Wednesday, February 15, 2006

"I'm Not Even Sure There ARE Rockstars Anymore"

A student in one of my writing classes said this today, as we discussed Bono as a rock-and-roll celebrity. Is he a sell-out? Something else? In what way is it antithetical to talk about celebrities as role models in the context of rock-and-roll celebrity? How do our expectations for rock stars differ from those that we have for celebrity actors, athletes, or pop stars? These were the questions I wanted them to ask, that I thought they'd be invested in asking, and to have a "kid" (and I put that in quotation marks because he's probably only 10 years younger than I am) say with such seriousness that there might not even BE rockstars.... Well, it was about the most interesting thing a student has said to me this semester. And I think he might be right.

I designed my writing courses around this theme of celebrity in part to attempt to appeal to a range of students, all of whom would not have any interest at all in taking this advanced writing course but who are required to take it in order to graduate. The course is broken down into units - Defining Celebrity (for which we focused on Harry Potter both in terms of Harry's celebrity and in terms of the celebrity status of the series and of J.K. Rowling), Celebrity as Role Model or Product (the unit that we're currently finishing up, and in which we focused on Chinese basketball star Yao Ming and Bono), Celebrity and Politics (in which we'll be talking about Clinton and the Lewinsky scandal), Celebrity and Gossip (a unit focusing on the rhetorical arc of tabloids), and then the course ends with their own research on some aspect of celebrity. Ultimately, my thinking was that we'd be talking about something that could interest all of us and that has broader significance to our everyday lives. But what were/are my assumptions and what are the realities of my students. If there aren't rockstars anymore, what's really the point?

You know, we ask ourselves why students aren't engaged in politics or why students don't seem to be committed to challenging injustices or even just the status quo with which they were raised. We blame students' apathy or acceptance of social norms on helicopter parents and a culture of ultra-planned after-school activities. We blame the internets or video games or the fact that children are being tested within an inch of their lives so that none of them will be left behind.

Today, in my writing class that was pretty much designed as fluff, with a topic that would keep me going when the student writing made me want to cry, it occurred to me: Maybe the problem is that there aren't rockstars anymore. Or that students don't believe there are rockstars. That students don't care one way or another if a rockstar "sells out," nor do they necessarily see what's wrong with selling out. If these things are true, then why would students feel empowered to change anything? Why would they feel like they'd need to?


Vance Maverick said...

I don't get it. What are the qualities of rock stars that you miss, and what makes you think they ever had them? As far as I can tell, the image of romantic authenticity was moldy by 1970. Those who were there tell me that "Can't Buy Me Love" was good for a laugh at the time it came out. (It's also good music, but that doesn't mean one takes its text naively as a truthful utterance.)

People's sense of the power to change things had better be founded on something more substantial than pop-culture myths!

Jesse said...

It would seem to me that for something to be pop music, it requires that the musicians have "sold out". And in the act of selling out everything becomes commercial, all about making money. To actively challenge authority and "The Man", so to speak, would be counter-intuitive to the purpose of pop-music. Meaning the message in the music does not promote rebelling or challenging the status-quo, not in a meaningful way anyhow. If the message is not there, then the listener sure will not be affected in a way to challenge anything, and the people getting the money will keep getting the money.

It also seems, as the years roll by, that music and movies are becoming increasingly more commercial on the broad scale. On the flip side I think independent forms of expression are becoming more prevalent and more accessible.

This gives 2 major outlets for "celebrity". The big money-making machine, which affects a much broader scale. And the smaller pseudo-celebrities that affects smaller groups. And when it comes down to it, I don’t think anyone cares if the Big money-making group is selling out or not, since they already have. It becomes something of a mute point. And if people want something non-commercial then can usually find it.

So long as both outlets are free to prosper there is less of a need to change and/or challenge the "sell-outs".

I could care less of Bono sells out, but would be bummed out if someone like Sage Francis sold out.

This is probably over-simplifying the matter, and I might be missing the point totally... And I might not have even made a coherent point myself. But I think that is what I think... maybe.

Dr. Crazy said...

"People's sense of the power to change things had better be founded on something more substantial than pop-culture myths!"

Perhaps, except that I think that "myths" do tend (and have tended historically) to drive action or if not to drive it to underwrite it in really important ways. I do believe that there was a sense - as recently as when I was in high school - that rock music was in fundamental ways about challenging the status quo. Perhaps more importantly, it made challenging the status quo "cool." Sometimes the challenges to that status quo have been frivolous, sure, but sometimes they have been pretty substantive (I'm thinking about David Bowie playing with gender or with the links between music and protest against the viet nam war).

I'm not saying that there aren't problems within this - the problem, say, that somebody like Bono is selling iPods in one breath and yelling at governments for not forgiving African debt in the other - but I do think that there is something fundamental about how we see the world reflected back at us through the image of celebrities, and as such that the shift that I noted in how my students perceive the image of the "rockstar" seems significant to me.

