Time was when only the grubbiest of back-alley bands would ever gain critical praise. But now, says James McMahon, it seems the glossy world of the popstar is gaining credibility.
Last month in London, at the perennially staid Brit Awards, new British talents raged against mediocrity with undeniable aplomb. Twenty-two-year-old rapper Tinie Tempah (Patrick to his mum) put in a performance that owed more to Eminem than John Barnes, scooping two awards in doing so. Later 27-year-old Plan B (Ben to his) orchestrated a potted run-through of his The Defamation Of Strickland Banks album, culminating in a choreographed prison riot and a man being set on fire. Elsewhere saw Hurts, Jessie J and Dizzee Rascal do everything they could to eradicate the memory of one of Mumford & Sons turning up in a trucker’s cap.
Two days before, 24-year-old Lady Gaga arrived at Los Angeles’ 53rd Grammy Awards squatting inside a giant egg. As the vessel made its way down the red carpet, it passed 26-year-old Nicki Minaj — the illogical midpoint between a leopard and Morticia Adams — caught in conversation with the bequiffed Janelle Monáe, one year her junior. “I love it when people say, ‘What was she wearing?’” exclaimed Minaj. “Wouldn’t you rather be exciting than boring?” Rather than answering, Monáe broke into a spontaneous tap-dance routine.
Two events, one common goal: February 2011 is the moment pop stardom began to fight back.
RESURRECTION OF POP
Pop stardom was supposed to be dead by now, its corpse either lying beneath Simon Cowell’s smoking gun or buried six-feet under the Neverland estate. Much like record sales and A&R men’s glittering careers, logic suggested stardom had been killed by the internet; by YouTube, by Twitter. The idea of a pop star with the enigma and mystique of David Bowie ever emerging again seemed preposterous in an age when a celebrity could digitally update their audience when they’re eating a kebab.
It was a death we weren’t supposed to mourn: pop stars were supposed to be something we’d grow out of when we became adults — nevertheless, the spaces on my walls where the posters used to be continued to yearn for someone to fill them. Note the distinction between celebrity and stardom.
“A celebrity,” mused US historian Daniel J Boorstin, “is a person known for his well-knownness.” That’s Matt Cardle. So what’s stardom? Well, it’s a feeling or a mood — a little more complicated than how recognisable someone’s face is.
“Pop stars are supposed to be glamorous and exciting,” says Jon Savage, author of seminal punk tome England’s Dreaming. “It’s pop. It’s meant to take you out of yourself. Rock is stuck in the everyman mode, which is one of the reasons why it’s not pop at the minute. No more dreary new authenticity beards. Dress up to mess up...”
I’m with Savage. The way I saw it, pop stars were supposed to be an ideal, a distraction from ordinary life, animated clotheshorses you could hang dreams and ambitions on. Fittingly there’s now a clutch of new, young, ambitious musicians who appear to see things the same way.
Kurt Cobain, reared on post-punk indie ideals, used to be fond of telling his audience that he was “just like us”. Perhaps we’re finally waking up to the fact we don’t really want our musicians to be like us at all. Perhaps that’s why the last Arctic Monkeys record didn’t sell and the Lady Gaga one did: why bother with songs about chip shops when you can hear concept albums about unicorns?
Yet these artists now exist in a cultural sphere lacking the traditional infrastructure for pop stardom: no Smash Hits, no Top Of The Pops, a once revolutionary MTV now more likely to screen Totally Calum Best than play pop promos. They’re all acts you’ll read about in magazines, sure, but rarely in ones about music. Chasing declining sales, playing catch-up with the weary earnestness of blogs, there’s little space for the ideas of music’s new stars in the conservative new music press. In these pages, words such as ‘posters’ and ‘hype’ are viewed with suspicion. Which is fine if you’re Radiohead, but isn’t beneficial to the schooling of new stars.
Denied a voice in their traditional homes, many believe the silencing of stars has frightening repercussions. “Stars are important,” says The Times columnist Caitlin Moran. “They make themselves famous because they don’t feel they fit into the current world, and so they invent a new one, on stage and on record. That’s important not just for culture, but for society, because that made-up world then seeps into the real one. It moves us all on a bit. Art, when it’s good, is like a precognitive dream of a possible future. If we like it and buy into it, we actually make it the future.”
