The rock star is dead - but the idea of one lives on

Multiple formats of 24/7 digital access have killed off the magic of mystique that our musical stars once had, writes Suzanne Harrington
The rock star is dead - but the idea of one lives on

The rock star is dead — now that we have rock star chefs, rock star presidents, rock star comedians, rock star athletes, the term is meaninglessness. Diluted by celebrity, killed by social media. Multiple formats of 24/7 digital access have finished off the rock star magic of mystique and elusivity, distance and enigma.

The rock star is like the cowboy or the chorus girl — an iconic emblem of a past era, running from the mid-1950s to the death of the last true rock star — Kurt Cobain in 1994. So says music writer David Hepworth in his latest book, Uncommon People: The Rise and Fall of the Rock Stars.

Yet the idea of the rock star, like the idea of the cowboy, lives on.

Rock stars, says Hepworth, were not hatched by Disney or hot housed in expensive stage schools. They were “from the masses and got to the top without the help of education, training, family ties, money or any other conventional ladders. They came from ordinary backgrounds and had no reason to expect that they would be ever be special. At the same time they refused to be anything but exceptional.” They were David Bowie, not Kanye West. Their peak era was the 1970s and 1980s, and they were mostly men.

From Little Richard and Keith Richards, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, Aerosmith and Led Zeppelin, Liam Gallagher and Primal Scream, there are shared rock star traits. “Swagger. Recklessness. Sexual charisma. Damn-the-torpedoes self-belief. A certain way of carrying themselves. Good hair. Interesting shoes. Talent we wished we had.” And we demand specific behaviours from them: “To be larger than life but also like us. To live out their songs. To stay young forever. No wonder many didn’t stay the course.” And to be non-materialistic millionaires, and invincible hedonists.

So while many died young — Elvis, Buddy Holly, Jimi Hendrix, JanisJoplin, Jim Morrison — those who remained morphed into heritage acts, on endless nostalgia tours; old bands playing old songs to old audiences. Nobody in the era of smartphones could tour with the debauchery and bad behaviour of Led Zeppelin or Ziggy Stardust — it would end up all over TMZ, Buzzfeed, Popbitch. They were distant gods, their excess and untouchability elevating them beyond their mortal fanbase.

“The true rock stars rose and fell with the fortunes of the post war record industry,” writes Hepworth. Now that the record industry has changed beyond recognition, anyone with a webcam and a smartphone can be a bedroom rock star, but in its hey day, the rock star was the ultimate brand, inspiring fierce devotion and related record sales. Their demise coincided with the demise of physical product — vinyl — and the changing structure of the music business.

“Music no longer belongs in a category of otherness,” says Hepworth. “It’s just another brand of the distraction business owned by the same multinational conglomerates as the theme parks and the multiplexes……These days you can even be a rock star fund manager.” In the pre digital era, legend was more easily created and maintained. Keith Moon did not drive a Rolls Royce into a swimming pool, the Beatles did not smoke weed in Buckingham Palace, and Marianne Faithful was never that keen on Mars Bars — we just loved the stories, thrilled by their transgression. (These days, music stars are more likely to be photographed jogging with their personal trainers and downing protein shakes than doing unspeakable things with drugs and groupies; the walking wreckage of old rockers like Ozzy Osbourne serves as a reminder of what happens when hedonism wins).

It took decades for the rock star stereotype to build, yet beyond the cliché of inappropriate hair and unsuitable trousers, there is no one archetype — the definition must include, says Hepworth, everyone from Bob Dylan to Paul McCartney, Sid Vicious to The Edge and Bob Marley. What they all have in common is that they are uncommon. They got up there, and they shone.

Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan

So what happened? What killed the genre off? Social media means that we are all now legends in our own lunchtime; we all have a platform, an audience, an online performance space. Of course there are still actual stars — because we will always need stars — but they are no longer rock stars. Nor is our musical consumption the same — there are now too many options and formats available to us, the audience, to bother hanging around grotty venues watching bands that are still not very good, hoping they will eventually reach the rock stratosphere. Intensive farming formats like X Factor hasn’t helped.

And there’s hip hop. To Millennial ears, raised on a diet of rap and dance, “the sound of a rock band can seem as quaint as the sound of a Dixieland jazz band was to the Stones fans of the early sixties,” says Hepworth. Just as each genre — jazz, rock, punk, hip hop – provoked a mass parental heart attack, each is considered old hat by the generation that followed. Rock, once beyond the outer edges of acceptability, is now something your parents — and grandparents — nod along to. It belongs to Back In The Day. It’s over.

More in this section