Jesse - I see what you're saying about sell-outs/smaller groups. I guess the interesting thing for me is thinking about the intersection of fame and power, though, and so if we say, "oh, if people want something that's authentic they'll need to go find an unknown band, or go see an indie movie, etc, and that's ok," then it puts the authentic thing (if there is such a thing) in a ghetto that gets no audience. Thus, how viable is that "authenticity" that is preserved by staying outside of the big money/fame machine?

I don't have the answers to any of this stuff. But yes, I find it all INCREDIBLY interesting.

Oh, and I guess the last thing I want to say is this: I do feel like the first comment is a cop-out. When we say that popular culture isn't worthy of notice or attention, what we're saying is that OUR culture isn't worthy of attention. If that's not worthy of attention, then what is? And why? (I'm not saying that all artifacts of culture are of equal value, here, but I do think that it's important to think critically even about - maybe especially about? - those things we take for granted.)

Vance Maverick said...

Dr. Crazy, I'm very far from saying popular culture is unworthy of attention. What I do want to say is that you seem to be taking it, not "too seriously", but seriously in a way it can't bear.

The example of Bowie is interesting, but I think tangential. His playing with gender doesn't rely on our believing he's sincere or authentic: it's pretty openly playful, "as-if", in short, it's art. If he sold out (not that I'm aware that he did), it would make no difference, because he has his (serious) effect even though we don't take him seriously.

With the protest music, I'll grant you a point. Still I would say that where that music became strongest artistically, and where its practitioners became "rock stars" -- e.g., in the person of Dylan -- the art and celebrity both severely complicated the message.

Rock music may be or have been "about" challenging the status quo, but I don't think one can say that it importantly is a challenge to the status quo. (I would probably turn here to Nelson Goodman's idea of "expression": rock, or a strain of it, clearly does "metaphorically exemplify" challenge. This can make you think, but it's not the same as a true challenge.)

Barry said...

You say that being a rock star WAS about challenging the status quo in a way that made it "cool." I wonder if things are so different today, the rock stars are the bad boys who do the stuff we in our conformist life can't really get away with. Sure, Bono is a big name and celebrity, but I think I'd call someone like Pete Doherty (Libertines former front man) a more contemporary "rock" star.

Dr. Crazy said...

Vance, you write:

"Rock music may be or have been "about" challenging the status quo, but I don't think one can say that it importantly is a challenge to the status quo. (I would probably turn here to Nelson Goodman's idea of "expression": rock, or a strain of it, clearly does "metaphorically exemplify" challenge. This can make you think, but it's not the same as a true challenge.)"

Point taken, here. I suppose what I'm interested in is the relationship between that metaphorical exemplification (whew!) and how students perceive what they might actually do out in the world. To me the two seem to be related. I was (I know) hyperbolic in my post, but I think the point of my hyperbole was to stress the link between how we mythologize or figure certain images in our culture and how those acts relate to our everyday lives. Ultimately, whether Bono currently counts as a rockstar (and I'm not sure if he does, or how he does if he does) wasn't really the point in what I was doing with the rockstar role in class.... it was more that I had expected that there would be an interesting turn in the discussion from talking about the squeaky clean Yao Ming as exemplar of athlete/product-hawker to talking about the expectations that we have for rockstars as celebrities. There was interesting discussion generated, but there seemed to be a profound cynicism about what rockstars do in our culture and/or about the possibility for us to have a cultural figure that challenges cultural mores, capitalism, whatever(albeit from within).

Re: what you say about Bowie, I think you're wrong. Yes, it is all about play BUT I think that we still read that play as "authentic" in ways that, say, Poison's experimentation with makeup is not read as authentic or as challenging any conventional notions about gender in our culture. I don't think that Bowie's gender-bending is/was read as JUST a gimmick, if that makes any sense.

Re: Pete Doherty - yes, I think he's a candidate for current rockstar. Also, in one of my classes we posited that perhaps the best candidates for rockstars today would actually be people like Kanye West or Jay-Z, which I'm willing to buy.

Dr. Crazy said...

A comment from somebody who wanted to comment anonymously but couldn't because I'm so vigilant against the spam and so don't allow anonymous commenters:

"I think your student is wrong. There are rockstars, and there always will be as long as there are people who dream of being rock stars.

If your students can honestly tell you that they have no dreams/fantasies of being rockstars -- by whatever definition they want to choose -- then, perhaps, that would be the death of rockstar-dom.

The "selling out" question only pertains, I think, to the more independent musicians, the non-"big money-maker machine" artists (as jesse put it). Even in the 60s was there ever a question of Mick Jagger or The Beatles selling out? The kind of ad contracting that goes on now with pop icons didn't really exist then, at least not for rock musicians. But The Beatles did do merchandizing, and I don't think that was held against them (no more than the fact that they were popular was held against them). "