Recently, Alice Cooper—celebrity golfer, disc jockey, born-again Christian and onetime shock rocker—had this to say about some of the popular music on his radar: “I just feel like this whole generation maybe need to all eat a steak. Maybe they just need to quit eating, you know, vegetarian food and get out there and get some blood pumping in their system.” Cooper went on specifically to attack Mumford & Sons and the Lumineers, two successful and earnest folk-inflected bands of the moment, opining that they are “not rock.” (Marcus Mumford of the aforementioned Mumford & Sons responded almost instantly: “I didn’t know that rock and roll had rules.”)
Full-fledged generational divide or something more? Do you want another example? Consider what Billie Joe Armstrong, lead singer of Green Day, said recently about South Korean pop-music phenomenon Psy: “This dude is the herpes of music.” Is he speaking of the music itself? The absence of melody, the lack of traditional instruments, the monotonous beat, the awful rapping? The gruesome slapstick of the video? Or is Armstrong just carping about the billion views on YouTube?
It is not so unusual these days—especially in the media and especially among music writers of a certain age—to observe that we don’t have icons like we did of old, we don’t have titans of popular music, we don’t have entertainers astride the stage like we once did, there’s no rock and roll, they just don’t make it like they used to, something terrible has happened to our art form and so on. In fact, I remember this kind of thing as far back as my undergraduate days (in the early 1980s), when I was sitting backstage during a play with another cast member (his name happens to have been John F. Kennedy Jr.) as he flipped idly through Rolling Stone. In due course, this cast member launched into an impromptu cultural criticism about how none of the bands of the early 1980s had any character, not like before. As evidence: Night Ranger, Journey, Scorpions, Whitesnake.
Is there any merit to the argument that we no longer have icons of music? Or is this now just middle-aged dads carping about what they don’t really understand?
In order to speak to the question of icons and to assess the situation with respect to the music of the present, it might be useful to talk a little bit about what an icon might be.
For example, here are a few icons from the 1960s, a period in which the popular song changed rather dramatically. (In many cases, musicians started writing their own songs more voluminously instead of relying on the likes of Gerry Goffin and Carole King, and they began playing the electric guitar, and, eventually, they grew their hair out and/or sported some tie-dye.) Icons of the 1960s: the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, the Supremes, Jimi Hendrix
It is fair to say this is an incomplete and totally personal list of entertainers I think were meaningful during the decade in question. The Beatles for the obvious reasons of innovation and reinvention, Bob Dylan for making the case for lyrics, Aretha Franklin for revolutionizing soul and finding a way to marry gospel impulses to mainstream R&B, the Supremes for being the leading edge of the Motown sound, and Jimi Hendrix, not only the greatest electric-guitar player who ever lived but also a style genius and a great thinker about sound.
Your list may differ, as would mine on another day, though to some degree it is indisputable that, upon reflection, these artists made a great impact on the songs of their time. They seemed to crystallize the social change and ferment of the 1960s, and from vastly different directions. Hendrix did not sound like the Supremes, and the Supremes did not sound like the Beatles. In each case, the music of the period is inconceivable without including these artists. But it’s exactly the retrospection of this exercise that makes the delineation of these icons so easy. Nevertheless, I would like to try to define iconic status based on this sampling—no matter how fast and loose—and I would define its characteristics as follows: style, influence, talent, creativity, vision. These are the qualities I associate with icons, and the further back you go, the easier it is to evaluate them. For example, everyone knows who’s at the top of the list in the 1950s—Elvis Presley (or Little Richard or Chuck Berry). And the 1970s are not appreciably more difficult than the 1960s, though those times were less politically charged. Icons of the 1970s: the Rolling Stones, Elton John, Stevie Wonder, the Sex Pistols, Fleetwood Mac
I worried a little about putting Elton John on this list (I worried even harder about leaving off Led Zeppelin). But if you’re making a list of artists with the most impact, you have to try to assess that impact regardless of whether it takes place in a form you admire, and for me, despite his indisputable chart dominance (and fancy glasses), Sir Elton really was a bubblegum artist, a singer of confectionary choruses. Which makes him hard to love. And yet his name was on the lips of the record-buying public, assuredly so. He was iconic. And the same is true of every other artist on my list above. The 1970s are unthinkable without the radical funk-R&B of Stevie Wonder (and if we were making the list on the basis of influence, we would have to include Parliament-Funkadelic too, whose long shadow continues to be felt in hip-hop). And I have to say, one album every single teenager in my high school possessed, no matter what they listened to, was Rumours; as style icon, no one in the 1970s had half the impact Stevie Nicks had.
