Part of being an artist, particularly a musician, is perpetual self engineering. Creating and changing one’s image go hand in hand with one’s music, how it’s marketed, how one experiences and how he or she connects with the audience. The Covid-19 pandemic has pushed artistes to reinvent themselves in introspective ways from having to produce in isolation; and this has proved polarising we we get well into 2021.
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At a macro level, today seems like the time of maximalists, with the likes of Doja Cat, Lil Nas X, Megan Thee Stallion, Lisa and Dua Lipa topping the charts while donning the most outrageous and bombastic fashions in music videos and performances as well as on the red carpet. At the micro level though, it is the musicians doing the complete opposite who are standing out—with simplification becoming the modus operandi for making a mark in an oversaturated industry. Self-reflection, nostalgia, escapism, restoration and timelessness are vital themes in pop’s most critically acclaimed albums—accompanied by a preference for raw visuals, monochromatic colour palettes and clean styling. As the saying goes, less is more.
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Mid-2020, we had Taylor Swift’s critically acclaimed Folklore—a far departure from her previously blatant pop music. She brought the cottagecore aesthetic to the forefront, perfect at a time when most of the world was stuck at home, retreating to play Animal Crossing, wearing comfy loungewear and buying less makeup. Earlier this year, we saw Billie Eilish ditch her trademark e-girl look, washing out her neon green roots and becoming a blonde bombshell. This transformation came full circle with the July release of her album Happier Than Ever, which introduced cleaner sounds, downtempo beats and jazz influences—quite the antithesis to her previous upbeat, trap-heavy album When We Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? (2019). And most recently, Lorde’s trademark songwriting shifted full gear into optimism in Solar Power (2021), after the maximalist Melodrama (2017). When she wrote “you’re all going to see me disappear into the sun…” in the 2017 album, she really meant it: Her usual gothic fashion gave way to beaming, blinding looks for her 2021 release (think the bright yellow two-piece by Christopher Esber she wore for the title track’s music video).
To simply call this phenomenon minimalism wouldn’t be quite accurate. In fact, it would be confusing, seeing that Minimalism occurred separately in music and art from fashion. Today’s cultural zeitgeist is parallel to one at the dawn of the 20th century: Purism (1918 – 1925), the art and architectural movement led by painter and sculptor Amédée Ozenfant, and architect Le Corbusier. Born as a criticism of Cubism, Purism brought the focus back to the elementary with simplified forms devoid of decoration and an embrace of technology. Part of the Purism manifesto reads: “A serious art must banish all techniques not faithful to the real value of the conception” and that “technique is only a tool, humbly at the service of the conception”. The principle is applicable in music: To be taken seriously, to express authority, clarity, and to go back to the roots, one must rid unnecessary ornamentation. This is how great works have stood the test of time: By getting to the core.
Musicians such as Kanye West understands this — in fact, back in 2013, West actually quoted Le Corbusier as one of his biggest inspirations as he worked on his seminal album Yeezus. West revealed to The New York Times that “this one Corbusier lamp was like, my greatest inspiration. I lived in Paris in this loft space and recorded in my living room, and it just had the worst acoustics possible… the songs had to be super simple because if you turned up some complicated sound and a track with too much bass, it’s not going to work in that space.” Just 15 days before its release, he famously specifically instructed Rick Rubin, the album’s executive producer, to strip down its entirety. The result? Abrasive sounds—aggressive, energetic, synthetic, rebellious, complex. Lou Reed of The Velvet Underground praised the album on The Guardian, writing: “People say this album is minimal. And yeah, it’s minimal. But the parts are maximal.” Consider the parts: The album was packaged with no cover art; West famously commissioned Maison Margiela to create custom masks and ready-to-wear for his tour; his sartorial repertoire included distressed denim, bomber jackets and T-shirts—essential, neutral, incognito, yet so recognisable.
The magnitude of West’s influence has permeated pop culture ever since. Just two years later, he launched Yeezy with adidas as a continuation of this style, which ultimately conceived today’s streetwear trends: muted, luxurious basics; athleisure; normcore; dadcore; and what we now know as gorpcore, which incorporates technical outdoor gear, with brands such as Arc’teryx and Salomon hitting peak popularity. As he told Jimmy Kimmel back in 2015, “When I do the Nike Yeezy or a Louis Vuitton shoe, the production is the same as when I do my CD.” While designers such as Haider Ackermann and Rick Owens have been setting the blueprint for years, West became the machine to propel their ideas to the masses, ultimately unifying the luxury sector, the streetwear world and untapped markets—the Yeezy Boosts sold out within minutes, as did the plain white US$120 (about $162) t-shirt from his collaboration with A.P.C. He even foreshadowed his current Donda era, tweeting in 2016, “I’m going to steal Demna from Balenciaga.” And he has, in a way—the designer has been instrumental in orchestrating the look of West’s Donda era, from the creative direction of the listening parties to the viral outfits sported by West and Kim Kardashian-West.
Another game-changing album was Solange’s A Seat at the Table (2016), which marked her shift from singer to artistic visionary, overseeing every single creative aspect of the production. In visualising the incredibly personal album, Solange worked with Spanish artist Carlota Guerrero, who acted as photographer and art director. Solange explained to her sister, Beyoncé, in Interview magazine how she wanted the album cover to communicate, “through my eyes and my posture, ‘Come and get close… It’s going to get a little gritty and it might get a little intense, but it’s a conversation we need to have.’” It depicted Solange as a modern Mona Lisa getting her waves set, with clips still in her hair. “It was really important to show the vulnerability and the imperfection of transition— those clips signify… holding it down until you can get to the other side.”
When I Get Home (2019) followed up this raw aesthetic with more futurist fashions that reflected a more minimal sound. Solange’s stylist, including Kyle Lou and Mecca-James Williams, mixed high fashion pieces with ordinary staples to create a contemporary, Black vision of Texas—think archive Mugler and Tom Ford’s Gucci; independent favourites such as Isa Boulder, Dion Lee, Arturo Obegero and Telfar; accessories and jewellery from Manuel Barran, Esmay Wagemans, Yifang Gao and Zana Bayne; and sometimes, a pair of Levi’s, thrifted cowboy boots and lingerie thrown into the mix.
It’s also worth noting the scale at which these artistes are producing, as it demonstrates their power and ultimately magnifies their creative identity. This has birthed today’s cultcore, an aesthetic so visible when large groups are involved. Solange produced a spectacular film for her album, with over 100 extras dancing in some scenes. Kanye West’s Sunday Service has been literally referred to as a cult. Similarities are also obvious in Billie Eilish’s “Lost Cause” and Lorde’s “Solar Power” music videos, which feature tightly choreographed, colour-coordinated extras. When one creates a uniform, homogenisation tends to occur, but these artistes are not doing that; in fact, they are openly celebrating the diversity. Each person sports variations in hairstyles; their clothes differ in cuts and silhouettes within a controlled, muted colour palette—allowing a degree of individuality within a collective while at times blending the artiste in with the crowd.
Simplification does not diminish the magnitude of the artistes’ work—in fact, it strengthens the quality of their creations, reinstates their authority as artistes and focuses the music. If anything, the past two years have taught us that overloads are detrimental to our well-being. Sure, creativity starts within you, but it doesn’t hurt to have the clothes do some of the talking.