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 vide