What’s louder — the music or the man? The more appropriate question in today’s digital age would be: What’s louder, the music or the media surrounding the musician?
There is no lack of dialogue when it comes to the increasingly scary power media holds to dictate what we listen to — consistently, Buzzfeed articles are titled something along the lines of “How Social Media Has Changed The Music Industry.” The discourse is even more present around buzzwords like “DIY artist.” What’s more interesting, however, is the development in the last couple of years, wherein an artist’s media presence has become quintessential. It’s an age when listeners do not just subscribe to the music; they subscribe to the media representation of the art simultaneously or before they subscribe to the sound. Yes, it’s a long-standing trend — a band like KISS isn’t just a sound, it’s a phenomenon. However, looking at 2019 thus far and looking towards the future of music, listeners are not even aware of the subconscious associations and characterizations that develop the full image of an artist’s sound based on the content we interact with — when you listen to a song on Spotify you are not listening solely to the song, but rather the implied characterizations of the sound based on the media we subscribe to. Even scarier is the fact that the artists we react to only reach our ears because media launched that person or group.
Today, media dominates every aspect of the human experience, so much so that almost every emerging artist only breaks through when accompanied with viral YouTube videos, an impressive twitter or Instagram, a Hollywood presence, or something along those lines. It is almost impossible to launch yourself as an artist unless you have accompanying media that creates a distinct vibe around your work. The examples are endless: Clairo establishes herself as queen of teenage nostalgia with 29 million views on her hit YouTube video “Pretty Girl.” The crowds go apeshit over Maggie Rogers when a video of a master class with Pharrell Williams goes viral. Artists like Troye Sivan and Conan Gray each had fully established aesthetic, lifestyle YouTube channels with millions of subscribers before launching into the music scene.
Most notably, the band Half Alive had practically no listens until the launch of their beautifully coordinated “Still Feel” music video. Half Alive is a perfect example of the idea that the media experience of music is absolutely essential to listening power. No longer does the music come first, which is then supported by interviews, “Tiny Desk” performances and social media that promotes the band and establishes viewer connection. Now, the media comes first. A viewer clicks on a “recommended” post or video, and they love the sound, yes, but there’s a space in the back of their brains that becomes obsessed and connected with the media (the beautiful appearance, the swaggy persona, etc.) I like to call it “The Mesh.” It’s an interlaced structure of appearance, dancing, lighting, vibe, the mannerisms and the slang. Yes, the sound is a part of this mesh, but it’s not necessarily the leading aspect.
This idea of the “mesh” that lies in our subconscious came to the forefront of my brain when listening to a new favorite band of mine, Wallows. I found the band through Netflix. The lead singer of Wallows is Dylan Minette, who stars in hit Netflix series “13 Reasons Why” as Clay Jensen. Even if you haven’t watched “13 Reasons Why,” there’s a high chance you’ve seen the face: He’s the center of multiple memes on twitter, Reddit threads and even recognizable for his early appearances on shows like “Drake & Josh,” “Lost” and “Scandal.” This led to a personal investigation of Wallows’s rise to fame — did they gain most of their popularity from Dylan’s fame? Most certainly. Are they still extremely deserving of that recognition? Most certainly. Their sound is super cool.
In almost every interview with Wallows, Minette is asked about his role in “13 Reasons Why.” Specifically, Minette told Paste Magazine: “The show that I’m on, I’m under a contract on that and stuff and that’s something that I got to do and that’s cool and whatever but just anytime we have we are doing this non-stop because it’s what we wanna do.” Social media is usually made up of at least half self-conscious representation. For Minette, he has no control over constant comments on all forms of Wallows social media stating sentiments such as: “Severely disappointed their fan base is a bunch of 13 Yr. old fan girls who watch Thirteen Reasons Why, ruined the concert.”
This trend comes from a longstanding notion in music. When you go to a concert and you gain face-to-face recognition with the artist, you listen much more. For me, going to a concert made me feel like the artist was mine. The media surrounding the artist is that same feeling: They become yours when the content you receive each day fully develops the vibe of who they are.
All of this being said, there is a strong counter example: Frank Ocean. This is a man whose music 100 percent comes before the media. He is a minimalist in all media aspects, yet his music is an inspiration to the majority of emerging artists today because he’s a musical genius. Although Frank’s emergence into recognition does not fall into media trends or time frame I speak of, even he acknowledges media’s role in creating dialogue, fully shaping how we see artists and how we see their music. In a recent interview with GQ, he states: “I feel like there was dissonance between how I was seen by the audience and where I was actually … But there's also the idea of dialogue and discourse and conversation — like theater where the audience can interrupt you versus the television.” Frank goes on to explain how he feels the way he is seen is not even close to correct, and it’s still not correct, which went into his thought process behind making his Instagram public. But he steps into the public Instagram scene, because media gives you a step towards control of developing the idea around an artist. Frank is a rare case of a music God who doesn’t need any source of media to launch his sound, but even he recognizes the media landscape of establishing how you are represented.
Visual press is everything. To listeners everywhere: The content we view each day is the sound. Whether Wallows likes it or not, the back of the brain association with cutie “Clay Jensen” from Selena Gomez-produced “Thirteen Reasons Why” is an integral undercurrent of Wallows’s sound, and there’s no avoiding it. Think about your favorite music, and think about what’s behind the love of it.