How Pop Stars Turned NPR’s ‘Tiny Desk’ Into Authenticity Theater

What does anyone stand to gain from a string quartet accompanying Post Malone? At one of the megastar’s typical performances, you might find Austin Post standing alone on a vast stage, shirtless, mimicking the postures you might see at a rapper’s show, warbling his melodic pop with its intermittent hip-hop gestures. Recently, though, the singer sat down on the set of NPR’s Tiny Desk concert series — in an unassuming, tchotchke-filled corner of a Washington office — to perform a handful of his songs with a larger ensemble: 12 musicians, including four backup vocalists and four string players, rearranging his hits to highlight multipart harmonies and the twinkle of acoustic instruments. Why?

Gradually, over its 15 years of existence, the Tiny Desk series has come to host some of the biggest names in music — artists like Taylor Swift, Alicia Keys and Harry Styles. That’s something of a coup, given its roots. In its early days, Tiny Desk programming was geared toward exactly the kinds of performers you might expect to find playing an intimate set in a mundane corner of an office, with no stage or lights or flashy videography: folk acts, singer-songwriters, crooning indie-rockers. The series has always introduced listeners to new musicians, and it still hosts performances in an impressive array of genres. But its biggest gets, back in the late aughts, were acts like The Swell Season or Tallest Man on Earth — musicians practiced at addressing small, hushed rooms with acoustic instruments.

Then T-Pain changed everything. By the time the Tallahassee star performed a Tiny Desk concert, in 2014, his use of Autotune as a musical signature had led plenty of casual listeners to assume the pitch-correcting tool was hiding a weak voice. Even fellow artists complained that he was polluting the industry. (He was depressed for years, he has said, after Usher told him that he had “killed music.”) T-Pain used his Tiny Desk performance to demolish the idea that he lacked talent, sitting beside a single electric-piano player and singing, beautifully, with no digital adornment. The video of his set went viral, not least among those only just learning that his use of Autotune was artistic flair, not a crutch; it remains one of the most watched of the hundreds of sessions Tiny Desk has produced.

The Tiny Desk series became a prime venue for artists seeking an authenticity baptism. The series built its audience organically, getting bigger bookings and finding frequent viral successes. If you’re looking to discover young folk, rock or jazz acts, or to rediscover sidelined innovators, its nonpop shows remain a valuable and thoughtfully programmed resource. But for pop artists, it has become a tool with a very specific utility: demonstrating in-the-room chops. It inherits this role from a long line of similar series — chief among them MTV’s “Unplugged,” a pioneer in the field of forcing musicians to spend a set signaling their allegiance to the values of ensemble performance. You don’t have to perform with acoustic instruments on Tiny Desk, but musicians often choose to. (Post Malone, for instance, used the string quartet to replace all the charming synth bleeps and bloops of his recordings; it’s a common Tiny Desk move to render digital production flourishes acoustically.) The audio and video are engineered in-house at NPR, an act of submission that’s rare in a world where stars seek to control every part of their image. And the old air of coffeehouse intimacy has, for big acts, been oddly abandoned, replaced by a new kind of excess geared to the constraints of the format. Post Malone’s Tiny Desk ensemble rivaled the number of musicians on his nationwide arena tour.

A Tiny Desk appearance doesn’t just underline musical skill: There’s also star quality. Listeners already knew that Usher, for instance, could sing. But he could still capitalize on T-Pain’s precedent. Last year he used a Tiny Desk set to remind people that he is a charismatic performer even without the benefit of lavish stage production — an effective advertisement for the second leg of his Las Vegas residency shows. The purpose of a Tiny Desk appearance in a pop marketing campaign is now to assert the artist’s performing prowess, an opportunity that has been seized on by artists like Lizzo and Anderson .Paak, whose chops are key parts of their stardom.

Often the goal of presenting songs in this format doesn’t feel financial or artistic or even purely a matter of marketing; sometimes it feels almost ideological. Post Malone doesn’t exactly need the exposure Tiny Desk offers. He surely has the resources to stage his own acoustic performance videos. But Tiny Desk offers the perfect venue to present himself as a genre-transcending renegade. The performance that results feels less like a musical idea and more like a statement about his persona — an argument that he’s not “just” a hip-hop artist, that his hit song “I Fall Apart” can be both a stadium banger and cello-adorned chamber music.

There are perils in this hybridity. Stripped of the artificial charm he can summon in a recording studio or the collective exhilaration he can rely on in an arena, the Tiny Desk version of Post Malone reveals his songs a little too clearly for what they are. The packaging insists that he’s able to transcend genre, but his blithe transit through rap, pop and ballads shows no commitment to any of these forms beyond ensuring their availability to him. Their meanings are hollowed out; their signifiers are piled up into a thing without a center. The whole set sounds like no one thought much about making it good — only about making the point that Post Malone could do it.

Post isn’t the only artist whose Tiny Desk performance revealed a certain shallowness. Take the British producer and electronic musician Fred Again. It’s hard to imagine many of his forebears in dance music capitulating to the notion that “authentic” live performance is the way to justify their work. But Fred Gibson aimed his music at a Tiny Desk funnel, performing alone at a piano amid a nest of samplers and synthesizers. His anthems for crying on the dance floor felt, without the dance floor, like a saccharine, exhausting solicitation of approval — more interested in asserting that Gibson is a composer and a performer than in doing justice to the genre he’s currently dominating.

With every year, more and more of pop music moves over into the disembodied world of digital sound production, pushing further into the synthetic, the abstract — sounds that are neither rooted in nor trying to imitate anything in the real world. At the same time, audiences seem to hunger for a certain type of authenticity theater, and artists hunger to perform it. It grows steadily more tempting for musicians to hedge their eccentricities and creative excursions into studio sounds with lavish office-corner performances — sets that are growing steadily more incongruous and strange. The Tiny Desk is where pop stars can go to reconcile all the exquisite contradictions of being a performing musician in 2023. For some, a better option is to leave them be.

Opening illustration: Source photographs from NPR

Adlan Jackson is a writer from Kingston, Jamaica, who covers music in New York. He runs the Critical Party Studies blog.

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