The hot, sultry, sweaty musician has become a bit of a cliché in pop culture, particularly in the 80-90s era of grandiose arena rock and pop. Some stars have even become somewhat infamous for their profuse sweating on stage.
It’s also widely known and accepted amongst musicians in general that sweating, and how to manage it, is just part of the deal with performing live.
Why is sweating of all things such a well known and discussed facet of musical performance? and why has it even become a sort of hallmark of some famous musicians? It’s definitely an interesting phenomenon with some interesting reasons behind it.
Venues can get hot
Take any room and fill it shoulder to shoulder with people, and it will quickly warm up, by ten degrees easily, or more. Not to mention it will get more humid. Human bodies and the air they breathe out is much hotter than an average-ish ambient temperature. All the more so if you get people moving and dancing to music. Add to that a typical music venue that emphasizes sound propagation/proofing and ambience rather than ventilation, and you’ve got an environment that’s prone to make musicians and anyone else get hot and sweat.
Lighting accentuates sweat (and is also hot)
One thing that often surprises people if they ever mosey on up to a stage is how potent and bright the lighting is. Not just the obvious flashy stuff to make the performance exciting, but the regular old lighting that it actually takes to be able to just see the performers all that well.
Stage lights make everything, including sweat, glisten and become more visually prominent.
Lights also emit heat, and sometimes a lot of it. Stand a few feet from any standard-ish lamp, and take the cover off while you’re at it – if you pay attention you will definitely feel noticeable heat. LED style lights, which stage/performance lighting tends to be, are especially prone to getting hot and emitting heat.
Now, imagine many of these lights, of a commercial nature and many multiples more powerful than a standard-ish house lamp, all shining directly at you for hours, and it’s easy to see why performing musicians on stage can sweat profusely.
Live performance fashion for looks rather than practicality
Outrageous fashion has inexorably become a part of live musical performance.
And while all that spandex, polyester, hair spray, and makeup might look cool in an over the top way, it’s not exactly conducive to mitigating perspiration like regular gym attire is.
Performing can be very strenuous and exertive
When you look at some of the iconic live performers who incorporated a lot of visuals and choreography into their productions, you can see that what they’re doing is pretty on par with a fitness class or straight up jogging.
It’s easy to see that just about anyone would work up a sweat doing something like that.
Performing can be very stressful
On top of everything, don’t forget a live musician is trying to execute a performance that perhaps many people have paid to see, and that perhaps might make or break their career and income. This can be stressful, to say the least, and stress can make people sweat a lot.
Illicit substance use probably doesn’t help
We won’t name anything or anyone here, but, it’s not exactly a secret that people, performers and attendees alike, sometimes use controlled substances to enhance their ability or experience. Many of these things are medically known to increase sweating, sometimes by a lot.
Fun fact: some musicians sweat on purpose
Jackie Wilson, the singer of the iconic song Higher and Higher, is one such musician who managed to develop a reputation for his profuse sweating on stage, and it wasn’t an accident it turns out:
According to Larry Geller, who visited Wilson backstage in Las Vegas with Elvis Presley, the singer had a habit of taking a handful of salt tablets and drinking large amounts of water before each performance, to create profuse sweating. Wilson told Elvis Presley, “The chicks love it.” (source)
How to deal with sweat at a live music performance
Dehydration is a very real concern that sometimes requires medical attention at a live performance (source). It’s important for anyone attending such an event be mindful of this and be prepared to replenish fluids and electrolytes.