We rundown the hits and misses of music ‘performance art’ – from Lady Gaga’s Grammys egg, to Grimes selling her soul – to help make up our minds
When Charli XCX first teased her upcoming album Crash last year, she made it clear that the record would be a departure from the sound that she’s explored with A. G. Cook since 2017’s Pop 2. “Rip hyperpop?” reads a tweet from the musician, posted in August 2021, alongside a subtitled still of Debbie Harry in Videodrome: “To become the new flesh, you first have to kill the old flesh.”
This post kickstarted the campaign for her fifth studio album, and the beginning of her “ultimate pop music” era. Later that year, she released two singles from the record – “Good Ones” and “New Shapes” – that trade the future-facing sounds of how i’m feeling now for pop nostalgia and big, club-ready beats. “I’m just very into making ultimate pop music,” she told Refinery 29. “I’m exploring what it means to be a pop star on a major label in a not very current way. And that’s really fun to me.”
Charli’s latest Crash single – the Rina Sawayama-featuring “Beg For You” – is a perfect example of this “not very current” approach to popstardom, as a spin on September’s mid-00s dancefloor anthem “Cry For You”, with a thumping UK garage beat. “I felt like Crash wouldn’t really be a truthful representation of what it’s like to be a female pop artist signed to Atlantic Records without doing an interpolation song,” she tells Entertainment Weekly. “So I did it.”
Not everyone is buying into the singer’s nostalgic embrace of chart-toppers from decades gone by, though. While many stans stay dutifully hyped for Crash, others’ reactions range from ambivalence to straight-up outrage. “She is absolutely not staying true to her vision and art,” writes one Twitter user. “She’s making mid songs because the label told her to, which is fine go get that bag but let’s not act like she’s a genius for releasing generic radio garbage.”
“The ‘selling your soul to the label’ thing could’ve been done in such a thought-provoking way,” adds another commenter. “But I’m not really sure what these songs are meant to be subverting besides being standard radio songs.”
In true pop star fashion, however, Charli hasn’t taken the criticism lying down, coming for her online detractors like they’re an unenthusiastic crowd at a German music festival. “People be mad that i’m testing the major label system an art piece (sic) whilst still making bops,” she tweeted last week. “And honestly i love it.”
Unsurprisingly, this statement has only added fuel to the fire, with more fans honing in on the “art” aspect of the new album rollout. Namely: is it actually a conceptual art project, or it it just generic pop with arty pretensions? Internet drama aside, this is a valid question. Of course, any artist is entitled to release inoffensive synth pop and beg for streams, but why do some get to do it under the banner of Interesting Art, while others are called out for pandering and posting cringe? Is Charli’s “art piece” explanation all part of the plan, or an all-too-convenient excuse to dismiss the lacklustre response? Can we write off any ill-advised decisions as Art, and get away with it?
By nature, it’s difficult to draw a clear boundary around conceptual art, and of course those questions will have different answers depending on who you ask. To help you make up your own mind, though, we’ve compiled a brief rundown of music’s hits and misses with the medium over the last few years. Disclaimer: if you disagree, then this article is a work of conceptual art as well.
heres the thing: if beg for u continues to grow & get massive it will give rina & i a platform to bring more avant garde music to the mainstream & then the charts & everyones minds will be filled w bops like xs & vroom vroom.. which is kinda the ultimate goal: so stream beg ASAP!— Charli (@charli_xcx) January 31, 2022
PC MUSIC’S DRINKQT ENERGY DRINK
Three years before Pop 2, A. G. Cook collaborated with the performance artist Hayden Dunham – alongside SOPHIE and Hannah Diamond – to produce the iconic hyperpop bop “Hey QT”. Released in 2014, the accompanying music video incorporated glossy, commercial-esque visuals to promote a then-fictional energy drink, DrinkQT. Confusingly, the drink was then promoted at an IRL event sponsored by Red Bull, and went on to be developed as an actual energy drink, prompting discussion about music merchandising and personal branding in the mid-2010s.
“It seems to have raised some interesting questions about identity and authenticity,” the pop persona added, in a 2014 interview with Fact. “It’s been especially stimulating thinking about what makes something real or unreal, synthetic or natural.” Maybe this performance also seems more successful due to the collective’s unapologetic desire to make it in the mainstream – PC Music never claimed to be playing a character.
KANYE WEST’S ENDORSEMENT OF DONALD TRUMP
Kanye West’s actions often defy explanation, but for a brief moment in 2018 a group of pseudo-sleuths and superfans claimed to have cracked the code once and for all. The conspiracy theory, which grew via Reddit, a Kanye fan forum, and a viral tweet thread – need I say more? – suggested that the artist was in the middle of a long-running conceptual art piece. The evidence? A few glancing references to David Hammons and Joseph Beuys on social media, and a childlike sketch of Andy Kaufman. Even if West was channelling iconic artists, though, does it really excuse wearing the MAGA hat, endorsing Trump’s “dragon energy”, and cosying up to Candace Owens? Not really. But it did allow stans to keep idolising him with a sense of plausible deniability.
GRIMES SELLING HER SOUL
Much like Kanye, Grimes makes it difficult to separate fact from fiction. Are her “painful, beautiful alien scars” and experimental eye filters really part of a quest to become post-human, or do they just give off a cool vibe? Does she really want to set up a lesbian commune on one of Jupiter’s moons, or is that just marketing for her new album, a space opera about a lesbian AI romance? Unsurprising, then, that the singer has flirted with conceptual art on several occasions, such as the time she sold a “fraction of her soul” as an art object.
Apparently, the project – titled Selling Out and originally priced at $10 million – “formaliz(ed) the idea that every time an artist sells a piece of their art, part of the soul is sold with it”. Arguably, it also prefigured the NFT boom, in that it offered the chance for buyers to pay large sums of money for nothing but a certificate of authenticity. More recently, Grimes also shared that paparazzi pic with Karl Marx’s The Communist Manifesto, staged in the wake of her separation from billionaire boyfriend Elon Musk. Was that performance art as well? We’re going to say it was.
LADY GAGA’S… ENTIRE CAREER
To no one’s surprise, Lady Gaga has openly acknowledged the impact of performance art on her aesthetic, naming Marina Abramović, Leigh Bowery, and Yoko Ono as key influences on her style and public persona (see: arriving at the 2011 Grammys in a giant egg). Honestly? There are too many examples throughout the pop star’s career to mention them all, but one in particular stands out above the rest for the controversy it caused: a 2014 collaboration with “vomit painter” Millie Brown, which saw the artist regurgitate black goo on Gaga, as the singer shouted, “Fuck you, pop music! This is ARTPOP!” Accused of glamourising eating disorders, Gaga later said that they never intended to cause controversy, adding: “For us, that performance was art in its purest form.”