What person in the Western world hasn’t taken something about what a man might be from rockstars? From Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry and Elvis, to Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and Robert Plant, to David Bowie, Prince, Axl Rose, Jimmy Barnes, James Brown, Mick Jagger—it’s impossible to include them all, let alone to comment on the unique ways they’ve influenced popular ideas of what a man can look like whilst still being a man.
Nevertheless, regular co-host Glen Martin and I sat down for another half-hour and attempted to do just that, paying special attention to the way that massive changes in the music business have impacted the likelihood that the culture-saturating Jaggers, Bowies and Princes of yore will recur.
Listening back to this episode, it occurred to me that the conclusion I never quite reached, but which I had almost arrived at when we ran out of time, was that the modern male rockstar is black, and he doesn’t play ‘guitar music’.
There will be people who cling to the idea that a rockstar must play ‘rock’—ideally with a guitar—but that’s never been a prerequisite, more a symbolic barrier used to prevent people who weren’t white from attaining the status. To wit, many rockstars haven’t played anything at all, they’ve just held a microphone and written lyrics. The R’n’B and hip-hop superstars of today have much more musical input in their songs than many of the rock frontmen of old, and their presence on a stadium stage is the exact same—they hold the microphone, command attention, bring the house down. The fact that the music’s not a four- or five-piece band playing punk, rock, metal or any one of the enormously disparate but predominantly white sub-genres (alt, indie, etc.), is really neither here nor there.
As Glen says in the podcast, you know a rockstar when you see them.
What’s more, a rockstar has a personal life, political acts, relationships, associations, that are as much the fabric of their status as a rockstar as the music they play. A rockstar isn’t just music, they’re the personification of ideas and feelings, lightning-rods for societal and personal change.
That’s a rockstar, those two things together, and right now, among men, that rockstar is black.
Why is both obvious and complicated. The rockstars of old spoke to the anxieties of a newly awakened white consumer-class, turning over supposedly sacrosanct tables in the homes of middle America and the rest of the Western world. The next brace rose above, to a kind of alien weirdness, beyond the tacky cliches (and less tacky political engagement), and the one after slouched back, broke things, danced strangely and found questions of sexual orientation a bit pointless.
Now that all seems irrelevant—that tide has finally washed back, leaving only the talented (or regressive) hangovers clinging to the sand on the shore, none of them saying much at all, even if they make very listenable or beautiful music.
Up on land, anyone denying that the moment of the globalised black rockstar has come is a plain fool.
Consumers have always been drawn to the image, talent and drive of the artists who flout social mores and confront meaningful legal and political injustices of the day through their music and behaviour—in this coalescence lies the making of rockstars. Indeed, unless artists are willing to engage with the societal pressure being felt around the world—engage with rage, humanity, talent and vision—they can’t be rockstars, let alone icons of new kinds of masculinity. Kendrick Lamar and D’Angelo are exactly that. Kanye, too, because everything about him, purposeful and apparently indeliberate, is a comment on what’s wrong with the world. How one can be a rockstar without living in the socio-political moment the way these artists do—the way many female rockstars do, too (see: Solange, Brittany Howard, Marissa Paternoster)—is beyond me.
Glen, at a certain point in the podcast, questions whether an artist is capable of reaching the culture-saturating, change-the-world status of David Bowie these days. The subtext is whether or not a guitar-playing ‘rock’ artist can, one who’s probably also white. Personally, I’m perfectly happy without them, and I think Glen is, too. Whatever I got from Hendrix, Dylan, Lennon and McCartney, Damon Albarn, Jagger and others when I was a young man, I get (and more) from Kendrick, D’Angelo, Solange, Paternoster and others. And at the end of the day, who the people are who present to you a valid way forwards doesn’t matter. Rockstars apply themselves to our common humanity, and the smartest thing anyone can do is let them, no matter who they are.
Anyway, as you can probably tell, this episode got me thinking. Hope you enjoy it—talk to you again soon.[Note: This episode is out two days early because it’s Ashley Thomson’s birthday this week. He’s going away and doesn’t want to bother with uploading podcasts while he’s on holidays. Thanks for tuning in!]