Pop Has Officially Entered Its Clown Era
Harry Styles has been the subject of countless headlines in the wake of the 2023 Grammys — and for all the stories thinking over his unexpected win for Album of the Year, there have been nearly as many celebrating the rainbow, sequinned, harlequin-style onesie that he wore on the red carpet. “Best dressed,” they rave. “King of jumpsuits!”
It’s a far cry from the more mixed reception that Playboi Carti received when he took the stage at Kanye West’s Donda 2 event a year ago. It wasn’t Carti’s unhinged performance of “Off the Grid,” or his appearance alongside an already-scandal plagued Ye, that sent shockwaves through his fandom: It was his bold new look, which included a face full of gothic-clown makeup, marrying the metal tradition of corpse paint with the Joker’s demonic, up-turned smile. “Carti has officially taken it 2 steps too far,” one Twitter user wrote. “Seriously…what in the insane clown posse was Carti doing man?” asked another.
While it was likely both artists’ intention to stand out from the crowd, in fact both Harry and Carti were jumping on the bandwagon of a growing trend: A staggering amount of pop stars are “down with the clown” lately, and they’re part of a much larger, clown-crazed phenomenon.
To the great dismay of coulrophobics, clowns have become increasingly inescapable figures in popular culture within the past five years. The “Great Clown Panic” of 2016 was followed by a slew of big-budget productions starring scary clowns, jesters, and harlequins, including Suicide Squad, American Horror Story: Cult, It, and Joker. On TikTok, #Clowncore content now has more than 435 million views, and it’s helped spawn a number of more mainstream trends, filters, and beauty tutorials. Clown-like patterns and silhouettes have also materialized in the fashion world, influencing recent collections by designers like the neo-Victorian Batsheva Hay, the award-winning and rainbow-loving Christopher John Rogers, the punk-inspired troublemaker Matty Bovan, and the Scottish club kid Charles Jeffrey. Clowns have even permeated our everyday vernacular and correspondence. “Clown” has become a more popular insult, thanks in part to President Biden, and clownery has entered the online vernacular through emojis and memes (the putting on clown make-up template is a verifiable classic).
In music, clowncore has reached peak visibility. Styles and Carti are two of pop’s most committed clowns: Styles starred as a clown in a spoof music video created for The Late Show with James Corden last spring, and made headlines all the way back in 2021 for wearing a Pierrot costume at Madison Square Garden. Carti set social media ablaze with a series of since-deleted Instagram posts of him in various iterations of clown makeup, which he also wore to the Balenciaga fashion show last July. But these two jokers are far from alone.
Last year, Dua Lipa, Future, and the 1975 all used clown makeup in music videos for songs about the absurdity of love. Future appears as a heartbroken clown in the video for his melodramatic, confessional track, “Love You Better,” with a toned-down clown look that signals his culpability in allowing the woman he loves to get away. Dua Lipa rides both a mechanical bull and the wave of her own bewilderment in the video for “Love Again,” where she and her backup dancers are dressed as rodeo clowns, highlighting the known precarity of falling in love. The 1975’s video for “I’m in Love with You” also features a cast full of clowns that includes guest vocalist Phoebe Bridgers. In the Buster Keaton-inspired clip, a clown-faced Matthew Healy pursues a love interest, but is ultimately shocked and disappointed once she removes her clown makeup and reveals her true self. Words written on the set’s brick walls form a hidden message: “Everyone is disappointing once you get to know them.” The video’s reveal speaks to the nonsensical — yet almost universal — experience of desiring someone that is ultimately wrong for you. Whether you’ve felt clowned around by a person you care about, or feel like a clown for caring about them at all, matters of the heart all too often make us act a fool.
Doja Cat teamed up with Taco Bell to create a bizarre, clown-themed Superbowl commercial, soundtracked by her cover of “Celebrity Skin” (she later revealed in an Instagram live that the clown part was Taco Bell’s idea). Gerard Way and Yung Lean both inexplicably donned clown makeup at select stops on their tours last year. 2022 also proved eventful for two frequently clown-faced artists in more underground circles: Horrorcore artist Dana Dentata, who toured with Korn and Evanescence and performed at the annual Gathering of the Juggalos, and California art-rock band the Garden, who released a new album, Horseshit on Route 66, in September. On the cover of the record, the Garden are sporting their signature jester-inspired face paint, which they have worn off and on since their formation in 2010.
Proto-clown stage makeup in rock goes back to the late 1960s and early 1970s, when artists like Arthur Brown and Alice Cooper found that a little greasepaint went a long way. What’s new is the utilization of clown-inspired looks from so many musicians, across genres, simultaneously. The author, academic, and former circus clown David Carlyon describes musicians’ use of clown makeup as a tool for transgression. “Visually, [musicians] want to make a strong impact by highlighting facial features,” he says. “Emotionally, they want to send a message that this performance will not be normal.” As artists face increasing pressure to command attention on oversaturated feeds and manufacture viral moments, the use of head-turning clown makeup may be a matter of pragmatism in the digital era. A face full of black, white, and red paint is the beauty world’s equivalent of an exclamation mark — and by drawing on the strong reactions that clowns elicit, artists are able to express their own emotions in hyperbole.
Still, the presence of all these clowns in the musical zeitgeist cannot be explained by algorithmic attention-seeking alone. In the same era that led to widespread romantic notions of “villain eras” and “goblin modes,” the popularity of clowns in music may be an extension of our decision to embrace depravity. Feeling like a fool in love is a tale as old as time, but a global pandemic, war, economic disaster, and a climate catastrophe have made clowns out of all of us. Musicians may simply be holding up a mirror to an anarchic world, or acknowledging the humor of our own insignificance. When faced with the absurdity of so many converging crises, life itself can feel like a joke. And when resolve is wearing thin and hope feels futile, sometimes the only thing left to do is laugh.
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