Grow Up Like a Rock Star

LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy sheds his cool and unites the Guitar Hero III–addled masses

LCD Soundsystem Sound of Silver (#1 album)
"All My Friends" (#3 single)
"Someone Great" (#14 single)
"North American Scum" (#22 single)

The "rock star," as we traditionally think of it, is scarce on this year's Pazz & Jop ballots. The mega-famous icon clutching a guitar and singing about heartache or fucking or partying or escape or revolution; the prophet whom we come to for concrete answers instead of riddles and viral videos and cryptic website codes. Maybe there's a dearth this year, given the lack of new offerings from Dylan, Beck, Green Day, System of a Down, U2, or Johnny Cash. Or maybe we're prisoners of our own self-awareness.

The message was clear in 2007: Being a "rock star" is gauche at best, silly and anachronistic at worst. Twenty years ago, Run-DMC wrangled to be the "King of Rock," but now, the Shop Boyz only want to live vicariously. "Party Like a Rock Star" treated rock music like a cartoon (skull belts, wallet chains, dueling guitar leads, Pamela Anderson, afternoon golf), maybe because the rock stars they name-check (the Osbournes, Travis Barker) are essentially reality-TV stars who sometimes play music. Meanwhile, the supposedly "real" rock stars—seven-times-platinum schlock-sensitivos Nickelback—released "Rock Star," a quasi-ironic depiction of superstardom in the vein of Joe Walsh's "Life's Been Good," and probably the most self-aware, self-effacing song ever sung by a guy with a beaded necklace and a perm. After a couple rounds of that on the jukebox, everyone went home to Guitar Hero III, a postmodern video game where all of rock's supposed walls of separation are blurred into meaninglessness: Sex Pistols next to the Foghat songs they were invented to destroy. Sonic Youth's "Kool Thing" upending the patriarchy, and Poison's "Talk Dirty to Me" using it to fuck behind the bushes. Shred along to "Holiday in Cambodia" on your Axe Body Spray guitar.

No longer a slave to his quotey-fingered past
photo: Ruvan Wijesooriya
No longer a slave to his quotey-fingered past

So while being a rock star isn't dead (hello, Daughtry!), it certainly isn't cool. Anyone old enough to buy their kids the Hannah Montana 2 soundtrack found out that, shit, she's a "Rock Star" too! Major-label pop-rockers like Fall Out Boy (#134 album) and Against Me! (#21) can't act like rock stars: They have to be self-aware "rock" "stars," using irony and derision to cope with fame, making concept albums about being famous, songs about the rigors of being in the public eye, records about making records—all of which makes them more like hip-hop stars than anything. Against Me! even beefs, since "Piss and Vinegar" is about the success of Panic at the Disco. Fall Out Boy—who do occasionally act like Ashlee-dating, nightclub-opening rock stars in real life—returned from 2005's multi-platinum From Under the Cork Tree with defensive pre-emptive strikes like "Make us poster boys for your scene/But we are not making an acceptance speech." Their video for " "The Take Over, The Break's Over" " (note that the quotation marks are part of the title, as if we couldn't tell) confronted accusations of "sell-out" by filming piss-take skits of their fans turning on them—maybe because punk fans still equate fame with selling out, maybe because the video before it had TAG body-spray product placement. Against Me! frontman Tom Gabel, who's endured charges of "sell-out" since his anarcho-friendly group signed to a tiny hardcore label in 2002, is equally suspicious of rock stardom, confronting his desires and fears on "Stop!": "On behalf of our fans we'd like to accept this award/Smile for the camera, boys/Gold record in hand." These are MTV-level bands whose fans don't want them to be rock stars.

The rock bands that critics loved in 2007 stifle rock-star urges at the root. Excepting the votes for the aforementioned ironopunx, we only championed rock bands that possess a proper set of David Byrne–style emotional-distancing techniques (he is, after all, where Radiohead got their name): bands that play inward, bands that have cold public personas or inscrutable lyrics, bands that hide behind masks or cryptic imagery, bands full of guys who could never be confused for rock stars. Or, in short, "indie rock." Compare: Rock-star archetype Jim Morrison lived like he was written into existence by Kerouac; current paragon Radiohead (#2) name their company "W.A.S.T.E." so you know they've all read Pynchon. Stop us if you've heard this one before: What did the art-rock band call its chilly, insular, brooding, dread-filled record? In Rainbows. Get it?

Critics love indie-rock bands in spite of their walls, or probably because of them. Battles (#17) treat (unintelligible) lyrics like just another instrument blorping out robot art-crunk; Animal Collective (#29) hide big emotions behind playground eyes and fluttery tales of dinosaur wings and winter wonderlands. White Stripes (#14) still—literally—paint themselves in a tri-chromatic anti-sheen to give the illusion of lo-fi; Spoon (#7) leave in jokey production cues ("Jim, can you record the talk-back?") that end up being the most memorable part of their record. Okkervil River (#31) wrote a complex metafiction tangle that taught you about poet John Berryman's suicide and played "Sloop John B" for laffs. Arcade Fire (#5) are stars, but don't really rock. Of Montreal (#22) had some pretty exceptional rock-star moments—Kevin Barnes Spirographing spectacular heartbreak pop, painting his broken marriage as a Technicolor space-glam opera, transforming into glitter-rock alter ego Georgie Fruit, pulling out his dick onstage. But it's not populist: The whole thing is coated in that Sufjan-reading-McSweeney's vibe, pandering to the English majors, sending you to Wikipedia to learn about George Bataille and parhelia.

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