Art pop

Art pop (also typeset as art-pop or artpop) is a loosely defined style of pop music[1] influenced by pop art's integration of high and low culture, and which emphasizes the manipulation of signs, style, and gesture over personal expression.[6][7] Art pop artists may be inspired by postmodern approaches or art theories[6] as well as other forms of art, such as fashion, fine art, cinema, and avant-garde literature.[3][8] They may deviate from traditional pop audiences and rock music conventions,[9] instead exploring ideas such as pop's status as commercial art, notions of artifice and the self, and questions of historical authenticity.

Starting in the mid 1960s, British and American pop musicians such as Brian Wilson, Phil Spector, and the Beatles began incorporating the ideas of the pop art movement into their recordings.[1] English art pop musicians drew from their art school studies,[8] while in America the style drew on the influence of pop artist Andy Warhol and affiliated band the Velvet Underground,[10] and also intersected with folk music's singer-songwriter movement.[1] The style would experience its "golden age" in the 1970s among glam rock artists such as David Bowie and Roxy Music, who embraced theatricality and throwaway pop culture.[11]

Art pop's traditions would be continued in the late 1970s and 1980s through styles such as post-punk and synthpop as well as the British New Romantic scene,[4][9] developing further with artists who rejected conventional rock instrumentation and structure in favor of dance styles and the synthesizer.[9] The 2010s saw new art pop trends develop, such as hip hop artists drawing on visual art and vaporwave artists exploring the sensibilities of contemporary capitalism and the Internet.


Art pop draws on postmodernism's breakdown of the high/low cultural boundary and explores concepts of artifice and commerce.[12][nb 1] The style emphasizes the manipulation of signs over personal expression, drawing on an aesthetic of the everyday and the disposable, in distinction to the Romantic and autonomous tradition embodied by art rock or progressive rock.[13][nb 2] Sociomusicologist Simon Frith has distinguished the appropriation of art into pop music as having a particular concern with style, gesture, and the ironic use of historical eras and genres.[16] Central to particular purveyors of the style were notions of the self as a work of construction and artifice,[9] as well as a preoccupation with the invention of terms, imagery, process, and affect.[17] The Independent's Nick Coleman wrote: "Art-pop is partly about attitude and style; but it's essentially about art. It is, if you like, a way of making pure formalism socially acceptable in a pop context.[18]

Cultural theorist Mark Fisher wrote that the development of art pop evolved out of the triangulation of pop, art, and fashion.[9] Frith states that it was "more or less" directly inspired by Pop art.[2][3][nb 3] According to critic Stephen Holden, art pop often refers to any pop style which deliberately aspires to the formal values of classical music and poetry, though these works are often marketed by commercial interests rather than respected cultural institutions.[1] Writers for The Independent and the Financial Times have noted the attempts of art pop music to distance its audiences from the public at large.[20][21] Robert Christgau wrote in The Village Voice in 1987 that art-pop results "when a fascination with craft spirals up and in until it turns into an aestheticist obsession."[22]

Cultural background

The boundaries between art and pop music became increasingly blurred throughout the second half of the 20th century.[24] In the 1960s, pop musicians such as John Lennon, Syd Barrett, Pete Townshend, Brian Eno, and Bryan Ferry began to take inspiration from their previous art school studies.[3] Frith states that in Britain, art school represented "a traditional escape route for the bright working class kids, and a breeding ground for young bands like the Beatles and beyond".[12] In North America, art pop was influenced by Bob Dylan and the Beat Generation, and became more literary through folk music's singer-songwriter movement.[1] Before progressive/art rock became the most commercially successful British sound of the early 1970s, the 1960s psychedelic movement brought together art and commercialism, broaching the question of what it meant to be an "artist" in a mass medium.[25] Progressive musicians thought that artistic status depended on personal autonomy, and so the strategy of "progressive" rock groups was to present themselves as performers and composers "above" normal pop practice.[26]

Multimedia performance of Warhol's Exploding Plastic Inevitable featuring Nico (right), 1966.

Another chief influence on the development of art pop was the Pop art movement.[1] The term "pop art", first coined to describe the aesthetic value of mass-produced goods, was directly applicable to the contemporary phenomenon of rock and roll (including Elvis Presley, an early Pop art icon).[27] According to Frith: "[Pop art] turned out to signal the end of Romanticism, to be an art without artists. Progressive rock was the bohemians' last bet ... In this context the key Pop art theorist was not [Richard] Hamilton or any of the other British artists who, for all their interest in the mass market, remained its academic admirers only, but Andy Warhol. For Warhol the significant issue wasn't the relative merits of 'high' and 'low' art but the relationship between all art and 'commerce'."[28] Warhol's Factory house band the Velvet Underground was an American group who emulated Warhol's art/pop synthesis, echoing his emphasis on simplicity, and pioneering a modernist avant-garde approach to art rock that ignored the conventional hierarchies of artistic representation.[29][nb 4]

