Rock stars were a phenomenon of the later 20th century. They were people who lived (and often died) with a dangerous, yet seemingly free outlook. The public remains fascinated by these characters. They are seen on posters in HMV, in movie biopics, and on late-night BBC 4 documentaries. Rock stars, however, are no longer mainstream in popular music. In old photographs printed on band t-shirts, they seem to belong to a past age in culture where there were expectations of larger than life personalities, and in many cases, of some mischievous (if not outright illegal) behaviour. All this raises questions: where have the rock stars gone? Why did they appeal to us, and will they ever return?
In his 2017 book, Uncommon People: The Rise and Fall of the Rock Stars, David Hepworth explores the 20th century phenomenon of rock stars. He acknowledges: “the true rock stars rose and fell with the fortunes of the post-war record industry. They came along in the mid-fifties and they passed away in the last decade of the century just gone”. As a cultural phenomenon, rock ‘n’ roll emerged with the post-war prosperity of the United States. While there had been much personal loss during the Second World War, the United States emerged from the conflict with economic hegemony. The economies of competitors before the war in western Europe, The Soviet Union and Japan had been devastated. Subsequently, the U.S. had a large lead over other economies and increased personal wealth across the nation as it switched from a wartime economy to one of individual consumers. Many of these consumers were young, as the U.S. experienced a high birth rate following the war. With a large percentage of the U.S. population being adolescents with money to spend, record companies recognised this demographic as an emerging market. In the 1950s, acts that young people could specifically identify with, such as Elvis Presley were marketed towards them. By the 1970s genres had diversified and young people had the choice of a pantheon of musical idols to follow, and this is when the marketing/social term ‘rock star’ began to be used.
Although a rock star is difficult to define, Hepworth notes that in the popular imagination, a rock star is someone associated with: “swagger. Imprudence. Sexual Charisma. Utter self-reliance. Damn-the-torpedoes self-belief. A tendency to act on instinct. A particular way of carrying themselves. Good hair. Interesting shoes”. Essentially, they are confident individuals, and from this they derive their perceived authenticity that an audience can identify with. Perhaps it is their self-confidence in doing their own thing that made them appeal particularly to younger audiences, whose identities are still malleable and roles in society not clearly defined.
The indie band, Primal Scream, summed up the rock star ethic of a self-reliant individual in the audio they sampled to begin their 1992 single, Loaded. A voice asking, “Just what is it that you want to do?”, receives the reply:
“Well, we wanna be free, we wanna be free to do what we wanna do.
And we wanna get loaded and we wanna have a good time.
And that’s what we’re gonna do (away baby, let’s go).
We’re gonna have a good time, we’re gonna have a party”.
This dialogue is sampled from the 1966 film, The Wild Angels, and the scene it is taken from is possibly one of the most rock ‘n’ roll scenes there is. (Watch here.) It depicts the funeral of a member of the Hell’s Angels biker gang. During the service, the leader of the gang, Heavenly Blues, disrespects and challenges the authority of the priest by speaking out: “man, you’re so full of bull you don’t even know it”. The priest responds by telling him that he has wasted his life: “why this young man could have made of his life any number of thing”. Heavenly Blues then philosophises:
“Let me tell you what life made of him. God, how life never let him alone to do what he wanted to do. God how life always made him be good. Always pay the rent. And to shovel it. Aw no preach, not children of God, but Hell’s Angels”.
The scene summarises the conflict of the film: between the Hell’s Angels – who want to be free individuals, doing whatever they desire – and society (epitomised by the priest and Christianity more generally) which has a strict moral structure and tries to restrain the power of individuals, labelling overly individualistic actions as immoral or even satanic. The Hell’s Angels do abominable things during the film – they loot, rape, and are extremely violent – but they believe themselves to be free, rebelling against an oppressive society, rather than living a ‘normal’ life in which society pushes you around.
The psychoanalyst, Sigmund Freud, believed this type of conflict to be the fundamental tension of civilisation. In Civilization and Its Discontents (1930), he argued that civilisation was a means by which the collective restrained individuals. In doing so, he believed the collective stops individuals from carrying out selfish desires that could be detrimental to others, such as those perpetrated by the Hell’s Angels. The result is a loss of individual freedom for the most powerful whilst providing security for the many. As he put it: “civilization overcomes the dangerous aggressivity of the individual, by weakening him, disarming him and setting up an internal authority to watch over him, like a garrison in a conquered town”.
To their fans, the rock star is the fantasy of a free individual who does not passively accept what civilisation imposes on them. They act outside the law, often hedonistically, through substance abuse or the trashing of hotels, and they act outside social norms, by dressing as they please and using foul language. Highlighting this, Liam Gallagher responded to the question of DJs being the new rock stars by exclaiming: “not in my world, they haven’t. What, Calvin fuckin’ Harris? The most boring fucking person? Fuck off, mate… I’ll tell you what they’ve become: the new accountants”. In saying this, he took a rock star position of not adhering to the social norm of politeness towards Calvin Harris and expressed why he thought DJs lack rock star credentials. For him, they are not free individuals who subvert social norms, but businesspeople who make a lot of money. They are civilisation, i.e. ‘The Man’.
This is not to say that rock ‘n’ roll itself is purely individualistic. While it celebrates the individual in the form of the rock star, it also consists of subcultures which have their own norms and traditions which members need to adhere to in order to have ‘authentic’ identities. To some extent the rebellion of rock is in realising that you can better express yourself within the norms of a smaller subcultural community, than within wider societal norms. A rock star can also lose their ‘authentic’ status if they act outside the values of the subcultural group. They can lose prestige by doing things seen as selfish, shallow, or more associated with wider society. This is often epitomised by the idea of ‘selling out’; that is, putting business before the fans, the music, and the rebellion. Think of the outrage and disillusionment of punks in seeing John Lydon of the Sex Pistols advertising butter.
