Lindsey Stirling, dancing dubstep violinist, is the prototype of a fully interactive pop star

The violin was the start of modern music celebrity - Lindsey Stirling is following in the footsteps of Paganini, Nigel Kennedy and Vanessa Mae.

Lindsey Stirling
O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire, London W12

Great visions of the future have always had their anachronisms. H G Wells’s time machine was made of brass. The starship Enterprise had a receptionist. This is not to say that Piers Morgan was overlooking some invention of genius when he told Lindsey Stirling, on America’s Got Talent, that the world had no use for a dancing dubstep violin player – but it clearly did, judging by how her signature tune “Crystallize” has racked up over 62 million views on YouTube.

She has fans across the United States, Europe and Asia, mostly aged between 14 and 25, many of them the obsessive kind, connecting with one another in a virtual world. The classically trained Mormon musician from Arizona, a talent-show reject, seems to be the model of a pop star from the future, right down to her fiddle.

Below me at her sell-out show in Shepherd’s Bush, west London, on 28 May, a teenage boy pogos, one fist in the air, to a mash-up of songs from The Phantom of the Opera. Stirling’s dance onstage is kind of freestyle: she moonwalks backwards and regularly thrusts one leg out to the side. She is encumbered by the instrument, as the TV judges pointed out, but this adds tension to her act – she is no virtuoso – and, impressively, you never hear the bounce of her bow on the strings, even when she jumps off an amplifier. The overall effect is vaguely inspirational, like those albums on which Beethoven’s Fifth is set over a beat or an orchestra plays the music of Queen. Clearly, “light music” is no longer the preserve of those over 70.

In her cosplay-like get-up of stripes, tutus and sneakers, Stirling looks like she’s walked out of a computer game. In effect, she has. After her defeat on TV three years ago, she took refuge online and built a career there. Her supporters, many of them gamers, began requesting cover versions – the theme tunes of the video games The Legend of Zelda and Final Fantasy, the music from Game of Thrones – and she recorded them in her unique style.

A few months ago, she started uploading her own compositions: lyrical, Celtic-tinged anthems with a dance backing that varies from mainstream dubstep to vintage trance. Her internet success got her a gig on Dancing with the Stars (the American Strictly) and brought the record companies sniffing (it all happens backwards, these days). Last month, Stirling was signed to Lady Gaga’s management company. Yet she still has no record deal in the US.

The violin was the start of modern music celebrity. Niccolò Paganini was the first “shredder”. Johann Strauss II’s waltz business was a branded enterprise as tightly controlled as Rolling Stones Inc. Nigel Kennedy and Vanessa Mae (perhaps Stirling’s closest antecedent) attracted crowds for the way they looked as much as their high-wire playing. Now that music is watched more than it is listened to and the variety show is once again the “cutting edge” of entertainment, how well you play is less important – you just have to be doing something else at the same time. This explains, in part, the phenomenal popularity of André Rieu, who can fill the O2 twirling on one leg, raising an eyebrow, conducting his Johann Strauss Orchestra and fiddling away simultaneously – but it still doesn’t quite explain Stirling.

Her online community is her power base. Imogen Heap and Amanda Palmer have proved you can get your Twitter followers to stump up cash for tours and recording studios nowadays in return for constant personal contact. Stirling offers meet’n’greets, à la Justin Bieber, for about £75 and she’ll cater to every craziness, pose holding a box of cereal or wearing an orange glove, if you ask her to. Like all new female pop stars, she has her alter ego but it’s no Sasha Fierce – instead, it’s a geeky, bespectacled girl called Thelma who is – wait for it – Lindsey’s biggest fan. Thelma runs round the streets of whatever town Stirling’s performing in, filming people and telling them to come to the gig, then beams the movies up that night onstage in a surreal, postmodern wormhole of self-promotion.

She’s taken the inspirational speeches of Taylor Swift or Gaga – march to the beat of your own drum, be yourself, and so on – and made them more meaningful, using her humiliation at the hands of Morgan to explain her success: “He said, ‘You can’t play well enough and you can’t dance well enough.’ I thought, in that case, I’ll learn to do them both better.” For once, the TV talent shows – usually a good source of the nebulous “You are special” mantra forced down the throats of teens – are presented as the enemy, restricting individuality rather than promoting it.

