Why Stars Matter

Guest post by David R. Shumway

 My book, Rock Star: The Making of Cultural Icons from Elvis to Springsteen, grew out of two moments of recognition. The first, which I experienced in the 1970s when I briefly wrote record reviews for the Bloomington, Indiana, Herald-Telephone, was that a record’s meaning and significance derived to a major extent from the band or artist who made it. I realized that I had often purchased albums because they were recorded by people about whose earlier recordings I cared. Of course, in part that’s because of inductive reasoning that suggests that one is more inclined to find a record appealing if one has previously enjoyed records by the same artist. But it was more than that. For example, in the 1960s, I collected all of Bob Dylan’s records from Highway 61 Revisited (1965) through Nashville Skyline (1969). The latter record and its immediate predecessor, John Wesley Harding (1967), represented significant changes in style, both musically and lyrically, compared both to one another and to previous releases. I might not have paid attention to these albums had they been by an artist unknown to me. I did not buy Dylan’s next record, Self Portrait (1970), but I did listen to it and read about it. Like most people, I didn’t like it, but it was nevertheless interesting to me, as it was to many critics.

The cover art can be obtained from Columbia Records. Licensed under Fair use of copyrighted material in the context of Nashville Skyline via Wikipedia - https://sample10.wordpress.waybackdownloads.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/FileBob_Dylan_-_Nashville_Skyline.jpg

Album artwork for Nashville Skyline.

What I realized was that rock stars were more than makers of records and concert performers. They represented themselves or were represented in virtually all of the mass media, and out of these different representations emerged complicated, multidimensional figures. What their songs conveyed depended on not just music and lyrics, but the images, information, and emotions associated with the band or artist. In the early 1970s, for example, the Rolling Stones weren’t just the band who recorded the song “Satisfaction” and the album Beggars Banquet, but also the band that was playing at Altamont when the Hells Angels stabbed a member of the audience to death. They were the band whose members were repeatedly busted for drugs, who had perhaps first flouted performance decorum on the Ed Sullivan Show, and whose concerts, beginning with their 1969 tour, had set a new standard for visual excitement and auditory clarity.