This past spring, music fans were inundated with at-home performance videos. From Coldplay to SZA to the band from the bar on the corner, interacting with musicians meant watching them in their homes. The COVID-19 pandemic has inverted our desire for spectacle into a demand for intimacy. And in a financially devastated music industry, artists must supply. The omnivorous contemporary pop landscape, in which a single song might gesture to rock, dance, or hip-hop all at once, was swiftly replaced with a return to the YouTube aesthetic.
When one scrolls through search results for “live from home,” pop stars become anonymous in a sea of bodies, guitars, and pianos. Episodes from Ben Gibbard’s popular daily performance series are sandwiched between videos of singers with a fraction of his views. Gradually, the eagerness with which the industry seized the medium has faded, and viewing numbers have shrunk. Gibbard originally said he’d stream every day, but changed his mind when it became apparent how just many days that would be. The few remaining holdouts are mostly those who have an album to promote, like Norah Jones.
The first thing you notice about these videos is that any wealth is usually carefully cropped out. It’s rare to see an at-home performance that allows anything too expensive-looking to slip in. John Legend sits on his stairs, while Dua Lipa’s exposed brick wall could be from any New York apartment. An exception is the home studio; Ellie Goulding and Dave Grohl curl up in nests of synthesizers and vintage guitars. For the modern YouTube performance, just as important as the music are the vibes: the pre-song banter, the Twitch-streamer-like bedroom decorations, the left-in false start where they play the wrong chord. Katy Perry, in her pic stitch approach with band members performing remotely, surrounds herself with her crystals.
If you watch videos posted between 2007 and 2008 on Justin Bieber’s YouTube channel, it’s funny how little he has to say to his audience. He had pop star ambitions from the start, of course, and these videos would go on to be seen by millions. Yet to view them now, after an industry-wide transformation that began with these videos, is to marvel at the absence of what are now the hallmarks of the YouTube performance. There was no effort to present Bieber as a personality; he was just a kid who sang well. The video’s barely begun, and there goes 13-year-old Bieber hurtling into “Cry Me a River.”
Though he may be the most prominent, Bieber is just one of the many pop stars to emerge from YouTube. Before there was a Shawn Mendes, Ed Sheeran, or Alessia Cara, there were videos of their anonymous teenage selves, close-cropped with a guitar taking up half the frame, their eyes nervously checking the webcam to make sure the recording had started. Bieber’s success was so early in the YouTube timeline that his transformation into a pop star is more stereotypical than that of his colleagues that came later. No effort was made to maintain his image as a guitar-strumming troubadour — at that time, a pop star was an icon, a pillar of confidence on stage and screen. Meanwhile, Cara has maintained a too-cool-for-school outsider feel in her music, and Mendes and Sheeran are never seen on stage without their guitars strapped tightly to them. Their version of stardom is chimeric, maintaining celebrity polish while gesturing incessantly at authenticity.
This dialectic between authenticity and glamour has manifested a sweaty equilibrium. If you type the words “intimate performance” into the YouTube search bar, the titles of the resultant videos scream the words back, sometimes in all-caps, advertising acoustic performances from Demi Lovato, Beyoncé, or Dua Lipa. The residue of the YouTube-ization of pop can be found in places as varied as Billie Eilish’s close-mic’d whispers and the “acoustic versions” (or, beguilingly, “acoustic remixes”) released alongside singles.
So in the music economy under YouTube, the most popular way to listen to music on Earth, intimacy is still currency. Even as the platform has been thoroughly commoditized, the images have remained largely the same. Billions of dollars later, these stars still insist they are “just like us.” In early May, alongside Ariana Grande, Bieber released the music video for “Stuck With U,” a ballad with hazy allusions to the world ending and a declaration of romantic attachment consonant with the need to shelter in place. As Bieber and Grande lip-sync the lyrics, their faces are just two of many snuggling with pets, drinking wine, and dancing with loved ones.
As the pandemic puts the mortal stakes of class politics into sharp relief, these pop stars levy a two-pronged defense. Firstly, that they’re not spectacular after all, and are in fact regular folks. Secondly, they deserve to be here because they really can play guitar and are therefore, despite the deep economic chasm between themselves and most working musicians, among the rank and file. The embedded nostalgia of the YouTube aesthetic reaches past 2005, reclaiming a conservative pre-technological vision of musicianship. It advertises itself as the distillate of pop performance, the antidote to glamour, just singing and playing — the “real thing.”
So far, we’re buying it. We’re lonelier than ever, but we’ve always been lonely, primed to crave performances of authenticity by 15 years of YouTube. But as the pandemic stretches on, we will have to see whether stars can continue to both have and eat their cake. For now, millions of us are huddled on the other side of a camera, invisible to each other but peering together into a stranger’s home. We’ve gathered for a promised intimacy, a glimpse of something real. We press play and the video starts. “Hi guys!”