Professor George McKay writes on the frequently destructive nature of the pop stardom condition in a blogpost which first appeared on his own blog last week, and features an extract from his book Shakin’ All Over: Popular Music and Disability published late in 2013 by University of Michigan Press.
No-one’s got the emotional tools to deal with being looked at by a million people. Live the dream? Live the nightmare.—Robbie Williams, Take That
There are industry-specific conditions, which tend to target certain kinds of pop workers: singers—frontmen and women—appear most vulnerable. Why the singers? Perhaps because there is arguably a closer relation between their instrument, which is the voice, and the body; perhaps because they are the focus in the band of fans’ attention, and feel the adulation and pressure more; perhaps because the singer is often also the lyricist, who writes the band’s subjective and expressive text. In Laurie Stras’s view, ‘the jazz or pop singer has a privileged and vital role … as an agent through whom identification becomes easier, less intellectual or abstract, more corporeal’.
Pop stardom is an illness that can seriously, even fatally, threaten health and undermine ability; to do well in this career is frequently to be or to get a bit or a lot fucked up. Its workers employ medical terminology to express the condition. His then manager described the unattractive transformation of Ian Dury, following the chart-topping success of the single ‘Hit me with your rhythm stick’ in 1979, as the result of him suffering ‘a very bad attack of number one-itis’.
Deborah Curtis notes that, round the same time, as Joy Division became more successful in late 1970s Britain, her husband and that band’s frontman ‘Ian [Curtis] contracted what was known as LSS (Lead Singer Syndrome)’. Number one-itis and LSS are the medical metaphors that describe the industry’s sheer damagability, which may be focused most on, but is not restricted to, those who make it. The pop and rock industry has a notable capacity to facilitate the ruination of its workers; it’s a high-risk, hi-vis workplace culture where one is never quite safe.
English jazz-pop singer Winehouse’s sung question, ‘What kind of fuckery is this?, the opening verse line from ‘Me and Mrs Jones’, a song on the hit album Back to Black, contains a startling tabu neologism for a pop lyric—one of the signs of Winehouse’s freshness, her creative innovation, of course—which resonates in the context of her lyrics’ self-dramatising commentary on her life and her love life, yes, but also I suggest on her position in relation to the industry. Back to Black is, after all, the album that famously (perhaps now we must say notoriously) opens with a song and a hit single called ‘Rehab’, in which the young woman, barely into her twenties, recounts, to a fabulous retro 1960s-soul-style dance track, the twin pop lifestyle pressures of health and hedonism. ‘Rehab’ is in fact a refusal of treatment, a rejection of advice, with listeners singing along to its refusing chorus—no, no, no; we are complicit.
The control / rock ‘n’ roll dialectic I discuss elsewhere in Shakin’ All Over when looking at the out-of-control performing pop body is relevant here too, in the context of the industry’s treatment and behavioural expectations of its own lead workers. If we speak the cultural policy language of creative industries or creative economy, we should acknowledge too that there is and has long been a destructive economy at work in popular music.
In the discourse of popular music, and perhaps especially of rock (via jazz), a romantic eschatology has developed and endures, which can in some genres become an extreme and urgent ending, though in others it is melodramatic or pathetic. This is confirmed by the favoured perspective of the media industries on young musical death, in which, for example, as Jeffrey S. Sartin notes in an essay called ‘Contagious rhythms’, ‘popular movies were made about Mozart, Charlie Parker[, Ian Curtis, Amy Winehouse] and Kurt Cobain, not about Aaron Copland (died age 90) or Eubie Blake (died age 96)’.
Live fast, die young. Bird lives. And now he’s gone. I hope I die before I grow old. Time takes a cigarette. Goodbye my friend, it’s hard to die. No future. Death disco. Is there life after birth? Do it, do it. I hate myself and I want to die. It’s better to burn out than to fade away. When we’re dead they’ll know just who we are. I’m just gonna close my eyes. Teenagers scare the living shits out of me. No, no, no.
[extract from Shakin’ All Over: Popular Music and Disability]
By Professor George McKay
Professor of Media Studies and an Arts & Humanities Research Council Leadership Fellow.