the return of the rock star

He's brainy, charismatic and he goes to the pub. Desired by teenagers yet respected by rock critics, the new breed of Nineties pop personality is a rock icon in the grand tradition
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Indy Lifestyle Online
it was never like this a decade ago. In the Eighties, pop stars were untouchable, elusive creatures who expected to be fawned over from afar. The lives of icons such as Madonna and Prince were alien to most British fans - a million miles away from their own culture. Back home, Morrissey may have offered realism in his lyrics but in reality he was as much a recluse as Michael Jackson - giving interviews rarely and never on view to his public. The scene was big on glamour but short on intelligent comment - the last thing you'd hope for from popsters like George Michael or Duran Duran was attitude.

Nowadays, no self-respecting Nineties rock star leaves home without one: attitude has come to define their identity and, above all, their music. This generation's stars don't sit at home whingeing in their bedroom like Morrissey. Neither do they wear designer suits and hang out at Paris fashion shows and galleries like Hutchence or Bowie. Although they're not shy about their fame - Jarvis Cocker (Pulp) and Damon Albarn (Blur) happily adorn countless magazine covers - they try to create the illusion that they're materially untainted by it.

Rather than lead aspirational lifestyles, pop stars today revel in the ordinary - or at least they try to keep hold of it as much as their newfound status will allow. The Good Mixer pub in Camden was a celebrated "ordinary" haunt for bands like Blur and Menswear until the place became over run with fans and they were forced elsewhere. Still, though, part of their appeal is to hang out in the same pubs and clubs as their fans.

"Pop stars have always had to represent their constituency. The one difference between now and the 1980s is that they are seen to talk and behave like the people who buy their records," says Nick Coleman, rock editor of the Independent. "In the 1980s, Madonna was above all an icon of the untouchability that celebrity confers. Nowadays, Jarvis Cocker is seen to be in most ways accessible, like the sort of bloke you can rush up to in the street and kick."

Their activities, like their opinions, are accessible and immediate: they socialise with one another, feud with one another (the Blur vs Oasis battle made Newsnight), play pool and football, get drunk and chat up each other's "birds". Two years ago, this new generation lived comparatively mundane lives in Sheffield, Manchester, Oxford or London, and these everyday experiences shape their material.

The turning point came with the release of Blur's Parklife in 1994 which initiated the Britpop scene. The pop-star-as-personality emerged as a very conscious response to early Nineties grunge on the one hand and dance music on the other. At the time things were looking bleak - the most successful young British bands were merchandised ones like Take That and East 17. John Harris, features editor for Q magazine recalls: "You used to go off to interview people and you could bet your bottom dollar it would be extremely dull... people were brassed off with these air-brushed, very pure, worryingly healthy-looking boy-bands who were two-dimensional."

The only alternative was the grunge sound, based in Seattle, which seemed entirely concerned with expressing futility and isolation. Damon summed it up when he said, we want to be to grunge what punk rock was to hippies". Richard Benson, editor of The Face, explains: "Grunge talked about alienation in a really American way. But there was a new generation of people who wanted to get something back out of their own culture - to look honestly at life in Britain." This generation also demanded personality, a return to the charismatic frontman of the early Seventies that seemed to be so absent on the rave and techno scene. And so the Nineties pop star emerged. Fuelled by referentialism, laddism and loads of lager, he is to a great extent a composite of all that has gone before. Although this hasn't stopped women getting in on the act, too.

Now there are a host of frontwomen who specialise in "attitude" Justine Frischman (Elastica), Louise Wener (Sleeper), Sonya Madan (Echobelly) and P J Harvey are all individual, outspoken artists who have successfully carved out a Nineties, niche for themselves. Unlike the men, though, they have had to create rather than re-interpret a female pop tradition.

Inevitably, the male pop star has more role models to work with: the Beatles, the Kinks, the Rolling Stones, the Small Faces and the Who are all elements of his studied demeanour. As the rock critic Robert Sandall points out: "You can see with Jarvis and Damon that in an almost vaudevillian way they've taken this idea of the rock star as a character. The world of Jarvis Cocker is a fictional thing. People take it as a very funny, well-worked out dramatic act."

Fiction or reality, the all-defining moment in the rise and rise of the Nineties pop star must go to him when he sang "Common People" at Glastonbury last summer. Not just because his anthem enabled Pulp to break into the Blur and Oasis race for pop supremacy. But because his performance epitomised the I'm-just-a-bloke-like-you appeal. Between songs he told an enraptured audience, "It's taken me 10 years to get here. And if I can do it, anyone can." Not the sort of self-effacing message that Mick Jagger or Bono would happily deliver.

