Now that you’ve come back from two weekends in a row of Coachella and blowing your college savings on, well, blow, it’s time to reflect on the Rock Star. I’m even drinking one as I write this column in the early hours past its due date. Um, I’m talkin’ ‘bout the energy drink, ya dummy! But your suspicion of my liquid consumption does raise the question: What does “Rock Star” even mean these days?
There are 69 different definitions of “Rock Star” on Urban Dictionary. I know, the number “69” is hilarious to your childish sensibilities. But it’s fitting because most of the definitions are associated with partying. Today’s idea of a Rock Star is made clear when Rihanna sings, “Rocking this club / Got my middle finger up / I don’t really give a fuck” in “Rockstar 101.” It’s the MTV of lifestyles, where its original musical basis has been eradicated, and the “Rock” of “Rock Star” (like the “Music” of “Music Television”) is rendered meaningless.
In other words, Rock Stars aren’t necessarily rock anymore. Musicians of varying genres, like the R&B R. Kelly, pop princess Hannah Montana and even the popularly hated Nickelback all have songs on the subject. Even nonmusicians like foodie Anthony Bourdain, comedian Russell Brand and the video game publisher behind Grand Theft Auto have built their images around this archetype.
But the term “Rock Star” wasn’t as loosely applied in previous generations as it is today. If you search the definition in slightly more reputable dictionaries, you get “a famous singer of rock music.” The aspect of debauchery hadn’t become the definition itself yet — although it was an implication. According to my favorite scholarly source, Wikipedia, “The phrase ‘rocking and rolling’ (was used) … as a sexual analogy.” So, R-rated aspects of society are intrinsic in the term. Rock Stars used to be greats like Mick Jagger, who trashed hotel rooms by 10 p.m., impregnated a lot of women and allegedly ate a Mars Bar, um, inside of Marianne Faithful.
Now, anyone in tight neon pants who likes to party rock can claim that fame. It’s not that the broadened application of the term means that there are no Rock Stars in the rock genre anymore. I mean, the Strokes were like that — back in 2000, right? Father John Misty lit a joint for a homeless woman during an interview with CHARTattack.com once. Oh, and the seemingly straight-laced Vampire Weekend are ideal for crazy dance parties.
Rock musicians’ personas became less traditionally rock-god-oriented when the popularity of ’80s hair metal transitioned into ’90s grunge. Although drugs and sex and all that good stuff were still around, a musician’s presence was generally more subdued — to the point where the most famous of rockers at this time, Kurt Cobain, hated the “Star” aspect of his job. So, the embrace of fame became unnecessary. And the appeal of high social status combined with debauchery is not limited to rockers. You only need to go as far as frat row to figure that out.
Rock music is not at a loss because the term “Rock Star” has exceeded the boundaries of its initial label. The genre is way too broad to only accommodate one type of persona, anyway. As Jack Black’s character in “School of Rock” teaches his pupils, “Rock ain’t about getting loaded and being a jerk.” It should be about the music, not the lifestyle. The lifestyle is merely an enhancement of the musical experience — so the expansion of the term means an expansion of the genre.