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CRITICAL EYE

The look is Muzak

Glorious train wrecks once defined rock fashion. Now every star has a stylist, playing one note: Blah.

May 04, 2008|Emili Vesilind | Times Staff Writer

We FIRST started to notice it at the Grammy Awards back in February. There they were, the new queens of pop -- Fergie, Natasha Bedingfield, Miley Cyrus, Taylor Swift -- swanning around the red carpet in forgettable designer dresses, their highlighted extended locks cascading over their shoulders a la Gwyneth Paltrow. They looked so interchangeable, they might as well have been femme-bots.

Since then, the blah-ification of style in the music industry has been impossible to ignore. Pink ditched her one-legged pants for cocktail dresses, the crimson-mouthed Christina Aguilera started wearing (gasp!) nude lipstick, and Mariah Carey started covering up.

Billboard's top men are in an even sorrier state. Daughtry's bad suits, Jay-Z's stuffy tuxes and Pete Wentz's mall-punk looks -- these guys could pass for models in a department store fashion show. When did rock and pop get so boring?

Mainstream songsters have always set the trends, but suddenly they're following them: dressing in what sails down the runways -- the same as actresses, reality TV stars and no-talent celebutantes. Long gone are the days when we took style cues from pop stars, donning Madonna's lace gloves or Michael Jackson's white socks and black loafers.

For decades, cultivating an individual look was as important as cultivating an individual sound. Patti Smith in her menswear; Kurt Cobain in his grandpa sweaters; Janis Joplin in her hippie-gypsy garb; Cher in her beaded peek-a-boo Bob Mackie gowns. Their style influenced the cultural tides almost as much as the music they made -- and reminded us that mavericks dress the part.

What are Jennifer Lopez and Jessica Simpson conveying? Mystic tans and power squats?

These Barbie-fied stars are "giving you fashion, they're not giving you style," said Michael Schmidt, a local clothing and jewelry designer who's made custom pieces for almost every iconic music artist in the last 20 years, including Cher, Madonna, Tina Turner, Aerosmith and Elton John. "They're not interested in being stylistically daring or having a unique place in the world. They just want to be a mouthpiece for fashion so they can end up on the covers of magazines."

The reasons for pop music's style drought are as varied as Avril Lavigne's personas.

With the recording industry in decline, artists are no longer making money merely by selling music. They're reeling in the dough by selling their names and images to the highest bidder. Which means, for some, adopting a blank-canvas look that's equally appealing to Procter & Gamble and Dolce & Gabbana.

The rise of the stylist is another major part of the equation. Musicians used to dress themselves -- which is why they often looked like glorious train wrecks -- calling on specialized artisans to get their leather pants or chain-mail dresses. But "it's now a stylist-driven industry," Schmidt said. "You don't get the personal style of the artist shining through anymore. Now it's one step removed."

Though there are some wildly talented stylists, others take their cues solely from the fashion runways (uber-stylist Rachel Zoe famously makes all her girls look just like her). For these glamour pros, the main goal is to keep their clients off the worst-dressed lists -- basically to not rock the boat.

At the same time, luxury brands have gone from ignoring music artists ("In the '80s, you could not get a piece of designer clothing unless you shoplifted it," noted Schmidt) to aggressively courting them. Madonna opened the door to the designer-artist relationship through her collaborations with Jean-Paul Gaultier, and now designers are involved on the front end of nearly every major tour, designing looks for artists to wear onstage and off. Lenny Kravitz kicked off his "Love Revolution" European tour last week in duds by Gucci's Frida Giannini; Alicia Keyes is wearing Armani on her "As I Am" world tour, and Roberto Cavalli provided clothes for the most recent Jennifer Lopez and Spice Girls tours.

Aaron Walton, co-founder of marketing company Walton-Isaacson, was one of the first to tap into the wider appeal of musicians through sponsorships; he teamed Michael Jackson with Pepsi and Whitney Houston with AT&T in the '80s when most musicians worried that selling out to corporations would end their careers. "Music artists were the last hold-outs," Walton said. "They weren't going to associate their music with brands. Now corporate sponsorships have turned into corporate partnerships. It's gone from artists wearing costumes, to doing more with fashion designers to set the tone and the image."

With music sales down, Julie Greenwald, president of Atlantic Records, said corporate sponsorships are integral to keeping careers running smoothly. "Missy Elliot has an endorsement deal with Adidas," she said, "and everywhere she goes, they're there -- making amazing clothing for her and her dancers. It's great to have a partner who can share the costs."

But at what price?

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