Pop stars are the unqualified legislators of the world

To talk about David Bowie, first we need to talk about Thomas Carlyle, a philosopher who, near the beginning of the 19th century, recognised that rationalism was undermining the mythical foundation of society – Christianity – without putting any new myths in its place. In Sartor Resartus, his unusual and wonderful book of 1830, he called for new myth-makers to form new stories, new images, new icons, which could hold society together and connect us to the divine. He initially thought poets could achieve this – they could be the ‘unacknowledged legislators of the world’, as Shelley put it. But Carlyle decided later in his career that what society really needed were heroes – Byronic figures who, through the sheer strength and charisma of their personalities – could control historical events and command respect and obedience in the masses. He thought Napoleon was the last such Great Man of his time.

Looking back today, we can see the potential dodginess of Carlyle’s thinking. He seems to be arguing that the only thing which can hold society together is some sort of emperor-cult, some irrational worship of a military hero. He ignores the message, in Jesus and Socrates, that the kingdom of heaven is within us – not in external forms and icons to be worshipped. His ideas were bad, but prophetic: in the 20th century, the cult of Napoleon evolved into the Cult of Hitler, the Cult of Stalin, the Cult of Mao, the Cult of Kim Jong-Il, the Cult of Putin – though historians will dispute whether these strong men really held their society together, or rather blocked their progress and tore them apart. They certainly didn’t connect them to the divine, if that’s what Carlyle thought would happen.

Luckily, western democratic societies took a different path from dictator-cults. Through no form of central planning, no grand vision, western societies discovered that the masses could be amused, placated and joined together by a different form of icon or hero: the celebrity entertainer. I think of Oscar Wilde as one of the first self-invented celebrity icons, and he developed his own theory of cult personalities: charismatic and dazzling people who give the masses an archetype to dream about, and a pattern to imitate. He created a cult for himself, changing his name, generating his own publicity, creating a legend around his life. He also discovered that celebrity icons, unlike dictators, are easily disposable. We can smash them and find new ones, to assert our power, we, the people. This is fun for us, less fun for the celebrities.

A few years after Wilde died, the mass manufacture of celebrity icons took off with the rise of the dream factory, cinema, and of mass icons like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Yet, even with the arrival of sound and a new generation of stars like Humphrey Bogart and Marilyn Monroe, cinema only allowed a certain amount of immersion. You could go to the cinema repeatedly, collect magazines and photographs of your favourite star, but there was still something of an emotional separation – compared to the old cult of Christianity or violent new cults like Fascism.

Freddie Mercury commanding the crowd at Live Aid

Then rock music happened. It was a total immersive art form, particularly live, combining music, poetry, theatre, dance, art, design and costume and, later, film, video and animation. Suddenly, a handful of rock stars were plugged into the cultural mainframe and channeling the dreams and desires of the masses. Through radios, TVs, walkmans and now iPods, they had a direct line to the national psyche further and deeper than any communist dictator.

This was a shock for everyone – especially the rock stars. There was no planning, no grand vision. Intellectuals, the guardians of high culture, were particularly miffed, because they thought they were the keepers of the nation’s soul, and then suddenly these young men – teenagers really – came along and commanded such utter adulation. And no one gave much of a damn about poets, playwrights and novelists any more. Power had been passed over, to a small group of young musicians who were not prepared for it. There was a moment in 1956, for example, when Enoch Powell was on an evening talk show with Bill Haley. And after the show Powell went up to shake his hand. Him, Enoch Powell, a man of such high culture that, when he was on Desert Island Discs, every one of his song selections was from Wagner’s Ring Cycle. ‘Why did I want to shake his hand?’ Powell said when asked. ‘He is the most influential character of our age.’

Elvis Presley found himself subjected to the most intense religious adulation, and he couldn’t handle it. Then Bob Dylan found himself seized upon as ‘the voice of a generation’. And he couldn’t deal with it either. Watch him in interviews, as fans and journalists try to get him to pronounce on society like he was Jesus or Marx. It’s intensely uncomfortable for a young singer in his 20s, utterly unprepared for such epic cultural influence to be placed on his shoulders. So he disappeared, and converted to Christianity. He decided that ‘you gotta serve somebody’, and he’d rather serve God than have people bow to him. He thought the rock cult was inane. As he told two pestering fans in 1965: ‘If you needed my autograph I’d give it to you.’

The Beatles and the Stones were also subject to intense quasi-religious hysteria, teenage girls competing with each other in their screams, wetting themselves, so that rivers of urine flowed down between the seats (I’m not making that up). They were also wooed by politicians (the Beatles in particular) who recognised that, abruptly, rock stars wielded far more cultural power than politicians or anyone else for that matter. They could instigate cause riots, even topple governments.

