Shredding the boards – how live gigs got theatrical

All the world’s a stage, darling, and many of your musical faves are turning themselves into theatrical players

The way that we look at everything has changed completely. From your most aesthetically pleasing dinner to that gig your mate went to at Scala last night, even the most mundane events are fully documented. There used to be a popular idiom about the validity of a tree falling over in a forest and nobody being there to hear it. Now life runs more along these lines: if there’s no footage on social media, did it really happen?

The sheer ease of watching, well, everything, has prompted a distinct shift in the way that we all interact with popular culture. In a single click it’s now possible to access thousands upon thousands of hours of entertainment; our attention spans navigate more distraction than ever before. Our favourite stars used to be untouchable. Now they’re fighting with gammons in the comments section and posting pictures of their pets on Twitter

Musicians are choosing different ways to play around with this new-found accessibility. Some artists have disappeared from social media completely, while others gladly share every moment of their day. And amid all this, there’s also a distinct wave of artists choosing to subvert one of the few remaining moments where they can count on an audience’s undivided attention – the stage. Increasingly, we’re seeing some of the biggest musicians in the world questioning the very essence of a live show, and sometimes ripping it to shreds.

Theatrical ambitions are often treated with suspicion or regarded as a bit lofty. But according to set and costume designer Eleanor Bull – who collaborates with the likes of Bristol Old Vic and Southwark Playhouse – that’s nonsense. ”The idea that incorporating theatricalism into your gig is somewhat pretentious is a total fallacy,” she says. “I completely understand where this idea comes from, and to be honest it stems from a greater problem surrounding arts and accessibility – how theatre is still in so many ways an elitist art form. I think it all depends on what your aims are as an artist. If you’re incorporating loads of bells and whistles into your gig, with huge sets and tons of costume changes, but without that theatricalism in any way being reflected in your musical output, then of course it’s going to look pretentious. But if it’s carefully crafted to match the audio with the visuals, in a nuanced way that is enhancing rather than eclipsing the music, then I don’t see why people should in any way oppose it.”

With so many artists trying their hand at pushing the boundaries, there are inevitably a few creative crossovers. Earlier this year, Lorde – who appeared at Coachella and Glastonbury inside a tilting glass box – waded into the theatrical debate, accusing Kanye West and Kid Cudi of nicking her stage design.

Es Devlin – who collaborated on the ‘Melodrama’ tour, and designed the cube in question for Lorde – later pointed out that she’s also used the very same cube concept before in previous theatre productions. With everything pointing back to the stage right now, it’s very tricky to dream up something completely original – but that won’t stop the biggest artists in the world from trying.

Knock it down and start again

Towards the end of last year, fresh from releasing ‘MASSEDUCTION’, St Vincent put on one of the most divisive shows in recent memory. Sacking off the convention of a support act entirely (instead she opted to screen her short horror film The Birthday Party) Annie Clark also did away with almost every element that you’d associate with a typical live show. A band was nowhere to be seen; a curtain unfurled to reveal a screaming face instead. Clark performed alone with her guitar, backed by garish day-glo visuals, for the entire show. Far from indulging the usual patter between songs there was zero audience acknowledgement, and in stark opposition to the brute physicality of her previous live shows – touring ‘St Vincent’ Clark frequently injured herself mid-performance – any movement was clinical and small. Shifting her microphone a metre to the left for one song, turning robotically to her right for another, it was less a gig, more a visual collage. It left some staggered by the bold move towards minimalism; others simply scratched their heads in confusion.

“I think there is an inextricable link between the expression of abstract emotion in both music and theatre,” reckons Eleanor, “which is why the two forms can so beautifully enhance one another. In a world where everything we consume is becoming increasingly virtual and screen-based, the power of live performance, and the shared experience of attending it, has become even more potent.”

She sees the value in performances like St Vincents’ FEAR THE FUTURE; complete with staging that refers to the near-constant bombardment we’re used to in 2018.

“In order for it to compete with our modern expectations of media,” she continues, “I would argue that there’s a lot of merit in attempting to create something multi-sensory and holistic in its approach, art for all the senses. I think people often need more now than just musicians standing on a stage: people have high expectations and low attention-spans.”

Musing on the trappings of fame, and the ways in which we are continually seduced by adverts, money, kinks and desires, ‘MASSEDUCTION’ is a album which grapples with power. “What do I share? What do I keep from all the strangers who sleep where I sleep,” St Vincent sung at Brixton Academy on the pointedly chosen track ‘The Strangers’ (from her 2009 album ‘Actor’) inadvertently revealing the core of her whole theatrical experiment. Withholding everything we expected is surely the point of the entire exercise.

