It seems that the idea of ‘a rock star’ has been whittled down to a final form easily recognised and described by everyone. It makes it hard, however, to recall how recent the clichés involved are. The entire industry of pop music, let alone rock music (a 1970s creation), didn’t exist until the mid-1950s. In retrospect the worship of Elvis, or the hysterical reactions to The Beatles seem hard to comprehend but in each case these artists were the first of their kind, there was no mould to be filled early in their careers and, afterwards, no template for what a mid-career music star should do or should behave. The association with sexuality (albeit a gentle sexuality at the time) began with Elvis; the drug connection (while quietly present within jazz) surfaced in The Beatles; the wildman image was already appealing and became a core part of the identity we’re describing here thanks to The Rolling Stones.
The Seventies solidified and deepened the ideal that had been forged. The drugs became omnipresent and almost celebrated as a sign of wealth and decadence. The sex became essentially a form of public display with groupies and orgies replacing the quieter awareness that flocks of girls were surrounding the stars. The bad boy image was fleshed out with destructive acts carried out on musical instruments or hotel rooms, flirtations with black magic or Satanism or whatever other flavour of the month would rile people. Again, while historical precedents can be found in the blues (whether Robert Johnson selling his soul or Lead Belly’s repeated arrests for violence) these elements only cemented into an identity at this point, one that would be worn like a uniform in the Eighties rock scene.
Punk stripped down the musical style and rejected the increasing move to omnipotent and untouchable rock god status — yet it did so by retaining the focus on certain core pieces of the, now established, identity; the violence, drugs, sex, the bad (and photogenic) behaviour all wrapped up in a package designed to appeal to an audience on lower budgets. Punk didn’t produce a brand new rock star image, it selectively embellished the existing one in the interests of accessibility – anyone could do it and it doesn’t take much effort to mimic something sordid. The same era also saw the question posed, for the first time, what does an aging star do? The answers were semi-retirement (Lennon), finding God (Dylan), vast over-indulgence (Elvis) or increasingly soft and friendly tunes and plenty of quality-lite collaboration with friends (Jagger, Bowie, McCartney) with the occasional death to spice it up and make it dangerous again.
The Eighties didn’t revolutionize this image; the Eighties were basically a blending of aspects of punk with the now stable vision of the rock stars. What occured instead was a constant escalation into cartoon realms; who could do what, with whom, who did the most – the image of the rock star reached its grand finale. With the mainstream model so rigidly defined, it was the first time there had truly been an underground bubbling away, an all-encompassing term for bands that departed from the image that would be promoted, funded, given access to recording facilities. A lot of the older generation, who had set the model, were now so firmly established that they were now core to the pop scene rather than living separately in a rock ghetto.
Nirvana’s ‘revolution’ was therefore less a case of a fundamental musical shift, it was about the change in the image. The music itself was a merging of existing styles, definitely radio-friendly, not that divorced from existing rock modes. But Nirvana explicitly rejected the rampant sexism, the charmless and nihilistic violence, the self-aggrandisement (marrying models, flagrant consumption, extroverted partying, fast cars…) It didn’t make them saints, or pure beings, but it was the first time a female-friendly, pro-gay rights, enlightened rock image had been projected in an uncompromised fashion since the age of The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix. Nirvana knew it too, they spoke again and again about their opposition to, and difference from, the established view of what it meant to be a rock star, how it was the music that differentiated them from heavy metal, how bored and played out rock was. The glitch in what they were saying was, however, that their problem was not one of music — it was about the entire concept of what being a rock star was. Nirvana didn’t tear down rock music, they tore down the ROCKSTAR.
Having shown how false the image was, it was impossible to put the idea of the rock star back together again. Kurt Cobain personally killed the heroin chic that had ruled since the early 70s by being brought low and, in the eyes of many, destroyed by it all within barely two years of the early 1992 peak of fame. The decline was so fast it retained the ability to actually shock; from peak-to-trough it had never been so swift or so submerged in sordid detail — the junkie baby rumours were important for a much broader reason which is that it killed the sense of deviant fun that had somehow survived even Sid Vicious’ ending (at the time seen as an overdose.) There had been drug deaths before, there had been long declines, but there hadn’t been many deaths while still firmly in the spotlight, few cases in which the grossness of the experience had been so visible to the public eye and so indefensible. It was hard to celebrate the drugs.
Kurt simultaneously wrecked the idea of the all-conquering rock God by abdicating his throne; rock stars didn’t quit, they were immortals who could only be destroyed by outside forces. Kurt Cobain ruined the ideal of the rock star as the most fun a man (almost always a man up to that point) could have by never ceasing to show he despised it. Others had reacted to fame by retreated from the spotlight but it had seemed an affectation that could only be afforded by the very rich; one they’d repent when they needed the income or attention and in the meantime they’d sit very nicely in their penthouses drowning in entertainments. Kurt was the biggest rock star in the world and just at the crucial moment when everyone was looking his way…He laid waste to a few of the clichés. It was fitting that his suicide came with both heroin and a bullet; symbol of hedonism and metaphor of manliness forever stained all in one fell swoop.
There’s not really been much since. Billy Corgan was the last rock star of the old mould but only on record, in person he was very much the new generation intent on hauling down the idol of the ROCKSTAR. The components of the image — drugs, hedonism, sex, self-aggrandisement, destruction — are all still there but the arms race that had flowed from the fifties onwards had ceased when Kurt Cobain one-upped the entire world. There was no way to top what he did, nor to restore the pieces he showed were simply laughable. The baton passed to the world of hip hop which has been busy running through a remarkably similar and tired tale at high speed from initial revolution, through excess, into cartoon, division into mainstream and underground, finally coming ending up indistinguishable from pop music and certainly with not an ounce of rebellion left in it.
Its why the article below stirred a certain nostalgia in me; it fondly reminded me that revolutions rarely demolish what came before, they either adopt them or mutate them into tweaked shapes.
Alternative all-stars join the 25th anniversary of Dinosaur Jr’s You’re Living All Over Me
Rock star guests, casual collaborations among old friends who share vanity labels and private studios, tributes to their own history, the ability to toss half-baked projects out on name alone, diversions into other business ventures and kids kicking off their own bands…It may be enacted by bands I adore, but it all feels kinda familiar. And all with the same friendliness the Travelling Wilburys or Live Aid brought to a previous generation.
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