Guest again? Why it's time stars such as Taylor Swift and Drake cut the cameos

Since the pop singer’s 1989 tour, star-studded sets have been all the rage. But have we finally passed the tipping point for unnecessary collaborations?

Ever get the feeling you haven’t been cheated at all? If you’ve attended a major live concert over the last few years, there’s every chance you’ve experienced a quasi-revue show in which your chosen headliner has wheeled out a Very Special Guest. The pairings at this year’s Coachella festival (Kanye and the Weeknd; DJ Snake and Lauryn Hill; Hans Zimmer and Pharrell) were so extreme that it felt like its organisers were operating an elaborate buddy programme, while Drake’s US tour last year featured more rappers and sports stars than a pool party.

This may reflect what’s happening in the charts (at the time of writing, over a third of the songs in the UK Top 100 include featured artists, most of them Dua Lipa), but is this an era when it’s no longer enough to see a massive star banging out hits, where audiences who leave collab-free shows feel shortchanged?

Perhaps Taylor Swift’s 1989 tour in 2015 created more than just one monster. Like much in her world, the tour’s genius lay at the intersection of laser-guided PR nous and total megalomania. Most large-scale world tours contain a set-piece that creates media buzz around the first night but Swift’s spin – reserving a spot each night in order to welcome to the stage performers from Pitbull and the Weeknd to Ricky Martin and Matt Le Blanc – secured tour coverage spanning several months. The drip-feed inspired a popular YouTube video in which an evidently rather refreshed “fan” impersonated Swift (“Please welcome to the stage … The ashes of the victims of the Salem witch trial!”) but by the time the real Swift invited Lisa Kudrow to perform Smelly Cat, her actions were already self-satirising.

DJ Snake and Lauryn Hil at this year’s Coachella.

Mainstream awards shows should also take some of the blame. Year after year, they insist “special” equates to a “once in a lifetime meeting of minds” (from this year’s Brits: Coldplay and the Chainsmokers), the tacit suggestion being that “just” one megastar simply doesn’t cut it. The flipside sees artists who secure guests on record then find touring tricky: Calvin Harris’s penchant for A-list vocalists would turn a full-on live tour into an admin nightmare, while Clean Bandit wheel out session vocalists to recreate more famous artists’ vocal endeavours. (Don’t pretend you weren’t disappointed when it was Beyoncé’s get-me-disembodied voice duetting with Lady Gaga on Telephone at this year’s Super Bowl.)

Guests create “I-was-there” moments for an audience, even if the next night’s audience gets its own “I-was-also-there” experience. They also liven things up for artists who find themselves trotting out identical shows for months on end. But a truly special performance increasingly feels like one with no special guests at all.


Peter Robinson

The GuardianTramp

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