The opening scene of Noonie Bao's video for “I'm In Love” shows the Swedish odd-pop practitioner walking through an industrial parking lot, decked out immaculately in a stylish coat, mint green slacks and white shoes. She carries plastic orange shopping bags, with these accessories perfectly complementing her outfit. Suddenly angry, Bao lifts the bags high over her shoulder and smashes them against a wall, their contents oozing out like multi-colored paint. Next, we move to an apartment’s interior, where a vacuum cleaner goes rogue, knitting needles become bizarre instruments of facial contortion—and those bags reappear, almost bleeding out over the carpet. What’s real becomes unexpectedly—suddenly—surreal.
This kind of corruption of the mundane makes for a neat representation of how a cluster of European artists are messing with the rules of pop performance. The seven artists highlighted here are nibbling at the mainstream by taking the risks necessary to create oddly unsettling but deeply intriguing work—and they’ve worked out it's more fun to push the boundaries; that pop almost pleads for that to happen. So we have one French artist in thrall to the strange juxtaposition of identities and imagery; another who uses space to create visually arresting modern dance; a Belgian minimalist; a Swedish sad-disco pioneer with a love of kitchen dancing; a snake-wielding Italian and, of course, an expressive eyebrow actress from Germany.
These videos and performances focus on imagination and impulse more than, say, what’s most obviously commercially viable. Even so, the mainstream is reliably quick to draw from its fringes—and just last week, Madonna invited Christine and The Queens to join her on stage in Paris. Welcome to the new breed.
1. Christine and The Queens
France's Héloïse Letissier, aka Christine and The Queens, has been redefining pop performance for the last eighteen months, with Michael Jackson-inspired choreography that mixes the delicacy of ballet and the combative spirit of performance art. While recent videos for the minimal “No Harm Done” and the delicate “Jonathan” used movement sparingly—Letissier’s body appearing to convulse almost against her will at times—her visual tour de force remains 2014’s “Saint Claude.” A pulsing electro-pop fable, the video accentuates the bilingual song's message of celebrating physical difference, with Letissier's body stretched and contorted as she gracefully glides around a minimal stage.
2. Francesca Belmonte
In the video for the agitated “Stole,” Italy's Francesca Belmonte—a regular Tricky collaborator—eats up the screen, whether stalking around in a suit or employing some arm-heavy expressionist dance while draped in something silky. For the sonically more direct follow-up “Are You,” this sense of loose experimentation is replaced in the video with rigid artfulness as naked models wear Margiela/Kanye-esque jeweled masks and compete with billowing fabrics. Here, Belmonte sticks to the adage of ‘less is more’ for her performance, with her yogic seated position and some close-up eye action augmenting the video’s drip-feed momentum. There’s also a striking moment where an albino snake—not dissimilar to the one Britney famously once sported around her neck—is placed carefully on her head.
3. Loïc Nottet
Europe's annual celebration of music, flag waving and tactical voting the Eurovision Song Contest usually throws up a curveball or twelve. Typically these tend to involve things like electro swing (2015 UK entrant Electro Velvet), goblin-inspired death metal (2006 champions Lordi) or wholesome, family-friendly pop acts with a slight maniacal edge (Irish twins Jedward). This year, however, the shock came via the show's Kryptonite: intriguing minimalism. Belgian Loïc Nottet's excellent “Rhythm Inside” was a featherlight R&B song that's 90% finger clicks—all sparsity and convincing emotions. Just as interesting was the performance itself, with a serious, black-clad Nottet marching in front of a bank of white lights before suddenly pirouetting and, just as suddenly, going back to his solemn march. At one point he lays on his back in among his white-clad backing singers to create some sort of human chess board.
4. Noonie Bao
Swedish singer-songwriter Noonie Bao revels in the absurd. Working with a colour palette of popping oranges and pinks, her visual world is as vibrant as her pop songs—which she's also written for Charli XCX (“Doing It”) and Carly Rae Jepsen (“Run Away With Me”). In the video for “I'm In Love” she poses in silhouette with a chair on her head, wears a scarf of plastic piping while watching a nature documentary and dances around with said pipe attached to her hair surrounded by billowing plastic sheets. Even the more subdued “Criminal Love” has some continued hair experimentation and laser-shooting eyeballs. The key here is that the art never overshadows the pop, just enhances it.
5. Petite Meller
Looking like a Lolita-styled Wes Anderson creation, complete with overly rouged cheekbones, Petite Meller's video for the undeniable “Baby Love” is like an elaborate fashion shoot brought to life. So the Paris-born pop singer poses with a couple of giraffe (kissing one of them, obviously), pretends to be a flamingo and dances in her underwear with some school children. The follow-up “Barbaric” basically replicated the “Baby Love” video (and the song, let's be honest) and set it in an old people's home, only cementing Meller's desire to stand out.
6. Erik Hassle
When a song and video synergise perfectly it can elevate both to new heights of wonder. This is the case with Erik Hassle's sad-disco dazzler “No Words,” the video to which features the Swedish artist showing up uninvited to a stranger’s kitchen, ungainly sashaying around a slippery floor and throwing various breakfast ingredients everywhere. While high-concept dance videos by the likes of Sia and her dancers Maddie Ziegler and Mahiro Takano are all very well, they're hardly easy to replicate while miming along to the songs. The unbound joy with “No Words” is that anyone can do it, all you need—and trust me on this one—is a tiled kitchen floor and a desire to lose all inhibitions. In a pop world of rigid choreography, the latter is what makes it all so affirming.
7. Leena Ojala
Leena Ojala was born in Germany to a Finnish father and English mother, before being raised in Hong Kong and London. She then moved back to Germany to record her recent release, EP1. If all of that sounds quite exhausting it may explain why in the video for the lovely “Why” Ojala is basically stood stock still. The performance element lies in the details, chiefly Ojala's incredibly emotive eyebrows. While the video's narrative concerns a subplot about a teenage runaway, the black and white clips of Ojala are where the real action takes place. In fact there's more choreography on display above her eyes than in most pop videos’ entire length, with her two perfectly asymmetrical strips of hair expressing the song's desperate yearning perfectly.