St Vincent live at the O2 Academy Brixton

Hold me closer, tiny dancer

Recently on tour in the UK, Christine And The Queens has also taken a turn towards the theatrical, using a cast of charismatic dancers – each with distinct styles and clear personalities – to help pull her audience closer. As with St Vincent’s ‘MASSEDUCTION’ her latest album ‘Chris’ also plays heavily with tensions around power and lust. Except in Christine’s case, she’s largely questioning how these things are typically wielded by women in the spotlight. To cut a long story much shorter, society doesn’t tend to be a massive fan of women in assertive command of their sexuality – Christine and The Queens, however, doesn’t really give a shit about this weird expectation. ”I’m just trying to deflect the male gaze and to sabotage it slightly,” is how she put it, talking to NME for our Big Read with the star earlier this year. “I’m horny, and I desire, and I’m sad, and happy, and joyful.”

All these adjectives apply neatly to Chris’ newest live incarnation, too; skipping and ducking among her entourage, getting caught up in passionate tussles and locking eyes with the characters that share her space, she navigates the stage like a miniature world, and being in the audience, it feels like a window into an intimate corner. Crossing out over half of her original moniker, and becoming the edgier, rawer Chris, she’s challenging us to invest in a new persona, too – another instalment in the playbook of an ever-evolving artist. Meticulously crafted and jaw-droppingly well-rehearsed, this is pop as pure, boundary-pushing performance.

Legacy? What legacy?

Many of music’s newest innovators are deftly navigating this Brave New World with ease; well used to leaving an embarrassing trail of future #TBT fodder and questionable fashion choices in their internet slipstream already. The same careful approach applies to how they ponder their place as an artist. More and more we’re seeing icons-in-the-making making art that questions the entire premise of fame. Which leaves a question… what about the icons who made it years before any of this online chaos?

All too often, watching former frontmen cart themselves out for another lap around the block can be a genuinely  harrowing experience. Lumbering about the stage in a state of mild boredom and gently plodding through the motions of their three best-known hit singles – before launching into a 40 minute rendition of a flute arrangement inspired by Federico Fellini’s directorial flair – it’s not just lazy, it’s often self-indulgent. As much as it’s nice to know you’ve got a fervent passion for the golden age of Italian neorealism, keep it for your weekly amateur film club, hun.

Even if you’ve never been subjected to such pretentious whimsy, everyone’s seen a set a bit like it – a disappointing phone-in effort from an artist who used to break creative boundaries. Like resting on laurels, too many rely on legacy.  It’s why David Byrne’s ‘American Utopia’ tour – hyped to high heaven for completely understandable reasons – is all the more refreshing in contrast, bucking the trend.

Skipping barefoot across the stage, flanked by a roving cast of marching-band dancers who dive in and out of the curtains lining the stage, David Byrne’s show is carefully choreographed, but – as with Christine and The Queens’ current show – it manages to feel very human. It’s the opposite of alienating; the joy is pure and infectious. Even an alien landed straight from another galaxy with no working knowledge of the Talking Heads’ staggering impact would get it straight away. Hell, it doesn’t matter if you’ve only ever heard ‘Psycho Killer’ sampled on Selena Gomez’s ‘Bad Liar’ (banger)

Tellingly, Byrne also subverts another tradition, too – instead of ending on a huge banger of his own, he swerves in a different direction and closes every show with a cover of Janelle Monáe’s 2015 song ‘Hell You Talmbout’. It feels fitting to see a true innovator using his time in the spotlight to pay it forward. 

Curtains for convention?

Music’s recent embrace of the theatrical doesn’t spell the end of raucous, freewheeling live mayhem by any means. Instead, some of the world’s biggest artists seem to be taking taking a harder look at what it means to perform and be watched; often they’re pushing the boundaries to explore the full extent of what can be achieved in an hour and a half of undivided attention. Encore, please. And other artists are even expanding the experiments beyond their actual set. Muse – who have always had a reputation for putting on spectacular, pyrotechnic-filled shows anyway – have promised to “come up with something that no one’s ever seen before” for their upcoming tour, and when ‘Simulation Theory’ hits the road next year, the band are planning to host a ‘Reality Pre-Show Party’ with three virtual reality games inspired by their latest album.

“A lot of the beauty of live performance comes from the authenticity of seeing how certain things are created,” explains Eleanor Bull. “I want to see the instruments and I want to hear the danger of live performance, [and] this shouldn’t be diminished by introducing elements of theatricalism. However, I worry that artificiality is something so totally engrained in modern western culture nowadays that people have higher expectations than what stark reality can deliver. My favourite artist of all time is Iggy Pop,” she says. Now, he’s theatricalism through and through. But he’s never relied on sets or light shows to bring theatre into his live performances, he can do it with his performance alone. That’s not to say there’s no place in music for more conventional ‘theatre elements’ like set and costumes, it’s simply dependent on what best suits each artist and what they’re trying to convey. Raw Power does what it says on the tin, it doesn’t need anything extra to that.”