Rhinegold Photo credit: © Esther Haase/DG
Expressing her personality: Yuja Wang

Andrew Mellor

Young people expressing themselves is not – repeat, not – a marketing trick

8:00, 10th July 2017

Hard as it might be to believe right now, our civilisation has recently taken some significant (if overdue) steps forward. The blunt, cumbersome but necessary tool that is political correctness, first wielded decades ago, is starting to deliver. It is fast becoming unacceptable to ignore the contribution made by women musicians to European creative life over the last six centuries. All the talk in the industry right now seems to be of diversity – a triumph for a sector that was, a few decades ago, one of the last bastions of the white upper-middle class establishment. You might fairly claim we’re not even halfway towards where we need to be. But we’re on the right road moving in the right direction.

Before we start patting ourselves complacently on the back, it’s worth remembering that the world around us changed before we did. More often than not, the classical music industry has been playing catch-up. And there are one or two areas in which we still are. One of the most obvious is the lingering obsession over what classical artists choose to wear and how they choose to carry themselves when they perform.

Enjoying being himself: Cameron Carpenter © Heiko Laschitzki
Enjoying being himself: Cameron Carpenter
© Heiko Laschitzki

Earlier this year, world citizens of all genders and backgrounds got a little peeved when the human rights lawyer Amal Clooney made a speech on the theme of current, preventable genocide at the United Nations only for the event to be reported in the manner of a fashion show. One US news outlet wrote that the lawyer was seen ‘showing off her baby bump in a dark gray pencil skirt and matching cropped blazer’ at the UN. The event’s chair Simon Adams responded directly to Time Inc’s Motto website with the tweet ‘Why not report on the content of her speech? It was about a small issue called genocide.’

When talking in public about preventable genocide, there is absolutely no way clothes are of any journalistic relevance unless the orator has opted to deliver his or her words dressed as an SS storm trooper. Playing a concerto or conducting an orchestra might be deemed a little different given that, to some extent, the musician in question is expected to be the focus of visual as well as aural attention. Still, it’s bizarre the extent to which a performer’s choice of clothes is considered if not necessarily distasteful, then at best some sort of distraction and at worst a cynical marketing conspiracy.

We have experienced that most famously with the pianist Yuja Wang. But we have seen it too with artists including Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Cameron Carpenter, Alice Sara Ott, Martha Argerich and most recently Katerina Chroboková. The subtext of much of the criticism levied at these artists – particularly the young female ones – is a faintly surprised ‘She can actually play quite well, despite the short skirt.’ More often than not, that’s followed by a prudish ‘If only these artists didn’t feel the need to dress provocatively to sell more records.’

Well, here’s some news just in: they don’t. Anyone of Wang’s generation being asked to step on to a stage and perform in front of a few thousand people will probably stop to consider little things like fashion, self-expression, body confidence and perhaps an ounce of artistic flair. It’s fine if they don’t, but it’s to be expected that they will. Anyone too flustered to focus on a performance by the sight of a young individual expressing themselves through clothes either needs to drag themselves into the 21st century (perhaps even the 20th), get some help, or be forced to watch MTV continuously for a week.

What has actually happened here is that remarkable artists have become more normal in everything but their artistic capabilities. I have met a couple of those keyboardists mentioned, and in both cases they had very distinct personalities and were dressed accordingly. Contrary to bizarre conspiracy theories about marketing pressure, what we are seeing is young artists deciding it’s ok to be themselves and enjoy doing so. Which might just help us ordinary folk focus on their pretty worthwhile musicianship.

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