Rihanna River Island Campaign
Rihanna for River Island Campaign

In the years since the millennial ball dropped and the Y2K scare passed without a whimper, the music industry and our culture at large have become barely recognisable animals of a different colour. The water cooler was eliminated in favor of wall posts and tweets, the smart phone gave us all the ability to be constantly connected, the compact disc died a fiery death, and the length of cultural impact began to decrease drastically. Television became consumed less and less in unison – people now choose when they want to watch and where. Celebrity became easier to achieve, making Warhol’s refrain that “everyone will be famous for 15 minutes” alarmingly prophetic.

Yet amidst all of this, it was the music industry that saw the sharpest turn. The culture as it exists now has served as a proverbial blind spot, with new ways to listen to music, less ways to make money off of it, and a thousand and one ways to be seen and heard. Anyone can make a splash; your YouTube video just has to be in the right place at the right time. In this way, we have seen less nepotism and more randomness, and the emergence of wild cards that have taken us totally, and pleasantly, by surprise. In the early 2000s, we saw Lily Allen go from MySpace starlet to chart-topper in what felt like a nanosecond. As the decade wore on, the stardom of real-life cool-kids Azealia Banks, Kreayshawn and Justin Bieber would rise with every YouTube video count, and listeners would be filled with the thought that this, too, could be them.

Because of this, two questions arose related to the music industry and culture: how to turn a profit at the turn of the century; and how to help ensure that an artist will last, even once the buzz has died down. More and more, musicians are looking for ways to collaborate—and not just with other musicians. The key, as it appears to be, is branding. The incentives are endless and seem to spread through both artistic and financial reasoning. Aside from touring (whose financial benefits have proven to be more spread out than an artist is likely to admit), it’s largely endorsement deals that have kept a majority of performers’ heads above water. Now more than ever, an artist’s personal brand is their definitive attribute. No longer able to rely solely on the product (the music or the completion of an album), the artist has now evolved into the very product itself. Their branding is subtler, cleverer, more based on implication than outright promotion. Through this, the artists have established a curious relationship with the material world at large, which can largely be summed up by “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.” Branding thus becomes the way for an artist to cultivate a fan base outside of their music. It becomes the paramount way to build an empire during a time when an empire is the point. Hip-hop heavyweight-turned-mogul Nicki Minaj eyed her empire from the start. Her debut perfume produced in collaboration with Elizabeth Arden is called Pink Friday, which Minaj has fully embraced as her empire’s unofficial moniker. “Pink Friday has become synonymous with my brand. I’ve been thinking about a fragrance for the past two years, [but I always] knew I was going to call it Pink Friday.”

Minaj is hardly the first artist, and surely not the last. Over the past two years, Justin Bieber broke records with his 2011 debut fragrance, SOMEDAY, as well as his 2012 perfume, GIRLFRIEND. Last year alone saw a slew of scents, including Lady Gaga Fame, marketed as the first ever black eau de parfum. Britney Spears, a seasoned professional with a litany of scents since 2004’s Curious, released her latest last autumn, Fantasy Twist. Beyoncé‘s 2010 scent, Heat, was ranked by Forbes as one of the best-selling celebrity scents of all time. Last year, Taylor Swift expanded her Wonderstruck fragrance line with a new “chapter” she calls Wonderstruck Enchanted. “Wonderstruck is about that moment when you instantly feel a connection with someone, but then there’s that feeling of being completely enamored – enchanted…” In March this year, Mariah Carey debuted her latest bottle Dreams, and British boy band One Direction has plans to release a fragrance of their own this fall. The celebrity perfume has become the punch line of media branding. While the album gets spins on the radio, the perfume gets sprays in shopping counters around the world. A famous musician’s career can be tracked according to their fragrance series launches — Britney Spears is the perfect example of this. Each fragrance is a milestone, an affirmation of a pop star’s influence beyond music. This eye towards large-scale branding is more than just a contemporary motivation—it’s the default strategy of an artist looking to withstand the hyper speed of the music cycle and the creation of the visual language of a modern pop star.

