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Playboy 60th Anniversary Essay: In Search of the Lost Rock & Roll Icon
  • December 27, 2013 : 23:12
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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.

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read more: entertainment, music, issue january 2014


  • Anonymous
    our generation still has rock icons. jack white, the black keys, kings of leon, green day, all a part of our generation of young rock fans who still believe in real music. it's not as good as it used to be, but it still ain't all bad