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Opinion:

Jens Kuross breaks down the ‘Death of Musical Celebrity’

Jens Kuross is a journeyman of music. Having been creatively involved with making music for most of his life he, like many of us, has seen the peaks and troughs of the industry up close and personal. Having earned much of his acclaim as Ry X’s drummer, his new debut LP is born out of the esteemed education he received both at the prestigious Berklee College of Music and in his bedroom listening, as we all did, through headphones as he planned his teenage rebellion. It’s something that now, Jens argues, is sadly lost to the ether of modernity.

Below, Jens explains ‘The Death of Musical Celebrity’.

The question that got my imagination tied up contemplating the waning influence of musical celebrities was initially posed while wondering about the current locus of adolescent counter-culture. I was watching the film School of Rock, a picture in which a charismatic but flawed Jack Black finds redemption by inspiring a classroom of privileged yet repressed youths to give voice to their dreams by schooling them in the ways of ‘rock!, and I couldn’t help but wonder if this narrative was in any way still relevant.

The ‘rock!’ bands on offer in this film, the likes of AC/DC and Led Zeppelin, were certainly embodiments of the counter-cultural passion long known for invigorating direction-less youths, but what if the assumption that recorded music is still the de-facto conduit for such passions is mere pastiche, and what are the broader implications for recording artists if this is the case?

At the time of the film’s release in 2003, this story may have struck a chord with those of us who remember plastering our bedroom walls with the paraphernalia of our favourite bands and scoring our comings-of-age with their music, but almost two decades later I find myself surprised by how flat the message falls. What I find hard to believe is not the standard Hollywood hyperbole, but simply the premise that you could get a classroom full of teenagers to buy into the idea that the artists responsible for recorded music are still icons worthy of reverence or imitation, much less feel so inspired by them that they outgrow their adolescent malaise.

Certainly what much of popular recorded music has come to represent — passion, self-expression, rebellion, and a substantive counter-culture — still matter during one’s formative years, but do records and concerts remain the stalwart receptacles of youthful angst and creativity that they’ve been for the past several decades? As it turns out this a fairly important question if you consider the premise that historically, the art that these youth cultures generate and subsequently define themselves with can often grow into the artistic movements that define culture more broadly. So if you’re wondering what art is going to possess the most cultural value in the future, it stands to reason that you’ll find it today amongst disgruntled fifteen-year-olds skipping school and buying cigarettes with fake IDs.

Throughout the second half of the twentieth century, if you were to ask this ilk of wayward youths what music they were listening to you’d get straightforward answers. For example: In the 1950’s it’d probably be some combination of Jerry Lee Lewis and Miles Davis. In the sixties, it’d be The Velvet Underground, Bob Dylan and, if you’re lucky, maybe a little MC5. For the seventies, it would probably be David Bowie, The Stooges, maybe some Sex Pistols. In the eighties The Clash, The Talking Heads and some early hip-hop like Public Enemy or The Beastie Boys. A little early grunge like The Pixies would permeate the answers of the nineties, and some Rage Against the Machine with A Tribe Called Quest thrown in for street cred and good measure (an oversimplification, yes). But here in the twenty-first century, this question is less simply answered.

Why? Well, aside for all the technological factors influencing and multiplying the creation and distribution of recorded music (there are exponentially more artists and more genres than ever before), there’s the unsettling idea that these kinds of kids just don’t care anymore. Much in the same way that the parents of teenage girls in the 1950s were bemused with their daughter’s reactions to Elvis Presley’s first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, so teenagers today may be equally bemused as their parents fawn over their favourite Nirvana or Radiohead records.

To anyone who came of age in the twentieth century, the idea of divorcing your coming-of-age experiences from the soundtrack that accompanied them seems like a total non-starter. So entwined are the two that tearing them apart feels like trying to surgically separate conjoined twins — the one can’t survive without the other so why would you even want to try? But consider for a moment that contemporary adolescent identity is no longer concerned with its soundtrack. Consider that for all the identity-forming experiences of youth, listening to, and identifying with your favourite recording artist is no longer one of them.

It is important to draw a distinction here between “caring” about music, and “liking” music, as I see it. Sure kids still “like” music, everyone “likes” music. It plays an accompanying role in much of life. It has an emotional gravity to it that can set the proper mood for working out, doing homework, or dressing up a social-media post. It’s even fun to make, and given the proliferation of accessible recording software making music has never been as easy or as common as it is today. But when I say that these kids no longer “care” about recorded music I mean to impress the point that it is consumed mostly passively, selected by an algorithm, and almost exclusively relegated to an accompanying role in their lives.

The artists that make it are not important to them in any meaningful way. Regardless of how many streams their individual tracks may accrue, their opinions on politics and culture are inconsequential and rarely elevated past the level of sub-text to their greater celebrity. Think here of both Beyoncé’s ineffective endorsement of Beto O’Rourke, or Kanye West’s bewildering endorsement of Donald Trump. Think of West declaring that he’s the voice of a generation and compare it to Bob Dylan having that same mantel repeatedly thrust upon him regardless of how many times he denied it, then try and tell yourself that musical celebrities still matter in any consequential way.

Another important distinction to draw is between “influential”(at least outside of music) and “popular”. Both Beyoncé and West are extremely popular, but their attempts at influencing culture outside of the art realm don’t so much inspire as do they annoy. The public sentiment is primarily an eye-rolling “stay in your lane” more than it is an admiring “wow you’re so inspirational”.