Yet if that’s not why this new breed of stars deserves support — why Gaga, the egg and the Grammys deserve encouragement not scorn — then consider how the decline of stardom is one that’s had worrying consequences for other entertainments.
THE RIPPLE EFFECT
Last year, film magazine Sight & Sound ran a ‘Death Of Stardom’ article, arguing that the recent box-office flops of Cruise, Willis, Depp et al showed that Hollywood’s dependable bankers weren’t the draw they used to be. They argued that in days gone by you had to pay to see the aforementioned faces, now you can see them on the internet for free. Consider the fact that last year’s most acclaimed films — Winter’s Bone, The Social Network, Biutiful — contained few recognisable faces, while the most profitable film of the last 10 years, 2007’s Paranormal Activity, contained a cast of previously uncast — and thereby fresh — personalities.
Hollywood is so concerned about its current lack of star power in fact, that earlier this month Toronto businessman Jamie Salter announced that he had purchased the image rights to the icon Marilyn Monroe, for a fee believed to be around $50m (£30.8m), with the intention of digitally reanimating her and offering her to be cast in future productions “as an actress the director chooses, no different than Kate Hudson or Meryl Streep”.
Alarming stuff, yet personality is the key word here — always the first ingredient of the great popstar — and it’s the oppression of stardom — the media’s willingness to laugh at Beady Eye’s Liam Gallagher rather than celebrate his fabulous surrealism, for example — that’s done most to make music a duller place. Yet where it was feared that social media would diminish stardom, some, such as Peter Robinson from the definitive pop blog Popjustice.com, believe it’s actually led to the resistance.
“While it does ruin the mystique for some artists,” says Robinson, “I don’t think using Twitter necessarily means showing your arse. If you get it right, and if your popstar persona is already well enough defined, Twitter can be the perfect way to extend that persona. Theo Hutchcraft from Hurts does this brilliantly. Hurts are a stylish, smart, dryly humorous band, and his tweets reflect that perfectly. If anything, Twitter reinforces his persona rather than destroys it. The same is true of Example — his music’s blokey and his Twitter is chattily obsessed with jogging and Nando’s.”
Not only that, but it helps that these musicians appear to crave success — that they see the very notion of ‘pop star’ as no longer being a dirty, childish word — and are no longer scared of the implications of admitting that. Not that such views are without friction: there’s always been conflict between ambition and integrity, one long punctuated with cries of “sellout”. According to The Oxford English Dictionary, the first recorded use of that phrase is as early as 1890, and refers to “the proposed sell-out of the State of North Dakota to the infamous Louisiana Lottery Company”.
One hundred and twenty one years later, and in the days running up to the Brits last month, Tinie Tempah was so assured about his ambitions he told a national newspaper that he’d hit the “glass ceiling” of the underground and craved “mainstream success”. Unlike the tortured beatings of credible stars past, it’s a refreshing, exciting attitude for a new musician to have.
“We’re at a point when a lot of bands have learned that all ‘independence’ really means is that they’re free to sort out their own endorsement deals with major brands and corporations,” says Robinson. “Making money from music has definitely become less of a taboo. The public, who all know artists make less from recorded music sales, are more forgiving when they see a band doing something previous generations may have termed ‘selling out’. Which is just as well — the majors are doing their best to sign artists to 360-degree deals, meaning that every aspect of their identity will be monetised and flogged for all it’s worth.”
Of course the music is important — without Starman, Bowie would have just been a misguided pop star pretending to be an alien. And, of course, music is about emotions before it’s about enigma — although there’s some mileage in Kanye West’s music videos even with the sound turned down. But it’s thrilling to see the rebirth of stardom, a scene populated by musicians making their art with a love of more than just music, encompassing a host of artists deserving of an obsessed audience.
Being part of that adoring audience is something Moran describes as “being like a dog, running after cars, because it’s fun to run and bark at something, all at the same time”. I’d just describe it as a reason to put some posters up on my walls. But in the spirit of this whole argument, I’m happy to accept — nay, celebrate — the difference of view.
(Image: Rex Features)