Hepworth notes that despite a sharp decline in the numbers of real rock stars (i.e. celebrities who live up to his rock star definition of a devil-may-care attitude), the concept of a rock star still exists in our culture: “the idea of the rock star, like the idea of the cowboy, lives on”. This role is not always attached to musicians. The term is sometimes applied to populist politicians, such as Donald Trump and Nigel Farage, and outspoken philosophers who purport to be saying what they really think, opposed to what they label an oppressive civilisation. It is not just clever marketing of their books and cult popularity that results in Jordan Peterson of the far right and Slavoj Žižek of the far left being labelled as rock star academics. It is the idea that they are not constrained by societal norms, and both effectively utilise the publicity of the rebel personas their followers attribute to them.
There are limitations to this, however. Unlike rock stars, politicians and academics are seldom, if ever, cool. Whereas a rock star is in many ways a doomed romantic type, misunderstood and defiantly doing their own thing (think Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, Pete Doherty), politicians and academics can lack cool. While they can be perceived as individuals rebelling against the established order, they often want to impose their own views on the world, thus creating the new repressive order; i.e. they want to replace it with their own version of ‘The Man’. Furthermore, even though they often cast themselves as being rebels, politicians and academics, especially Trump, already occupy some of the highest positions in the social order and can be viewed as re-establishing societal hegemony. Trump’s infamously racialised language when referring to non-white peoples seems less a championing of the underdogs, and more an assertion of vulgar and harmful defensiveness. He and his supporters often flip the language of oppression and characterise white people like Trump as the truly oppressed, with Marxists and Liberals in the courts or the media being the real secretive ‘Man’. However, much of this is rhetoric that discounts Trump’s position of power for the past five years and, over time, it has become more difficult to portray him as an outsider.
No More Heroes Anymore?
Rock star musicians are no longer venerated in the way they used to be. Although there are artists such as Kanye West who shock sensibilities by seeming to do their own thing, rock stars are generally considered a rare and dying breed. Many of those in the charts at the end of 2010s were not considered ‘authentic’ for their outlandish styles and rebellious attitudes, but the opposite. Ed Sheeran, Taylor Swift, and even Lady Gaga, in recent tours and albums, are toned down and marketed to look like normal people. Perhaps – as the philosopher Michael Foley argued in his book Isn’t This Fun: Investigating the Serious Business of Enjoying Ourselves (2016) – society is becoming less individualistic. There is a growth in communal activities such as clubbing and dress up parties. Even in films such as The Avengers is it more about the team than the badass individual.
The current lack of rock stars might be attributed to the zeitgeist for being normal or ‘down to earth’, rather than looking to unworldly characters like Ziggy Stardust. While public outpourings over the deaths of rock stars like David Bowie in 2016 display continued interest, it is notable that all the great rock star are located in the past. While legends grow over time, maybe this has something to do with present attitudes. It is possible that the public and the culture industry have idealised the past as being more capable of creating astoundingly unique musicians. Also, a political climate where everything is documented in photographs, videos, and comments made online may remove something of the mystique (and unaccountability) that rock stars previously experienced.
Another reason could be that younger people have alternative ways of expressing their identities. As Hepworth acknowledges, the rock stars of the later 20th century were not “mere consumer preferences. They were markers of our identity”. Nowadays, there are a range of alternative means of expression. Rather than looking to a rock star to express identity, you can make a new virtual identity by creating a gaming character or setting up a social media account. The lone ranger with a D.I.Y. attitude, as epitomised in films such as The Wild One (1953) or Rebel Without a Cause (1956), may seem no longer relevant. In such a world, is there room for a rock star who behaves atrociously?
A Hegelian viewpoint might be relevant to this. Hegel believed that history functioned like a pendulum and that human knowledge and worldviews swung from side to side. In one age, a thesis would be formed that people would accept, but the next age would create the opposing view out of a rejection of the past: the antithesis. In line with such a view, could rock ‘n’ roll be a reaction to a more communal and restrictive society of the 1950s? Have we now swayed back towards more collectivist values that reject rock ‘n’ roll individualism? Or were rock stars a unique historical event of the 20th century? In hindsight it can seem bizarre that rock stars were allowed, and even encouraged, to behave in the way that they did. When Ozzy Osbourne bit the heads off two doves at a CBS Records business meeting in 1981 it added to his rock star persona, but if it was done by anyone else it would only be recognised as extreme animal abuse.
The rock star might represent some past longing for individual expression and societal escape. They were a fantasy that inspired countless imitations in adolescent bands. They were the dreams of many of the later 20th century’s youths, representing what they wanted to be. Rock stars seemed to be free, have few obligations, and exciting and meaningful jobs. Besides this, there was plenty of sex and drugs.
Perhaps the future will sway back towards rock stars in some form, as the next generation rejects what is cool in this one. Hegel believed that human progress would be achieved as opposing views swayed between each other, resulting in a new idea that resolves the conflict between two sides. Perhaps the future is a midway, a synthesis of Liam Gallagher and Ed Sheeran. We need only imagine it.
William Rees is a postgraduate History candidate at the University of Exeter. He is interested in the histories of popular music, particularly disco and rock, and how these tie into philosophical themes of individualism and societal change.