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2 October 2016

Could virtual reality solve the problem of pop-star stage fright?

The Björk Digital “exhibition” turns out to be more mundane, but at least she doesn't need a large brandy to appear as a hologram.

By Tracey Thorn

I’ve been feeling sorry for Zayn Malik this week. He may be a young, rich, super-handsome ex-member of a mega-star boy band, but since he went solo he’s been in the news for his battles with stage fright, and that always elicits my sympathy. A couple of weeks ago he cancelled an upcoming gig in Dubai, citing “extreme anxiety”, and pulled a show in London earlier in the summer for the same reason.

He’s not alone in this – the previous week, Selena Gomez cancelled tour dates after panic attacks and a singer from the group Fifth Harmony, Camila Cabello, left the stage during a gig in Missouri, explaining afterwards that she “was having too much anxiety” to finish the set. Not everyone is supportive. Twitter attracted the unforgiving, who called Zayn: a) a wimp and b) an idiot for going solo when he couldn’t cope with being alone on stage.

I guess the obvious answer to the second accusation is that he didn’t know. In One Direction, he only had to carry one-fifth of the show, and perhaps felt that he had only one-fifth of the audience’s attention focused on him. He could lean on his bandmates for support; there was safety in numbers. And that gang-like solidarity of the band has propped up the nerves and fragile egos of even the most revered performers.

Reading David Hepworth’s book 1971: Never a Dull Moment, I was fascinated by an insight into the members of the Beatles after the group split up. George Harrison found that he was uncomfortable with being a solo performer, and when John Lennon played one gig with the Plastic Ono Band in 1969, stage fright caused him to throw up before the show. Hepworth writes, “He’d spent thousands of hours on stage but he’d never spent any time with anyone but the Beatles. He’d always looked to his right and seen the same faces.”

If even John felt shaky without Paul, I think Zayn deserves a little compassion for feeling shaky without Harry. And I’m impressed by the modern-day honesty of these performers, owning up to their reasons for cancelling. I’m hoping this means that they’re also seeking help, through therapy or coaching, and will be smarter than previous generations, which often self-medicated with pills and booze.

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Thinking about all this, I went to see “Björk Digital” at Somerset House, an audiovisual presentation of her recent music. I’d heard that the virtual-reality headsets gave you an up-close, 360-degree experience that made it feel like she was right there in front of you, and it set me wondering: might this represent some kind of alternative to touring for the anxious singer?

Perhaps a younger generation, weaned on video games and used to watching YouTube footage on their phones, might reach the point where they no longer need the real-life performer in front of them. We could consign stage fright to the dustbin of history. But in fact the Björk “exhibition” turns out to be more mundane – an hour of watching pop videos, albeit good pop videos.

I put on the headset and headphones and sit on a stool, on which you can spin right round to experience the full 360 degrees, and watch her perform “Stonemilker” on a lunar beach in Iceland. Yes, she is very close, and at first it does seem hyperreal, as though she’s in the room with you, but, because of this, you also see very clearly the moments when the lip sync inevitably slips slightly out, reminding you that you’re watching someone miming, not singing. The knowledge that this is a filmed and not a live performance is inescapable.

No, this isn’t an alternative to a gig (and nor does it claim to be). Just wishful thinking on my part. What’s missing is the danger of a live show, the sense that something different might happen.

As the videos roll by, I find myself drifting off, remembering the time I had a cup of tea with Björk in the Top of the Pops canteen. How small she was, and yet how energetically, electrically alive. We had our photo taken together, then I retreated to my dressing room for a large brandy in order to get myself out on that stage. 

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This article appears in the 28 Sep 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories