I admit that this is more of a call for you all to innovate than it is me giving you ideas. I've been thinking lately about how today's popstars, especially Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Rihanna, and Jessie J, are all about having distinct, out-of-this-world style and attitude to go along with their music. Instead of the concept albums of the 1960s and 1970s, today's pop culture likes its concept artists. Gwen Stefani mixed ska and angst with Jean Harlow, Katy Perry fetishizes and infantilizes herself, and the UK's Marina & the Diamonds is unabashedly seeking popstar superstardom, and her aesthetic is all about how she's "obsessed/with the mess/that's America." You can argue whether or not these artists are good or bad, whether they're obvious or esoteric, whether they're legitimate or faking it--I know I do--but you can't deny that they are memorable and fascinating.

So what does that have to do with youth services? Lots, I'm sure. Thinking about popstars and performance/concept art can lend itself to all kinds of interesting book displays and programs. You may even end up inspiring a new generation of quirky songstresses and 21st century Bowies.

  • First, check your catalog for CDs by any musician you would consider a "performance artist" or "concept artist." You can also check at the end of this post for some suggestions. Next, create a display where you connect these albums to biographies that may be in your adult nonfiction section, novels about teen musicians, and other nonfiction titles relating to the artist's aesthetic, from vintage fashion to abstract art. If you don't feel you know enough about this topic, this is a great opportunity to bring in your teen advisory board or an awesome library student intern.
  • Sponsor a night of music video deconstruction--only you'll have to call it something better if you want anyone to come. If you have a teen advisory board, they should be the ones to facilitate the evening. Queue up the most interesting videos by the most out-there musicians, print out copies of song lyrics, and invite the teens to play producers, critics, and artists. When I taught music videos to a group of high schoolers, I took a variety of approaches: 1) play the song first, ask what they imagine the video to look like and the song to mean, and then show the video; 2) play the video with no sound, ask for feedback, and then play again with sound and looking at the lyrics; 3) read the lyrics, talk about the meaning of the lyrics and the potential video, and then watch and listen. All of these offer the chance to get creative juices flowing, conversation happening, and criticism going. If your teens are up for it, ask them to pair each song/video with their own words or images about what it means to them, or get them to lead a discussion on why they think the artists make such choices. End the night with an open mic.
  • You probably know of some individual patrons or of teen groups already meeting in the library who are interested in music, art, and writing. Put them together! What's interesting about these artists is that they seem to have a whole team of people, as well as a library of influences and inspirations, behind them. So get your teens to do the same! Using your fiction and nonfiction collection and their imaginations, get them to create one or many performance artist concepts--someone who dresses only in hoop skirts, who dyes her hair purple, and sings about calculus? A male-female duo who cross-dresses and makes sure only to sing songs written in sonnet form? Possibilities are endless, and this can easily be a theoretical activity that anyone can participate (just leave materials on a table in your teen room, and decorate a bulletin board or wall to put up people's ideas) or a large-scale, longer project that culminates in an end-of-summer concert.
  • Less vocal (terrible pun, sorry) teens can still get involved with this by coming up with concept art. Every record needs a cover, right? Even without actually recording music or putting together a band, a lot of creativity can be harnessed by designing a concept album's art, liner notes, and song titles. It's like a short story without the paragraphs.

While I mentioned a lot of female artists, there are plenty of solo male singers and bands that fit this bill of being quirky and with a distinct sound, aesthetic, and thematic focus. Here are a few artists and bands that you might check out, and your teen patrons will probably have the most up to date and interesting new innovators out there!


Artist Known for
Marina & the Diamonds electric sounds, themes of pop culture, superficiality, and American icons
Flight of the Conchords being awkward, loving David Bowie, saying the wrong thing
Nicki Minaj bright colors, incorporating 90s hip hop style into today's techno-pop-rap
M.I.A. global influences, military style and themes, human rights issues
Bjork who could forget that swan dress? also ethereal sounds, electronica
Harry and the Potters nerdcore, music so bad it's good, excessive references to a certain series of books
Cee-Lo his cat, being loved by the ladies, retro sounds, crazy hair
Asobi Seksu singing in Japanese, shoegazing, special effects
Lenka being twee, always sounding happy even when she's sad, being retro
N.E.R.D. being Trekkies, loving school, promoting education while being trendy hip hop stars
Molotov being an alternative Mexican hip hop band, singing in Spanglish, political themes
Miranda July multimedia, performance poetry, feminism, ethereal sounds

About Hannah Gómez

School librarian in Northern California. MA children's literature, MS library and information science (Simmons College). Sometime scholar, sometime reviewer, sometime creative writer, always media-obsessed.

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