Taking the long view on popular music

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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.

New Statesman
Lindsey Stirling, dancing dubstep violin player.

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