The era of the “Rock Star” is over, and that’s okay

“Her name was Bullwinkle.”  That’s the opening line to The Dirt, the 2001 autobiography of the rock band Mötley Crüe written by all the band members with an assist from pro ghostwriter Neil Strauss.

I’ll spare you the gory context, but suffice it to say to me and a small collective of wannabe rock-n-roll miscreants I chose to surround myself with in my early 20’s, it was right up there with “Call me Ishmael.”

We loved that book, eating up the endlessly entertaining stories about wild antics with drugs and groupies, the underlying assumption being that that would (and should) be us someday.  That’s the life we aspired to.

 

Years later, an avclub.com article casually cited The Dirt as evidence that Mötley Crüe were terrible people.  My hackles raised in defense of my heroes … until I realized there was no defense.  Singer Vince Neil killed his passenger, a friend and fellow musician, when he drunkenly crashed his sports car.  That he only served 30 days in jail was a scandal of epic proportions.  Bassist and songwriter Nikki Sixx, meanwhile, cops to the fact that he basically raped an inebriated girl and one of their pre-fame apartment parties, recklessly recruiting drummer Tommy Lee for the act.

They don’t deny the unforgivable nature of their past crimes; maybe some of their antisocial behavior was inevitable given Neil’s and Sixx’s rough upbringing, combined with the younger Lee’s hyper, people-pleasing nature.  The fact that the music industry for whom their output generated large fortunes enabled them at every turn doesn’t help.  (Come to think of it, this relates back to my blog on Daniel Tosh and how the marketplace responds to demand, not virtue.)  Neil posits the unbearable loss of his daughter to childhood cancer as karmic retribution … but it’s hard not to wonder if they ever learned the lesson, the way drama and sordidness continue to follow them.

“What’s your band called …?”

One of the supporting players in the Mötley shit-show was quoted in the book: “They weren’t like Poison, who raised hell because they thought that was what rock stars should be doing. Mötley Crüe did stupid things because they were Mötley Crüe. There was no reason for anything, just a Mötley reason.”

This statement is fascinating because it implies that, left to their own devices, many contemporary rock stars would not have lived the “rock star life.”  Mötley were a special case, defining examples of a genre that many rushed to copy.  They were selling an image of hedonism that maybe deep down they didn’t even want to live up to.  After all, partying is hard on the constitution.  The effective age of stars from that era seems to be ~50-60, a decade or more short of the normal people.  “Yeah, man, but they really lived …”

We live in a post-rock star world now, in my opinion.  “Rock Star” or “rock ‘n’ roll” are antiquated substitutional terms for pop music in general, a holdover from when rock ‘n’ roll really did have a monopoly on pop music.  With Tupac Shakur and Donna Summer as recent inductees into Cleveland’s Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame, can we agree we’re stretching the term a little?

Kanye West used to bloviate about how he wanted to be a “rock star,” not a rapper.  Not that he wanted to change the character of his music drastically, but he wanted to live the life of a rock star … which he saw as an august elder statesman of music, married with kids.  I don’t know what rock stars he knew … other than older ones, because the rock star paradigm was already on its way out.

I noticed that rock ‘n’ roll was really and finally done when the radio stations that usually played rock (or at least avoided playing rap) started playing Mumford & Sons, Florence + the Machine, and Of Monsters and Men.  Brash excess and hedonism had moved over to the hip hop stations; lovers of the four chords of awesome had turned inward; something called “folk rock” was having its day.  I think “rock” was only included in the moniker because “rock” has been the pop-music gold standard for so long, people are loathe to let it go.  It signifies less a style of music (big guitars, big drums, a rebellious wail of vocals) and more a bid for legitimacy – “Hey, look at this!  It’s important!  It has one of the key buzzwords of the last century in its descriptor!”

I even find it somewhat anachronistic when a service or piece of literature refers to the “band” as the functional unit of music.  “Discover great new bands!”  “Looking to bring your band to the next level?”  “Looking for the next great band!”  The idea of a “band” predates rock ‘n’ roll, of course.  They were the no-name hired musicians who supported real stars like Miles Davis or Elvis Pressley.  The Beatles revolutionized the idea of a band as a unit of musical celebrity, and it’s been going strong ever since; as a musician, if you didn’t have a band, you hardly had a brand.  As the torch passes to rap, EDM, electro-pop, and (God help us) country, the playing field has leveled out – these genres don’t favor bands over solo artists; in many cases, solo is the preferred branding.  The wannabe “next Spotify” startups would do well to respond to this change in language by saying “Discover great new artists!”

This post-band mentality hasn’t caught up to the culture, but has affected the rock landscape as well.  Many top latter-day rock “bands” are effectively solo artists who broke out, and included a “band name” in their brand because they thought that would help their careers … or they were too famous in their own right and wanted to hide their pedigree for some reason.  Foo Fighters, 30 Seconds to Mars, AWOLNATION, Neck Deep … all started as just one guy or a duo making music on their own (in a studio or even literally in their bedrooms), and a band was constructed around them when it was clear that they had something.

I know a lot of people who have had a hard time with the passing of rock ‘n’ roll’s glory days.  I’ve been one of them from time to time.  Every now and then a big band (like Mötley) will cash in on a 20-year anniversary of their formation or biggest album, and true believers will get their blood up about how the music they loved the best is finally making the “comeback” it deserves.  But once the sales die down and the retro fad loses its sheen, tastes continue to march forward (if not upward) and the music of the past remains in the past.

This doesn’t mean that rock ‘n’ roll music is gone for good.  It’s still out there, and there are millions of people who still love it (myself included).  But its day in the sun is over, the pop music crown yielded to rappers, solo artists, and DJs.  It lives on in punk, pop punk, metal, and indie/alt rock scenes that refuse to die.  Rock is back to where it started – a niche genre with a devoted fan base.  By the way, rap, hip hop, R&B, and EDM started out the same way, and to the same fate they will repair when the next big musical trend catches fire and supplants them.  Kanye will be just like Vince Neil bitching about the “good ol’ days” when rap’s version of Nirvana comes along.  Then he’ll be a real rock star.

 

What does it all mean?

I like that great scene in the comedy film The Rocker where Rainn Wilson plays an aging has-been rock star recruited to play drums for his teenage nephew’s alt-rock band that unexpectedly breaks big.  (Seriously, I know a ton of guys like that Rainn Wilson character, and it’s not a good look.)  After a big gig, Wilson’s teenage bandmates (including future Oscar winner Emma Stone) are high on endorphins and just want to play video games and chill.  Wilson is having none of that, though – they’re rock stars, and that means they’re required to trash the hotel room, which he proceeds to do – and get the band in big trouble, because no one finds that charming anymore.

I couldn’t find that scene on youtube, so here’s a different scene, which also features a very young Kier Gilchrist rocking a drum machine like a world class tool.

 

I’m glad I don’t have to pretend to be a hedonist to be a musician.  Maybe I’m just getting older, but honestly I was bad at it even when I was younger, and way too hard on myself for it.

Sure, musicians still behave badly, and up-and-coming generations of teenagers will continue to follow the allure of carefully-controlled and marketed rebellion right to the cash register.  But now Justin Bieber getting a DUI or Li’l Kim maintaining a public feud is more likely to attract public shame than fawning approbation.

When This Is Spinal Tap came out, rock stars like Aerosmith and Judas Priest were shaken to the core – “They know!” one of them was quoted as saying.  That is, know that they’re all just a bunch of jackasses bumbling around overproduced sets; that the “Rock-Star-As-God” mythology cooked up to sell records is a house of cards.  The internet has magnified this, starting with the online forums where groupies publically rated rock stars’ prowess in bed, outing them by name in terms of penis size, stamina, and worse.  In the Twitter era, every day is Spinal Tap for a musician.  I think it’s helped musicians stay humble.  Maybe I just like watching the “Mean Tweets” where Wiz Khalifa gets to read a comparison of his appearance to a homeless woman.

 

The huge paychecks may be gone for aspiring rock stars, but very very few musicians ever got those, and their lives were rarely less fucked for it (read The Dirt or talk to anyone signed between 1987 and 1999 if you don’t believe me).  In a lot of cases, the limos and Cristal just ended up on a credit card bill that the bleary-eyed band was handed by the record label along with their walking papers once sales died down.

Without the need for (or ability to maintain) dick-dragging posturing built into the business model, I think rock ‘n’ roll finally has some room to breathe.  The life-affirming generosity of Neck Deep or AWOLNATION or Florence + The Machine would never have been possible in the 1980s on the Sunset Strip – it would be way too nice, and nice boys don’t become rock stars.  That’s what impresses me now, not strippers and cocaine.

One man’s opinion, but I think it’s better this way.  Maybe one of my heroes will live long enough to collect social security.  Or maybe we’ll all realize that our heroes shouldn’t have been in the first place.

Do you think rock ‘n’ roll’s day is past?  If so, how do you feel about it?

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