Britney Spears Fantasy Twist

“Pop star” no longer refers to a singer who occupies the pop genre. Considering the genre’s gradual immersion into anything and everything—including once-impenetrable schools of sound like hip-hop and indie rock—pop has itself been rung out to mean a specific type of widespread access. Its root (“popular”) has never been clearer. Much the same way that the colloquial term “indie” has, within the cinematic community, gone from referring to a financial model of production to a certain sensibility, pop is now a tenant of anyone you’re hearing on the radio; it’s embedded in the DNA of music, and has become the single most important digit in the formula for success.

In this way, every modern musician who is working to achieve a level of mainstream success is attempting to be a pop star. In order to maintain any semblance of lasting legacy, a pop star needs to brand themselves as both interesting in the moment and enduring over time. Fashion, it seems, has become the paramount tool to do just that. This is true in two ways, the first being fashion as endeavour, seeing the evolution from pop star to entrepreneur. But for every Victoria Beckham (the former Spice Girl who found a successful second life in the finicky world of high fashion), we’re given a Kanye West, whose first line, crafted while under an apprenticeship at Fendi, was unanimously panned at Paris Fashion Week in 2011.

What makes the recent collaboration between pop artists and fashion houses so notable is that it is a direct reflection of the changing methods and memory of pop culture. Today, the pop star benefits the most from being nothing less than a clear concept, and as a result profits from being viewed as a series of lasting images. Madonna, for example, can credit her lasting power to more than just her musical catalogue: she is the brash ingénue with the cone bra; the starlet on stage in Victorian garb. The modern pop star epitomizes the mantra that “you are what you wear”. Madonna knew this in 1985.

There is no better example of this than global pop star Rihanna’s recent collaboration with River Island, showcased at London Fashion Week this past February. “London Fashion Week is something I’ve never done. I’ve never even attended it,” she says. “My first London Fashion week is my show, and that’s amazing.” The collection features items hand-picked and designed by Rihanna herself—a creative collection meant to enhance Rihanna’s profile as a fashion icon for the Aughts. The pieces toy with her mix of carnal femininity and playful tomboyishness, resulting in a collection that stands as both the move of a mogul looking to expand her empire, and as an extension of Rihanna as we perceive her – sexy, soulful and rebellious at the same time. This is what becomes of the meld between fashion and music. The artists create pieces that benefit their burgeoning empire as well as establish their vision and status as contemporary icons. The pieces become extrapolations of their status. One doesn’t just love Rihanna the singer, but Rihanna the idea, and Rihanna the image. While some artists use the fashion world to extend their personal brand, others use fashion as a way to help build it from the ground up.

Rihanna for River Island Spring Summer 2013
Rihanna for River Island Spring Summer 2013

In 2008, Beyoncé Knowles began the planning stages of her world tour, set to support her third album, I Am…Sasha fierce. For the show, French designer Thierry Mugler came out of a temporary retirement in order to serve as the tour’s lead costume designer. For the Knowles’s show, Mugler crafted over 72 set-specific pieces for Knowles and her dancers. According to Mugler, it was Knowles’ attention to detail in regards to character work that defined their collaboration’s endeavour. Mugler stated that he wanted to capture the ever complicated “duality between being a woman and a warrior” in an effort to understand these two sides.

For Knowles, it was four simple words: “Feminine. Free. Warrior. Fierce.” Through these, Mugler and Knowles fully formed the character of “Sasha Fierce”, whom Beyoncé credits as fully taking over when she takes command of the stage and loses herself to the power of the performance. Mugler’s role as creative advisor was to fully conceptualize the show’s scope. For Mugler, it was his “responsibility to make Beyoncé’s vision come true,” and to aid in the dramatization and metamorphosis on stage.

Yet Mugler’s real role was to help craft the pop star’s image as experimenter of the theatrical, to help create a sense of space and a mise-en-scène for the production of her tour—a tour that would go on to gross over $120 million by the year’s end. Much was made of the Mugler-Beyoncé collaboration, mostly because Tina Knowles, the singer’s mother, had always made a point of designing the star’s clothing from her start in R&B trio Destiny’s Child through her solo career. Additionally, the notice came from the fact that Knowles had, until then, maintained a strong distance from the world of high fashion. Her status as a pop star was defined by a simple visual aesthetic: a mix of strong, urban threads (simple white tank tops and faded blue jeans; snapback caps and large chunky earrings) with flowing, “feminine” pieces that drape her famously curvaceous body. When the collaboration came with a high-power design house, many were quick to highlight the sudden change in the artist’s visual temperament.

