Today you can find the term “Rock Star” attached to nearly everything from someone who excels in their field to energy drinks. But at one time, that term carried a lot more weight. In his new book, Rock Star: The Making of Musical Icons from Elvis to Springsteen, David Shumay, Professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University, takes a look at seven artists that carried the term when it stood for something different, perhaps higher. David was nice enough to talk to us a bit about the project:
Music Tomes: How did you decide to focus on the seven artists you use in the book?
David Shumway: I was not intending to try to create a canon, which should be obvious since there is no chapter that focuses on the Beatles. My choices were informed by my interest in showing that rock stardom had broad cultural significance, and in investigating how it was linked to the social and cultural changes that are associated with the 1960s. I wanted stars who represented a range of these changes. They also had to be musicians of whom I was a fan, since, by my definition, one of the things stardom entails is an emotional bond the fan feels for the star. For this reason, it would have been hard to write about stars who did not matter to me. And, I wouldn’t have wanted to spend the time thinking about them. However, I should say that I am less a fan than critic even of those artists I like. For example, I can’t imagine writing someone a fan letter, and I’ve never had a great desire to meet rock stars.
MT: I’m sure you’ve heard as much about who you didn’t use as who you did. What struck me was that those you included seems to be artists with lengthy careers (with Elvis being the exception, comparatively) and that they seemed to have a fan base that values “authenticity.” What role did that play in your thought process?
DS: I did exclude Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and Jim Morrison and the Doors because they did not have long careers. When I planned the book, I imagined that I would be telling the story of the development and/or changes of the persona of each subject, and there would be no story to tell about someone whose career lasted only a few years. As it turns out, none of my chapters actually deals with a whole career in detail, though the chapter on Springsteen comes closest. I didn’t have enough space in a single chapter, and I found that the persona or personas that really mattered tended to be associated with particular periods of artists’ careers.
MT: But the book is much more than just a look at the careers of these seven artists. It’s a deeper look at what created the “rock star,” correct?
DS: Yes, the book is about rock stardom as a specific cultural form. My premise is that by the late 1960s, rock stars had replaced movie stars as our culture’s most visible and iconic celebrities. That change was important because rock stars embodied different meanings than movie stars. The latter were primarily icons of personality. Greta Garbo, for example, was the tragic and enigmatic siren, Humphrey Bogart the tough, cynical man of honest commitments, and Cary Grant the sophisticated bon vivant. In the 1950s, a few movie stars, such as John Wayne and James Dean, have personas that embody more or less explicit politics, but with Elvis, we get a star who seems to challenge most the social hierarchies of race, class, gender, and age. After the Beatles and Rolling Stones, we begin to expect that rock stars will challenge convention and increasingly represent change. The changes rock stars represent are quite varied, including the breakdown of the distinction between high and low culture, the increasing intensity of consumerism, and the changing roles of women. As a result, people come to expect popular musicians to have something to say about important issues of the day, which is a major change from the days when they were assumed to be merely singers of silly love song
MT: You discuss in the conclusion the reasons that there aren’t rock stars being created today, citing, for one thing, the changes in the distribution of music. What is the world losing by not having the types of rock stars you talk about in the book?
DS: One thing that’s likely is that popular musicians are less likely to be taken seriously as social commentators, and even those who are will reach a smaller audience. So, the connection between music and politics that was established during the rock era has already begun to disappear. But I’ve been thinking lately about how listening is effected by recent changes in music distribution and technology. The shift from the model of purchasing albums to downloading songs has contributed to the decline of stardom, as consumers are less interested in who made the recording that in whether they like it. But I think it has also likely contributed to distracted listening. As Anahid Kassabian and others have observed, it has long been true that most listening to popular music is distracted, the music being a background for other activities. But stardom helped to encourage a more serious engagement at least with the music they produced. That was partly the result of the emotional bond that fans have with stars, but also the aesthetic interest that they have in understanding how new material adds to the star’s corpus. Of course, the latter need not be dependent stardom since any particular listener can treat the music of any artist no matter how obscure in this way. But stardom, in my view, encouraged many more people to listen in this way. This change in listening behavior would in turn contribute to decline of stardom itself.
MT: What are you currently working on?
DS: I’m writing a chapter for the Cambridge Companion to the singer-songwriter about the emergence of this category of performer in the late 1960s and early 1970s. My argument is that the singer-songwriter music needs to be considered a new genre developing out of the combination of folk and rock—different from the earlier “folk-rock.” It is a response in part to the political and cultural excesses of the 1960s, with 1968, the year when radicalism peaked around the world being the moment when this genre is first visible. But while it needs to be seen as more personal form, often confessional in character, it is not necessarily therefore politically regressive.
MT: Can you recommend some of your favorite music tomes?
DS: Greil Marcus, Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music; Simon Frith, Sound Effects and Music For Pleasure: Essays in the Sociology of Pop; Nick Bromell, Tomorrow Never Knows: Rock and Psychedelics in the 1960s; Steve Waksman, Instruments of Desire: The Electric Guitar and the Shaping of Musical Experience; Anahid Kassabian, Hearing Film: Tracking Identifications in Contemporary Hollywood Film Music; Anthony DeCurtis, Rocking My Life Away: Writing about Music and Other Matters.