From Elvis to the Boss

August 20, 2014

Most readers’ first response to David Shumway’s Rock Star: The Making of Musical Icons from Elvis to Springsteen (Johns Hopkins University Press) will be to scan its table of contents and index with perplexity at the performers left out, or barely mentioned. Speaking on behalf of (among others) Lou Reed, Joe Strummer, and Sly and the Family Stone fans everywhere, let me say: There will be unhappiness.

For that matter, just listing the featured artists may do the trick. Besides the names given in the subtitle, we find James Brown, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead, and Joni Mitchell – something like the lineup for an hour of programming at a classic rock station. Shumway, a professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University, makes no claim to be writing the history of rock, much less formulating a canon. The choice of artists is expressly a matter of his own tastes, although he avoids the sort of critical impressionism (see: Lester Bangs) that often prevails in rock writing. The author is a fan, meaning he has a history with the music. But his attention extends wider and deeper than that, and it moves in directions that should be of interest to any reader who can get past “Why isn’t _____ here?”

More than a set of commentaries on individuals and groups, Rock Star is a critical study of a cultural category -- and a reflection on its conditions of existence. Conditions which are now, arguably, far along the way to disappearing.

The name of the first rock song or performer is a matter for debate, but not the identity of the first rock star. Elvis had not only the hits but the pervasive, multimedia presence that Shumway regards as definitive. Concurring with scholars who have traced the metamorphoses of fame across the ages (from the glory of heroic warriors to the nuisance of inexplicable celebrities), Shumway regards the movie industry as the birthplace of “the star” as a 20th-century phenomenon: a performer whose talent, personality, and erotic appeal might be cultivated and projected in a very profitable way for everyone involved.

The audience enjoyed what the star did on screen, of course, but was also fascinated by the “real” person behind those characters. The scare quotes are necessary given that the background and private life presented to the public were often somewhat fictionalized and stage-managed. Fans were not always oblivious to the workings of the fame machine. But that only heightened the desire for an authentic knowledge of the star.

Elvis could never have set out to be a rock star, of course – and by the time Hollywood came around to cast him in dozens of films, he was already an icon thanks to recordings and television appearances. But his fame was of a newer and more symbolically charged kind than that of earlier teen idols.

Elvis was performing African-American musical styles and dance steps on network television just a few years after Brown v. Board of Education – but that wasn’t all. “The terms in which Elvis’s performance was discussed,” Shulway writes, “are ones usually applied to striptease: for example, ‘bumping and grinding.’ ” He dressed like a juvenile delinquent (the object of great public concern at the time) while being attentive to his appearance, in particular his hair, to a degree that newspaper writers considered feminine.

The indignation Elvis generated rolled up a number of moral panics into one, and the fans loved him for it. That he was committing all these outrages while being a soft-spoken, polite young man – one willing to wear a coat and tails to sing “Hound Dog” to a basset hound on "The Milton Berle Show" (and later to put on Army fatigues, when Uncle Sam insisted) only made the star power more intense: those not outraged by him could imagine him as a friend.

Elvis was the prototype, but he wasn’t a template. Shumway’s other examples of the rock star share a penchant for capturing and expressing social issues and cultural conflicts in both their songs and how they present themselves, onstage and off. But they do this in very different ways – in the cases of James Brown and Bob Dylan, changing across the length of their careers, gaining and losing sections of their audience with each new phase. The shifts and self-reinventions were very public and sometimes overtly political (with James Brown's support for Richard Nixon being one example) but also reflected in stylistic and musical shifts. In their day, such changes were sometimes not just reactions to the news but part of it, and part of the conversations people had about the world.  

Besides the size of the audience, what distinguishes the rock star from other performers is the length of the career, or so goes Shumway’s interpretation of the phenomenon. But rewarding as the book can be – it put songs or albums I’ve heard a thousand times into an interesting new context – some of the omissions are odd. In particular (and keeping within the timespan Shumway covers) the absence of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison seems problematic. I say that not as a fan disappointed not to find them, but simply on the grounds that each one played an enormous role in constituting what people mean by the term “rock star.” (That includes other rock stars. Patti Smith elevated Morrison to mythological status in her own work, while the fact that all three died at 27 was on Kurt Cobain’s mind when he killed himself at the same age.)

I wrote to Shumway to ask about that. (Also to express relief that he left out Alice Cooper, my own rock-history obsession. Publishers offering six-figure advances for a work of cultural criticism should make their bids by email.)

“My choices are to some extent arbitrary,” he wrote back. “One bias that shaped them is my preference for less theatrical performers as opposed to people such as David Bowie (who I have written about, but chose not to include here) or Alice Cooper.” But leaving out the three who died at 27 “was more than a product of bias. Since I wanted to explore rock stars’ personas, I believed that it was more interesting to write about people who didn’t seem to be playing characters on stage or record. I agree with you about the great influence of Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix, but I don’t think their personas have the complexity of the ones I did write about. And, they didn’t figure politically to the degree that my seven did. The main point, however, is that there is lots of work to be done here, and I hope that other critics will examine the personas the many other rock stars I did not include.”

The other thing that struck me while reading Rock Star was the sense that it portrayed a world now lost, or at least fading into memory. Rock is so splintered now, and the "technology of celebrity" so pervasive, that the kind of public presence Shumway describes might not be possible now. 

“The cause is less the prevalence of celebrity,” he replied, “than the decline of the mass media. Stars are never made by just one medium, but by the interaction of several. Earlier stars depended on newspapers and magazines to keep them alive in their fans hearts and minds between performances. Radio and TV intensified these effects. And of course, movie studios and record companies had a great deal of control over what the public got to see and hear. The result was that very many people saw and heard the same performances and read the same gossip or interviews. With the fragmentation of the media into increasingly smaller niches, that is no longer the case. The role of the internet in music distribution has had an especially devastating effect on rock stardom by reducing record companies’ income and the listeners’ need for albums. The companies aren’t investing as much in making stars and listeners are buying songs they like regardless of who sings them.”

That's not a bad thing, as such, but it makes for a more compartmentalized culture, while the beautiful thing with rock 'n' roll is when it blows the doors off their hinges.

 

 

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