So far, so good: style, influence, talent, creativity, vision. The 1970s are a fish-in-a-barrel decade as far as musical icons go. Your list could include Queen, the Who, the Kinks, the Clash, the Bee Gees. But the next decade is not so easy. Icons of the 1980s: Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Prince, Eurythmics, Madonna
In the 1980s, I start to have mixed feelings about the popular song. Partly because it was a period when the popular song began to deploy a really ugly and now-dated sonic palette (gated reverb on the drum kit, for example), a sound that enveloped even those who might have known better (Springsteen, Don Henley, Sting). Moreover, the popular song of the 1980s was less frequently political and more often ruled by the rigid confinements of post-album-oriented-rock radio. On the above list, exactly one artist has a perceptible political bent, and that is Bruce Springsteen. It seems fair to say that certain artists land on lists of 1980s icons solely because of their appearances on MTV, star factory of that decade. Did Prince or Madonna change American culture in any way? The Madonna of 2013—fashion executive and occasional road warrior—seems more about a certain kind of mass merchandising and the spectacle thereof than she seems given to creativity and vision. Really, in the 1980s there is exactly one indisputable icon, Michael Jackson, against whom others are judged. Even Springsteen seems irresolute by comparison (try listening to “Dancing in the Dark” or “Tunnel of Love” again). But Jackson’s accomplishment on Thriller is so immense that he has no competitor worthy of the name. Still, his personal problems—pathological narcissism, let’s say, and delusion and prescription-drug addiction—seem to commence almost immediately with subsequent albums, each less appealing than the last, until his later work is more the occasion of self-parody than of great music. But still. If Michael Jackson is not the quintessence of a music icon, then we have no legitimate icons. After him: lots of imitators. Icons of the 1990s: Nirvana, Guns N’ Roses, Tupac Shakur, N.W.A, Mariah Carey
This is the first decade in which I strongly dislike an icon of the period, namely Mariah Carey. In fact, “strongly dislike” is putting it mildly. Mariah Carey’s vocal histrionics, no matter how many top 10 singles she has had (and I think she is at or near the number achieved by Elvis), leave me cold, and there is never a song by Mariah Carey that is at all memorable to me. I could not, I don’t think, sing you a single melody by Mariah Carey. I don’t know that I have ever willingly played a song by Mariah Carey all the way through. Are there young people out there for whom the music of Mariah Carey was essential to their psychosocial development? I expect there are such young people, and I grieve for them. Obviously there are a great many more who also appreciated the manhood-in-a-vise falsetto of Axl Rose and his precariously close to homophobic and racist lyrics. I am not one of these people. I always thought Slash was the most derivative great guitarist ever (sort of like Angus Young of AC/DC but not as good, and Angus Young was not as good as a host of very gifted blues-based guitarists of the early 1970s). And the songwriting of Guns N’ Roses, especially by the time you get to Use Your Illusion I and II, is especially lackluster. Later Guns N’ Roses sort of feels like the Goo Goo Dolls, really. Kurt Cobain, however, like Hendrix and Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison, had his iconic status well in hand and managed to ensure for good or ill that he would always be lionized as he was in his youth. Kurt Cobain, alone on this list of the 1990s, had it all: style, influence, talent, creativity, vision. We might have mentioned R.E.M. if they had stopped in the 1990s, the way Nirvana did. But an icon, in part, is what the culture needs the icon to be. An icon is a musician who has social value across diverse social groups, however fleetingly. Once your moment has passed, you do yourself a disservice by hanging around and producing more work, though that is just what any self-respecting artist would want to do. Kurt Cobain established himself by looking backward and finding, in the melody writing of John Lennon, Ray Davies and others, a template for the modern song, and then he opted out. Which means: instant icon. Meanwhile in Compton, N.W.A revolutionized African American music all at once by bringing back a social message to the music and thereby leaving room for Tupac, with his vision, his street rage, his black nationalism. Tupac, who also had a good idea about how to go out in a blaze of glory. Icons of the 2000s: Britney Spears, Eminem, Kanye West, Carrie Underwood, Jay Z
