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Soraya Roberts | Longreads | August 2019 | 9 minutes (2,273 words)
I have no reason not to believe Rolling Stone when it calls cover star Harry Styles a “21st century rock star.” He certainly looks like one: shirtless, tattooed, his hair a tousled mess, and a smile that may not say big dick energy but definitely says he knows what to do with it. He could be 1977 cover star Peter Frampton, when he was named “Rock Star of the Year.” There’s even a tagline to the left of Styles’s nipple promising sex and psychedelics. But then you start reading, and the setup begins to break down. Sure, he has a reputation for fucking a lot, but it all sounds very consensual and age-appropriate. He also seems unfailingly polite, not to mention sunny. I mean, he gets sad — his new album is “all about having sex and feeling sad” — but he’s not broody and doesn’t seem like he’d ever trash a hotel. This is a guy who appears to sort his problems out the way therapists tell us to: friendships, meditation, even work. “I feel like the fans have given me an environment to be myself and grow up and create this safe space to learn and make mistakes,” he tells the magazine. He describes himself as vulnerable and loose (the mushrooms and weed can’t hurt). Rolling Stone describes one moment as “rock-star debauchery” but all he did while tripping was bite off the tip of his own tongue — the only person he bled on was himself. As for everyone else, he just wants them to feel loved. “I’m aware that as a white male, I don’t go through the same things as a lot of the people that come to the shows,” he says. “I’m just trying to make people feel included and seen.”
The classic ideal of the rock star — the depraved renegade with infinite hotel bills, addictions, and infidelities — is dead. The charismatic young white man (it was usually a young white man, sometimes several) who rebranded selfishness as revolution has been overthrown, taking with him a part of the individualist, white, patriarchal capitalist system he came from. In his place, new rock stars, sometimes white and male, often not, have sprung up to nurture rather than destroy — instead of shutting us out, they let us in.
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Sister Rosetta Tharpe “was a rock star before there were rock stars,” Alexis Madrigal wrote in 2015. A black woman playing a unique gospel-R&B hybrid, the “Strange Things Happening Every Day” singer-songwriter shredded on her distorted guitar like Lizzo shreds on flute and sold out her own arena wedding to the tune of 25,000 people. Billboard music critic Maurie Orodenker, one of the first to use the sultry term “rock and roll” in the ’40s, used it to describe her. But instead of becoming the Queen of Rock and Roll, Tharpe became its godmother. A decade later, it was Elvis Presley who was crowned the king — if popular music was going to have a black sound, the industry wanted a white package (double entendre intended). From those gyrating hips the rock star was born, but it took another decade before rock stars became less about the music and more about the mess around it.
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“Once, a long time ago, a rock star was a free-spirited, convention-flouting artist/rebel/hero/Dionysian fertility god who fronted a world-famous band, sold millions of records and headlined stadium concerts where people were trampled in frenzies of cultlike fervor,” writes Carina Chocano in The New York Times Magazine. “Someone who smashed guitars, trashed hotel rooms, developed Byzantine drug problems and tried to mask evidence of his infidelity with the strategically applied scent of breakfast burritos.” Clearly the smell persists in order for a descendant like Post Malone to drone that “fuckin’ hoes and poppin’ pillies” makes him feel just like one. But even though he’s comparing himself to Bon Scott and Jim Morrison, he’s also singing about “green hundreds,” which is something ’70s rock stars like them or, say, the Who, who turned property destruction into an anticapitalist art form, would never have sang (or said). Nor would anyone who followed their lead. As Chocano writes, the Platonic ideal of the rock star is “a revolutionary driven by a need to assert the primacy of the self in an increasingly alienating commercial world.”
Where is the revolution when the primacy of the self is inseparable from commerce? In that case, the revolutionary is less driven than forced, in a world built on exclusion, into asserting the primacy of inclusion. The new rock stars are defined by their indefinability, but share a number of qualities that may seem contradictory — anxiety, fluidity, authenticity, savviness — which ultimately create a new archetype of inclusive, laid-back, anything goes–ness. They leave us with the distinct feeling that we’re all in this together. These rock stars don’t act out, they act from within, meditating in their hotel rooms rather than destroying them. The world is destroying itself already, so today’s drug of choice is anything that mellows. While their predecessors keep going on about how the center won’t hold, they rebel by noting the black hole and going about their business anyway. “A lot of our cultural noise these days is just the sound of a nation’s center of gravity shifting, all at once, across four entire decades,” wrote Nitsuh Abebe in last year’s Times magazine music issue, “and landing on a group of people who, whether they realize it or not, can now manhandle the world the same way their elders did.”
If you’re Post Malone, you roll with it. I mean, now that you’re famous. Designated a “hip-hop rock star” by Rolling Stone, he wanted to be famous so badly that he basically appropriated it, adopting black culture after trying on heavy metal and soft rock — he used a rap name generator, for god’s sake — which you could say honors rock music tradition. With his emo/New Age/trappy-rappy-whatever sound, he’s just trying to make the most of what’s around him; it just so happens that he’s a white guy who doesn’t have to think too much about what that really means, which is that you’re usually doing someone else dirty. Hua Hsu at The New Yorker called him “a kind of patron saint of living your best life.” I can’t think of anything less counterculture than that, but then, being counterculture is not what it used to be. The entire world has been sold out, so taking on the sellouts means taking on your very foundation. Buying in, the way Malone has done, means not having to put everything on the line (remember, there’s no middle class anymore). Of course, that doesn’t mean everyone else has bought into him. Billie Eilish still has him beat.
