The rockstar is dead; long live the rockstar. This isn’t exactly a new argument, but it is one that’s increasingly relevant. “Rock” music (as broad and empty a label as that is) has moved on from the cult of personalities that defined the genre in its heydey. While there are prominent figures on the current music scene-—Dave Grohl, Win Butler, James Mercer, Jack White—the increasing diversification of rock music has denied any of them the sort of universal recognition that elevated frontmen Freddie Mercury or Robert Plant or Pete Townshend.
This isn’t a bad thing, per se. For so many bands, charisma has become such a key component of their legacy that actual discussions of the music is close to impossible. Try to discuss Nirvana’s discography without getting into the effect of Cobain himself. Though posturing as the anti-rock star as Nirvana was coming to prominence, he has been retroactively added to the canon of so-called Golden Gods. He may not have looked or acted or played anything like Jimmy Page or Jim Morrison, but his name holds the exact same charge. Anyone who doubts the efficacy of Cobain’s legacy as a symbol need only look to the discourse around Courtney Love, who is spoken about less as a musician with a brilliant career and more as a blemish on the Nirvana trophy case.
There have been those who have sought to embody this in the modern music scene. Julian Casablancas, who surged onto the scene with the Strokes, seemed to be very much an heir to the golden age rock star. He had swagger and style and that seemed to emanate from the Strokes’ discography as much as the actual music. Looking more to “mainstream” rock, Chris Martin of Coldplay and or Brandon Flowers of The Killers both seemed capable of achieving the sort of cultural prominence that characterized figures like Axl Rose, but they soon faded from the cultural dialogue. Even though both bands are still putting out albums (fantastic ones, in the case of The Killers), neither group seems to orbit around the frontman in the way they once did. Hell, Gwenyth Paltrow was as much as presence on the last Coldplay record as her ex-husband.
Again, this is not a bad thing. In fact, it’s really a fantastic one. In the past, rock—for all its diversity—was something of a monolith. There could be conversations about different styles or approaches, but in the end, the genre and its focus on a singular figure was locked into one ultimate texture. Rock was a thing with a purpose. The internal conception of the genre was more generous, but not much more nuanced than that of those who denounced it.
And you can see that in someone like Grohl, who seizes every opportunity to appear in Rolling Stone to denounce the shift away from real music (he seems especially leery of electronic music, even though Kraftwerk had put out eight records over five years before Nirvana was even formed). The musicians who seem most comfortable chasing the old cultural trappings of the rock star, are usually the most insufferable. Jack White can put out a great record, but that doesn’t make his hissy fits over the state of music or who’s publishing his (ridiculous any way you cut it) riders tolerable. Sure, it’s not just the big guns who publicly act out (Mark Kozalek, I’m looking at you), but those outbursts rarely carry the sense of self-importance that is dripping from nearly everything Dave Grohl has to say.
It’s hard not to think about all of this as musicians enter into the sort of culture war that seems to make up nearly all of rock journalism nowadays. Sure, it’s easy to chock this up to a simple clash of generations, and leave it at that. But at the same time, it gestures to the growing intersection of style and genre that has characterized the recent musical landscape. When Kanye West said that rappers were the new rockstars, few thought he’d end up working extensively with one of the most famous of them. In a genre that’s gone from rebel yell to establishment stalwart, the need to diversify and adapt is crucial. The rock star doesn’t allow for that.
When a genre isn’t a collection of celebrity pillars, it allows for a wider range of voices that can overlap and contradict each other to brilliant effect. It forces attention onto the music in interesting ways, and it ensures that personal squabbles don’t overwhelm the ultimate product. Sure, we may not get stories about the crazy, tragic antics of a genre poster boy, but we do get a spectrum of artistic statements that don’t seem muddled by the personalities of the people who create them. It’s a lesser idol of worship, and a lesser spectacle to gawk at, but it gives us so much more to say.