A brief history of pop music's circus obsession

From ringmaster Britney to sad clown Katy Perry, why popstars in need of reinvention turn to the big top.

by Emma Madden
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12 August 2020, 3:00pm

After one of the most cruelly publicised celebrity ‘meltdowns’ of all time, the popstar-turned-wise ringmaster returned with a proverb. “There’s only two types of people in the world”, she said, top-hatted and whip in hand. “The ones that entertain and the ones that observe.” Around a year before those eternal words surfaced on Britney Spears’ so-called comeback single “Circus”, Claude Kelly, the song’s co-writer, was mulling over Britney’s worst year on record -- the shaved head, the conservatorship, the brutal ridicule. “I didn’t know her personally when I wrote it,” he told Kempire Radio, “but I read about her and saw that her life was like a circus.” And so it was done: Britney ran away to the circus; stilted back-up dancers following her lead, the big top tent folding out before her, the self-reflexive metaphor coming to life.

Britney is just one in a long line of artists who’ve been drawn to the powerful myth-making imagery of the circus. For many, including Christina Aguilera, JoJo Siwa, and P!nk, the circus has provided a thematic site in which to view fame from an aerial perspective; to recalibrate their image. It’s where popstars go when their old persona no longer suits them and they begin to feel outlawed because of it. Christina wanted to go ‘back to basics’ after getting ‘dirrrty’; JoJo wanted to introduce the world to a new her, apparently; P!nk wanted a restart after her highly-publicised divorce from husband Carey Hart. “All of us, when we were little, probably wanted to run away and join the circus because it’s full of what mainstream society considers freakish and the outcasts,” P!nk told an interviewer when she was asked why so many musicians have been drawn to the big top. But until now, a far less romantic image of the circus -- without all the talented outlaws and masterly entertainers à la Britney -- has yet to show up in modern pop music. Time to release the clown.

Katy Perry unveiled the “roll up, roll up” rollout for her own circus-inspired comeback earlier this summer, clown nose firmly on her face. The similarities are obvious. Not since Britney has a popstar endured such a radical decline in public adulation, commercial and critical success. A decade ago, she was arguably the biggest popstar in the world. But three years back, when she asked on her fifth album whether she could “get a witness,” the response was a resounding silence, and sales were disappointingly low. After continuous accusations of racism, and, well, corniness for at least the past half decade, it’s safe to say that Katy has largely fallen out of public favour.

As her latest act of clownery — a tone-deaf endorsement of embattled talk show host Ellen DeGeneres — proved, Katy has a consistent inability to engage appropriately. She’d hardly be able to read a room even if it had the lyrics to “Firework” scribbled all over it. But instead of taking true accountability, Katy joins us in mocking herself. Like Kanye before her, who willed himself into caricature and memory during his great downfall, Katy is doubling down. Rather than denying that so much of her career has taken a backseat for cheap gags (here’s looking at you, left shark), she’s embracing it. It’s not a dumb move. In fact, the circus sort of suits her. For years we’ve stared bewildered at her too-literal-to-be-kitsch aesthetic, but the spectacle of the circus, and the sad clown role she plays within it, finally gives her style of sense of purpose, as well as some pathos.

After all, Katy Perry has a lot in common with clowns. The more she tries to entertain, the more she self-degrades. The more she tries to connect with a crowd, the more alienated she becomes. The more she flops, the more the crowd seem to get a schadenfreude thrill. “I just thought a sad clown that had lost its smile really embodied the feeling of what I was feeling in the past couple of years,” she said recently on Instagram Live, “Because I feel like I use humour a lot in my music and in my performances.” By revealing her fragility and their desperation to please, clowns like Katy “undermine the ground upon which our language and society rests,” Paul Bouissac writes in The Semiotics of Clowns and Clowning. Clowns are ritual transgressors. They’re too below the law to have to pander to it.

That’s why clowns have shown up far more frequently in heavy metal -- a genre which purposely exists outside the bounds of taste, authority, morality and civility -- than they have in pop music. There’s Korn’s Carnival; Slipknot co-founder Shawn "Clown" Crahan; up-and-comers Clown Core, and far too many more to name. In fact, it’s hard to think of a single metal band who haven’t incorporated the circus or evil clown imagery in their oeuvre at some point. Metal is a carnival led by grotesque daredevils, most of whom possess the capacity and charisma to rearrange the rules of society -- much like a circus ringmaster. As Britney well knows.

So, it’s unsurprising that the circus has provided so much metaphorical fodder for fame-disillusioned artists across rock and pop music. Geographically, the circus is usually situated on the edge of town, and with its close ties to carnivals and freak shows, its liminal space has traditionally drawn townspeople into another world, where the social currency of the city no longer holds; social and physical norms are tested, and the transgressive is privileged. It is, as P!nk said, a place you’d want to run away to, and at the same time a place you’d want to run from. The tortured animals, the daily degradation, the ringmaster’s tyranny. Like fame, you only have to squint your eyes to see the circus as an extremely abusive workplace rather than the majestic spectacle it’s marketed as.

“This new world that I was in was like a circus. It was unreal, like a Fellini film, with big faces and everything’s over the top and you can’t seem to touch anything,” The Kinks’ Dave Davies told Songwriting Magazine, when asked about the inspiration behind his 1967 song “Death Of A Clown”. The band’s wildcard member wrote the song after waking up to another throbbing hangover during a repetitive touring schedule. “I had a vision of being a circus clown,” he said. “The music business is very much like a clown’s mask.”

After all, circus people, just like celebrities -- even the clownish ones -- endure a lifestyle that perhaps nobody among their public could survive. For many of them, the feeling that they must self-effacingly entertain the public while remaining miserable (the clown mask) becomes stultifying. For others, like Britney, the circus can become an empowering and transformative space. She used it to help revive her career. And before her, The Rolling Stones used it to help revive rock and roll.

Right after The Beatles’ home movie the Magical Mystery Tour premiered on Boxing Day 1967, The Stones attempted to one-up them with their own straight-to-television concert film: The Rock and Roll Circus. Filmed under a big top, on a circus stage, and featuring everyone from The Who to Yoko Ono, The Stones radicalised concerts with borrowed tropes from the circus -- audience participation, wild costumes and daring acts. Since then, the circus and live music have been continuing to merge, and today, you’d be hard pressed to find a stadium pop tour that didn’t incorporate at least an acrobat, pyrotechnic or, in The Chainsmokers’ case, a ‘Globe of Death’.

Katy might just be the latest in a rich lineage of circus-inspired musicians, but unlike Britney’s ringmaster, she’s choosing to play up to the clown the public have come to perceive her as. Whether she’ll take that clown suit off anytime soon is anyone’s guess, but until then, it seems as though she’ll “continue to try and balance like a circus act,” as she so prophetically said of her life in her concert film Part Of Me.

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