Like that other uniquely Nineties past-time, the National Lottery, pop stardom proclaims, "It could be you". According to Coleman: "What's happening now is the pop star wants to be seen as an ordinary creature who happens to be good at music. Which is why people like it. You can say to yourself, 'Ooh, I could do that'." Which is why the stars' status rests on a finely- honed act that has to reconcile some tricky contradictions: glamour with accessibility, outspoken personality with universal appeal, autonomy with mainstream commercialism. The last is perhaps the biggest achievement for Britpop which has successfully bridged the gap between indie, rock and pop.

A group like Oasis miraculously straddled all three: they started off as an alternative sound with a rock influence and are now a mainstream success. On Cocker's part, it has been a highly conscious move to merge the divisions. He recently told Vox magazine, "It was important to be on things like Top of the Pops, 'cos I've never liked the idea of 'alternative' music - I think that you should just try and make the mainstream better... it was important to prove that people in [alternative] groups could string a few words together and say a sentence that was coherent." And it seems to have worked. As Sandall says, "Now there's a sense that you can be oblique and brainy and build it into your act without frightening people away."

Desired by teenagers and respected by otherwise cynical rock critics, the pop star has attained what would have seemed impossible 10 years ago. "Damon and Jarvis come fully formed with all their imperfections, and you get the impression they're people worth having a conversation with," Harris says. "If you're obsessed with Damon there's more to find out about him than, say, Jason Orange out of Take That. Rather than just standing there with bulging pectorals, he might even tell you what books to read and which films to see. That's the function of a good teen idol."

Importantly, Blur, like Oasis and Pulp, are seen to be in control of their image - rather than subservient to their record companies. With the declining influence of independent labels like Factory and Rough Trade, bands cannot be "alternative" in the way they were 10 years ago. Yet, they are keen to distance themselves from the corporate image of the major music companies, to cling on to their indie sensibilities. It's an illusion of independence since Blur are signed to Food, a label owned by EMI, Oasis are on Creation (part of Sony) and Pulp are with Island Records (an outpost of the Polygram empire).

This spirit of autonomy is something that fans demand from their idols. In this sense, pop stars reflect rather than create the mood of their time. People disapprove of pretension in their artists - they prefer irony and integrity. As Coleman says: "Pop stars are now being generated by a public taste every bit as sophisticated and ironic as the stars themselves. They understand what makes a pop star, what goes into the product."

Stars are well aware of this but as their fame accelerates (Oasis's album is No 5 in the American Billboard chart), how long can they sustain the "ordinary-bloke" appeal? In the end everyone will want a part of them, and they will have to retreat to their country houses in time-honoured rock star fashion. According to Harris, it's only a matter of time before the backlash sets in: "It'll probably happen in the next two years - these people will be accused of being detached and remote." In the Oasis camp, all the signs are there - Noel is now driven around in a brown Rolls Royce . This may be the start of the slippery slope, but only when Jarvis buys his first Armani suit will we know the era of the Nineties rock star has well and truly died.

THE STARS WHO WROTE THE RULE BOOK

Jim Morrison was the archetypal rock star as Byronic hero. The Doors created a potent combination of poetry, grandiose live performance and organ/guitar backings. Morrison has inspired a generation of morbid musicians who celebrate the dark side - Joy Division, Iggy Pop and Alice Cooper. Dying in "mysterious circumstances" in Paris immortalised his image of rock star as tortured artist.

Jimi Hendrix's career was also cut short by his sudden death. An admirer of Bob Dylan, he was the first black rock star. As well as inspiring later artists such as George Clinton and Prince, he spawned a host of white- rock imitators who adopted his flamboyant on-stage antics - most famously setting fire to his guitar.

Mick Jagger has single-handedly defined what we have come to recognise as the classic rock star demeanour. The bolshie scowl, scruffy hair and pouting lips are still omnipresent in today's generation. Look no further than Bobby Gillespie (Primal Scream), Ian Brown (Stone Roses), Tim Burgess (Charlatans) and nearly every other indie idol.

David Bowie took the rock star image and then re-moulded it several times over in his various personae, most famously in the guise of the "thin white duke" and "Ziggy Stardust". The ultimate chameleon also added androgyny to the rock'n'roll repertoire.

Madonna, very much a pop star, not a rock star, but certainly a star of massive proportions, rose from the disco-diva tradition. Her influences are more Hollywood than Hendrix. Although she flirted with "attitude" in the Eighties and attracted millions of female "wannabe" followers, there was alway something artificial about her. She was never as highly individual as today's female popstars, Courtney Love, PJ Harvey and Bjork in particular.

John Lydon (Johnny Rotten) broke all the rules and brought an element of danger back into music. He despised the image of the guitar-brandishing rock'n'roll star, and the "muso" element of many mid-Seventies performers. The rock establishment was never the same again.

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