A 1963 cartoon showing the prime-minister, Alec Douglas-Home, desperately trying to recruit the Beatles to his campaign.

And they were also pondered over by intellectuals, the guardians of high culture. Look, for example, at this video of Mick Jagger, being interviewed by a bishop, a judge, and the editor of the Times. They’re trying to figure him out, but he’s just as surprised and unprepared himself to be channeling the dreams of the masses. He’s not so much an unacknowledged legislator as an unqualified one. As Kanye West would put it 40 years later: ‘No one man should have all that power‘ (particularly not a loveable dufus like Kanye…)

The rise of pop to the heights of unchallenged cultural influence presented a challenge to the old intelligentsia. It was a cultural revolution, less bloody but no less powerful than the cultural revolution occurring at the same time in China. It was a revolution of hierarchies. Suddenly, teenagers were empowered and low culture – pop stars – was raised on high. They had the public’s attention. Their art was the art that was really soaking into and shaping the nation’s psyche. So how should the old guard react to this?

Pop music and the Culture Wars

Madonna’s Justify My Love: feminism at its finest

From the 1960s to the 1990s, if you were an intellectual, your attitude to pop music decided which side of the barricade you were on in the Culture Wars. On one side of the barricade were those who decided that pop culture was worthy of serious academic attention, because, after all, culture is culture. Everything is culture – from toothpaste to Titian. Everything is part of our lives, and if explored intelligently it reveals interesting things about our social, emotional and economic attitudes. That was the idea behind Cultural Studies, a field arguably begun by George Orwell with his essay on Boys’ Weeklies, and then pioneered by the likes of Raymond Williams, Stuart Hall and Dick Hebdidge, who wrote a famous book analysing the sub-culture of punk music. Later on, you had postmodernist critics like Camille Paglia declaring that Madonna was the leading feminist of our times, thanks to the saucy video for Justify My Love. The flowering of Cultural Studies led to all sorts of PhDs on Lady Gaga or Buffy the Vampire-Slayer or other pop artifacts.

On the other side were the brave defenders of High Art, protectors of The Canon, people like Harold Bloom, Allan Bloom and Roger Scruton, who insisted that we have lost any sense of the hierarchy of the good. Our tastes have become debased. Allan Bloom wrote a famous chapter on pop music in his 1989 best-seller, The Closing of the American Mind, in which he identified it as ‘the youth culture’ against which ‘there is now no other countervailing nourishment for the spirit’. Pop is the triumph of narcissistic infantilism, Bloom suggests, which makes children the arbiters of society’s taste and gives them ‘everything their parents always used to tell them they had to wait for’. Pop burns people out, ruining their imagination, barbarising their emotions, and making it ‘very difficult for them to have a passionate relationship to the art and thought that are the substance of liberal education’. Roger Scruton is a little less harsh on pop, but only just. He also sees it as the triumph of infantilism, and criticises (in his book Modern Culture) the gross inarticulacy of Oasis lyrics (no argument from me there) and the crude angry robotics of ‘The Prodigy’s latest techno-slam’.

And, between these two extremes, there are a few intellectuals in the middle, who try to insist that there is good pop and bad pop, and to direct our taste to the good, so that we begin to ascend the ladder of taste. Such intellectuals insist that pop needn’t ruin our emotional and cultural palette, as long as we listen to good pop. Indeed, the best pop can be considered great art, some argue. This is the position of Christopher Ricks, one of the leading critics of poetry, who wrote a book on the music and lyrics of Bob Dylan. It’s also the position of Tom Stoppard, probably my country’s greatest living writer, who celebrates the power of pop in his play Rock N’ Roll.

Wowie Bowie

Which brings us to David Robert Jones, born in Brixton in the 1940s, who went to technical school to study art and design before surprising his parents by telling them he planned to be a rock star. And to me, he is the greatest British rock star there’s been. His body of work is unrivaled – for a decade he produced incredible albums, like Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust, Low, Station to Station, Space Oddity and Aladdin Sane. His lyrics are right up there with Morrissey and only just short of Dylan. His live shows were an incredible mix of dance, mime, costume and film, and Ziggy Stardust is one of the greatest concert movies made. But what really makes him the best British rock star, in my opinion, is that in his own songs, he conceptualises and comments on the cult of the rock star and its relationship to power, more intelligently than anyone before or since.

