The Value of the Guest Star: Are Surprise Guests Detracting from the Live Performance?
In March 2012, both Madonna and Avicii made headlines within minutes after Madge took to Ultra Music Festival’s Main Stage to give the Swede the royal introduction he deserved. Her entrance was dramatic and unprecedented for the time. In 90 seconds, she addressed her confused audience by answering the burning question, “Why is Madonna here?”
“In my world, the words “music” and “dance” are not separated. Electronic music has been a part of my life since the beginning of my career. And I can honestly say that a DJ saved my life.”
Those are the infamous words uttered from the mouth of the Queen of Pop; one of America’s music icons and a pioneer who remains at the forefront of the industry’s ever-constant transformations. It did not matter why she was there, her presence at Ultra raised the bar for the special guest phenomenon that has now become synonymous with Miami’s flagship festival. At the time, Tim Bergling was still enjoying unparalleled success for his record-breaking hit, “Levels.” But the status quo was unappealing for both him and the At Night camp. Bergling’s plan of action was simple, yet brilliant: bring a friend. A very famous friend.
Madonna’s 2012 Ultra appearance changed the game for Avicii and bolstered his image by associating his brand with hers. No longer was the Swedish wunderkind known among the public eye as “That guy who created ‘Levels,'” but a tastemaker who lured one of the world’s most influential pop artists to the largest electronic music festival in the country. The stunt attracted an array of highly toutable press from Billboard, Huffington Post, The Hollywood Reporter and hundreds more. It was in this way that Bergling set the standard for press-generating cameos – a model that has since been adopted by many of the industry’s biggest names.
In 2013 and 2014 alone, Lil’ Jon, Icona Pop, and Waka Flocka Flame snuck into Ultra Music Festival as brief cameos – all at the height of their popularity. Fast-forward to 2015, and the roster of secret performances trumps that of any preceding year. This year’s festival drew in Usher, Justin Bieber, Diddy, Diplo, and Ariana Grande – not to mention support from Kiesza, CL, and Kai during Jack Ü’s “unannounced” second-ever Ultra performance.
But when does a cameo become overkill? Martin Garrix and Cashmere Cat introduced just one companion to the stage; Skrillex hosted six. Was this necessary? Is the special guest really just a guest, or has it superseded everything to become the main attraction?
When we’re talking about an artist of Skrillex’s stature, it goes without saying that the OWSLA label head didn’t need such a grandiose entourage to command the tens of thousands of fans who arrived at Ultra’s Main Stage late Sunday night. In fact, it was almost comical when his six-strong posse entered the scene, overwhelming to the point of it being difficult to keep track of the numerous artists crowding the stage. As Skrillex’s set materialized, the hour became increasingly less about him as one of the brightest talents in the industry and more about the guest stars he could enlist to jump on the mic. In fact, the most authentic moment of Sonny’s hour-long set was when he sang live vocals for “Mind” alongside Kai, which accounted for two minutes of his headlining performance.
Those solely in it for Skrillex may have found their live experience to be watered down by the bevvy of special appearances, but the media circus that soon followed proved his tactics to be sound. Dance music publications jumped at the news of Bieber’s appearance. Social media exploded, the performance began trending, and Ultra and EDM culture were once again catapulted into the limelight on the shoulders of pop music’s biggest stars.
Both fans and artists alike are guilty for perpetuating the new “need” for guest stars. After all, Bieber’s all too recognizable face is the reason thousands of tweets flooded Twitter and an overflow of press was produced by the media in search of a “newsworthy” headline.
This obvious dog and pony show begs the question: Is it all really worth it? Would abstaining from using special guests have made for a less memorable set? Who knows. But at least the headlines would have been focused on the weekend’s biggest music as opposed to the weekend’s biggest spectacle.