1960s: Origins

Holden traces art pop's origins to the mid 1960s, when producers such as Phil Spector and musicians such as Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys began incorporating pseudo-symphonic textures to their pop recordings (both Americans), as well as the Beatles' first recordings with a string quartet.[1][nb 5] In the words of author Matthew Bannister, Wilson and Spector were both known as "eremitic studio obsessives ... [who] habitually absented themselves from their own work", and like Warhol, Spector existed "not as presence, but as a controlling or organising principle behind and beneath the surfaces of media. Both vastly successful commercial artists, and both simultaneously absent and present in their own creations."[35] Writer Erik Davis called Wilson's art pop "unique in music history",[36] while collaborator Van Dyke Parks compared it to the contemporaneous work of Warhol and artist Roy Lichtenstein, citing his ability to elevate common or hackneyed material to the level of "high art".[37][nb 6]

In a move that was indicated by the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Phil Spector, and Frank Zappa,[41] the dominant format of pop music transitioned from singles to albums, and many rock bands created works that aspired to make grand artistic statements, where art rock would flourish.[1] Musicologist Ian Inglis writes that the cover art for the Beatles' 1967 album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was "perceived as largely responsible for the connections between art and pop to be made explicit".[42] Although Sgt. Pepper's was preceded by several albums that had begun to bridge the line between "disposable" pop and "serious" rock, it successfully gave an established "commercial" voice to an alternative youth culture.[43] Author Michael Johnson wrote that art pop music would continue to exist subsequent to the Beatles, but without ever achieving their level of popular success.[33][nb 7]

The Who was labelled "the first pop art band" by their manager, while member Pete Townshend explains: "We stand for pop art clothes, pop art music and pop art behaviour ... we don't change offstage; we live pop art."[45] Frith considers their album The Who Sell Out (December 1967) "perhaps the Pop art pop masterpiece", the Who using the "vitality" of commerce itself, a tactic echoed by Roy Wood's the Move and, later, Kevin Godley and Lol Creme of 10cc.[45] Townshend's ideas were notable for their emphasis on commercialism: "[his] use of Pop art rhetoric ... referred not to music-making as such – to the issue of self-expression – but to commercial music-making, to issues of packaging, selling and publicizing, to the problems of popularity and stardom."[45] In a May 1967 interview, Townshend coined the term "power pop" to describe the music of the Who, the Small Faces, and the Beach Boys. Power pop later developed as a genre known for its reconfiguration of 1960s tropes. Music journalist Paul Lester argued that this component could ratify power pop as one of the first postmodern music genres.[46]

1970s: New York scene and glam

David Bowie, 1974

Music journalist Paul Lester locates "the golden age of adroit, intelligent art-pop" to when the bands 10cc, Roxy Music and Sparks "were mixing and matching from different genres and eras, well before the term 'postmodern' existed in the pop realm."[11] The effect of the Velvet Underground gave rock musicians like Iggy Pop of the Stooges a self-consciousness about their work. Iggy was inspired to transform his personality into an art object, which would in turn influence singer David Bowie, and led to the Stooges' role as the group linking 1960s hard rock to 1970s punk.[10] In the 1970s, a similarly self-conscious art/pop community (which Frith calls "the most significant" of the period) began to coalesce in the Mercer Arts Center in New York. The school encouraged the continuation of the kinds of collaboration between high and low art once exemplified by the Factory, as drummer Jerry Harrison (later of Talking Heads) explained: "it started with the Velvet Underground and all of the things that were identified with Andy Warhol."[10][nb 8]

Bryan Ferry and Brian Eno in the 1970s

The glam rock scene of the early 1970s would again draw widely on art school sensibilities.[12] Inspired partly by the Beatles' use of alter egos on Sgt. Pepper's,[47] glam emphasized outlandish costumes, theatrical performances, and allusions to throwaway pop culture phenomena, becoming one of the most deliberately visual phenomena to emerge in rock music.[48] Some of its artists, like Bowie, Roxy Music, and ex-Velvet Underground member Lou Reed, would continue the practices associated with the modernist avant-garde branch of art rock.[14][nb 9]

Bowie, a former art-school student and painter,[12] made visual presentation a central aspect of his work,[51] deriving his concept of art pop from the work and attitudes of Warhol and the Velvet Underground.[52] Roxy Music is described by Frith as the "archetypical art pop band."[12] Frontman Bryan Ferry incorporated the influence of his mentor, pop art pioneer Richard Hamilton[48][53] while synthesizer player Brian Eno drew on his study of cybernetics and art under theorist Roy Ascott.[54][nb 10] Frith posits that Ferry and Bowie remain "the most significant influences in British pop", writing they were both concerned with "pop as commercial art", and together made glam rock into an art form to be taken seriously, unlike other "camp" acts such as Gary Glitter. This redefined progressive rock and revitalized the idea of the Romantic artist in terms of media fame.[56] According to Armond White, Roxy Music's engagement with pop art practices effectively "showed that pop's surface frivolity and deep pleasure were legitimate and commanding pursuits."[17] After leaving Roxy Music in 1973, Eno would further explore art pop styles on a series of experimental solo albums.[57][nb 11] For the rest of the decade, he developed Warhol's arguments in a different direction from his contemporaries, and collaborated with a wide range of popular musicians of the era.[56]