Bowie studied the cult of the rock star, hung out in Andy Warhol’s Factory – a sort of think-tank for the modern obsession with celebrity – and then went and made Hunky Dory (1971), an album in which he imagines homo sapiens being succeeded by a super-race of ‘pretty things’. The album contains two particularly interesting songs, Life On Mars and Quicksand. The former paints a scene of mass post-war culture as a sort of sordid spectacle put on at Butlins:

It’s on Amerika’s tortured brow

That Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow

Now the workers have struck for fame

‘Cause Lennon’s on sale again

See the mice in their million hordes

From Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads

Rule Britannia is out of bounds

To my mother, my dog, and clowns

But the film is a saddening bore

‘Cause I wrote it ten times or more

It’s about to be writ again

As I ask you to focus on

Sailors fighting in the dance hall

Oh man! Look at those cavemen go

It’s the freakiest show

If you want to watch him sing the words, here’s the vid


Then in Quicksand he thinks about the role of the rock star in this mass spectacle, as a conductor for the dreams and desires of the masses:

I’m closer to the Golden Dawn

Immersed in Crowley’s uniform

Of imagery

I’m living in a silent film

Portraying Himmler’s sacred realm

Of dream reality

I’m frightened by the total goal

Drawing to the ragged hole

And I ain’t got the power anymore

No I ain’t got the power anymore

I’m the twisted name on Garbo’s eyes

Living proof of Churchill’s lies

I’m destiny I’m torn between the light and dark

Where others see their targets

Divine symmetry

Should I kiss the viper’s fang

Or herald loud the death of Man

I’m sinking in the quicksand of my thought

And I ain’t got the power anymore

Don’t believe in yourself

Don’t deceive with belief

Knowledge comes with death’s release

I’m not a prophet or a stone age man

Just a mortal with the potential of a superman

I’m living on

I’m tethered to the logic of Homo Sapien

Can’t take my eyes from the great salvation

Of bullshit faith

This is pretty heady stuff – he’s suggesting the rock star is a Nietzchean or even fascist superman, while also sensing a void of nothingness beneath him. After that album, Bowie went out and lived his art, by creating a sort of fascist monster in the character of Ziggy Stardust, who walked out on stage at the Hammersmith Apollo to the theme from the Clockwork Orange, a totemic symbol on his face and on the wall behind him, and a mob of teenage imitators and worshippers screaming before him. It’s a performance-piece, a comment on celebrity culture, its power and nihilism. But the line between performance and reality rapidly became blurred, as Ziggy / Bowie became a global superstar. As he discusses in this BBC documentary from 1975, Ziggy took him over. He was no longer performing ironically.

So he killed Ziggy off, and then created a succession of other alter-egos: Aladdin Sane, Halloween Jack, the Thin White Duke. But they’re all, really, variations on the same theme of the celebrity ego and the hero-worship of the masses. They’re all riffs on that line from Ziggy: ‘Making love to his ego, Ziggy sucked up into his mind’. What other message is there, in terms of ethics or how to live, besides the worship of brute charisma? In the BBC documentary, Bowie reflects that Ziggy is about a guy who becomes ‘an almighty prophet-like superstar rocker who found he didn’t know what to do with it once he got it. It’s an archetype really.’

In other words, the real theme of Ziggy is the strangeness of our society giving so much power and cultural influence to these young, inexperienced and unqualified legislators of the world, who have nothing much to say apart from the glorification of ego, sex, fame, wealth and power. Perhaps that’s harsh. Bowie says he hopes his multiple personalities have also allowed people to express the different parts of themselves. And that’s what pop music has really taught us, over the last 50 years: that we can be ‘a million different people from one day to the next’. We can endlessly re-invent ourselves, like Madonna or Lady Gaga or Bowie. But we’ve learnt that now, and we already do it, on Facebook and Twitter and everywhere else.

After strange gods

Meanwhile pop music seems to be getting more and more banal and brutal. Bowie was the best of it, and made haunting wonderful complex music. But now, there’s nothing avant-garde about Lady Gaga’s music. It’s the same brutal maximilist dance-pop as you hear in Rihanna or David Guetta or Flo Rida or any of today’s stars. Imagine being a teenager today when your emotional range is limited to that music. It reminds me of the line from George Orwell’s 1984: ‘If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.’  That’s what every David Guetta single sounds like to me: a boot stamping on a human face forever. Bowie was at least aware of that (Diamond Dogs, his eighth album, is actually a musical version of 1984), and saw it coming . But we don’t need any more ironic commentaries on the cult of celebrity. We need something else, we need someone to lead us beyond it. I can’t help feeling the cult of the pop star might be wearing out. We don’t believe in it any more, and we have grown numb to the latest shocks. The age of the superstar is fading, to be replaced by a rapid shuffle of disposable stand-ins, and all that’s left is the Cult of Me.