Where Have All the Rock Stars Gone?
By DAVID SHUMWAY
James Brown's death last December was a much more pointed, and poignant, marker of the changing role of popular music in American culture than the current exhibition at the Whitney Museum of Art celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Summer of Love.
While the San Francisco counterculture did exemplify the importance of music to the 1960s youth movement, Brown stands out as one who became more than just a musician. He was not only the inventor of funk and the Godfather of Soul; he was also Soul Brother No. 1, a leader about whom Look magazine could ask on its cover, "Is this the most important black man in America?" Today there is no popular musician, black or white, about whom something similar might be said. Brown's televised concert in Boston the day after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated helped prevent riots in that city, while Los Angeles and Detroit burned. His "Say It Loud — I'm Black and I'm Proud," released later that year (1968), became the anthem of the black-power movement. Through it all, Brown never made stylistic concessions to attract a crossover audience, yet, as he himself observed, he lived the American dream, going literally from rags to riches.
James Brown, like Elvis Presley, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, and the Grateful Dead, was and remains a cultural icon. Those performers and others of their era had broad cultural currency; they had meaning for people who did not like or even listen to their music. Is there any figure who has emerged recently in popular music of whom that can be said? This is not meant to be one of those laments about artistic decline, in which the younger generation is compared unfavorably to the great achievements of past ones. I have no doubt that more recent generations of performers may be more skilled and at least as talented as their musical forebears. Rather, my point is that the cultural position of popular music and its stars has diminished.
Popular music, of course, remains a very important part of young people's lives. Many of our students seem attached to their iPods as if they were life-support systems. But the prevalence of iPods illustrates a reason why popular music has lost its centrality. The 1960s equivalent technology to the iPod was the car radio, but the radio was public while an iPod is private. Not only did young people ride around listening in groups, but everyone listening to a station — or, indeed, during the heyday of the Top 40, to almost any station — heard the same records. Even in the late 1960s, after bands like the Grateful Dead became influential without benefit of AM radio, such music was still often experienced communally around a stereo, usually while sharing a joint. Now, each listener creates his or her own playlist, taking individual songs and, typically, ignoring their presentation within an album.
It sometimes seems as though this new technology is the major change in the popular-music scene. People may therefore assume that the continuing decline in CD sales represents merely a shift to music downloads. In fact, the decline is greater than that explanation would allow. People are buying less music today than in previous years. While the effects of downloading are often discussed, it's not just the music-delivery system that has changed. What we have long considered to be mass culture has increasingly become a collection of niche cultures. That is true for media in general, as the three broadcast television networks became the 100- plus channels of digital cable or satellite, and mass-circulation magazines like Life gave way to special-interest periodicals, both in print and on the Web.
In popular music, the decline of a genuine mass audience has meant that it is harder and harder for a performer to attain recognition beyond his or her niche. Those whose recordings now top the charts usually seem to be the least culturally significant, often lacking either the musical distinction or the political commentary that one can still find among less popular performers. But the bigger issue is that even this music reaches a small fraction of the total audience. One could argue that the term "popular music" itself has become outdated because no style of music reaches a broad enough audience. My undergraduate students typically know the music from my college years — the Beatles, Eric Clapton, Joni Mitchell, Led Zeppelin, and so on — but it is often difficult to find more than a few who are all familiar with the same current releases. As a result of this audience fragmentation, popular music and its performers have lost the cultural centrality they once enjoyed, and that means that fewer people are interested enough to pay for the product.
This is not to say that music celebrities now fail to inspire great devotion in their fans. Celebrity, if anything, has become a larger element of popular culture since the 1960s. But celebrity is not the same as stardom. The phenomenon properly denoted by the word "star" is best illustrated by the movie stars of the 30s and 40s. Stars like Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn, and Cary Grant transcended both the particular parts they played and the medium itself, and in the process became cultural icons. They stood for various qualities associated with physical beauty, successful personality, or even personal integrity (in the case of stars like Shirley Temple and James Stewart), and they provided people with compelling models with which to identify. They were typically understood to deserve their fame because of their talent, skill, or inherent magnetism.
Popular singers and jazz musicians were also stars during that period, but they were much less prominent than movie stars, in part because popular music was understood to be of special interest to youth rather than to the population as a whole. But neither music nor movie stars before the end of World War II were understood as having much political significance. The production code kept political controversy out of the movies, and Hollywood's contribution to wartime propaganda was regarded as patriotic rather than political. The love songs that Bing Crosby or Frank Sinatra crooned threatened no one. In that era, popular culture was sometimes regarded as morally suspect, but it was not thought to play a role in political controversy or in society at large.
After the war, that began to change. The cold war and the accompanying domestic red scare suddenly made popular culture controversial. The leading star of the postwar era, John Wayne, was popular mostly because of the political positions with which he was associated. The movie industry committed itself to presenting America only in a positive light, but, ironically, the need to compete with television led the movies to risk controversial subjects, such as anti-Semitism, homosexuality, and juvenile delinquency. In Rebel Without a Cause, James Dean, one of the most popular movie stars of the 1950s, came to embody the delinquent, helping to set the stage for the first great rock 'n' roll star.
When Elvis Presley was dubbed the king of rock 'n' roll in 1956, he had no intention of becoming a political symbol, but he couldn't avoid it because of the ways in which he unintentionally defied society's definitions of race, class, and gender. Because of his popularity — no performer had ever before reached as large an audience — Elvis unwittingly had a huge social impact. In the process of becoming America's first rock star, Elvis began to change how the nation perceived popular music and musicians.
