Since its inception in 1975, Saturday Night Live has featured over six hundred musical performers, and has long reigned as the most coveted late-night slot for a musician. Between the show’s capacity to book superstars, legends, and rising indie wunderkinds all within a week of each other, and the chance to perform two songs live for an engaged, national television audience, a successful appearance can boost an artist at the height of their success, or save an otherwise flailing album cycle. It’s also long served as a signal of cultural relevance — for new artists it’s a visible sign of their presence or success, and a booking functions like an acknowledgment from the top tier of show business.
SNL makes social and political commentary that’s accessible and important enough to spawn spin-off movies, their skits make headlines, and some even catch the attention of public figures like the president. For an artist to align themselves with the quality and reputation of the show is not just another chance for exposure, it’s a chance to establish themselves as a pop culture fixture. And though SNL has featured their fair share of pop stars over the last five decades, the three most recently-booked acts have all been mainstream, female pop stars: Billie Eilish, Taylor Swift who will perform on the show for the fourth time tomorrow night, and Camila Cabello, who is scheduled for a debut appearance the following Saturday night, October 12.
It’s enough artists in a row who represent a certain kind of music — generally regarded as less important and less valuable prior to the poptimist movement — that it might signify a shift in the show’s musical tone. Even more surprising was the production quality of Billie’s performances last week, and perhaps SNL is looking to shift not only the tone of artists they most frequently book, but how they’re able to show up on set, too. Although notoriously finicky artists like Kanye West might lobby for special lighting or set design for his gloriously over-the-top performances, most have been relegated to a mic, a dark backdrop, and a minimal backing band; Billie’s camera effects and green screens suggest the dark, simple stage might be on its way out.
This is only a good thing, not just for artists, but obviously for TV audiences, who are inundated with more intricate, technological production at award shows, arena stages, and festivals every year — why shouldn’t SNL raise their standards to compete with the rest of the entertainment world? By offering artists the chance to do something more creative and interesting, they’re better suited to book artists like Taylor — who had almost a ten-year gap between early appearances and her 2017 return — and rising Gen Z stars like Camila and Billie, who grew up with different expectations.
And maybe Taylor will keep things simple tomorrow night, and appear with just a piano or a guitar like she’s done in the past, but there’s also a chance she’ll try out some of the new visual elements she’s been bringing in for the Lover era, and create something special and unexpected for her fans. If there’s anyone who loves to up the ante, it’s Swift, and if she continues in the same vein that Billie kicked off this pop streak with, there’s a good chance it’ll set the tone for a whole new emphasis when it comes to musical guests.
Besides, pop and SNL are practically a match made in heaven; not only are their fans loyal and willing to tune in for anything their idols are involved in, but the current events and tongue-in-cheek humor the show has long adopted as its main topics are very relevant to teens and younger people, who may not be as familiar with the sketch show’s long history. Booking younger, pop-focused artists with young fans is a chance to win over a whole new generation to become regular SNL watchers. It’s also a great place to book artists who wear their political affiliations and social justice activism on their sleeves, since it’s already a place with such a historically political bent.
Whether or not booking these three women in a row was a signal of a sea change at Saturday Night Live or just a happy accident for pop fans, it’s still a feather in the cap for these women — Billie and Camila especially, who are taking the stage for the first time. For someone like Taylor, it’s proof that her staying power hasn’t diminished at all, and that she’s always been ahead of the curve when it comes to changing people’s expectations about the constraints and misconceptions of genre. And, if her SNL appearance ends up being a teaser for the Lover live show, it’s only a hint of how the show might function in the future.