The icons of the 2000s are about the primacy of television, about Britney’s childhood as a Mouseketeer, about Carrie Underwood’s graduation from American Idol, about Kanye West thumbing his nose at George W. Bush on live TV. As such, these artists do not bear prolonged musical scrutiny. You’ll notice there are no bands in the new millennium. Who needs a band? There are bands that have hung around since the 1990s, like Metallica and the Roots, devoted to a sublime idea of communal music making, but iconographically it’s almost as if bands existed simply to allow music buyers who have outgrown the television or celebrity-magazine idea of music to find some other outlet for their entertainment dollars. In this new millennium of icon-hood, it’s almost impossible to outlive your decade with reputation intact, though Jay Z has hustled the hardest. By definition an icon is something that lasts, historically. An icon is something or someone we can mostly agree on later. It is hard to support the idea that Britney Spears is anything but a vulnerable and somewhat confused young woman who got in over her head. And this is often the case now. The icons of the 2000s are scarcely icons at all because they haven’t stood the test of time. We mistake Carrie Underwood for an icon, but she’s more of a commodity, and we mistake Kelly Clarkson for one, and it’s only in the fullness of time that we realize just how fraudulent the American Idol idea of iconography really is.
Which brings us to: Icons of the 2010s: Lady Gaga, Justin Timberlake, Taylor Swift, Skrillex, Psy
Of Psy we have already observed that there is not a lot of music to his music, and Lady Gaga, though I think she is one of the great style mavens of the present, has never written a song that didn’t sound exactly like some other song. Justin Timberlake has the luck to be an attractive white guy, so his wholesale appropriation of everything Michael Jackson no longer merits lengthy comment. His imminence as an icon in this decade, despite long-ago solo albums (not to mention his boy-band origins), is owing to his legitimacy in the acting department. He suddenly seems to have graduated to a kind of reasonable adulthood. Taylor Swift, as I have said elsewhere, is a publicly traded corporation, the girl version of Thomas Kinkade, painter of light. And Skrillex is exactly what our age deserves, a guy who has managed to brutalize the popular song into a totally mechanized and quality-controlled blip that is perfectly calibrated for takers of Adderall or people who can count only to four. He is the place where all music goes to die.
If Grumpy Cat made music, I would definitely put Grumpy Cat on this list of the 2010s, because Grumpy Cat is one of the best and most effective communicators of the style of the period, even if she has recorded no songs. But in the absence of Grumpy Cat we have Psy and Taylor Swift and Skrillex and, perhaps, Robin Thicke. And they are uniformly disappointing. There is not an artist on this list whose music I would play for the sheer pleasure of it. This illuminates the problem of the period, instantaneity, which requires music in a fully diversified stock portfolio of multinational entertainment providers, which entertainment providers need to deliver music in exactly the way they might deliver high-fructose corn syrup. The quality-controlled deliverable dance-oriented Auto-Tuned American pop music product, with traces of hip-hop, is somewhat afraid of icons, because icons, with their style, influence, talent, creativity and vision, have their own ideas about how to proceed with their careers.
