Has Rolling Stone mag just killed rock n' roll?
As Sinead O'Connor lambasts the publication for its choice of cover star, Ed Power on how celebrity culture edged out bona fide stars
Published 17/07/2015 | 02:30
The triumphant appearance of Kim Kardashian's cleavage on the cover of the latest Rolling Stone (the rest of her is there too, though a second glance is required to confirm this) has ignited a fresh debate about the relationship between rock music and celebrity.
Or at least it has for Sinead O'Connor, who declared the splashing of a Kardashian all over music's most prestigious publication irrefutable evidence that rock and roll has two feet in the grave. Truly, she thundered, we are living through the end times.
"What is this c*** doing on the cover of Rolling Stone?" Sinead stormed on Facebook. "Music has officially died. Who knew it would be Rolling Stone that murdered it? Simon Cowell and Louis Walsh can no longer be expected to take all the blame. Bob Dylan must be f****** horrified."
Setting aside her blunt language, you can appreciate her perspective. Celebrity and music have long had an uneasy co-existence - interdependent yet often mutually suspicious of one another. Lately, however, it is obvious which has the upper hand, with rock music nowadays largely a nostalgia industry of chief interest to those in middle age and above.
The ubiquity of celebrity culture isn't just an issue for music, of course. Celebrity is the meme that has taken over the world. Kim Kardashian is more recognizable than any movie star and reality television, the route through which she reached the A-list, is the defining genre of our age. For the first time, there exists a generation which sees fame as a goal worth pursuing in its own right.
Indeed, the reason a person achieves fame in the first instance is increasingly irrelevant. Has David Beckham's profile dipped to any degree since he hung up his soccer boots? What impact had the implosion of Linsday Lohan's acting career on the position as tabloid favourite? Jedward, meanwhile, are still with us despite not having troubled the charts ... ever.
"The celebrity situation is out of control and we need to start looking for an exit strategy," wrote the journalist Marina Hyde in her book Celebrity: How Entertainers Took Over The World. "Entertainers have vastly exceeded their mandate. And - in direct contravention of the warning of Spider-Man's uncle - with great power has come great irresponsibility."
It's worth reflecting that the two highest profile concerts in Ireland this summer will be by artists who are celebrities first, musicians second. Taylor Swift's recent date at 3Arena, Dublin had many positive aspects - but you couldn't help flinching during the endless video segments featuring the singer's famous chums. There was Cara Delevingne, that annoying "comedian" from Girls, Justin Bieber's former girlfriend - all holding forth on why Taylor was the best bestie ever.
Would female pop stars of a previous generation have rubbed our noses in their fabulous lifestyle in such a fashion? It's a stretch to picture Madonna, Whitney Houston, even Britney Spears, flaunting their fame so unashamedly. They at least tried to maintain the fiction that they were in it for the music, not the Facebook "likes" (or whatever passed for such in 1988).
Then comes Ed Sheeran, joining a rarefied club when he headlines Croke Park at the end of the month. In following in the genuinely iconic footsteps of U2, Elton John, Red Hot Chili Peppers and others, the Englishman of Irish extraction is confirming his membership of the international music elite. Yet, aside from his hardcore fans, who among us could name one of his songs? Sheeran is a creature of the celebrity era. To most he's a famous dude with red hair - not a songwriter whose music has soundtracked our lives.
The chilling degree to which celebrity has eclipsed rock was made obvious at the recent Glastonbury Festival in the UK, where the prestigious Saturday headline slot was filled by Kanye West. Whatever you think about his music, Kanye's current prominence has nothing to with his songs.
He's an A-lister, first, second and last, and, tuning into the live stream from Glastonbury, it was obvious a majority of those flocking to see him on the Pyramid Stage were at best passingly familiar with his catalogue. They'd come to gawp at Kanye the Spectacle, not bask in the genius of Kanye the hip-hop innovator and their prurience was reflected in his brooding, egotistical performance, which more closely resembled an outre catwalk turn at Paris Fashion Week than a conventional rock gig.
Even the biggest bands in the world literally cannot give away their product for free. Consider U2, who suffered a backlash after cheekily foisting their Songs Of Innocence LP on 300 million iTunes subscribers last autumn.
Though the stunt misfired, the logic behind the endeavour had merit. Without some extraordinary gesture, there was a real danger U2's record might be forgotten the moment it arrived.
"Just to puncture public consciousness at this time is really, really hard, so we were trying to think of ways that would get our album through to people," The Edge told reporters earlier this year.
Some musicians have gone further in straight-up proclaiming rock music dead and in the grave. "The most important thing for me is the sad fate of new bands.
"I've been quoted as saying 'rock is dead,' and, unfortunately, it truly is, because you cannot name a new Beatles or a new Elvis or a new Black Sabbath," said Kiss's Gene Simmons in an interview with Esquire.
"Who's the new Led Zeppelin? The point is, in the pop world, there's Taylor [Swift], who's fantastic, and [Lady] Gaga there's a lot of stuff. But only time makes you iconic. And I love all kinds of music, but in rock, it is sadly dying a bad fate."
Out in cyberspace an apoplectic Sinead O'Connor would surely agree. Whether Kim Kardashian or her 50 million Twitter followers could give a fig about all the virtual vitriol is harder to answer. On balance , one suspects not.