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.

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.

The second recognition—which came to me considerably later, after I had been teaching and writing about Hollywood film for some years—was that the phenomenon of stardom was not the trivial or even pernicious thing that it was often assumed to be. Actors such as Humphrey Bogart or John Wayne, who were known for consistent personas, were often disparaged as not really acting in comparison with those such as Laurence Olivier, who were known for transforming themselves for each new role. Yet the great films that these stars made depend upon the personas the actors brought to them. The economic value of the star system has long been recognized, but what struck me was its aesthetic value. Casablanca would be a different movie without Bogart, and it’s hard to imagine North by Northwest existing at all without Cary Grant. When Grant remarked, “Everybody wants to be Cary Grant; Even I want to be Cary Grant,” he acknowledging that a star’s persona is not merely a construction, but a work of art. A study of Grant’s career shows that his persona developed and isn’t to be seen before his role in Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth (1937). Grant and other such stars invented their personas through discipline and creative intelligence.

Theatrical release poster for North by Northwest

Once I realized the significance of film star personas, I could recognize that rock stars must also be understood to create and develop personas distinct from their personal or private lives. In both cases, it became clear that fans’ responses to the stars entail this distinction. They recognize that the persona is not the person, and they seek to know the latter, which they often regard as the authentic self. But it is the condition of stardom that the private self is never accessible to the fan. What they often don’t see is that the persona is not a lie, but a fiction, and it is that fictional character that really matters. While we often think of stars as creatures of “star maker machinery,” the fact that star personas are collaboratively produced allows them to be more culturally central. What a comparison of film and rock star personas shows, however, is that they each had a different kind of centrality. The great movie stars of the studio era embodied personality types that fans hoped they might emulate or encounter. Rock stars embodied ideas and attitudes that challenged the status quo and represented social and cultural change. Stardom, I now saw, had become politically significant.



David R. Shumway is a professor of English and literary and cultural studies at Carnegie Mellon University and the author of Creating American Civilization: A Genealogy of American Literature as an Academic Discipline, along with his new book from JHUP, Rock Star: The Making of Musical Icons from Elvis to Springsteen. To read Inside Higher Ed’s article on Rock Star, click here.