From Bowie to Bieber: what makes a music icon?

Saturday 22 October, 14.00 - 15.30 , Conservatory Culture Wars


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The deaths of David Bowie and Prince earlier this year provoked much soul-searching about the state of contemporary popular culture. Many critics observed that the kind of sexual and artistic freedom symbolised by both artists seemed radical even to today’s seemingly more liberal, and jaded, eyes. In his book Never A Dull Moment, David Hepworth identifies 1971 as ‘the golden year’ of rock thanks to Bowie’s album Hunky Dory along with Marvin Gaye and the Rolling Stones. For Hepworth, ‘today’s music scene is a lot more conservative.’ This seems to be more than Boomer nostalgia: the organisers of the Coachella festival have proposed a new festival headlined by Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney and the Rolling Stones, which is expected to draw fans of all ages. Contemporary pop culture, for young and old, appears in thrall to a cult of what critic Simon Reynolds has called ‘retromania.’ 

Yet, for some, numerous statements declaring 2016 as ‘the year the music died’ – referencing a 1971 song lamenting the death of Fifties icons - was a reminder that pop greatness can be cyclical. Others point towards the rise of Jay-Z, Kanye West and Beyoncé – as well as the success of NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton – as evidence that a new cultural mythology is being built to replace traditional blues-derived guitar rock. Similarly, mainstream ‘tween’-orientated pop stars from Miley Cyrus through to Taylor Swift seem to have inherited Bowie’s eye for brand management and canny creative collaboration, even if the music is unlikely to prove as durable. While some may bristle at the comparison, it is argued, the vituperative online arguments that greet each artist’s latest moves suggests pop – historically the ephemeral soundtrack to youthful rebellion – has lost none of its ability to divide opinion.

Is the depth of mourning surrounding the death of icons simply about Generation Xers confronting their own mortality, or is there a genuine sense that a spirit of innocent experimentation is no more? Is nostalgia a worrying sign of a lack of creativity or innovation in culture, or just an acknowledgement that pop now has its own rich canon? Has the reaction really been any different to the outpouring of national mourning after Giuseppe Verdi or even Jacques Brel died? In an era bombarded with digital media channels, each catering to their own specific niche, is the genuinely popular culture star on its way out?