Stirling and Rieu are signed to the same label in the UK, Decca, which also houses the German virtuoso David Garrett (who got his first Strad aged 11 and doubles up as a male model). Saturday night TV loves them all: instrumentalist pop stars allow even more focus on the body, the pose, the ego, than people who sing. Rieu’s audience still buys CDs so his sales are phenomenal, while his live show – a musical juggernaut of crinolined ladies, scatological tuba players, mime artists and living dolls – is bigger than AC/DC’s.

It’s about as corny as you can get but it’s a very healthy source of traditional music revenue. Stirling, meanwhile, is the prototype of a fully interactive pop star who, connecting directly with the geeks of the world, is also more convincingly human than Gaga. It’ll be interesting to see if she can develop the act. Which brings us back to the old sci-fi “advancement mismatching” thing:you may be spacefaring or cybernetic but you’re still reliant on some old methods of communication, of which the Celtic-pop fiddle may be the strangest yet.

Lindsey Stirling’s self-titled debut album is out now on Decca

Lindsey Stirling, dancing dubstep violin player.

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

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Defining The Defenders: the long history of the superhero team-up

Netflix's new show draws on an established traditon of bringing together disparate characters.

Today Marvel’s The Defenders dropped worldwide. It’s the culmination of Marvel Studios’ interlinked series for Netflix, and all episodes will be available simultaneously as is the streaming services’ wont.

The Defenders, and the Netflix series that have preceded it, seem modelled on how the Marvel Cinematic Universe films have worked in multiplexes. At least superficially. Characters get their own solo films/series, which become increasingly interlinked over time, before all featuring together in an onscreen ‘team up’. Here, they combine against a threat greater than any they could plausibly win against on their own, sparring and generating alliances, friendships and even enmities in the process.

This structure, of course, is Marvel’s film and TV projects aping their source material. Marvel’s comics, and superhero comics more generally, have long relished the "team up" and the "super team". The use of this approach by Marvel’s other media ventures is intuitively right, allowing the mass audience for film and television to experience one of the specific pleasures of how superhero comics work in the characters’ new medium.

The concept of the super team goes back a long way. The Justice Society of America, from Marvel’s Distinguished Competition, is usually considered the first. They debuted in All-Star Comics #3 (1940) and the team consisted of the Flash (the Jay Garrick version, Flash TV fans), Green Lantern, Hawkman, and now lesser known characters like Hour-Man, the Sandman (not the Neil Gaiman one), the Atom, The Spectre and Doctor Fate. Within a few issues Wonder Woman would join: as secretary. Because it was the 1940s.

What’s interesting about this initial super team is that half of these characters were published by All-American Comics (who actually published All-Star) and half by DC Comics themselves, making this an inter-company crossover. (The companies would later merge). It also used to be claimed as the first example of characters created separately, and with no intention of them being connected, interacting. It isn’t. There are countless examples in the pulp fictions of the late nineteenth century, but the claim stood for so long because it felt right that the original super team should be the source of such meta-fictional innovation.

The Defenders were created much later in comics history and first appeared in 1971’s Marvel Feature #1. The team, though, had its origins in the "Titans Three" an informal grouping of heroes who appeared in a three part story serialised across Doctor Strange #183 (November 1969), Sub-Mariner #22 (February 1970), and The Incredible Hulk #126 (April 1970).

All three of those comics were written by Roy Thomas. Caught on the hop by the sudden cancellation of Doctor Strange (#183 was the final issue), he wrapped up ongoing plotlines from the cancelled comic in other series he scripted, bringing the now title-less Strange into those other series in the process. A couple more appearances of the group together followed, before the team was formally named in the aforementioned Marvel Feature #1.

