David R. Shumway is the author of the new book Rock Star: The Making of Musical Icons from Elvis to Springsteen. His other books include Creating American Civilization. He is a professor of English and literary and cultural studies at Carnegie Mellon University, and he is based in Pittsburgh.
Q: How do you define a “rock star,” and how did you select the performers you included in your case studies?
A: The definition of a rock star is a little complex. A rock star is quite simply someone who achieves a high degree of success in popular music performance within the cultural practice of rock. [I look at] rock not as a genre of music but as a whole series of activities and habits associated with a period of popular music history that begins in the mid-50s and runs until pretty recently.
The music performed under the sign of “rock” is extremely varied; not all popular music in the period is rock. Frank Sinatra continued to be a popular performer through the 1970s, but clearly Frank Sinatra is not within the rock camp. Dionne Warwick might well be considered [within it] given some of the music she performed; other people might disagree.
The people I chose were more than simply rock stars. I understand them to be cultural icons. They transcend in significance the field of popular music. [They have meaning] for people who have no particular interest in music. They are highly recognizable…
Q: You write that “it was television that made Elvis Presley a national star and the first rock icon.” Why was that?
A: It was his dancing that shocked people so much. He did break out as a result of his records, which were first played on Southern stations that had begun to cater to African Americans, and famously he was the guy, the white singer, who sounded black.
But he didn’t really become the sensation he was until he appeared on the Milton Berle show in the summer of ’56. The show had enormous ratings. People were shocked at the way he swung his hips. If people hadn’t seen that, he still would have been a significant recording artist, but would not have become the icon he became.
Q: James Brown’s most important legacy, you write, may be as “creator of the opening for African-American musicians to act as public intellectuals.” How was he able to create that opening?
A: Partly because he famously refused to make any effort to cross over. He was [clear] in his insistence that he would play his music his way.
It was the opposite of the strategy Motown used. Motown’s plan was to create “the sound of young America”—that was their slogan—that would appeal to a very wide audience, and would use rhythm and blues and [African-American history] but would be palatable to the broadest possible audience. And Motown was successful.
For Brown, the moment he broke out was the moment he created a sound that was more African than American—“Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.” The song was almost pure rhythm.
The second part of it is that he saw himself as a role model, and at different times in his life he imagined himself as a kind of leader, though he felt ambivalent about that role.
When he was credited with preventing riots in Boston after the death of Martin Luther King, he was credited with a significant role that transcended his significance as a musician. [This was partly because at the time there were not that many black leaders as well known as Brown]; several of them had been killed, and also because Brown really did push himself into the limelight. He enjoyed being in the company of political leaders, and was photographed with every president from Nixon through George W. Bush.
Q: You write of Bob Dylan that his “persona has shifted more than any other star’s.” What impact has that had on his music?
A: It is a complex relationship—the music defines the persona but it works the other way too. One key shift was his move from folk singer to rock star. His persona shifts from a Woody Guthrie imitator, a singer of the people’s songs, to an artist.
It’s a very interesting shift because rock stars were not considered artists in the full sense. But Dylan had a sense of himself as following in this tradition; he associated himself in lyrics and liner notes with Verlaine, Rimbaud, Pound, Eliot—poets slightly more than other artists, but he very much immersed himself in the avant-garde art scene in downtown New York.
He moved from being a Midwestern kid for whom Woody Guthrie was a role model to someone with a broader sense of himself. His music went from straightforward and designed to reflect larger social issues to much more complicated—the lyrics are coded, become much more surreal, and sound like modernist verse.
The presentation is of a person interested more in his own expression, in creating things that are coming out of his soul, rather than representing the broader causes he was committed to earlier.
Q: You have a chapter on the Rolling Stones, which includes material on the Beatles, but no Beatles chapter. Why did you make that decision?
A: I really felt I didn’t have a chapter I could write about the Beatles that could sum them up. To sum them up as icons, you would need to write a whole book.
I don’t mean to make a comment on which is better, I like both a great deal, but I think the Stones are narrower in their significance. What makes them great is that they are able to work in a relatively narrowly defined set of musical styles and do so much that’s interesting with them. Their persona is much more consistent than the Beatles. They have defined themselves as transgressive young rebels, and continue to play that role as septuagenarians.
Q: Your book concludes with a chapter called “Where Have All The Rock Stars Gone?” What’s the answer to that?
A: They are gone because of changes in the mediascape. The shift is so enormous, partly the music industry itself--it’s declined so spectacularly, there are not as many records sold--and also the music scene is so fragmented.
My students all know at least most of the stars I’ve written about… [but] I ask them [the 25 students] who they’re listening to and I get 25 different answers. It’s also the broader fragmentation of the media, it’s not just music….all these stars arose at a time when there really was mass media. Mass media in the old sense is not with us any more.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m in the process of finishing a chapter for the Cambridge Companion to the Singer-Songwriter on the emergence of the singer-songwriter as a genre and type of artist. It’s related to the chapter on Joni Mitchell.
I’m also working on a rather different project on realism across narratives in the media; there are chapters on fiction, film, television, and drama.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like people to know about Rock Star?
A: One of the things I think is important about the book is the argument I make about how stardom has changed. Stardom emerges as an important cultural reality with the development of the film industry in the 1920s-40s.
Stars in that period became icons of personality, but they don’t have much political significance—partly because Hollywood works very hard to keep controversy out of the headlines. Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles were people who had problems with the industry because of their politics.
After the war, in Hollywood, when John Wayne becomes a megastar at the time he becomes an active anticommunist, and later with James Dean and Elvis, stardom shifts from being a safe, conservative social phenomenon to one predicated on causing controversy.
Mick Jagger in the early ‘70s becomes the leading star of any genre in the world—you think about what he looks like, what he dresses like, his association with drug use and excessive sexuality…stardom changes radically. By the time rock stars were the people at the top of the heap, its whole meaning had shifted.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb