I’ve been thinking about rock stars quite a bit lately. Rock stars represent more than themselves. Their images offer alternatives to the normal categories of social identity we’re told we must fit into. Their status comes not from respectability, power, or wealth– even if they do become wealthy this is not what the image of the rock star represents. They often explode boundaries of social class or gender.
“Elvis was visibly lower class and symbolically black (as the bearer of black music to white youth),” wrote Barbara Ehrenreich et al in The Adoring Audience edited by Lisa Lewis. He “stood for a dangerous principle of masculinity that had been expunged from the white-collar, split-level work of fandom: a hood that had no place in the calculus of dating, going steady, and getting married.”
When young people take their first tentative steps towards adulthood they seek out symbols. They want to separate from the protective world of their parents and to envision an entirely new world that their generation will create. Rock stars represent tribal belonging. Boys, in a certain stage of life, are encouraged to dream of being rock stars. Girls are encouraged to aspire to the less powerful role of being with the rock star.
The posters you hung in your locker probably said a lot about the particular social straight jacket you wanted to transcend. My own favorite was Adam Ant. A year ago, after seeing him again in concert, I wrote:
I am surprised by the power the anthem “Kings of the Wild Frontier” still holds over me. It is not nostalgia, it is something else. I respond to a call to create a different world with community of Ant followers. “Ant people are the warriors! Ant music is our banner!”
Back in the day, he was the embodiment of my ID. He was voicing something primal that I wanted to release, if only my youth didn’t stand in the way. If only I could be allowed out of the prison of school, out into the world instead of having to wait.
Now I stood thinking, if only I were younger. If only I had the energy and the freedom I had then. The freedom, perhaps, not to worry about looking ridiculous. (Where is my Napoleon hat?)
Was there a moment in the middle I missed?
…I notice something about Adam’s signature costume that never occurred to me before. That combination of colonial military jacket and native American garb is a bit weird when you think about it. The colonizer and the colonized in one persona.
As I reflect on this I have to assume that I had a great fear of being domesticated, socialized and tamed. I longed to be part of a tribe that supported the untamed side of life, the artistic side; a community that encourages artists away from safety rather than towards it.
After high school and college, during my early career in radio, I chose a new symbol. I became attracted to the image of Arlo Guthrie, Woodstock performer and author of the wonderfully original 20-minute Alice’s Restaurant. Arlo also represented tribal belonging, but of a slightly different kind. Here’s how I put it in my book Arlo, Alice and Anglicans:
“Many people of my age view the ’60s with the kind of nostalgia that only those who weren’t there could feel. Our collective culture paints the era as a time of unbridled idealism, colorful dress, and spirited music. The everyday getting-through-life stuff has been edited out of our ’60s stories. The view we have inherited is that the decade was one long demonstration march, with funny-smelling smoke, flowers, hand-holding, and great music parading straight to Woodstock.”
Where Adam Ant made me dream of rebellion, the fantasy of the film version of Alice’s Restaurant (in spite of its downbeat ending) was that people could just live together, love each other, play great music, man, and maybe by living out these values transform the entire world.
The power of this particular fantasy eventually led me to work at the building depicted in that movie, now The Guthrie Center, as a volunteer and later, briefly, in Arlo Guthrie’s office. (More specifically, in the coffee shop at the front of his office.) In fact, there is a “tribe,” a community, centered around these places. I am proud to have been part of it. It was there that I got the initial spark of an idea that evolved into my new novel, Identity Theft.
At some point you’re told to be ashamed of being a fan. It is supposed to be immature and undignified. But I have to wonder, are we really better off for packing these things away? Would the world not be a better place if we were less afraid to express admiration?
Is it really a property of youth to identify with those we admire, to dream of how the world could be, to long for a world more beautiful and less ordinary?
I’m still searching for the Ants Invasion.
My new novel, Identity Theft, is now taking pre-orders on Pubslush. I hope you will take a moment to read more about it, and perhaps to support the project.