Rock Stardom and Listening
David Shumway, Professor of English, Carnegie Mellon University
My book Rock Star: The Making of Cultural Icons from Elvis to Springsteen is an informal history of rock stardom. It looks at the careers and cultural legacies of seven rock stars in the context of popular music and culture—Elvis Presley, James Brown, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead, Joni Mitchell, and Bruce Springsteen. It investigates the rock star as a particular kind of cultural construction, different from mere celebrity. After the golden age of moviemaking, media exposure allowed rock stars more political sway than Hollywood's studio stars, and rock stars gradually replaced movie stars as key cultural heroes. Because of changes in American society and the media industries, rock stars have become much more explicitly political figures than were the stars of Hollywood’s studio era. Rock stars, moreover, are icons of change, though not always progressive, whose public personas read like texts produced collaboratively by the performers themselves, their managers, and record companies. These stars thrive in a variety of media, including recorded music, concert performance, dress, staging, cover art, films, television, video, print, and others.
But, as my conclusion asserts the age of the rock star seems to be behind us. A fragmented mediascape, declining sales, and the rise of the downloaded track mean that the broad reach these star once had is no longer possible. While this may enable more different musicians to be heard, it will make them less listened to. Stardom is one condition of listening that encouraged attention and repetition. Most popular music today is consumed distractedly. But when a fan forms a relationship with a star, the emotional bond entails more sustained attention. While one certainly can listen with attention to a piece of music without any context at all, I'm arguing that listening through stardom enriches that experience. Unfortunately, there will ever fewer opportunities for such listening.
Professor Shumway will sign copies of the book, available for sale (cash or check only) after the talk.