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Flashy Shit: How an Artist’s Appearance Moulds Our Opinion of Their Music

on February 17, 2014, 4:53pm

Component is a section of  Aux.Out. for one-off pieces, special editorials, and lost orphans of the music discussion. Today, Alyssa Pereira meets Schoolboy Q, Kitten, Papa, and more in a journey to understand how an artist’s appearance moulds our opinion of their music.

I found Schoolboy Q in a foggy SUV outside San Francisco’s Chapel after his show. He previewed his new album Oxymoron and the free tickets had been snatched up in about 10 minutes online. He was wrapped in a 49ers scarf he hadn’t been wearing during his set. I figured he was only wearing it for show—San Francisco was particularly rabid about its team at that time.

“Are you a Niners fan?” I asked the Los Angeles native as we headed up to the dressing room. He replied, “They’re my favorite team.” I paused. “Wait, are you fucking with me?”

Everyone in the entertainment industry (and really, the working world) is selling something, and success is based solely on how well it’s done. That’s the truth. I’m not even talking about just albums. Entertainers sell an idea, a persona, an agenda, whether it’s for the money, ego, acceptance to the craft, or anything else—it doesn’t matter, as long as they’re doing it and they’re doing it well. Why did Miley Cyrus bleach her eyebrows? Nobody seems to fucking know, but she seems a little cooler for doing it. Do you think the White Stripes would have had the same success if Jack White looked like any other random dude? What if Lana Del Rey was just average-looking?

If you don’t believe me, think about this: Do you think millennials would sooner recognize David Bowie’s image or David Bowie’s voice?

Appearances matter.

2 - Schoolboy TattoosNow upstairs at The Chapel, Q is sitting in front of me, wearing one of those goddamn Tantum bucket hats he’s always got on, a dip-dye navy t-shirt, and circular wire-rimmed glasses. (I really don’t know why Q wears those hats but I’d bet that company is turning that shit out quick.) In any case, if it weren’t for the treble clef tattoo underneath his left eye, he’d look like he could be riffing metaphysics at UC Santa Cruz—not like he actually is, talking to me in a post-show blaze.

“These are all sloppy,” he said, pointing to the tattoos on his arms. “All my tattoos are sloppy—but I like them. I told myself I’d never get any of them fixed.”

The general thing about tattoos is that they’re a mark of something that once was—a souvenir of a state of mind, a sign of remembrance, a signal of loyalty or family—and Q’s are no exception. But for entertainers, details like these are a packaging up of an identity. Every tattoo and scarf and fucking bucket hat are cellophane-wrapped marketing material. It doesn’t matter if it’s authentic, as long as it sells.

In an optimistic sense, they convey an ideal, an interest, an accomplishment, a belief, or a loyalty to something—but that’s all predictable. A lot of times, an artist’s appearance is pretty much the biggest reason for why you feel a certain way about their work. And, more importantly here, they are a means by which artists influence the way we think about their music. It’s not your fault—it’s our culture. You care more about what you see than what you hear, and you can’t really help it.

You, as a consumer of popular media in the Western world, are a slave to your own unconscious favoring of your visual sense.

4 - Paws Jacket

At the now-defunct Café du Nord the week earlier, Glasgow’s punk trio Paws were making their own posters to sell after the show when I walked in. Their hands were covered in Crayola marker ink, and all of them were dressed to an Office Space-degree of flair. Based on the assortment of pins, they’d clearly been on quite an adventure in the last few weeks on tour. Guitarist Philip Taylor stopped doodling to tell me about his jacket. There’s a hilariously massive decal of a clowder of kittens stitched to the back of the denim that I was trying to not laugh at, and a large assortment of cat-themed pins.

“This lady came to one of our shows and gave us all these pins from her eight-year-old daughter,” Taylor remarks, looking over the collection. “I do like cats though, a lot.”

Bassist Ryan Drever shows me a few (non-feline) pins he accumulated on this tour: one from New York’s CAKESHOP, a PBR pin, a pin from KEXP, and another one found behind a drumset at their first tour stop in Philly. They’re a roadmap as to where they’ve been in the last few weeks.

Like Schoolboy, the band members have some stick-and-poke looking tattoos on their arms. “This is a piss drunk tattoo. Like, me and [drummer Josh Swinney] did it when we were drunk one night,” Taylor tells me. It’s a sort of double triangle design that I didn’t recognize. “What does it mean?”

5 - Paws Stick N Poke

“It means piss drunks.” He and Swinney laughed. “His mom bought him a tattoo gun for his 16th birthday so we all just decided to give each other tattoos.”

Now, I’m not surprised that a band of rowdy Scots are covered in coarse tattoos and a bunch of rando mini pins—those are visual cues that make them most palatable to their diehard fans. Nothing says punk like alcohol-soaked accessorizing, I guess, because it’s all a part of the packaging. It didn’t matter that I saw them in a red velvet ex-speakeasy, or that it was a show put on by friends of mine, but it did matter what they looked like on a personal level. I cared how they appeared when they played. I deduced things about them based on the way they presented themselves.

Again, Western media tends to lead us to favor our visual sense over our auditory sense. That shouldn’t surprise you, but me saying it to you will hopefully make you think twice about what bands you’re into, and how good you think they are.

Is Paws a true punk band? Without listening to them again, I honestly couldn’t tell you with absolute certainty. I remembered that they looked like it, so I’m going to go with a yes.

And that’s the fucking problem.

6 - Pawn Onstage

A couple weeks later, I slogged myself down to Bottom of the Hill to take a few shots of Chloe Chaidez during her soundcheck with her high-powered pop-rock quartet Kitten. She was wearing a fur coat that swallowed her, a navy crop top, and what appeared as a kilt to me. Her hair was dyed like lavender cotton candy, and I’m pretty sure she wasn’t wearing shoes.

Despite her young age, Chaidez has untouchable confidence when it comes to her resolutely brash stagewear. Critics have taken notice—she has been the subject of pieces by Teen Vogue, Interview, and MTV (in addition to many others) for her eclectic style picks.

“I think it’s just a slightly exaggerated version of how I normally dress,” Chaidez said of her own stage style. “Sometimes in interviews I get asked if I look like this normally, and I do. There’s not [a switch for] stage and offstage. If I walk into a Denny’s or whatever, people might look at me weird, but they won’t look at me weird onstage.”

7 - Kitten Fur Coat

As a traditional marker of elderliness, her grey-ish hair is clearly in conflict with both Chaidez’s age and energy level, but I know she chose it because she doesn’t want her personality pinned down by her youth. She doesn’t want people to pass her off as some standard pop derivative, and she dresses to shove off that potential pigeon-holing that her audience might attribute to her.

“I feel like my whole life I’ve grown up with a particular aesthetic and a particular style and it’s a character, but it’s also an extension of myself. It’s part of my personality,” Chaidez tells me. “When I’m onstage, I do become this character, but what I’m wearing everyday is [also] my character. It’s all part of my identity.”

8 - Kitten Pre-SetClothes are ephemeral, but they speak louder than the music, if only briefly. Appearances rooted in makeup, hair dye, and clothing are the reason music journalism values live concert photography (and academic journals of ethnomusicology and historical musicology so vehemently do not). Consumers of music in America are consumers of visual culture—we care what they look like and what they are wearing because maybe we would want to look like that and to wear that. Sure, the clothes are easy to lose and quick to fall out of style but they do more than accent the performer—they commodify the artist. They encourage idolatry. They don’t just make us really like them—they make us worship them.

“It’s almost as important as the music,” PAPA guitarist Danny Presant explained (though I believe it’s even more important than that). “For live music, [clothing] is the first thing the audience sees and the last thing they see. It’s the only thing they see. Really, it kind of dictates things for a lot of people. What those clothes mean to them is what they feel.”

10 - PAPA Green Room

The duo that make up Los Angeles rock minimalists PAPA dress to maintain their band’s personality. “When we have a little bit more luxury or time at home [before a show], I’ll go out and buy a special outfit like overalls in one of our music videos,” he says. “I just got sort of a janitor jumpsuit for the homecoming show at the end of this tour. It’s weird, like whenever I buy a specific outfit for performances, it’s usually like workman’s thing. Maybe I like the illusion of a worker—like I’m at work like manual labor.”

Weiss was wearing a wide-brimmed Western fedora, and sported the same beard as he does in one of their videos, and like Chaidez, he never wears shoes on stage. In fact, he finds it easier to play when he’s not wearing any. PAPA displays their band’s identity through the already-established filter of their existing media presence. The workman’s-jumpsuit-sans-shoes is a package. It’s the live wrapping of Tender Madness (their last album) personified. Listening to it, there’s no way you would imagine the singer in utility garb, but it’s how they chose to present it, and since everyone aligns with the working man, it’s easy to align with their music. They’ve sold the idea to you before you even know what they sound like.

11 - PAPA Onstage

Electronic artist Slow Magic has a similar mindset when it comes to stagewear. His work has thus far been rooted in the idea of taking on the embodiment of someone (or something) else. To portray that, he hides his identity behind a pulsating glow mask to present his musicianship as a fantasy without an obviously attributed gender or age.

By putting on an animalistic face, Slow Magic can be anyone (or anything) the audience wants him to be.

“I wanted [the mask] to be an imaginary animal, because the project was based on the idea of ‘music by your imaginary friend’. I wanted something that matched that,” he explains. “The mask is based on a zebra, but it can be whatever people want it to be—that’s the nature of the project. Everyone can own it in their own way.”

12 - Slow Magic Onstage

Slow Magic’s complete withdrawal of his own identity requires the audience to draw their own opinions about the music. In doing so, they instantly assume a certain disposition towards Slow Magic—in taking an interest in who the artist is to them, they feel connected to him. His ambiguous visual presentation then becomes just as important as the music—Slow Magic is, to that enabled extent, what the audience makes of his identity.

The visually-graspable identities of musicians today are everything to an artist’s work. Everything an artist wears or does to be perceived in one way or another are cues that lead their sound.

13 - Slow Magic BackstageSure, these things aren’t meant to be distracting from the music these artists make, but sometimes they are. Like Taylor of Paws insisted, “Anyone who says they don’t think at all about what they wear before they go onstage—they’re lying. You have to think.”

The entire idea of clothing as self-expression is a jaded space. For musicians, it’s often not about wearing what’s comfortable to perform in or what they’d wear on a normal day, or even about just looking nice—it’s about wearing the things that suggest (and even manipulate) the way they would like to be heard. It’s a means to force you to hear them through the way you see them.

Back in Schoolboy’s dressing room at The Chapel, there was a recently unwrapped box of leather-patched Converse high-tops. The show was put on by Converse, and I’m betting he was supposed to be wearing those during the show. I had been standing next to Converse’s photographer during the show and he was pissed Q wasn’t wearing those shoes—I guess it impeded the company’s marketing efforts.

“Some rappers today do that flashy shit all the time,” Q said, talking about the value of appearances in music. “I mean, there’s people like ‘Versace, Versace’ but you know, everybody don’t have to come out all fresh and shit. To me though, it makes a difference. People want to see this shit sometimes. People want to see something.”

~

Alyssa Pereira regularly writes about music for 7×7 and The Bay Bridged and has contributed to SPIN, Diffuser.fm, PAPER, and others. She’ll soon be joining CBS Radio’s Web Staff. She lives 500 yards north of the Barbary Coast and she’s proud of it. She tweets.