Tech Appeal

(This piece was written in Spring 2010.)

The girl next door has left the building. In her place, we have the pop star from outer space, who references the future with edgy stage wear and robots.

Musically and stylistically, today’s most popular singers are looking to the future for inspiration in a high-tech strut into the 22nd century. Musicians have adopted a futuristic style of stage wear that evokes the look of robots, with getups that are metallic, angular and hard-edged, while the robot itself has made a number of appearances in music videos and on stage.

Christina Aguilera, "Bionic" (2010)

The point was driven home again this month, when Christina Aguilera announced that her anticipated fourth album, which will be released this summer, is called “Bionic.” On the album’s cover, Aguilera comes across as the lovechild of Princess Leah, Marilyn Monroe, and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator. Half of her face shows the Xtina we have come to know and love: fair skin, blue eyes, and lips bathed in rouge. The other half is an android comprised of bolts and wires: the inner workings of a pop star gone robotic. Aguilera gushed about her makeover to InTouch, saying, “I’m so excited — I’ve had an idea for a futuristic feel for many years now. It’s always been in the back of my mind to do a more futuristic sound.”

Her new space age image places her in a league with music’s current fembots such as Lady Gaga, who is resurrected as Fritz Lang’s robot in Metropolis in “Paparazzi” after being thrown off of a balcony by her boyfriend. Beyoncé, with a golden Thierry Mugler metallic bodysuit, also becomes a robot in her surreal video for “Sweet Dreams.” Rihanna got into the robo-craze when she suggestively danced with two big robots during her performance of “Rude Boy” at this year’s Kid’s Choice Awards in Los Angeles.

Cultural critics say that this new futuristic aesthetic reflects today’s technological progress. Perhaps subconsciously, they say, today’s pop stars are imagining a future, which, with the digitization of music and decreased sales, has presented the music business with challenges as well as innovations. The focus has come to include fashion and theatrics.

Beyoncé, for example, surprised audiences in late 2008 during her promotional appearances for her album, “I Am… Sasha Fierce.” Instead of wearing traditionally glamorous dresses designed by her mother, Tina Knowles, she poured her curves into metallic fashions by French designer Thierry Mugler when channeling her sassy alter ego, Sasha Fierce, who was represented by what USA Today christened as the “robo-glove.” The accessory, made out of titanium, was the result of collaboration between Beyoncé and celebrity jeweler Lorraine Schwartz. “She wanted something a little bit harder and robotic for the “I Am… Sasha Fierce” album,” Schwartz told StyleList. “She kept thinking about having a superhero-like look and she wasn’t sure exactly how, but I presented her with a few of my ideas and drawings of the glove.”

Rihanna and her robotic backup dancers at the 2010 Kids Choice Awards

Such sleek, metallic stage wear is possibly meant to evoke the digital form the music has adopted. James Montgomery, senior writer at MTV News, suggests that the futuristic imagery relates to the contemporary way in which listeners get their music. “Music is consumed in increasingly futuristic ways,” he says. “The idea of buying albums or things like that is kind of dead for us.”

Montgomery also says that looking futuristic matches the music, in particular the recently popular electronic/dance genre. The top three songs on iTunes list of most-downloaded songs — the Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling” (#1) and “Boom Boom Pow” (#3) and Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face,” (#2) — were tinged with electronic and techno influences.

In an industry where the look is half of the package, artists must look like the physical manifestation of their songs. “Part of making these robotic songs is looking like a robot,” Montgomery says. “It would be weird if you saw Lady Gaga performing a song on stage wearing jeans and a buttoned up t-shirt.”

Creative director and fashion designer Franc Fernandez designed the diamond-encrusted crown and top for Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance music video, as well as pieces worn by Christina Aguilera and Beyoncé. For the epic music video, he says that he was going for an “Ibiza princess” look, inspired by the Spanish city of nightlife and dance music.

Beyoncé in her music video for "Sweet Dreams"

Female pop stars like Lady Gaga and Beyoncé might also be empowering themselves with their new style. “It was the sex girl for so long,” says Amy Odell, fashion blogger for New York Magazine’s The Cut. “This is less about being sexy and more about being fashionable and truly interesting. The whole sexy 17-year-old thing is totally played out. It’s a return of strong women.”

Fernandez says that the futuristic aesthetic is a return to the 1980’s. “More than ever people are really 80s now. The 80s were all about shoulders and Tron, all this futuristic, semi-romantic kind of stuff.”

Referencing the future is nothing new in the music industry. Barry Shank, music professor at Ohio State University, and co-editor of The Popular Music Studies Reader, says that references to the future have appeared in popular music, citing the emergence of afrofuturism in the 1970s. From composer Sun Ra’s 1974 song, “Space in the Place” to funk group Parliament’s 1976 song “Mothership Connection,” in which George Clinton, as his alien alter ego Star Child, brings “citizens of the universe” an intergalactic good time, the aesthetic of afrofuturism critiqued the social problems faced by people of color.

The future as theme offers musicians possibilities for escape from the present, especially when it is a stressful time. “The idea is that somehow in the future there is going to be a vision of perfection,” Shank says. “This first decade of the 21st century has been a decade of turmoil and disruption. We want to imagine a better future that might become a different future.”

Today, the music industry is half of what is was worth a decade ago, with the total revenue from U.S. music sales dropping to $6.3 billion in 2009 from $14.6 billion a decade earlier, according to Forrester Research.

Some artists are also finding the future makes for a good show. “The future can be anything you want it to be,” says Montgomery. “Who knows what people will be wearing in 100 years?”

Syuzi Pakhchyan, author of Fashioning Technology and a robotics instructor for children in Los Angeles, says that because

Lady Gaga, Photo: David LaChapelle

technology is everywhere today, it makes sense that artists would want that reflected in their music. “We’re constantly connected. We’re always on a cell phone; anyone can get a hold of us at any time anywhere. As a result, this is becoming an interesting theme for performers who share their views in their music,” says Pakhchyan.

Engaging in fantasies of the future may also be a way for audiences to ease fears of technology and the unknown.
While science fiction/disaster films such as “Blade Runner” (1982), and “2012” (2009) present bleak futures, they relieve those fears with a positive ending. “They’re reassuring,” says Marita Sturken, chair of NYU’s Department of Media, Culture, and Communication.

With these broader cultural shifts, the music world has become a place where we can connect with the possibilities of technology. “A pop engagement with things like that is a way to work out all those cultural ambivalences that make it fascinating, scary, threatening, and desirable all at the same time,” says Sturken. Just as the machine, at the end of The Terminator, is crushed and deactivated by Linda Hamilton, so the robot that kidnaps Fergie in the Black Eyed Peas’ music video for “Imma Be Rocking That Body” collapses. At the end, when humanity wins, the threat of technology taking our place in the world is eased.

In the cyclical fashion of the music business, Montgomery says we should then expect musicians, with organic sounds and visuals, to return back to Earth. He says, “You’re going to see things go back to being a little more organic, in which you could see the fingerprints on the song.”

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