The ten traits of the perfect frontperson
The best frontmen and -women all have something in common. Whether it's their ability to connect with a crowd or the swagger with which they carry themselves, their fashion sense, the intrigue that surrounds them or their reckless disregard for their own well-being, they all have that ineffable "it" factor. We recently conducted a highly scientific examination of a host of individual performances, and we took the data we gleaned from that analysis and combined it with our own anecdotal observations over the years and came up with the ten traits of the perfect frontperson. Keep reading to see what they are.
A moment's hesitation on stage will always be noticed by an audience, and if it's not smothered quickly, you'll soon find yourself spiraling into self-conscious misery. Do you think M.I.A. thought twice before flicking off the Super Bowl halftime show camera, or that GG Allin ever worried if his ass looked pimply before he took a dump in his hand and flung it at everybody? Of course not. As Bono once said, performing on stage is like "jumping off a cliff and discovering you can fly." Without an abnormal level of self-belief, a frontperson is doomed.
Similar to actors like Marlon Brando or Malcolm McDowell, a good frontperson will be so electrifying that their every move and gesture will seem both graceful and intense. Whether it's Morrissey licking his lips on Top of the Pops, Patti Smith pumping her fists at CBGB or Mick Jagger in the film Gimme Shelter, strutting around like Marilyn Monroe, the ability to completely lose yourself in the intoxication of the music and the urgency of the moment is integral to hypnotizing an audience into believing you're something more than human.
Is he gay? Is she a Scientologist? Did he really pee on that fifteen-year-old girl? The celebrity of rock is primarily fueled by information malnourishment, where we are left constantly wanting more. Whether this comes from media intrigue, or, even better, the performers' own embodiment of contradiction and dissatisfaction during their live show, a good frontperson will never allow you to feel that you completely understand him or her. But some fans want to so badly, it drives them to tears of madness (i.e., Michael Jackson, David Bowie or Björk).
It's often possible to be a great musician without being an even decent frontperson. Some songwriters feel their music speaks for itself and there's no need to project anything physically. But there will always be those vocalists who can't help their transparency, who emote with an almost blinding intensity. The percussive stomp with which Fiona Apple abuses her piano is often matched by the existential angst written all over her face, just as Joe Strummer would appear as if all the joy and misery of the world were churning behind his eyes when he sang "London Calling."
This is a tricky thing, because there will always be pop stars who are overtly sexy, like Britney Spears or Usher -- the type of performers who practically wear name tags that read "Hi, I'm Sexy." And then there are those who are subconsciously sexy, the type of singer who uses the intensity of the stage to connect with his or her own body, creating a voyeuristic sensation for those in the crowd. Jim Morrison, Michael Stipe, Lykke Li and Janis Joplin all had/have a sexual confidence in their performances, yet it was the internal conversation going on in them that made it all so arousing.
A common description of a good performance is that someone "left it all on the stage." And a lot of the time, this means sweat. Or, in Iggy Pop's case, blood. A good frontperson should never have need for a gym membership, getting all the cardio, limb-stretching and respiratory exhaustion (and then some) he/she will ever need while stomping about before a crowd of fans. After all, while the mere mortals on the treadmill only have their iPod buds to rattle out some Chris Brown remix, these energetic frontmen and women have a whole band behind them, with enough ampage to shake the bowels of a constipated blue whale.
While being a 9-to-5er in a baseball cap and Broncos T-shirt singing a Counting Crows rip-off love song may be acceptable at a happy-hour open mic, if you're going to hypnotize the masses of leaderless youth, you gotta be a little weird. Little Richard was a black, gay dandy during Eisenhower's suburban dream; Pete Doherty sprayed a syringe full of blood at a German film crew; and Björk is...well, Björk. But just like being sexy, it's a dangerous thing to force weirdness. When Morrissey donned a hearing aid and jammed a bunch of plants into the back of his trousers, it was a fearless artist pushing the boundaries of iconography; when Lady Gaga began traveling in an egg and wearing sirloins as a dress, it suddenly stopped being cute.
Fashion designers and rock stars have always had a symbiotic relationship. This is why the Beatles owned a clothing store and the Sex Pistols started in one. One of the most important sandwich layers of being a compelling frontperson will always be clothing because it's one of the few pieces of art that requires no explanation. Songwriters will always be asked to explain lyrics, and drugged-out rock gods are often called upon to explain excess, but rarely are performers asked to explain fashion. You can get away with doing something unique without having to talk about it. And once you do, you'll get the best clothes sent to you for free.
Any band that climbs a few rungs up the ladder of the music industry inevitably goes through an awkward pubescent period during which its members learn how to play in bigger venues. A lot of this rests on the shoulders of the frontperson, who is ultimately the ambassador of the band. Oasis frontman Liam Gallagher was often asked why he sang with both feet planted and hands clasped behind his back, and he'd explain that he got more power out of his voice that way, allowing him to project to the back of the audience, which is necessary when you're playing to record-breaking crowds like Oasis did in 1996 when they sang for 250,000 fans over a two-day period.
Rock stars who play it safe may have stable careers, but they'll never be remembered. Axl Rose leapt into the crowd to beat up a fan with a camera; Grace Slick drunkenly yelled "Who won the war?" to a German audience; Bob Dylan preached the Book of Revelation to a crowd of unamused hippies at the Fillmore. Sure, managers and publicists love those who you stay away from violence, nudity and politics while rocking out on stage, but really, what good is that to us? We need an out-of-control frontperson to remain out-of-control, if for no other reason than to teach the rest of us where the boundaries are.
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