Stage Presence

by Moe Berg, Fashion (Toronto edition), March 2001

When I began performing, I was such a nerd that I needed to transform myself from Peter Parker to Spider-Man to feel powerful enough to be in command on stage. So, I wore leather pants and makeup like my rock heroes Iggy Pop and Alice Cooper. Unfortunately, this often made me look like an unattractive girl, especially when I wore my Sally Jessy Raphael glasses. As time went on and I became disenchanted with the music business and rock semi-stardom, I regressed to wearing a T-shirt and corduroys. But it was always a special T-shirt, one that meant something to me, and said something about me to the audience. From my interviews with some of Canada's top artists, I got the impression that we have few Spider-Men and a lot more Peter Parkers. I wondered: How important are clothes to other performers? Do the clothes just fall on them? Do they think about it as much as I did?

As BMG's vice-president of A&R, Keith Porteous, points out, artists like The Beatles, Rolling Stones and David Bowie used to change their look as well as their musical direction with every new album. One could argue that during the hippy era both artists and the audience dressed down. (However, the bands seemed to be able to afford better bell bottoms and fringe jackets and they were the fashion leaders.) And during the golden era of the rock star, the '70's and '80's, bands dressed bigger than life and audiences wore their heroes' T-shirts. (The blip in this was punk. It was a lot easier to get a leather jacket and ripped T-shirt than Jimmy Page's sun and moon velvet suit.)

But the past 10 years have been a rock-fashion snooze fest. "A lot of bands in the past decade have established a style and sound that haven't changed," Porteous says. "It's like a Campbell's soup can: You establish a brand and then never change it."

Beginning with the flannel-and-shorts uniform of grunge, followed by the alterno-boy image of corduroys and a well-worn T-shirt, the anti-fashion of the anti-fashion of the anti-rock star is more than a look -- it is a statement about image. While previously, artists, myself included, ran from their awkward pasts, nerd, loser, creep and zero became buzz words for the slacker generation. "When we started playing, the fashion was grunge," glam god Robin Black says. "The whole point was to look like the common man, and I never wanted to be anything like the common man."

Matthew Good is the current poster child for the Everyman look. I wanted to ask him how long he went between hair washings before photo shoots, but he cancelled our interview at the last minute. Oh, well, Canada waits. One might think Mr. Good decided not to participate: His suburban angst has touched a chord in the Canadian record-buying public to the tune of half a million CDs, and he would not be wise not to screw up his image by admitting that he had an image.

Some musicians will concede that clothing that clothing is a small part of the package. "I try to recognize that it's an event for both me and the audience," says singer Melanie Doane. Jeremy Popoff of the Southern California band Lit agrees: "When a band looks cool, you know they care."

"Part of the show is your gear," rap artist Maestro says.

And while most of my subjects saw the value in being somewhat fashion-conscious (even if they seemed rather uneasy talking about it, especially when un-rock-and-roll words like comfort would come up), the general consensus was that assuming an aloof posture is as noxious as selling a song for a TV commercial was in the '80's.

"I consider myself one of the audience 'cause I'm a disco guy," says Love Inc.'s Chris Sheppard. "It's one gigantic dance floor."

For Dan Kowarski of the Sony boy band B4-4, stage clothes aren't really an issue. "We would wear our stage stuff [when we go] out," he says. "We dress how we love to dress pretty much every day."

Chris Murphy, of one of my all-time favourite groups Sloan, professes to love KISS but doesn't want to distance himself that far from his fans. "I'd like to look like someone who walked out of the crowd and got on stage."

When I asked Mike Turner, of the ultra-popular and influential band Our Lady Peace, whether he dressed to appear part of the spectacle or part of the audience, he put himself somewhere in the middle. "Being bigger than life is more about the performance," he says. "If the performance isn't compelling, people won't say, 'Oh, well, at least he wore a nice shirt.'"

What may surprise Turner and some of the other artists is that A&R people like Porteous and EMI Music Publishing's Michael McCarty say that image is as important as the music in determining whether to sign an act.

"There are groups that have some talent that even with styling we can't sell," McCarty says. "However, if a group is only good (musically) but looks great, we can help them with production and songwriting. When you get a sense that the group is projecting an image, then you know that they understand how to be successful."

"The first thing kids experience is the visual," Porteous adds. "Pop stars are being measured against fashion magazines and fashion television."

So what's up here? 'It's all about the music, man,' is the mantra musicians desperately drone, and God knows I want to believe that. But contrast the musicians' comments with the A&R reps and you have an industry in denial.

Two hours spent watching MuchMusic will tell you most of what you need to know about the importance of fashion and image in music. (MuchMusic may represent a small fraction of the available music, but it's the fraction that is selling the most CDs.) Videos show performers who are young, thin, attractive and styled.

"You can tell when a band has been styled," Murphy says derisively. (Yeah, I can too. They actually look, well, cute.)

Matthew Good gets away with his look by playing characters in his clips. Our Lady Peace occasionally use attractive model/actors to pretty up their serious messages, even though they are led by Raine Maida, one of the sexiest pop stars Canada has ever produced. Videos by artists who don't fit the young-and-pretty mould are often populated by extras who do. (Check out Blues Traveler and Tom Cochrane to name just two.)

My feeling is that all successful bands are acutely aware of how they dress. Secretly, they understand image and how to sell it to their slice of the record-buying public.

No, those clothes didn't fall on them. Someone told them they looked cool.

©2001, Toronto Life Publishing Company Limited

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