Things I Loved This Year: Pop Stars Behind the Curtain

Each day this month (assuming I don’t get busy or bored!), I’ll reflect on a tiny sliver of pop culture that I enjoyed or appreciated this year — scenes, shots, gestures, verses, sights, sounds, moments. Today: three of the year’s most influential artists who stayed silent at just the right moments.

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Three of the biggest stars on the planet — Rihanna, Kanye West and Beyonce — released three of the most popular and acclaimed albums of 2016 in the first few months of the year. At least one of them is virtually certain to earn a Grammy nomination for Album of the Year tomorrow. In all three cases, only a few weeks’ notice and a few confusing bits of teaser information preceded the unveiling of these sprawling works of art, which spanned musicals genres and technological platforms.

The surprise nature of pop stars’ latest artistic statements no longer carries the electric charge of spontaneity that accompanied the release of 2013’s Beyonce. We’ve come to expect the unexpected. What’s more notable, to me, is how little we’ve heard from the artists behind these works about their approach to creating them. Beyonce has granted a grand total of zero interviews about their creative processes this year — no magazine spreads, no newspaper features, no television spotlights. Silence. West, meanwhile, afforded a few minutes of his time to a phone call with Vanity Fair’s Dirk Standen, during which he exclusively discussed the intent behind his lightning-rod music video for “Famous.” And Rihanna talked to Vogue for its April cover, saying a fair amount while revealing almost nothing of substance.

The Internet has given rise to an unprecedented wave of content that takes readers behind-the-scenes, up close and very personal with all of their favorite pieces of pop culture entertainment. Showrunners dissect the minutiae of their cryptic season finales within minutes of the episode’s conclusion on the East coast. Filmmakers attend panel discussions and grant interviews with respected publications in the hopes of helping their film stick out in a crowded entertainment landscape that’s often punishing to challenging art. Artists of all kinds can respond to fans and interested observers on social media, obliterating the barrier between producer and consumer.

There’s lots of hand-wringing to be found on all corners of the Internet about the impact of these changes. Some value the intimacy of relationships between the people striving to get their work seen and the people who see it, while others lament a time when viewers and listeners were left to draw their own conclusions about what’s onscreen or in their earbuds.

I’m a hypocrite about this stuff as much as anyone else. I’ll voraciously read interviews with the creators of shows I enjoy and movies I love, and nothing fascinates me more than learning the stories behind my favorite songs. But there’s something to admire in the collective reticence of the year’s biggest pop stars to divulge their secrets. Beyonce and Rihanna don’t feel the urgency to spill the behind-the-scenes details that led to their final products, and Kanye West is too esoteric to reveal his full vision, even when he’s pretending to. The responsibility falls on the audience to draw its own conclusions. Letting art speak for itself takes courage, especially given the market forces that typically conspire to make artist interviews de rigeur in the entertainment industry. And when the art is as inherently compelling as The Life of Pablo, ANTI and Lemonade, no further comment is necessary.

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