The reason is simple, and her name is Lady Gaga. When Gaga burst onto the scene in 2008, fashion became her immediate calling card. It began with her own creations, handmade with her team in what she dubbed the Haus of Gaga. It expanded shortly thereafter, into full on collaboration with her couture-haus idols, like Yves Saint Laurent and the late Alexander McQueen. Gaga’s eccentricities were a major factor in the development of her artistic brand, and it became pivotal in both her rise as a pop superstar and in the complete takeover of audience expectation. No longer could a pop star simply get away with a repertoire of No. 1 singles: the pop star now had to stand for something.

As a result, the wild and flamboyant styles and statements of the female pop star defined much of the first part of this decade. Culture snobs would go on to cite Gaga’s love of excess as a copycat of Madonna’s, just as many would pinpoint Beyoncé’s sudden Mugler collaboration as a play to fit into Gaga’s “hyper-pop” model. All of these speak to one another, and speak about each other, and all point out a different trend that goes beyond copycat syndrome. Essentially, what has happened is a complete redefinition of how we view the pop star’s tie to surrounding creative industries and their mutually beneficial collaborations with designers.

Beyoncé pushes the envelope of her fashion collaborations in 2013 even further with her choice of young, fashion-forward designer Asher Levine for her forthcoming Mrs. Carter tour. The Untitled Magazine was invited to preview the collection in production at Levine’s Tribeca atelier where he works off an exact-replica clay mould of Beyoncé’s body. Each silicone-and-leather piece is handmade uniquely to the form of her exact figure. The 25-year-old Levine — with seven seasons already under his belt – has been hailed as the “next McQueen”. He has previously collaborated on several occasions with Lady Gaga over the past few years, most notably for her “Marry The Night” music video. His resume of music collaborations is nothing less than impressive – including designing for the Black Eyed Peas, Bruno Mars, Scissor Sisters, La Roux and Peaches. This year’s partnership with Beyoncé will certainly take him to the next level of his career.

For the artist, it helps establish an image that lasts far beyond what may prove to be a mere second in the spotlight. As is the case in post-modern pop culture, the image becomes the dominant contribution to the culture-at-large, more so than any true creation, sonic or otherwise. Now, more than ever, artistic license is given as a way of establishing an immediate and identifiable artistic identity. This is a way of making an artist profitable, but it also establishes a wise symbiotic relationship in which a performer is identified both through the brand of the fashion house and vice-versa. Fashion and music are unique bedfellows in this way. In this ever changing music scene, where an artist’s relevance is viewed as social stock, with the ability to fall or rise based on the simplest of changes, the timeless power of fashion collaboration allows the artists as conceptual images to live on forever.

The clock ticks faster, and the audience’s patience runs thin; redefinition becomes paramount not because it exercises free creative license, but because it reinvigorates interest. Rihanna’s album-by-album evolution is not just an extension of an eclectic personality or a constant mutation of taste and styles—it’s the notion of expanding an artist’s reach, always maintaining a finger on what it designates as the pulse.

As music exists now, collaboration benefits everyone and every industry involved. YouTube star-turned-rap-star Azealia Banks filmed a series of video clips for Christopher Kane, which led to a gig performing at Fashion Week, which lead to Alexander Wang declaring Banks as his new muse. So it goes, up a ladder that pushes stars closer to all encompassing media messiahs. No longer satisfied with being labelled singers, they become designers, actors, fragrance aficionados. And then they are pushed, beyond the frontlines, far past our eye-line, into the ether of pop culture, where more and more things are sent in shorter amounts of time. Yet their image maintains. Their silhouettes, their songs, their clothing—it all persists far beyond them. Madonna becomes the cone bra. Beyoncé becomes the bodysuit. And music becomes much more than something we listen to.

Article by Rod Bastanmehr for The Untitled Magazine Music Issue 6.

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