Additionally, it’s easy to forget that the sway musical recording artists hold over the lives of teenagers is only about as old as the concept of teenagers itself — seventy years give or take. There is absolutely no historical reason to assume that it must necessarily persist. This peculiar period in music history, where songwriters and balladeers could become unfathomably wealthy and command the attention of generations is actually a mere blip on the historical time-line. In any other period in history, the narcotic-fueled demise of a Jim Morrison would have occurred inconsequentially on the steps outside of his local drinking establishment. Which, incidentally, would’ve also been the sole establishment where anyone would’ve known anything about his music. That he became the celebrity and icon he did was a complete and total anomaly given a wider perspective of music history. So, let’s relieve ourselves of the delusion that the forces that gave us Jim Morrison the musical superstar are in any way enduring. (I’m not trying to pick on Jim Morrison here, this applies to everyone from Sid Vicious to Ella Fitzgerald.)

Moreover, it’s not my goal here to cast aspersions on Morrison’s achievements, nor the achievements of any other recording artist. In the 1960s, starting a band like The Doors took a genuine act of courage. There was no obvious route to success and the path that lay before aspiring musical superstars was significantly less travelled and fraught with perils than the well-paved and well-signed highways artists are presented with today. No, that doesn’t mean that today’s roads are necessarily any easier to drive, just that the act of driving them is more an act of stamina than adventurousness. Artists like The Doors were acting very much in opposition to the collective “get a haircut and get a real job” mores of society. But by in large this is no longer the attitude kids are met with when they inform their parents that they want to pursue a music career.

So where do the iconoclastic, counter-cultural kids go? Somewhere else. And what does that imply? That recording music culture is by definition no longer selecting for counter-cultural, iconoclastic instincts, just charisma, marketability and, in the long run, business savvy.

The problem with this is that it has a tendency to encourage the recording of music that is reacting to culture rather than progressing culture and consequentially, deeply boring. And those moody, cigarette smoking fifteen-year-olds know that it’s boring. I’d be willing to make the case that many contemporary musical artists know that it’s boring too, albeit not explicitly. The charge would undoubtedly be denied, but I read a certain amount of desperation into behaviour that amounts, in my opinion, to little more than donning the trappings of counter-cultures gone by. It’s all lipstick on a pig, sure, and I guess that’s not a new criticism (certainly not of pop music) but I can’t help but sense an unspoken understanding that the artistic vacuum underneath the music industry is in the process of swallowing itself.

Artists, maybe intuiting their increasing lack of relevance, attempt to assure their audiences (and probably themselves in many cases) of their artistic bonafide with the ironic tendency of taking themselves and their music increasingly seriously. What seems to me to be an industry-wide desire to present music (via music videos, album art, fashion shoots, etc.) as if it belonged in a modern art museum, or as if it contains within it the most profound of social insights, I read as an unconscious recognition that the bones of what’s actually on offer musically are fairly banal. Why else would you ever name an album Art Pop? If recording artists are a mere imitation of their forebears, then what better way to convince the audience of their importance or brilliance than with a patina of “high” art?

Self-produced documentaries are another curiosity that smacks of desperation. How many movies do Lady Gaga or Taylor Swift think that they need to make about themselves in order to convince the rest of us that they are somehow important cultural figures? It’s not that they’re entirely misguided. After all, in this environment, the ability of art to find an audience will rest just as much on the narrative constructed to sell it as it will on the quality of the art itself, and the veracity of that narrative will be of secondary importance to its marketability. It’s that these apparent claims to cultural royalty are not theirs to assert, they’re for the culture to give, un-coerced, and in its own time. So these “documentaries” inevitably play as mere self-aggrandising exercises in celebrity self-promotion, and as attempts at concealing what smart fifteen-year-olds can all intuit: these celebrities are ridiculous and occasionally fun to listen too, but otherwise unimportant. It’s all just more lipstick on the pig.

The travesty of this is that, at its core, much of popular recorded music is fundamentally kind of ridiculous, and I don’t mean that pejoratively. There is a beautiful outrageousness in its pageantry and excess, but it is essentially a folk art, and as soon as its practitioners start prematurely and sanctimoniously anointing themselves heirs of artistic legacies and asserting their own genius, it ceases to be genuine. And when it ceases to be genuine it ceases to be worth paying attention to. The wayward youths don’t feel compelled to appropriate it into a part of their identity, its celebrities cease to influence in any meaningful way, and the whole tragic enterprise withers on the vine.

Now let me be clear about what I’m not saying. I’m not saying that music in and of itself has lost meaning — for teenagers or anyone else. I’m not saying that music has to be counter-cultural to be interesting or worth listening to. I’m also not saying that interesting, counter-cultural people are no longer making interesting, counter-cultural music. Music, in all its forms, remains an indelible, profound and beautiful expression of our shared humanity, and most likely always will. My point concerns itself solely with the peculiar phenomenon of recorded music celebrities and their broader societal influence. Influence which feels to me as though it’s running on the fumes of half a century of cultural cachet without the self-awareness to realise that whatever it was that gave this cachet oxygen, to begin with, has relocated itself.

Jens Kuross.

Listen to Jens Kuross’ new album The Man Nobody Can Touch below.

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