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So many people have written about Eilish that at this point she’s part of the water supply. But that’s kind of the point. What she represents is everywhere and everything — her music is white noise, except it sounds good. This 17-year-old eschews any archetype, personally or professionally. She vacillates between pretty and ugly, goofy and serious, anxious and confident. Even the way she makes music — in her bedroom, with her brother — doesn’t jibe with the power she wields at the top of the Billboard charts. She should be snapping selfies in a studio and ducking paps at clubs, not recording the removal of her Invisalign and watching reruns of The Office. “Eilish feels like a miracle in a cultural moment when we are all trying very hard to sort out real real people from the ones who are merely savvy and ambitious enough to know the right way to curate and present an authentic-seeming vibe,” writes The New Yorker’s Amanda Petrusich, adding, “It’s not that she’s blind to the work of character development — it’s that she appears inured to or ambivalent about it.” It makes sense that she would be branded a pop star, since young white women, even if they can sometimes scan as morbid as Eilish can, are generally shuffled into this pocket of the industry with a pat on the butt. But Eilish refuses to be packaged by 50-year-old men who think they know better. She is a rock star because she sticks it to the (in this case, literal) man School of Rock–style: “Oh, you don’t know The Man? He’s everywhere. In the White House, down the hall. … And The Man ruined the ozone, and he’s burning down the Amazon, and he kidnapped Shamu and put her in a chlorine tank! OK? And there used to be a way to stick it to The Man. It was called rock ‘n’ roll. But guess what. Oh, no. The Man ruined that too with a little thing called MTV!” The counterculture rock stars of the past — from Bob Dylan to Sleater-Kinney — tried to change the world, the rock stars of the future know that you can’t change anything without empowering everyone first.
Before Eilish was on top, Lil Nas X held down the fort longer than anyone before him. Like Eilish and Malone, he has also talked about his anxiety. And like Eilish he doesn’t fit into any clear archetypes. Like her, he makes us feel like we deserve to take up space the way we are, while everything around us is telling us we shouldn’t. He’s a gay black man who makes loping viral hip-hop country music that broke a bunch of records even though he was told he didn’t fit. “You can have your country song with trap elements, but if it’s by known country artists, then it’s allowed,” he told Teen Vogue. “A black guy who raps comes along, and he’s on top of the country chart, it’s like, ‘What the fuck?’” Billboard claimed his song didn’t have a place on the country charts, making him feel even more accomplished when so many others embraced him. In a cover story for Time magazine — “It’s His Country” — he revealed why he came out despite country music’s history of homophobia. “I never would have done that if I wasn’t in a way pushed by the universe,” he said. “In June, I’m seeing Pride flags everywhere and seeing couples holding hands — little stuff like that.” Despite the casual way he did it, he was in a sense pushing back at the universe that had suggested a guy like him couldn’t just be. This rock star was putting himself on the line, and in so doing he made room for everyone else. So when Eilish came along and stole his spot at number one, he took it in stride. “congratulations to billie eilish!!” he tweeted. “u deserve this!!” There is as much room for her as there was for him.
Both Lil Nas X and Eilish took home awards at the MTV VMAs — he won song of the year, she won best new artist — but it was Lizzo who took the entire show home with her bouncing homage to Prince. One of the most famous performances in VMA history had Prince in 1991 showing his whole ass on stage to the beat of a woman’s orgasm (I believe). In his buttercup lace jumpsuit, Prince turned to the crowd to show off his pert little butt while singing lyrics that recalled Godfather of Soul James Brown: “I like ‘em fat/I like ‘em proud/Ya gotta have a mother for me/Now move your big ass ‘round this way.” In a time-traveling call and response, a yellow-jumpsuited Lizzo landed on the VMA stage three years after Prince’s death, with a giant floating ass jiggling behind her as she performed a medley of “Truth Hurts” and “Good as Hell.” It was like a Russian doll of American pop, the past nestled in the present, both pointing to the future
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If Harry Styles had been one of the original rock stars, he probably would have confronted the world by violently trashing his stage instead of calmly holding up a rainbow flag. But in a society in which hate seems bottomless, the revolutionary doesn’t try to change the world by serving themselves, but by ensuring that everyone else feels the world belongs to them too. The new rock stars like Styles, like Lil Nas X, like Eilish, like Lizzo, are counterculture by virtue of calling for inclusivity in a climate that privileges exclusivity. Not only do they represent diversity, their diversity enriches music and turns the rock star into a symbol of the collective equality the world currently craves. At the VMAs, the zenith was a scene of drunken togetherness, when Lizzo stopped singing mid-performance to deliver a message of self-empowerment. “Let me talk to y’all for a second,” she said. “I’m tired of the bullshit and I don’t have to know your story to know that you’re tired of the bullshit too. It’s so hard trying to love yourself in a world that doesn’t love you back, am I right?” And this fat black woman who tears up the flute, who isn’t the greatest singer but is charismatic as hell, who dips in and out of various genres, who shared the stage with scores of other black women, instead of wreaking destruction to protest the bullshit, chose to jump up and down. Lizzo hugged the dancers around her as they threw off their uniform wigs, revealing their sundry dos, and, like the rock star she is, shouted the question to which she already knew the response: “Baby how you feelin’?” And the audience shouted back: Feeling good as hell.
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Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.