steven ivory

Steven Ivory

*The performer was flat and off key. I expected that.  Artistic  standards  haven’t  been what they used to be for a long time.

However,  there’s just something plain wrong about a multi-platinum “artist” performing onstage dressed as if they’d just traipsed in from McDonald’s.

Perhaps a jazz artist, country act or somebody declaring themselves post-grunge alternative folk can get away with  resembling a civilian before 18,000 people. Hip hoppers do it.  But in my mind, the entertainer who considers themselves a show-stopper, no matter the musical genre, needs to don something more than modified Gap.

If there’s something  I regret nearly as much as  the sad fate of modern popular music–the  dearth of imagination, the pathetic excuse for  creative finesse–it is the  cursory  approach  that  has become onstage fashion.

What happened to swinging, bouncing fringe and corny suits? Where is the shiny material?  What happened to effort? You say, Well, what happened is that the suits were corny.  To which I’ll say yes, but they matched.

Even in the age of Keeping It Real, under the lights, there ought to be some measure of  classic decorum.  Pop star style has gone to the dogs, spelled dawgs.

James Brown once said to me, “A real star should always dress like somebody that someone would pay to see.”  The Godfather took his credo to the apex: long before he owned a private plane, in his meager professional beginnings Mr. Brown was known to drive his new Cadillac with all the windows up in the dead of summer, lest anyone paying attention realize Mr. Dynamite couldn’t yet afford air-conditioning.  Extreme? Unquestionably. However, just think of the people who witnessed James Brown in his Caddy and left this earth with the succinct understanding that a REAL star has factory air.

Call it outmoded, but the difference between you and I and a true pop star, aside from stupendous talent, should be some sequin, damn it.

It’s called “show business.” With the flurry of  branding going on among today’s business-savvy performers, there is obviously plenty “business” underway; the “show” part, however, has lost precious ground. Never seen so many pop stars hawking clothing lines, so tackily attired.

Quibble what you will about Lady Gaga,  she  gets to the marrow of the adage, “Dress to impress.”  Ironically, bizarre  raiment designed to garner attention–the egg shells, the ten-inch platforms and grade A beef muumuus–actually distract from a formidable talent.

During the early ’70s R&B and funk concerts of my youth, the music was only half the act. The other half? The  threads.  With bated breath  we waited to see  in which outfits the Jackson 5 would take the stage; what custom suits the Temptations would sport.

The concert audience itself would be dressed to the nines. The hardworking,  well-intentioned concertgoer could spend a whole paycheck having a funky ensemble  tailor-made or rescued, finally, from the goods purgatory called layaway, in order to participate in the impromptu  fashion show that enviably went down  the moment the house lights came up  at intermission  between the Chi-Lites and O’Jays sets. Lord have mercy: deep purple leisure suits, royal blue floor length coats and hot pink hot pants against skin dark as the night.

The natty state of mind back then wasn’t relegated merely to pop music concerts; socially, this was who we used to be. Folk still dressed up to travel–sitting, clean as the Board of Health, on a Continental Trailways bus or in the dome car of a Santa Fe train. Or aboard a TWA flight, in a brown wool double-breasted Botany 500 jacket at 35,000 feet. For four and a half hours. In Coach.  At touchdown, you’d tug out the wrinkles and stroll down the ramp into the arms of waiting relatives, styling.

We used to honor the act of Sunday worship by dressing for the occasion. Today, dressing up, like manners and language, is more loosely defined.

Thankfully, not every  performer has forfeited his right and obligation to charismatic style.  I submit to you someone who knows not the meaning of casual Friday: Prince. To this man, off-the-rack is a dire health condition.

One afternoon in the fall of 1991, while  waiting to meet with him at his Paisley Park headquarters in Minneapolis,  I embarked on a little adventure, wandering about Prince’s complex until I came upon a room with work tables, exotic fabrics and mannequin torsos.  Leaning over one of the tables were two women,  concentrating on the sketch before them.

“So THIS is where Prince’s costumes are made,” I mused aloud. To which one of the women,  measuring tape hanging from her neck, glanced up at me over the reading glasses perched on the bulb of her nose and issued a tight, annoyed smile. “Sir, we don’t use the C word around here,” she admonished. “Prince dresses like this everyday.”

You damn right he does, lady. He’s not supposed to look like us. He’s Prince, for Christ’s sake, and he’s  how I want my stars to look: pretty and polished and rocking the hell out of something most of us wouldn’t be caught dead in. He’s a super nova rock star, Mr. Prince, and accordingly, should be attired like someone that somebody would pay good money to see.

Steven Ivory, journalist and author of the essay collection Fool In Love  (Simon & Schuster),  has covered popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio and TV for more than 30 years. Respond to him via [email protected].