The age of the rock star is over. That according to David Hepworth, a longtime music journalist who makes his case in the book Uncommon People: The Rise And Fall Of The Rock Star.
The rock era began in 1955 (or a little earlier, depending on your criteria), but the term "rock star" didn't come into vogue until the '70s, abetted by record companies looking to glamorize their product. Once applied sparingly to the likes of Elvis, Keith Moon and Mick Jagger, the term became so watered down over the years that Nickelback mocked it in a 2007 hit song with that title. These days, you can be a "rock star" by crushing that conference call or totally dominating that spreadsheet. Like the cowboy, it has become an archetype.
Hepworth cites 1994 as the end of the era, with Kurt Cobain, who died that year, the last rock star. It's no coincidence that this was the dawn of the internet, that great mystique-buster. (There was a time when we really did believe that Phil Collins watched that guy drown and didn't sound like a crank when repeating the story.) Now, it's all about transparency and "connecting" with fans, mainly through social media.
In this vacuum, hip-hop rushed in. Run-DMC ("King of Rock") and Afrika Bambaataa ("Planet Rock") long ago appropriated the term, clearing a path for their successors, who are now the new rock stars.
To explore this further, we asked Hepworth, who in the book covers a landmark moment (and person) from every year from 1955-1994, to elaborate.
David Hepworth: I set out to write a book about rock stars as a tribe because they'd been part of my life since I was young. But then it struck me that rock stars are no more and that we haven't had a real one since Kurt Cobain. It was then I realized that we're already halfway through the era of hip-hop.
Songfacts: One of the biggest hits of 2017 is "Rockstar" by the rapper Post Malone, which pays homage to the peak era of rock excess (Bon Scott and Jim Morrison are mentioned). Many young artists have a reverence for classic rock and the lifestyle that went along with it. What do you make of this?
Hepworth: I was reading the other day that young people of the internet age are drawn to stars who predate the internet age. They're seen as being more authentic.
Songfacts: Which of the 40 uncommon people that you feature had the biggest impact on you?
Hepworth: I would have to say John Lennon and Paul McCartney. It wasn't just their music. It was also they provided you with a blueprint of a way to behave, a way to carry yourself, a way to be. I was 14 when they first came along and so they made a profound impression on me, an impression which lasts to this day.Songfacts: You had to make some tough calls, leaving out Chuck Berry, for instance. Which of your choices has been the most controversial?
Hepworth: I wasn't trying to be comprehensive. I was just trying to outline some of the people who went to make up our idea of what a rock star is. I included some people, like Randy Rhoads and Hank Marvin, that many people probably won't have heard of but I put them in there because I think they help tell the bigger story.
Songfacts: As you point out in the Bob Marley chapter, rock doesn't have to be rock. Why is he a rock star but Hank Williams or Neil Diamond aren't?
Hepworth: Hank Williams could have been but he came too early. Neil Diamond I would disqualify on the basis that I don't think many people want to be Neil Diamond.
"So You Want To Be A Rock 'N' Roll Star" - The Byrds
"Rockstar 101" - Rihanna
"Rock 'n' Roll Star" - Oasis
"Feel Like a Rock Star" - Kenny Chesney
"Rock Star" - Hole
"Rock Star" - N.E.R.D
"Rock Star" - Future
"Rockstar" - Dappy
"Little Rock Star" - Lucinda Williams
"Do It With a Rockstar" - Amanda Palmer
"A Rock Star Bucks A Coffee Shop" - Neil Young
"Rock Star" - Everclear
"Jesus Was A RockStar" - Scott Stapp
Hepworth: I really don't care. I don't think music stars have any need for awards or Halls of Fame because the greatest tribute we can pay them is their music which we carry around in our heads. That stuff's engraved on our hearts. We don't need a certificate to prove it.
I hate it when I turn on the radio and they announce that somebody's dead with the words "Grammy Award winner..." That's why they made such a fuss about Bob Dylan getting the Nobel. So that when he goes they can say "Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan" when in truth he's bigger than that. He doesn't need your prizes. He's Bob bloody Dylan.
Songfacts: You mention a number of cases where rock history has been distorted. What is the biggest misconception?
Hepworth: The idea that there is an archetypal rock star. That's the beauty of rock stars – they came in so many shapes and sizes.
Songfacts: Is Ed Sheeran a rock star? He has a passel of hits, worked his way through Taylor Swift's squad, and is always finding new means of debauchery.
Hepworth: He isn't for me but I'm far too old for my opinion to matter. I have a picture above my desk of Elvis Presley with Richard Nixon in the Oval Office and I often reflect these days on the fact that back then when a rock star got together with the President it was clear who was the unpredictable one.
Songfacts: Is your generation the last of the rock journalists? (Our contributor, Bruce Pollock, calls himself "The Next to Last of the Rock Journalists.")
Hepworth: Rock journalists had immense power and mystique when they had heard the records and you hadn't. Nowadays everybody's got equal access to the same stuff so they don't matter in the same way.
January 18, 2018
Uncommon People: The Rise and Fall of The Rock Stars is available at Amazon.
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