Costumes and masks: what's the deal with on-stage gimmicks?

Many artists choose to express themselves through different masks and facepaints.

Photo Credit: Rachel Ngun

We have all encountered that one musical act that sticks with us because they use some sort of quirk or gimmick. From KISS’ face paint to Miley Cyrus’, well, you know, there are plenty of strange fashion choices to keep audiences entertained.

The Locust, a grind-core band who is slated to perform at Fun Fun Fun Fest, is known for donning skin-tight insect costumes and masks during every show.

But the real question is, are these gimmicks purely to capture attention? Or are they meant to reflect the genre and relay a certain message? Ethnomusicology Professor Stephen Slawek thinks that it is a little bit of both.

"How do you stand out as a musician?” he asked. “Either you create something musically that sounds different, or visually you present yourself so that you stand out.”

The growth of mass media in recent decades might also be affecting musicians’ competition for the spotlight.

“Obviously when there are so many bands, and there’s so much access, it’s much more difficult to break through than 50 years ago when there was no Internet, only three television stations and no cable TV,” Slawek said.

If a star feels like they are losing the spotlight, they might pull a stunt to grab the media’s attention and gain it back.

“Miley wasn’t able to make a cut keeping her old image, so she reinvented herself for better or worse.” said Nick Pelayo, English and Asian cultures studies sophomore.

As for relaying a message, it is clear in some cases what bands are trying to say with their outfits. For instance, dark clothes, heavy makeup or mohawks usually represent rebellion. And the sparkly leotards and colorful get-ups often worn by lone female acts are symbols of empowerment and independence. In the case of The Locust and other costume-adorned bands, the message might simply be, “We are different, and we want the world to see that.”

Fashion choices also serve the purpose of defining their genre. When was the last time you saw country star Luke Bryan don some black and white face paint and stick his tongue out during a performance? Fashion was a key defining factor for genres right from the start, and became especially developed in the 1900s. Slawek refers to genres as “streams,” an idea that he got from a book by Phillip Ennis.

“People in the city dressed differently than people in the country, and blacks had their own fashion,” Slawek said. “And then you had the three smaller streams of jazz, gospel and folk music. All of those came together to create rock and roll, but in each one of those you had a different style, so that’s why when Elvis came out, it was looked at as a mixing of black and white styles and musical streams.”

In some cases, the genre actually emerged from the fashion statement. According to his bio on MTV.com, Malcolm McLaren, a clothing designer, managed and helped form the punk rock band Sex Pistols in 1975. McLaren’s promotion of punk clothing and a rebellious lifestyle through the Sex Pistols helped to usher in a new musical genre, and the punk movement in England as a whole.

“The basic thing he had was a shirt that listed all the things he hated … also, the safety pins and clothes with black leather or whatever,” Slawek said.

If the band strays from the confines of their genre, they risk sacrificing their credibility. Slawek believes that bands need to stay true to their music in order to maintain their fan base.

“I mean, that’s why the fans like them, because they appreciate the music but they feel that there’s also some sort of connection,” he said. “If there’s too much of the gimmick aspect going on, or if the band does something that is contrary to the micro-ideology they’re presenting to their fans, they can lose their fan base.”

Junior economics major Shelby Tse is an example of the possible fans who could be alienated by gimmicks.

“I think when artists go crazy with their outfits they take away the focus on the music and put it on their clothing,” Tse said. “They should keep the attention on the music they produce and not what they wear; that’s why we have models.”

Though it’s okay to be turned off by a band’s on-stage get-up, just remember not to judge a book by its cover — at the end of the day their music is what really counts