Imagine being in line for a brand new roller coaster at an amusement park. The roller coaster is massive, stretching its tracks to the sky as if trying to hug clouds. We are thrilled because we can see the loops, twists and turns, and the colossal drop from standing in line. And with every inch, we move forward and get a little further down the line; hearts sink with anticipation and excitement.
Now imagine if that roller coaster was inside and entirely in the dark. From the place in line, we have no idea what to expect from the ride, how fast it goes, and if there are any loops; everything is a mystery. Is there still that same excitement, or does the mystery cause a new feeling to emerge?
The commonalities between roller coasters and music are rather thin, but there seems to be a similar thrill that ruminates inside when an artist we haven’t heard from in a while drops a new album out of the blue.
Let’s look at artists like Frank Ocean, SZA, Taylor Swift and Kendrick Lamar. These artists stay relatively quiet in the digital world until they have an album coming out. And even then, they usually let the music speak for itself and stay out of the spotlight as much as possible unless they are doing a tour. But despite being out of the public eye, these artists are constantly trending on social media, their music still garners millions of streams, and their fans wait patiently until a crumb of new music drops into their lap.
On the other side, artists like Doja Cat, Lil Nas X and Olivia Rodrigo seem to always be in the limelight and have no problem sharing their everyday lives and experiences with their fans online. Not that these artists aren’t as talented or exciting as the former, but as an audience member, knowing too much about an artist is almost unattractive.
Let’s take one of the most prominent artists of the 2000s, Kanye West. When West was in the promo cycle for his album, Donda, in 2021, it felt like there was another scandalous news story or headline about West everywhere you turned. Whether it was about his unconventional album rollout, his faulty relationship with Kim Kardashian, or the intriguing feature list on the album, there was always something new to say about Ye during that era.
Even with fans of Kanye West, there was a point where some of his followers were getting tired of seeing Yeezy’s face everywhere. With release dates being pushed back and constant stadium listening parties with the updated version of the album, many fans were getting exhausted and simply wanted him to release the album and dip and not have to worry about the controversy surrounding West’s personal life. Sure, it’s a personal preference, but perhaps some fans enjoy their art with a bit of mystery, gravitating towards more elusive artists who keep their lives hidden from the world.
Frank Ocean is probably the most elusive and mysterious artist in pop culture today. No matter how often his name is trending on Twitter or how many covers of “Self Control” are posted on TikTok, Ocean is still nowhere to be seen. Or at least no one knows about any updates regarding new music from Ocean.
Ocean was slated to headline Coachella in 2020 when that wasn’t a make-believe year. And when the desert music festival came to fruition in 2022, Ocean made it apparent that he still wasn’t ready to perform again and decided to be placed on the 2023 lineup instead. A rather intriguing move by an artist with such high demand, but apparently, even a Coachella paycheck isn’t enough for Ocean to come out of hiding and perform.
Granted, Ocean isn’t entirely in isolation. Fans constantly spot him riding his bike around New York, pretending to take phone calls and dressed like an absolute dad. But despite these rare sightings, very little is known about any upcoming Frank Ocean album. And that unknown suspicion of whether any music is on the horizon or not has fans glued to their seats.
Another artist that has been relatively quiet since their last release is Kendrick Lamar. Before announcing his newest album about a month ago, there hasn’t been a peep from Kendrick’s corner since Damn. However, as much as fans were speculating a surprise drop, Kendrick posted a legal letter stating his new album Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers would be released on May 13th, 2022.
May 13th came and went, and to everyone’s surprise, a new Kendrick Lamar album found its way onto streaming services for their ears to listen to. But with the new album out, Kendrick was still quiet, not posting many stories on Instagram, not tweeting out to fans and answering questions; he just let the music speak for itself. And that practice is something many artists should be practicing.
Once an artist releases any music to the masses, the music no longer belongs to them and is now in the hands of the listener. And the listener is allowed and should interpret their art in any way they must to connect with the message the songs are trying to portray.
Another quite elusive artist is Childish Gambino. After the explosive success of Awaken, My Love! it seemed as if Gambino would use that momentum to release another batch of radio-friendly hits to garner more listeners. But alas, his latest album, 3.15.20, had a very discrete rollout with practically no promo. Gambino just released the project and continued to stay quiet. And there is something rather admirable about that process.
Maybe the reason why artists staying quiet during their album release cycle is so enticing is because we live in a world where our attention is constantly being begged for? Or maybe because if an artist doesn’t post on social media, audiences forget about them and move on to the next? When an artist isn’t trying to beg for your attention, it almost feels like they respect our time as an audience and understand that they don’t need to do anything flashy or obnoxious to have us listen to their music.
Artists such as Frank Ocean and Kendrick Lamar cut through the silent droughts because their music stands the test of time and has high replay value no matter how long their hiatus is. These artists still find themselves trending online because of how great their art truly is. But perhaps the reason audiences love elusive artists so much is because of the potential mystery of a new sound or artistic direction they will go in. And that uncertainty keeps people interested and questioning what will happen next.
It seems like the more posting on social media becomes a necessity to market music, there is also plenty of pushback from artists. The demand to constantly market your art on social media is draining, especially when all an artist wants to do is release music for people to hear. And there is some bewilderment when an artist can simply release music without much marketing or promotion, and it is still booming. There seems to be this romanticization of how life used to be before the social media Renaissance, and artists were able to release a record, go on tour and weren’t asked to do constant promotion themselves via viral internet trends.
There was TikTok video making its rounds a few weeks ago of the pop singer Halsey stating that she has a new song she wants to release, but her label is forcing her to make TikTok content so the song can be a viral hit before it is ever released on streaming. In the video, she expresses her frustration with her label and insists that all she wants to do is release the song. And as an audience, you can see the exhaustion in her eyes, and you can genuinely feel that times have changed in this digital landscape. It almost seems like there is little demand for real art, and all the label wants from artists is to add flame to the internet fire.
It is also essential to know that artists who play the social media game can effectively market their music in digital spaces. Lil Nas X and Doja Cat are both incredibly popular because of their intelligent and successful tactics of marketing their music on TikTok, Instagram and other social media platforms. They can generate buzz for a release of music way before the music is even out, which is a skill that not many artists today have. And at the same time, they can release unique and very personal music that resonates with audiences worldwide. But this method of constant content creation isn’t for every artist, and we, as an audience, shouldn’t demand it to be.
Is there a clear solution to this problem of artists being burnt out in an ever-changing industry that demands constant content creation? No. But hopefully the content creating bubble will eventually burst, and the elusive and mysterious artist formula will be the desired method one day.
As long as there is a demand for new music, new tactics and new marketing tools will always be sought out, especially in a time when an artist’s job is to make the label more money. However, there is hope for a future where the music industry believes in artists and trusts their vision, allowing them to let their art speak for itself.
After all, as an audience, we let the music speak for ourselves when we cannot find the right words to say. Whether we are sad, angry, or in love, a song can speak our emotions louder than our voice. And we should respect artists who do not want to talk as much as they want to sing.
Photo credit: Adam Blyweiss