The music that has interested me most recently is made by people in living rooms, without much electricity required, and it’s about soul, about feel, about the way music can often touch on the deepest of human emotions. A band like Alabama Shakes, which is decidedly unglamorous in every possible respect, is a good example to me of this music made almost entirely in exile from the prevailing themes of the moment, from the laptops and synth modules and drum machinery. This exile is good, because it’s where creativity and vision enter into the project. Everything that actually resembles music, at least for me, comes these days from this condition of exile.
Does this mean it’s impossible for an icon to come to pass now, spontaneously, in these degraded times? Does this mean niche marketing makes it impossible for anyone to speak to us all again, in the way the Beatles occasionally spoke to us all? In the way Jimi Hendrix once spoke to us? In the way Michael Jackson once spoke to us? Does this mean people my age are perpetually relegated to this ugly condescension in which, to love music, we have to refer to a time no one else cares very much about, the music of 40 or 50 years ago?
I think not. I believe in style, influence, talent, creativity, vision, and I believe there are kids in their rooms, right now, who can do it all, who can be iconographic without oversimplifying themselves, without selling out, and as evidence of this, I adduce the one surpassing example of icon-hood in the past 10 years, a musician of remarkable grace and potential, with songwriterly skill and sparkling stage presence, a singer the camera loves but who changes the look and feel of the popular song whenever she turns up, who unites the disparate tendencies of the contemporary pop song, who makes this form serve a rather profound narrative purpose it has not much served recently, namely the artist called Adele.
I will admit I didn’t really understand Adele at first. I will admit, in fact, that if Adele had not been the daily fare at physical therapy, where I was stuck several times a week for shoulder trouble, I might not know who Adele is. But at the physical-therapy establishment there was in fact a song playing twice an hour, “Someone Like You,” whose repetitious piano figure—with its Philip Glass solemnity—I came to love. It was partly the riskiness of making a song out of so little (piano and vocals), but also the incredible poise of the singer, that I soon learned to admire. It has a big chorus, this song, but it’s also exceedingly personal and manages to make a romance that probably dated back a year or two (at the time of composition) seem as though recollected from a great distance. And when “Someone Like You” reaches for the very top of Adele’s range and teeters there (in the studio recording), the human voice and the condition of lost romance seem like one thing, one frail insubstantial subatomic miracle of heartsickness and conflicted human consciousness. “How bittersweet this would taste….”
That song (and others by Adele I soon came to find equally compelling) is about being 21, I suppose, and it’s about being a woman, and it’s about, perhaps, living in a culture that is preoccupied with the anorexic and willowy model girl, and it makes these problems seem as fresh and important as new love, but “Someone Like You” is not just a song about these things, which are not all that astonishing (though the nuance of Adele’s performance is); it could be about a number of other things too, which is the mark of a great pop song. “Someone Like You” could be Old Europe talking to the rest of the world about its fading dominance. It could be about Anglo-American relations. It could be about the pop song itself, about the traditional troubadour-oriented pop song, made in an era of heavily machined laptop kitschification. I can think of few pop songs that have such varied allegorical freight. (Oh wait, there is one: “Yesterday” by Paul McCartney.)
So is it impossible that another icon can appear anew, when here one is, a mere stripling from England with the wisdom and presence of an 80-year-old black woman from Mississippi? If there’s one such icon, why not more? Here in the world of 7 billion there are innumerable tiny rooms, thatched cottages, each with its kid attempting to describe his or her experience, each with the itch to perform, each looking for like-minded souls, each hunting down songs to sing, each with all the necessary style, influence, talent, creativity and vision. You don’t think there are icons out there? It would be unwise to say so. Every block has one. Every tribe. Every town. Every subdivision. Every church. Every mosque. Maybe we can figure out how to get out of their way and let them sing.