CMU professor’s book proposes we may have seen last of ‘Rock Star’
David Shumway came of age in the era when rock stars were everywhere: on posters and television, in magazines and newspapers and, of course, on stages around the world.
One of the premises of his new book, “Rock Star: The Making of Musical Icons From Elvis to Springsteen” (Johns Hopkins University Press, $29.95) is that the “star-maker machinery behind the popular song” of Joni Mitchell’s “Free Man in Paris” has been irrevocably changed, and, in many ways, lost.
“I think that having popular musicians who we took to be making serious commentary about our culture and society is an important thing, and that’s one of the things we’re losing,” says Shumway, 62, a professor of English and literary and cultural studies at Carnegie Mellon University. “I don’t mean to say there aren’t going to be stand-out performers in the future, but I do think there are going to be fewer of them, and it’s going to be harder for them to reach that level and maintain it for a long time.”
Shumway’s book starts with the first true rock star, Elvis Presley, and ends with Bruce Springsteen’s ascension to superstardom in the wake of 1984’s “Born in the USA” album. The essays on Presley and Springsteen bookend chapters about Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, James Brown, the Rolling Stones and the Grateful Dead.
“My choices here weren’t meant to form a pantheon or a canon,” says Shumway, noting that The Beatles, The Who and David Bowie certainly are worthy rock stars. “I was looking to pick people who reveal different aspects of rock stardom, different kinds of cultural controversies and politics they were involved in.”
Music alone, Shumway insists, cannot confer stardom. Presley’s popularity was as much a product of the visual images of his gyrations seen on television as it was from his music. Springsteen’s ascent was abetted by exposure via music videos on MTV.
“One of my points is that stardom is very much a creation of multiple media,” Shumway says, “so you’re never a star just because of the way you appear in one medium.”
Shumway thinks rock stars, consciously or not, always reflect particular politics. Even the Rolling Stones, who the author deems “the least self-consciously political” of the subjects in “Rock Star,” represented an aspect of politics via their staunch embrace of consumerism.
Mitchell and the Grateful Dead initially seem to be curious inclusions. But Shumway argues that Mitchell is a victim of a cultural (and musical) bias against singer-songwriters, and that her influence on generations of female musicians merits her status.
The Dead, Shumway posits, were important because they eschewed politics as a solution to society’s problems by “establishing new practices within, but counter to, the dominant culture.” The Dead aren’t always perceived as rock stars because they didn’t embrace “the trappings of celebrity,” but Shumway thinks musical arguments against their status are false.
“They played in stadiums, their fans responded to them the way rock fans respond to (rock bands),” he says. “You can even go on about the way they dressed and presented themselves, all of that comes out of rock ‘n’ roll. And moreover, if you listen to the music carefully, despite the improvisational elements, it has more in common with rock ‘n’ roll than any other genre.”
Shumway thinks that Springsteen and Bono of U2 are the last of the true rock stars. A musician such as Dave Matthews just misses the designation by virtue of his emergence in the early 1990s when the music business began to fragment, making it harder for musicians to rise to the level of stardom that was once, if not commonplace, attainable.
“The ones who have broken out since then tend to be people who we would describe more as pop performers than rock,” he says. “By that, I mean they appeal to folks more as entertainers than as musicians or artists. I’m thinking of Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears and, more recently, Lady Gaga. Even some very good performers like Adele, who has a great voice, still come across in my hearing like the pre-rock singers, not because of the style, but because of the way she presents herself.”
Rege Behe is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.