Saturday, July 16, 2011
Fashion (turn to the left)
Rock star-model hook-ups in 2011 are an entrenched cultural cliché. Rock stars and models can resemble each other as cultural signs— they mean beauty, youth, vitality. But it’s always been a debate to what extent rock and fashion should entwine. Most serious rock artists have gone through at least one phase in which fashion-consonance was an issue. The only rock icon ever to conflate fashion and metaphysics is David Bowie. The high thoughts behind Bowie’s fashion choices seemed to be about how to create an appearance not of perfect integrity but of perfectly original integrity. Every guise was a person that he actually was— sort of. Bowie remains the only rock star to fully integrate into performance how images and reality intersect. If he’s never been fully post-modern, it’s because there’s too much of a first-person presence in his music, and first-person narratives told that express emotions earnestly. That pure, distilled post-modernism makes for bad rock music is something that could be argued. It could also be argued that fashion and rock should be cultural enemies, and that the best rock fashion statements are anti-fashion statements— the flannel the Subpop bands inherited from Neil Young, Jarvis Cocker’s cast-off thrift-store aesthetic.
If a chiasmus is enforced, it’s because a good amount of rock music is pure entertainment (pure fashion), occupying a cultural niche not unlike fashion. The division that was comfortable for Bowie was (and remains) uncomfortable for many serious rock artists— that the culture has yet to demarcate rock either as art or entertainment, and that there are cultural overlaps which go both ways. The situation is post-modern (as in, egalitarian, reducing component parts to common levels) without the songs being post-modern in accordance— so, you meet see Bruce Springsteen next to Kate Moss in the Random Notes section of Rolling Stone. The American media dote on leveling gestures like this— it simplifies things for an audience who (it is assumed) don’t mind things being leveled. Fashion does reduce things to a simple level— what you look like, what you wear. Some rock stars rebel against this manipulative media system— Tom Petty is a good example. But many rock stars who want to maintain a high profile have to subjugate themselves over long periods of time. It’s American compartmentalization again— rock stars who are artists when they write, show biz pros when they appear in public. There’s a basic frustration at work here— rock doesn’t know what (or who) it is.
No matter how many serious British artists have worked under the rock aegis, rock stardom, in all its ambiguity, is an American phenomenon. It takes individual integrity and destabilizes it. By being this over here and that over there, do you lose yourself? Fashion does impose a hierarchy on rock stars— here’s what you should be wearing now, here’s what’s low enough you need to throw away. It is, as rock music been up to this point, a hierarchy always in flux— like America, it never settles, never chooses. The goal of the system is just to produce an appearance— not to enforce or reinforce a reality. The whole point of the entertainment biz is the creation and maintenance of illusions. Bowie, with “Ziggy Stardust,” pulled off the neat trick of creating an illusion meant to be torn down, and exposed, rather than maintained. Show biz rock does its best to keep certain illusions in place— Kiss wants to rock and roll all night with you, Steve Perry wants you to not stop believing. The rock media has always been rigged so that whatever sells gets covered. Fashion works the same way— whatever sells gets into the magazines. What Pierre Bourdieu calls the “demarcative imperative” comes up in interviews; rock songwriters put in place the hierarchies they impose on rock music. These hierarchies may stick more, now that corporate and mercenary interests are less of a factor. It’s also unclear whether fashion will have to drop rock if rock no longer sells. It would probably be better for rock if this happens. If fashion is meant to be ephemeral in a way that the best rock music isn’t, there can’t be any long-term relationship; though rock star/ fashion model romances may continue, with common grounds established on the surface.