Dr Strange. The Sub-Mariner. The Incredible Hulk. It’s quite likely that anyone reading this who is only familiar with the publicity for Netflix’s The Defenders would be surprised by that roster of headline characters. (And that’s assuming they’re even familiar with Namor the Sub-Mariner, a character of 1939 vintage who has not yet reached the MCU.) This is a radically different group to Daredevil, Jessica Jones (a character not even created until the 21st century), Luke Cage and Iron Fist, the stars of the current TV series. None of the telly team are characters a Marvel zombie would associate with The Defenders, although Iron Fist has been a very occasional member of the team’s roster, as has Luke Cage. (In which context, it’s unfortunate that Iron Fist has been the least liked of Netflix’s series, with a mere 17 per cent approval on Rotten Tomatoes.)

The complete absence of all three of the original Defenders from its television incarnation could be seen as an odd decision. Neither Benedict Cumberbatch’s Steven Strange nor Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner are expected to turn up, even for cameos. Marvel Studios has policed a strict division between its Netflix series and its cinematic outings, despite announcing them as being set in the same "continuity". The fourth "classic" Defender is even less likely to turn up. The Silver Surfer (who joined the team in 1972, less than a year after it was formed) is, due to some bad deal making in the 90s, off limits to the MCU. His film rights sit with Fox, who utilised him in the rightly all but forgotten Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007). 

One of the reasonably consistent features of previous incarnations of The Defenders is that the characters have generally faced mystical threats. They first teamed up to fight monsters from HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, and generally their antagonists have operated on that kind of scale. With Stephen Strange in the gang, that makes sense. You don’t need the sorcerer supreme to take out organised crime. But organised crime is largely what you’d expect Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones and Iron Fist to take on, especially based on the Netflix versions of the characters. All four are "street-level" heroes, operating in New York, interacting with characters like murderous vigilante The Punisher and Kingpin of Crime Wilson Fisk. Perhaps splitting the difference, their team up series will see them take on The Hand. This is a ninja organisation, with mystical origins, that is nevertheless involved in organised crime and can be presented, as it has been so far for Netflix, within the context of crime stories.

Marvel’s Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada has defended The Defenders being The Defenders by pointing out that the original team are largely unknown outside comics fandom, and their name means nothing to the public at large. (Although they have, of course, heard of all three of its constituent members.) Of course, for some this might sensible provoke the question "Why use it then?" What is this series called The Defenders at all?

The (original) Defenders were seen as a "non-team", a phrase occasionally used in the pages of their appearances. There was something deconstructive about this kind of team up. It was the pairing of characters who were unsuited to working, even to appearing, together and who would really rather not. (They had, after all, been brought together in the first place simply because Roy Thomas happened to write their separate titles.) The stories told with the group in some ways challenged and confronted the cliches of the decades old form that had begun back in All-Star Comics #3.

The line-up, and tone, of Netflix’s Defenders more resembles that of another, deliberately slightly interrogative non-team, that of the short-lived Marvel Knights book of 2000-2001. This did share The Defenders somewhat abstract definition of "team", featuring characters who didn’t like each other and didn’t want to work together, albeit without any mystical element to how they were brought together. Marvel Knights was also, in theory, the flagship of the line of the same name, at the time edited by... Joe Quesada. Hmm.

In recent years, Marvel have frequently cheerfully remodelled their comics - the original medium for almost all their characters - in order to incorporate changes and innovations pioneered as part of their film and television projects. Remixing their characters and the way they are grouped together in response to the success of their screen empire. The Guardians of the Galaxy, for example, have become more prominent in the comics, while characters whose film rights lie with film companies other than Marvel’s own, such as the aforementioned Fantastic Four, have been pushed to the margins. Accordingly, this August sees the launch of a new The Defenders title, featuring the lineup of characters from the television series.

Some loyal comics readers see this a case of the tail wagging the dog. Others might like to take notice of the metaphor used by comics writer Grant Morrison in his 2011 book SuperGods: Our World In The Age Of The Superhero. There, Morrison argued that comic books, while the medium in which these characters were created, was essentially the discarded booster section of the rocket in which they had been fired into the public consciousness, reaching vastly greater audiences in the process. 

“That’s not The Defenders,” commented a friend of mine on seeing a publicity photograph for the series a few weeks ago. It is now, mate. It is now.