1970s–80s: Post-punk developments

Cultural theorist Mark Fisher characterized a variety of musical developments in the late 1970s, including post-punk, synthpop, and particularly the work of German electronic band Kraftwerk,[59] as situated within art pop traditions.[4] He states that Bowie and Roxy Music's English style of art pop "culminated" with the music of the British group Japan.[8] The Quietus characterized Japan's 1979 album Quiet Life as defining "a very European form of detached, sexually-ambiguous and thoughtful art-pop" similar to that explored by Bowie on 1977's Low.[60] Brian Eno and John Cale would serve a crucial part in the careers of Bowie, Talking Heads, and many key punk and post-punk records.[56] Following the amateurism of the punk movement, post-punk era saw a return to the art school tradition previously embodied by the work of Bowie and Roxy Music,[61][4] with artists drawing ideas from literature, art, cinema, and critical theory into musical and pop cultural contexts while refusing the common distinction between high art and low culture.[62][63][nb 12] An emphasis on multimedia performance and visual art became common.[63]

Fisher characterized subsequent artists such as Grace Jones, the New Romantic groups of the 1980s, and Róisín Murphy as a part of an art pop lineage.[9] He noted that the development of art pop involved the rejection of conventional rock instrumentation and structure in favor of dance styles and the synthesizer.[9] The Quietus names English New Romantic act Duran Duran, who were formatively influenced by the work of Japan, Kraftwerk and David Bowie, as "pioneering art pop up to arena-packing level", developing the style into "a baroque, romantic escape."[67] Critic Simon Reynolds dubbed English singer Kate Bush "the queen of art-pop", citing her merging of glamour, conceptualism, and innovation without forsaking commercial pop success during the late 1970s and 1980s.[68]


Björk performing in 2003 at Hurricane Festival.

Icelandic singer Björk was a prominent purveyor of art pop[69] for her wide-ranging integration of disparate forms of art and popular culture.[70] During the 1990s, she became art pop's most commercially successful artist.[71] Discussing Björk in 2015, Jason Farago of The Guardian wrote: "The last 30 years in art history are in large part a story of collaborative enterprises, of collapsed boundaries between high art and low, and of the end of divisions between media. Few cultural figures have made the distinctions seem as meaningless as the Icelandic singer who combined trip hop with 12-tone, and who brought the avant garde to MTV just before both those things disappeared."[72]

West's Yeezus Tour was described by Forbes as "the current mass cultural phenomenon best described as 'artpop.'"[73]

According to Barry Walters of NPR, 1990s rap group P.M. Dawn developed a style of "kaleidoscopic art-pop" that was initially dismissed by hip hop fans as "too soft, ruminative and far-ranging" but would eventually pave the way for the work of artists like Drake and Kanye West.[74] In 2013, Spin noted a "new art-pop era" in contemporary music, led by West, in which musicians draw on visual art as a signifier of wealth and extravagance as well as creative exploration.[75] Fact labels West's 2008 album 808s & Heartbreak as an "art-pop masterpiece" which would have a substantive influence on subsequent hip hop music, broadening the style beyond its contemporary emphasis on self-aggrandizement and bravado.[76] The New York Times' Jon Caramanica described West's "thought-provoking and grand-scaled" works as having "widened [hip hop]'s gates, whether for middle-class values or high-fashion and high-art dreams."[77]

Contemporary artists such as Grimes, Julia Holter, and FKA twigs were referenced by Reynolds as working in analogous territory to Kate Bush.[68] Grimes is described by the Montreal Gazette as "an art-pop phenomenon" and part of "a long tradition of fascination with the pop star as artwork in progress", with particular attention drawn to role of the Internet and digital platforms in her success.[78]

In a 2012 piece for Dummy, critic Adam Harper described an accelerationist zeitgeist in contemporary art-pop characterized by an ambiguous engagement with elements of contemporary capitalism.[5] He mentions the Internet-based genre vaporwave as consisting of underground art-pop musicians like James Ferraro and Daniel Lopatin[79][80] "exploring the technological and commercial frontiers of 21st century hyper-capitalism's grimmest artistic sensibilities".[5] Artists associated with the scene may release music via online pseudonyms while drawing on ideas of virtuality and synthetic 1990s sources such as corporate mood music, lounge music, and muzak.[5]

List of artists