Back in high school, I was infatuated with the rock ‘n’ roll persona. The rock ‘n’ roll sound. The rock ‘n’ roll feel. I grew my hair out, bought a leather jacket and wanted to go to college in New York City to embody Julian Casablancas from The Strokes. I sped down suburban streets with the windows down while blasting The White Stripes, feeling like a 17-year-old rebel without a cause.
But, in today’s music and pop culture scene, do those rock star ideals even exist anymore? Pardon yet another Kanye reference, but he exclaimed a few months ago, “Rap is the new rock ‘n’ roll. We the rock stars.” And, I must say, this is true. But, I’d prefer if it weren’t true. Rappers as rock stars is simply not the same as rockers as rock stars.
I’m not going to go on and prove the validity of Yeezus’s statement. Modern rappers may indeed personify the cultural fixation, power and counterculture ideals that are prevalent in the classic rock star archetypes, but it is simply not the same.
In the classic movie “Almost Famous,” a character in a rock band says “rock ‘n’ roll is a lifestyle and a way of thinking … And it’s not about money and popularity.” It’s the attitude that you know you’re cool and other people know you’re cool, and that’s enough. It doesn’t need to be flaunted or calculated.
Rappers, on the other hand, try so very hard to achieve the very things that Bebe claimed rock stardom wasn’t about. It’s a culture of flashiness and of extreme care for where they stand. The music video for Drake’s “The Motto” showcases the cheesy I’m-going-to-rap-in-front-of-an-expensive-car-in-gold-chains stereotype to an almost laughable extent. In Kendrick Lamar’s recently released “Control” verse, he very publicly ranked several other rappers to make sure he established himself in popular favor.
Rappers are overly conscious of their own importance. They all believe they have something to prove. Whether it’s the impoverished boy coming from nothing or their own ranking among contemporaries — i.e. the East Coast-West Coast rivalry of the ‘90s — they are seemingly wrapped up in themselves too much to connect to people in the same way that rock stars who simply aim to shred can.
Rap lyrics are rampant with personal struggles or the act of reveling in their own glory — Jay Z’s “I invented swag, poppin’ bottles, puttin’ supermodels in the cab” — that decreases their coolness and individuality due to the fact that they constantly feel like they need to reassert it.
Kurt Cobain claimed, “I’d rather be dead than cool.” This resistance toward fame makes it seem as if being a rock star isn’t even a choice — that being a rock star is a sacrifice, in ways. True rock stardom is Eddie Vedder swinging from the rafters and Jimi Hendrix playing guitar behind his head, not coming across a big group crowded around some local rappers in San Francisco and being told, “Yeah, you know the term ‘ratchet’? It was these guys.” Sometimes, it feels as if rap is a quest toward the next coined term or the next fashion fad.
Certainly, there is glamour bestowed upon rock stardom as well. The ideal of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll is just as prevalent as the rap cliches. But their music, performances and image are not completely based on the glory like rap tends to be. Keith Richards said, “There’s something beautifully friendly and elevating about a bunch of guys playing music together … It’s really teamwork; one guy supporting the others, and it’s all for one purpose.”
Rappers do embody the rock star pursuit of breaking the rules and pushing the boundaries, but more often than not, this comes off as being insincere or petty. Also, they do hold vast power in popular youth culture, whether it be in fashion or award shows. Perhaps it’s the slashing guitars or the rough voices or the images of disheveled baddies swaying onstage due to too much wine, but rock stars and their music transcend simple influence over the masses. It’s an idea: an idea that the superficial, intracompeting rappers can never tap into.
Taran Moriates is the arts columnist. Contact him at [email protected].