Of course it was all so much simpler at the beginning. If you were a boy like Elvis, dirt poor, and the world opened up for you like that, you’d take it. More to the point if you saw it happen to Elvis, it could happen to you. That story didn’t change for some time, by 1962 The Beatles had set the prototype for the ‘hard working’ band with their sojourn in Hamburg. Rock ‘n’ roll was born on a very specific promise. That of not living like your parents, of breaking moulds and redefining what was important. An immediacy, an us (youth) against them (squares and parents), that was about modernity, newness, glamour and fun. Until the late ‘60’s that didn’t change much. The fans wanted to see their band at the top of the charts, their band kicking against the pricks and changing their world.
When the likes of Pink Floyd came along to queer the ‘working class boy’ (or girl once Motown really got into swing and the likes of Dusty and Sandie Shaw got into gear in the UK) made good story there was a new narrative. This was pushing the boundaries, not about making money but about making art. Nonetheless the fans wanted the band to succeed, even if, with many of the late 60’s into early 70’s middle class art bands (see King Crimson and friends for starters) it was in a cult sense, an ‘I’m cleverer than you with your pop stars and their big houses and their big cars and jets’. Some, like the Stones and more so The Beatles, managed the two in tandem now and then (but then the former had Keith and Charlie and a whole sense of mixed bag ‘rags to riches’ meets ‘art school boy’ to play with). Perhaps we should have seen what was coming when Dylan was called ‘Judas’ but for now, fans still wanted bands to succeed, the media wanted bands to get bigger, it made sense. Bigger bands equals more fans equals more buyers for stories about and interviews with those bands.
Quite where that story ran out of steam is hard to tell. You want to say punk but then think about the likes of Soft Cell , Human League, Echo & The Bunnymen and Smiths of the 80’s. They were ‘art’ and ‘big’. Even Spaundau Ballet got their name from a dark corner of post war history whilst Duran Duran cited Barbarella, an art house film. Intelligence and fame could still co-exist for the media, one did not preclude the other. Heaven 17 covered ‘Temptation’, made an album mocking London’s mythologizing of city boys and delivered a Northern, socialist swipe to the chops of the Tories whilst soundtracking their coke and champagne fuelled disco nights. The city boys that is, not the Tories..(perhaps). Certainly the last time the ‘working class lads done good’ to general favour happened around these parts was Oasis for the UK and probably Nirvana, in a much different way, in the US. And we all know how that turned out for both parties. As for big and art, Radiohead probably put the kybosh on that when the resolutely ‘art’ ‘Kid A’ signalled the end of ‘big’ Radiohead and the beginning of ‘you don’t like the old stuff do you?’ Radiohead.
Quite when did we start to equate success with selling out again after its brief, post punk nonsense blip that a combination of real post punk (Banshees psychedelia, Cure popness, Crucial Three splintering into wonderful myriad pop moments) and new romanticism blew away? Artists these days are left in a straightened position. The vagaries and sharp edges of the blog world at its pinnacles demand an almost monastic approach to gaining money and an obsession with the micro that has altered mainstream media interaction with album artists to a situation that resembles a very very big U at the top on the left the new bands, unproven but given large spaces to talk about how they formed and their first, media wide approved single release, in the dip everyone else and on the right the monolithic likes of The Killers, Muse, Coldplay, The Stones etc; guaranteed can’t go wrong so big they are beyond criticism behemoths.
Where once we had the steady rise we now have the vertiginous ascent and lemming like drop. Witness the delight in the sub scene world that permeates the internet where music is concerned, the need for demos not releases, just formed, not toured for a year or so. The crèche of the music world transformed into its research and development arm, a nonsense disguised by marketing and desperation in equal measure, a chase for an elixir that never existed, a perversion of what actually made rock ‘n’ roll, that hackneyed overused phrase, so vital in the first place. There is little of the romance that once went with the ascent of a band even as wedded to ideas of art as REM. For a band to be successful, and by this I mean genuinely successful, not feted in East London and the East Coast of the USA, successful is to say goodbye to serious appreciation from critics. Is it really that band’s albums get worse as they get bigger? Is it really that, once they are beyond a certain point, those very albums get better again? As with politics the centre crumbles and we are left to look from indie purist cliff over the depths of misery for the majority to the nirvana of the chosen few.
But these online quibbles are both representative and indicative of what has been done to our pop music by cultural forces. As the plethora of entertainment options has widened, following the industry’s inability to deal with the advent of online distribution and dissemination and powered by a ‘last dance on the Titanic’ attitude with the advent of cd, the music industry lost the key to what made it so powerful whilst it was pulled away from its outstretched hand by the forces of economics. See, there aren’t many kids like Elvis in the Western world as there once were. There are not towns of field hands plucking acoustic guitars nor Scouse kids playing in bombed out terraces dreaming of turning a monochrome world technicolour.
The aspiration to be a pop star has, at one side, been trodden over by an increasing government ability to deliver minimum level aspiration and comforting surroundings that flatten ambition and preclude wild dreaming and, at the other, by the sense that so many other ‘extreme futures’ are both more glamorous and more profitable. Such theory can range from local drug dealer at the darkest end through minor TV celebrity to Premier League footballer. It is not that such things are necessarily attainable, they are as removed from likelihood as the 60’s / 70’s pop star dream, rather that they are desirable. Exactly in the way that the pop star dream once was.
We are now sold quicker versions of notoriety. Why learn to play an instrument when you can get on tv without being able to sing? In fact, if you are really awful you will get your moment on X Factor or the other one, or the one that is like them but I can’t remember the name of. It will be fleeting but not that much less fleeting than winning it and you’ll have to put in a micro percent of the effort of a real musician, none of that gigs to one man and a dog, none of that tricky creation of music thing. Just go, be an arse and there you go. Quick shot of notoriety. Or you can use Twitter to slag people off, get a ‘reputation’ as somebody who is ‘funny’ and, who knows, you may even get a book deal. You won’t be the next Wilde, even the next Banks, but you will get a moment where your book is talked about for nano-seconds before you disappear again.
In a world where the average civil servant can party like the classic (male) 60’s pop star; the drug use, the casual sex, the all night parties and so on, another facet of the rock star is removed, the concept of the ‘free spirit’. In a world where there is no chart, no Top Of The Pops, no national conversation about pop music, there is no more notoriety nor adulation. Remove the mega brand stars, the Beyonces and the Jay-Z’s and the next level down, those scaling that right hand incline of the ‘U’ are likely not to set armies of teenage girls screaming or legions of teenagers up and down the country safety pinning their school tie. No wonder an increasing amount of our successful bands are (reputedly) middle class. This isn’t about having to be anything anymore, it’s a gap year approach to music, a little stop that may or may not lead to something before moving on if it doesn’t succeed. The age of the pop star may well be past.
This is not to say that the age of music is past. History suggests that this will never be. As far as we know where there has been man there has been music. All cultures have music deeply embedded within them. In a way this isn’t about music, it’s about the appeal of pop music to youth and its slow decline. Beethoven caused riots once too. It’s just a shame that we seem to be living through the first moment in recent history where music is a soundtrack to outrage, rather than its cause.