20th centuries - revues, minstrel shows, vaudeville, music hall - the playing of roles, theatrical performance styles and exaggerated stage clothes were all central.

The use of flamboyant stagewear can be traced from such shows through to the 20th century genres of jazz, swing and rock 'n' roll. These connections can be seen quite clearly in the adoption of particular styles by individual performers. The American 'jump' blues singer Billy Wright, for instance, was prompted by the stage costumes of the vaudeville he had seen as a child to bring a flamboyant and outrageous stage persona to 1940s rhythm and blues. In turn, Wright had a formative influence on the appearance of rock 'n' roll star Little Richard. Richard refined Wright's use of dyed hair, make-up and brightly coloured costumes, and in so doing providing a template for the generations of musicians that followed after rock 'n' roll, to glam rock and beyond.

The relationship between theatricality, artifice and glamour is not an unbroken historical continuum, however. Several important developments in 20th century popular music would serve to complicate and, often, diminish this relationship. Perhaps the most important was, as Will Straw (2003, 158) argues, the introduction of electronic recording on the late 1920s. Because the intricacies of the voice could now be captured, listeners were placed in a more intimate relationship with the singer, nourishing the sense that "audiences had access to the 'real' thoughts and feelings of performers, who were no longer thought of as figures on a stage". A second development was a belief that emerged during the development of forms such as rock and jazz that popular music should be regarded as art, not 'mere' entertainment. Another factor was the growth of the idea in some genres that popular musicians should in some way speak for a particular audience or section of society. This was part of their authenticity as artists. This can be seen across a range of genres, from the 'sharp' suits of American be-bop musicians through the casual fashions of rock bands from the North of England to the designer sportswear of hip-hop stars, all fashions that link artists to a particular location or culture.

The idea of authenticity has also encouraged an opposing idea, in which performers play with artifice and image in order to differentiate themselves from other performers. Hence, at different points in its history, popular music culture has seen the reintroduction of highly stylised and glamorous images. The glam rock bands of the 1970s, for instance, self-consciously re-styled rock performance as a deliberately theatrical and over-the-top experience. The use of stage make-up, glitter and outrageous outfits by glam artists provided a return to the overt showmanship and artifice of earlier popular music performance styles whilst taking rock music in a new direction. David Bowie, for instance, played with ideas of performance in a very self-conscious way. Taking the idea of artifice to its logical conclusion, Bowie invented a series of constructed personas that mirrored his progressions in music and image throughout his career. Bowie's influence can be clearly seen in the 'new pop' and New Romantic acts that emerged in the early 1980s. These acts' use of new synthesised music technologies was mirrored in their stylised use of image and fashion. Again, make-up and flamboyant dress codes were used to play with and explore notions of identity relating to gender and sexuality.

This relationship between rock authenticity and stylisation has also been played out at a local level. In the late 1990s and early 2000s Liverpool-based alternative acts Ladytron and Clinic deliberately employed highly stylised (but very different) visual images in a conscious attempt to differentiate themselves from the style that had become associated with other Liverpool acts. Clinic's policy of always wearing surgical masks for performances and photo shoots was a deliberate attempt to create an identity that was reflective of the band as a whole.