Young Lorde, the English singer-songwriter, riveted the pop music world for the roughly two minutes of exposure she won during a recent network television appearance.
At 17, her electro-vanic dance moves and powerful singing maintained her momentum at this year's Grammy Awards show, where she won Song of the Year, one of the biggest awards. Her catchy hit "Royals" relentlessly baits the highborn from the Queen on down ("We're not caught up in your love affair…"). The music seems promising enough that she's likely to stay around. One hopes it's on her own terms — those of a brilliant British teen not afraid to assay an awkward dance.
Image has always served as a useful sidearm for musical artists, so that one novelist used the description "lonely as Frank Sinatra on an album cover." The saying smartly summoned the melancholy figure on 1955's ageless "Wee Small Hours of the Morning" LP, with Sinatra smokily alone on a street corner, reflecting on a stalled career and a wrenching breakup with Ava Gardner.
While Lorde's image lacks detail and depth to date, that of her fellow hit maker Miley Cyrus likely contains too much information. At age 12, she earned fame as the star of the popular tween show "Hannah Montana," to the point where she had to start making distinctions between her on-screen character and the "real" Miley Cyrus. In the years since, she's quickly moved through musical and fashion styles, culminating in the "twerking" appearance on the American Music Awards. There, she turned in a performance that earned criticism for copying, badly, some current urban-music sounds and dance moves.
But Miley Cyrus at least appears to be holding the reins to her own career, and her image, however unappealing that shifting persona may appear to some.
In contrast, let us visit the Annals of Pop Music, where we find a couple of notable artists. One let outside forces subvert and weaken his image, while another used a similar situation to his own benefit.
On July 1, 1956, the great Elvis Presley departed from what had been a devastatingly direct, almost possessed performance style. Film from earlier in the year shows Presley, only 21, cranking out hypnotic vocals and vigorous stage moves that seemed as original as they were shocking to millions of listeners and viewers.
Weeks earlier, he had turned in a pile-driving take of "Hound Dog" on the Milton Berle show. He transformed the intervals of Scotty Moore's guitar solos into short works of coruscating dance.
But variety show host Steve Allen, a longtime entertainer, writer and musician, had seen Elvis' hip-shaking extravagance and wanted none of it. On "The Steve Allen Show," the host decided, Elvis would sing "Hound Dog" to a hound dog. The hound dog sat on a stool wearing a top hat; Presley walked haltingly on stage in formal clothes. And one of pop music's greatest talents had the magnetism sucked out of him by old-fashioned ridicule.
Presley sang gamely enough, and would continue to do so for more than two decades. But the incident may have snuffed out a certain wild, irreplaceable fire.
Presley seemed to start seeing himself through the eyes of the show-biz mainstream, as a bumpkin, a baboon, someone who didn't know the game, a figure of fun. And ever after, even as the brilliance lingered of Presley's 1954-55 recordings for Sun Records, he never regained the singular mix of fun, sensuality, blues and country that had brought him to prominence, that had gotten him on TV in the first place.
But let us leave the tragic Elvis for a lesser known, but equally cosmic appearance. As it happens, the venue was also "The Steve Allen Show." But the act was Frank Zappa.
Zappa's March 4, 1963, appearance on the show has apparently been in YouTube circulation for some time, but it was new to me. Viewers who catch it — it evidently gets pulled down periodically — will see a very young, skinny Zappa come on stage, just like Presley, as a sort of comical figure in a suit.
(I'll pause just to note that Zappa went on to his own brilliant career, both as the leader of the psych-rock-jazz band the Mothers of Invention and as a serious composer of some note.)
Back in '63, he was introduced as a musician who played the bicycle, who wrote scores for B movies and had also mastered several other musical instruments. It was a sort of "What's My Line" moment, and Allen produced a stream of not-too-funny wisecracks about Zappa, who was totally unfazed. He laughed a few times, mostly at his own deadpan explanations of the different ways music could be made from the two bicycles set up on stage.
At 22, Frank Zappa controlled the situation. He got Allen to make random noises on the bicycle, then displayed his own expertise, using a bass bow borrowed from the band. A Zappa composition for bicycle, pre-recorded sounds and the Allen show band followed. It was a definite precursor to Zappa's work for the new few decades, and not too different from vintage novelty music like that of Spike Jones and the City Slickers.
The crowd went nuts. Zappa was happy. Steve Allen had been had, somehow or another, but remained unaware.
Comparing the two long-ago shows, it seems that Presley talent's was in the end purer but more fragile. His real self, his natural image, the rocking Hillbilly Cat, couldn't stand up to the idea that someone out there thought he was somehow off — silly and untalented.
Whereas Zappa seemed to have built into his psyche the idea that everything he did would likely be ridiculed. His weapon was ridiculing back, undermining the long-held practices of show business by satirizing the music, the shtick, the way things were always done.
It's hard, one thinks, being true to the talent, the approach, and the image that bring an artist to the show. I have seen glimpses of real talent in Miley Cyrus, in Lorde, and in other recent artists. They'll learn, as have many before them, that it's a rare performer indeed who has kept talent and self-image intact when it's time to exit the show.