in 2016, staying silent is the secret to superstardom

The fact that we still don’t know a huge amount about some of the most famous people on the planet is thrilling. But is the perception more interesting than the reality?

by Michael Cragg
21 November 2016, 3:15pm

Five years ago, I met Jai Paul — the enigmatic producer whose indefinable debut single "BTSTU" had blazed a trail across the internet — at Rayners Lane subway station. At that point he'd never given an interview before and there was something incredibly charming about his confusion as to why anyone would want to talk to him. Weirdly, he was under the impression he could just release music for people to enjoy and that would be that. Despite the roar of hype around him — increased by the equally intoxicating second single "Jasmine" — he then quietly disappeared, only briefly resurfacing in 2013 after a bunch of his demos were leaked online. That slightly cautious chat in an old man pub in north west London remains his only interview; a reflection of an artist keen, at first at least, to let the music do the talking. It's a phenomenon that's also taken root in music's top tier; the likes of Frank Ocean, Beyoncé, Drake and even Rihanna have chosen controlled silence over constant chatter.

One of the many things lost amid the clang and thrum of today's myriad social media enclaves is the idea of the enigma. The perception is that we no longer want our pop stars weird and allusive, but relatable, knowable, and constantly in touching distance. In turn, the majority of musicians on major labels that haven't quite attained superstar status yet feel pressure to divulge as much as they can, posting snapshots of their lives or offering up teasing tidbits about new releases in order to generate a buzz that used to happen organically. Afforded the gift of at least initially controlling his output, Michael Jackson understood the value of silence, rarely giving interviews unless heavily controlled. He also understood that often saying less meant a lot more. Aware that people would write nonsense stories about him regardless, it became easier to allow those narratives to play out. Did he sleep in an oxygen chamber on a daily basis? Who cares, it's funny. Did he buy the elephant man's bones? I mean, probably, but the key was that we didn't know for sure. All of this helped feed the enigma.

Two artists that have embraced this idea of the enigma are Beyoncé and Frank Ocean. Since 2013 and the sudden release of her self-titled fifth album, Beyoncé has rarely breathed a word in a print interview. Last year she even appeared on the cover of Vogue's hugely coveted September issue without any interview; the magazine instead tapped Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Margo Jefferson to write about her. Asked by the New York Times as to why Beyoncé might find it easier or more beneficial to stay mum, Jefferson said: "She has to be studying how effective her interviews have been so far. She may have decided that they do not contribute as dazzlingly to the portrait of Beyoncé as the other stuff. It's a perfectly reasonable decision." That's not to say Beyoncé avoids social media altogether (although she rarely tweets), but she choses how and when she shares information very carefully. Pictures are posted to her Tumblr, with a selection of those then popped on her Instagram. Sometimes there are captions or emojis, and other times the images are left as they are. Beyoncé is fully aware that meaning or significance will be added by others via the online news cycle. The idea that we still don't really know a huge amount about one of the most famous people on the planet is thrilling, and often the perception is more interesting than the reality.

Another artist who has sought to control his public profile and the information that is put into the world on his own terms is Frank Ocean. When he decided the time was right to discuss his sexuality, he wrote a note about it and published it on his Tumblr. After finally releasing his long-awaited second album Blond (or Blonde) — which was also housed in his own magazine, Boys Don't Cry — he again published a note on his Tumblr, half-jokingly thanking fans for their patience. With both Beyoncé and Ocean, the consensus is that everything anyone would need to know is in the music itself. It's interesting too that Rihanna has taken even more control over her public perception around Anti, an album that appears to be more of a personal piece of work (she has co-writing credits on most of the songs, for example). Yes she's done interviews — NME, New York Times, Vanity Fair — but her cover for The Fader came with no interview. Her tweets and Instagram posts are less frequent, and less self-consciously headline-grabbing (remember when she'd take the time to 'beef' with Ciara on Twitter?). Drake has also given print media the silent treatment, with barely a word uttered in a journalist's dictaphone since the release of Views. Sure he's visited Ellen's white armchairs, been on Jimmy Fallon, and had a chat with Beats 1's Zane Lowe, but these are all fairly safe and manageable spaces.

Implicit in all of this is the idea of the modern day news cycle. Back in the halcyon days of Prince, Madonna, and Michael Jackson a quote in an interview — which itself would have felt like a proper moment — could be taken out of context and written about in a tabloid. Annoying, sure, but also temporary. As the saying goes, that tabloid would then end up as tomorrow's fish and chip paper and things would move on. Nowadays an errant quote in an interview lives on via Twitter, which in turn can see it become a news story in and of itself. When faced with that possibility it makes sense for a musician to utilize a means of communication that can be tightly controlled. Social media often gives the sometimes dangerous illusion of reality, but it also offers a directness and immediacy that undermines traditional media. Lily Allen, for example, can tweet to dismiss a tabloid news story as soon as it appears, shutting down rumors before they have a chance to take hold. As talent representative Jesse Parker Stowell told the New York Times, "People are getting more savvy. They have their own form of media. They can just put it out on Instagram."

Another chain of thought, eloquently outlined by journalist Laura Snapes on Twitter, is that it's the news cycle itself that drives the artist to retreat and keep silent. Fully aware that any music-related tidbit offered up will be transformed into a defining news story that can re-shape the perception of an album that may not even be finished yet, artists are looking to step away from this slightly odd tango altogether. With the amount of chaotic chatter around the build-up to an album, or even a single, it makes sense for artists to either chuck their releases out without warning (Beyoncé, Rihanna to a certain extent), or, after many delays, with very little build up (Frank Ocean). Giving away too much information can also create a self-feeding frenzy between artist and fanbase, with fans who have been teased into delirium then going hunting for blood (info, songs, ANYTHING) if there are delays. (After Madonna's Rebel Heart album leaked before it was even announced, some fans suggested Madonna was partly to blame having caused the hysteria by teasing and then delaying its release). It's likely not a coincidence that Beyoncé chose to follow-up Four — an album that was leaked six weeks before its official release — with a surprise album shrouded in mystery that arrived free of any context.

So where do we go from here? Not all artists have the clout of a Beyoncé or a Frank Ocean. They need to utilize social media in order to engage their fanbase. They also need interviews and TV spots to generate interest. What no one needs, however, is for any of this to overshadow the music, the whole point. Recently, Lady Gaga — the biggest pop star of the digital age, and one of the most followed people on social media — released "Perfect Illusion," her long-awaited return to pop after years in the jazz wilderness. Rather than beat everyone into submission via social media overload as she did with 2013's Artpop album, the campaign was relatively low-key; Instagram posts slowly revealed the single's collaborators and the album's artwork. Sometimes genuine excitement builds when it's allowed the space to do so. Seems that less actually is more.


Text Michael Cragg
Image via iTunes

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