The following is an extended version of an article that was commissioned for The Conversation.
Before a bruise-coloured backdrop, Lady Gaga and Arianna Grande performed a medley of Chromatica II and Rain on Me at MTV’s recent VMAs. Gyrating in purple and black, the singers’ costumes were distinctive for including face masks. Gaga’s mouth covering, possibly inspired by the breathing apparatus of Darth Vader or Batman villain Bane, featured an animated wavelength. The mask’s pixelated oscillations seemed appropriately dystopian for a performance that included a piano housed in a puce-coloured, brain-like carapace. By contrast, Grande’s prop appeared to be more of an afterthought, consisting of a small rectangle of elasticated black cloth.
Face coverings on stage may seem obvious, even uninspired, in the midst of a global pandemic. Most of the world’s governments have now made mask wearing mandatory in public. And yet, the causality for this costume decision probably wasn’t straightforward. The prevalence of mask wearing in live performances is age-old, making Covid-19 more of a catalyst than a cause in Gaga and Grande’s clothing choice. Pre-pandemic, and across both sides of the Atlantic, The Masked Singer has challenged television audiences to identify performers of famous songs. Artists’ bodies are completely concealed within brightly-coloured and slightly unnerving costumes. The series debuted in the United States in 2019, and in the UK in 2020. The concept was adapted from the South Korean television show, King of Mask Singer, which has been on air since 2015.
This global, trans-cultural fascination with masks in contemporary singing performances, which is to say nothing of their ubiquity on fashion catwalks, offers a more convincing frame for Gaga and Grande’s VMA dress. It also provides an interesting way to explore the prevalence of face coverings in traditions of live performance and to explain the paradox that masking, where an artist’s conventional identity is concealed, is often more expressive and engaging than performances where artists can be clearly recognised.
It seems appropriate that contemporary forms of masked musical performance draw inspiration from Asian models. Some of the oldest traditions of live performance that involve face and head coverings can be traced to China and Japan. China’s Bian Lian, ‘face changing’, is a highly skilled, secretive form of acting within Sichuan Opera that uses face coverings to guide narrative. Characters’ masks are quickly changed with deft movements of the hand to signal fluctuations in mood. In a similar way, Japanese Noh performances make use of over 400 types of wooden face mask to indicate a character’s social position and shifting emotional state. Noh can be translated as ‘skill’. The term expresses the highly disciplined nature of this deeply expressive medium.
Asian traditions of masked musical performance have gradually become known in the West, through routines in America’s Got Talent and Tian-Ming Wu’s film, The King of Masks. Continental Europe also has its own costumed customs. Italy’s Commedia dell’ Arte and its French derivation, the Commedie Française, were essentially improvised skits that combined music, mask wearing and stock characters, the most popular being Harlequin and Pierrot. This masked duelling duo became widely popular across Europe in the twentieth century. Contemporary artists, including Paul Cèzanne and Pablo Picasso, became these characters in self-portraits or used their dress and props to create portraits of family members. Earlier still, during the seventeenth century, the royal court masque, which reached its apogee in England under the tense partnership of poet Ben Jonson and architect Inigo Jones, used masking and music to valorise the institution of Stuart monarchy.
As Europe’s political and cultural authority spread globally, particularly during the nineteenth century, so too did its traditions of masked musical performance. Since 1957, to mark its independence of British rule, Ghana has staged the Winneba Fancy Dress Festival. Amalgamating Ghanaian forms of live performance and the costume traditions of the Dutch and British, artist Hakeem Adam suggests the festival, staged each year on 1 January and involving masked dance contests, “is a living museum—it reminds us of the past as well as catalyzing conversation on the conditions of the present.”
If these past and present examples show that masked singing performances entertain – chiefly because of their skill and surprise – they also explain their ubiquity and deep cultural resonance. Anonymised performers make use of multiple senses – sight, sound, touch – to create a ‘total artwork’ (gesamtkunstwerk) that blurs the divide between reality and recreation. This unique, liminal form of performance enables an audience to project their thoughts – individual and collective – onto the artists, who essentially become avatars and act as a psychological salve. They facilitate the simultaneous exploration of spectators’ hopes and fears – about a global pandemic (à la Lady Gaga and Arianna Grande), national identity (à la Ghana) or social roles (à la Bian Lian and twentieth century portraits). Reflecting on her VMA collaboration with Arianna Grande, Lady Gaga explained, “We create things that make us feel comfortable. We put them all around. I do it all the time. We all do things to make ourselves feel safe. And I always challenge artists when I work with them. I go, ‘Make it unsafe, make it super fucking unsafe and then do it again’.” In identifying the provocation caused by face coverings, Gaga connects – however inadvertently – with a long and global performance tradition that recognises the potential of masks to excite and to explore contemporary social issues.