Your Blog Just Killed My Rock Star

Is the Internet killing the rock star? It’s a question on the tip of everyone’s tongue these days (mine included). And this time it’s the Guardian’s Mike Beaumont (via MBV), prompted by a quote from Kasabian’s Tom Meighan, who’s doing the asking. “In the last three or four years the Internet’s taken a stranglehold and killed off the myth of the rock star,” moans Meighan to Bangshowbiz. “You know when you used to buy records and there was a myth behind them? There’s too much on blogs now and I think it’s killed it off.”

Meighan may just be bitching about the fact that Pitchfork gave their last record a 4.9, but his point is well taken. And Beaumont is inspired—except he doesn’t agree, at least not entirely. No, he says, it’s not tweets and blogs that have tarnished the rock star myth—it’s not Kanye over-sharing in ALL CAPS—it’s the fact that the “blogosphere, by its own limitation and design, is not in thrall to image.” In times past, fans bought into a rock star’s image as much as their music, and this persona could only be consumed in a few places: live, on the cover of Rolling Stone or Spin, or on television. And access to an artist’s music was just as limited—you had to buy the record from a store or liberate it from your friend’s bedroom. Without a flood of new bands to distract you, a rock star’s image could command the pop cultural stage.

These days, according to Beaumont, with the power of newsstands greatly (and forever) diminished and access to any and everyone’s music significantly amplified, image matters much less, however loud it may scream for attention. “The click-to-hear-it nature of the Web goes against the alluring band-as-gang image readers buy into, copy and adore long before they hear a note,” Beaumont writes. “It doesn’t matter if a singer has anything important, funny or interesting to say, or if they say it dressed as Caligula with a chicken on their head; the music is all that matters online.” Thus, relatively normal-looking but supremely talented dudes like Fleet Foxes can get their due.

Beaumont is right that the Internet has made it easier for average Joes and Janes—people like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah or Bon Iver or Marnie Stern—to get noticed and respected and, eventually, adored. But he’s wrong that artists don’t attempt to seduce or titillate us with their well-endowed nonmusical personas, and they we don’t sometimes, gleefully fall for it. Just look at Bat for Lashes or Of Montreal or MGMT or MIA—rock stars all. The Web is as much a visual playground as anything else and artists are naïve if they don’t exploit it as such. Image still matters.

It’s not, as Beaumont has it, that the Internet has elevated sound over image—that the blogosphere is some utopia where only music matters. How could it when artists complain that their songs only have a few seconds to grab listeners’ attentions before they jump to the next link? No, the Web has simply done to music what it’s done to everything else: level the playing field. Image still matters, just no more than sound—it’s simply one of the near countless factors a perspective fan might consider.

The problem for rock stars, then, isn’t that their freakishness and bad behavior have lost their hypnotic power. It’s that we have so many choices and no single, reliable guide—sound, image, or whatever—by which to make an informed, lasting decision. It’s now nearly impossible for artists to build consensus and maintain it with the Web constantly distracting us with more, more, more—a factor that Beaumont fails to mention entirely. We’re overwhelmed—and any rock star is just as overwhelmed figuring out how to break through all the static. Which is why there are so very few of them born these days.

Until very recently, rock stars were created when a particularly trenchant sound and image coalesced around a particular cultural moment, which was then translated into popular (if not always critical) consensus, and over the course of a few records, artistic longevity. The Internet has altered this equation in two respects: It’s balanced out the proportion of sound and image needed for the success of any artist—making sound more important and image slightly less so—and, with the fracturing of taste into thousands and thousands of different communities online, it’s made true popular consensus nigh impossible, especially over the long term. It’s the latter, as others have mentioned before, that poses the real problem for rock stars. Without consensus, rock stars can’t move the culture forward (or backward). They’re just another haircut.

John S.W. MacDonald has written for the New York Times, the New York Observer, Village Voice, Tablet, and Spin.com, among other publications. From 2004 to 2007, he served as a staff-writer for the onl ...read more

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