Elvis and his introduction of what came to be known as rock 'n' roll to a white, mainstream audience solidified the association between youth and popular music. By the 1960s, the music helped to establish for teenagers a powerful sense of generational identity. As Todd Gitlin put it in his history of the New Left (The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage), "It was rock 'n' roll that named us a generation." Were it not for the upheavals of the 1960s, the significance of rock 'n' roll would probably have been no greater than that of ragtime or swing. While the civil-rights movement peaked and the New Left, the antiwar movement, the counterculture, second-wave feminism, and gay liberation emerged in the 60s, the student or youth movement was referred to more generally as including activism in favor of many or all of those causes. Music was the glue that held young people together, something shared that transcended any particular politics except that of youth itself. The Woodstock festival could bill itself as "three days of peace and music," and the connection was obvious to anyone who might consider attending.
The vast popularity of the Beatles played a role in this new perception, especially since they attracted a college-age audience to rock 'n' roll. But Bob Dylan is certainly the central figure in the emergence of rock 'n' roll's cultural importance. Dylan had established himself as the leading young folk-music performer and as a writer of powerful topical songs. When he went electric in 1965, he gave to rock 'n' roll a seriousness that it had hitherto been denied. That was not because Dylan's rock songs were explicitly political, as his folk songs had been, but because he presented himself as an artist and his music as art. Under Dylan's influence, the Beatles also began to see themselves as making art, as their increasingly innovative albums, starting with Rubber Soul (1965), attest. The ambition to produce not only art but great art spread even to already-established groups: Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys reportedly began working on Pet Sounds after hearing Rubber Soul.
While not everyone was willing to concede that rock 'n' roll was art, the media began to treat it as if it were. English majors named Dylan their favorite poet, and some poets agreed he should be considered one of their number.
Finally, and perhaps most important, Dylan's lyrics became a major part of the rhetoric of the New Left, less because of what they said about politics than because of what Dylan represented — the power of a generation to express itself. Rock 'n' roll became the soundtrack of "the movement," and the music became increasingly associated with marijuana and LSD, both of which were understood to be more than just recreational. They were touted as having the potential not only to temporarily alter an individual's mental state, but also to permanently change public consciousness. Stars like the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and Jimi Hendrix embodied that conception of personal and cultural transformation.
By the early 1970s, rock stars had moved from the margins to the mainstream of American popular culture. The Rolling Stones were the epitome of the new entertainment royalty. The word "entourage" may have first been used about the retinue of staff, friends, celebrities, and other assorted hangers-on who accompanied them on their tours of 1969 and 1972. Truman Capote — then himself a significant celebrity in the wake of the success of In Cold Blood and by virtue of his assignment to cover the Stones' 72 tour for Rolling Stone magazine — appeared on TV talk shows with gossip about the band and the excesses of its decadent lifestyle. Robert Greenfield, then the associate editor of Rolling Stone's London office, who also covered the 72 tour, wrote: "With the golden days of Hollywood long gone, and the movies having given way to pop music and pro sports as America's prime fantasy obsessions, a new kind of star had come along. The rock star."
It is symptomatic of the current popular-music scene that the Rolling Stones' 2005 tour was the largest-grossing such event in history, at $162-million; their 2006 tour ranks third, at $138.5-million. While U2's 2005 tour grossed $138.9-million, no newer groups have come close. Mick Jagger remains a bigger star than any performer who has emerged in the last 20 years. Bono, whose political advocacy in the courts of real-world power has expanded his reach, may have been the last rock star to capture the imagination of a broad spectrum of the public. But even this case reveals a change. Bono's advocacy does not seem to be of a piece with his role in U2, the way, say, John Lennon's antiwar activism seemed to be a natural continuation of his role in the Beatles.
The rise of rock stars in the 1960s meant that popular music would be treated differently afterward. Performers would never again be dismissed out of hand as mere purveyors of silly love songs. Even today, the news media are inclined to assume that popular musicians have something to say about serious matters — and many of them do. But the fragmentation of mass culture has meant that they are able to say it to smaller and smaller portions of the population.
The fate of hip-hop may be the best illustration of the increasing marginalization of popular music and its impact on American culture. Hip-hop is arguably the last great innovation in popular music, the successor to ragtime, jazz, rhythm and blues, and rock 'n' roll. All of those forms emerged out of African-American culture and changed the tastes of Americans of all races. Hip-hop also attracted a large audience of young white listeners, but it did not come to dominate public consciousness the way its predecessors had. That has less to do with the particular qualities of hip-hop than with the fragmentation of the market. Most Americans didn't hear the music routinely, so it remained foreign to their ears.
Early hip-hop stars like Grandmaster Flash and Public Enemy were at least as critical of American society as Dylan ever was, and they led some commentators to imagine hip-hop artists as authentic and politically significant spokespeople for poor, urban African-Americans. But in the last 10 years or so, even though hip-hop artists like Jay-Z are popular music's most innovative contributors, the form has become less political, and its performers seem less culturally central.
In a different, more unified market, hip-hop stars might have become leaders like James Brown. As it is, popular music seems headed back to the margins of cultural life, and that is a loss for all of us.
David Shumway is a professor of English and literary and cultural studies at Carnegie Mellon University. He is finishing a book on rock stars as cultural icons, to be published by New York University Press.