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Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Rock star or transvestive? You! be the judge

I watched the first season of Rock Star (i.e. Rock Star: Autoeroticstranguwhat?) and I am now watching the second season (i.e. Rock Star: Mission: Take Tommy Lee Seriously) and I feel it is time for me to clarify something.

When people ask me what I think about it, I tell them that it is a little strange for me to watch, because unlike almost every other reality show, I am totally familiar with the kind of person who would become one of the contestants. People on most reality shows are either scary LA people (by which I mean "every single person who has ever appeared on Elimadate, even if they are not actually from LA)" or scary rest-of-the-country people--scary not because they are from the rest of the country, but scary because they are the kind of people who choose to be on a reality show, i.e. narcissistic and mildly insane, but they are not narcissistic and mildly insane in the way New Yorkers are. (The two major exceptions are Project Runway, whose contestants look like people I've accidentally knocked over while walking down 7th Avenue, and America's Next Top Model, which appears to have has had a bigger influence on the girls in my neighborhod than any other aspect of pop culture I can possibly think of and/or actually know about; at this point, I think the highest concentration of girls-with-fauxhawks in the world is in central Brooklyn.) No, the contestants on RS:S all seem like people I have or could have bumped into over the past five years in my capacities as worker in the music industry and player of shows at rock clubs, and this is because all the contestants on Rock Star are rock people.

By this I do not merely mean "people who like rock music." I mean "rock people" in the same sense you would call someone a "folkie" or a "goth." They are not people who enjoy listening to music that exhibits the characteristics of rock music--guitars/bass/drums/vocals, heavy, backbeats, power chords, pentatonic solos and melodies, lyrics about love and drinking and destroying things and God, etc.--but people whose whole style is derived from, but not necessarily actually connected to, rock music made between 1972 and 1988. If you had to pick one actual genre of rock music to slate them into it would probably be early heavy metal, but the distinctions that matter to partisans of different rock genres don't so much here, incorporating as they do elements of punk, blues, and boogie that metal would not necessarily countenance.

Here are the defining outward characteristics of a rock person:

- They are between the ages of 28 and 42.
- Their wardrobe consists primarily of things colored black, with accents of the colors found in Guns 'n' Roses' 80s album art, plus silver. T-shirts and jeans are a mainstay, not loose but not hipster-tight either. Their jeans will always have those studded belts or some other sort of awesome belt. Girls will show cleavage and wear boots.
- They have 2-3 piercings and tattoos, but never so much that they look full-blown emo/goth, although they will always look a little emo/goth; the differences are primarily behavioral.
- They will spend a lot of time at divey or faux-divey bars.
- They are generally very friendly and outgoing.
- Their conversations revolve around the following things: rocking, whether something is rocking, how much something is rocking, drinking beer, drinking whiskey, how hot some chick is (always sincerely), how drunk they are, the rock show they went to, the rock show they're going to go to, how much their own band rocks, some clothes they just bought or are going to buy and how much it rocks/will rock, throwing up the horns, smoking, smoking weed, going on a road trip, the drinking they're going to do/did do on the road trip, fucking, making out, blowjobs, whiskeydick, guitars, drums, basses, how awesome some band is, calling people "bro" and "dude," how awesome something is, how cool something is, and rocking.

Now, I don't mean this to sound insulting; these people (and I know not a few of them) are, as I say above, very nice people, clearly having a lot of fun, and always up for a shot, which you can never value too highly. But despite their clear dedication to the music, it's not really a kind of music that's actually been current for over 15 years, and they don't seem interested in advancing the art form; they just want more music that rocks. What's more, their value system places a high value on style, but again, while it's a style that comes back into fashion every few years (I think the hipster embrace of rock fashion a few years back actually served to swell the ranks of the rock people, because the elements of the style became easier to acquire and they could thus identify each other more readily, and more establishments presented themselves in a style condusive to attracting rock people), it's more or less unchanged since 1987, aside from the female incorporation of various goth elements, but this is mainly because ripped pants with fishnet showing through is ultimately not as hot as a black dress with your tits hiked up and big tall boots, nor is it as forgiving. The rock people, like rock itself, has become essentially a subculture, far more interested in faithfully recreating the past than in what might lie in the future. And this is fine, if a little offputting for those people used to rock being the epitome of mainstream music.

But that's not the way we're used to thinking, and that's why the curious specificity of similarities of all the contestants on Rock Star can be confusing. A rock star is no longer something you are or become; it's something you audition for. It's a role you play, a role that people want to see played a certain way. This is something the culture at large has implicitly acknowledged, most visibly when people all starting using the term "rock star" to apply to ordinary people exhibiting a particular kind of behavior, or just as a general term meaning "awesome," whereas before, calling your friend a rock star for drinking a lot would be as ludicrous as calling them the mayor because they took a trip to city hall. This transformation happened gradually and it's not like people didn't have an implicit definition of what being a rock star consisted of thirty years ago that would more or less match up with our own, but it hadn't become a cliche that the music's practitioners had failed to transcend. These are rock's fans now, and despite what they might want to think, they are a minority.

ADDENDUM: It's worth noting that of the people on Rock Star, only Tommy Lee and Dave "Ugh" Navarro are Rock People, although they have the distinction of doing much to create or perpetuate the modern Rock Person culture. (Tommy Lee is the rock star made into accessible everyman; who couldn't be Tommy Lee after injesting a certain regimen of substances and sustaining a certain number of sharp blows to the head? Whereas being Slash is much harder, and even Axl's abandoned the Rock Person image for, um, cornrows and hockey jerseys, because Axl is legimiately a weird fucking guy.) Jason Newstead is just a metal guy, i.e. an actual musician, and Gilby Clark--well, all I know about him is that he played "Brown Sugar" with one of the contestants on last night's episode--the lady pictured above, who is from, yes, Long Island--and afterwards he criticized her for grinding on him, saying how unfortunate it is that women in rock are perceived to only have sex to sell, and you shouldn't do things to perpetuate that. Go Gilby!

Oh, also, best example of a Rock Person in popular culture: clearly, clearly, Gil. Older but still playing guitar (with a lot of techinical skill) in a band, dresses the part pretty meticulously but willing to branch out to other things (i.e. Gwen Stefani) as long as it stays within the context of rocking, pretty normal and owns a sandwich shop but with a hot-ass wife. This is the Rock Person in isolation, to a T.