On Culture

For Those Who Rock, We Salute You

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 2, 2007

Nothing and no one impresses like a rock star.

To borrow a word favored by Kimora Lee Simmons, rockers' "fabulosity" is without equal. Adults old enough to know better go giddy in their presence. Former Arkansas governor and now presidential candidate Mike Huckabee sounded almost indignant last week describing how police in his home state charged Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards with reckless driving back in the 1970s. When Huckabee met Richards last year, he righted that perceived wrong by pardoning the rock star. Cynics accused Huckabee of giving the famous special treatment, saying he wouldn't pardon the average citizen. To which Huckabee responded: "No, I wouldn't. . . . But here's the deal: If you can play guitar like Keith Richards, I'd do it for you."

Designers who have spent a lifetime protecting an elegant and tasteful image from the ravages of a single ill-considered remark readily hitch their reputations to the most unlikely of music stars. It doesn't matter if those stars are better known for taking a bullet than being able to carry a tune. Giorgio Armani, for example, has unleashed a full-blown public relations offensive to protest a negative review of a collection. Yet in 2005 he happily dressed the rapper 50 Cent and seated him in the front row at one of his fashion shows.

Athletes are coddled and overindulged because of their speed, stamina or exceptional hand-eye coordination. But popular culture also expects athletes, some of whom have barely graduated from high school, to be well-behaved role models. In exchange for the public's favor, they must inspire children; they must be tireless in signing autographs. They must give back, be heroic, smile for the cameras and be the American dream personified. They are chided for public drunkenness, womanizing and drug-dabbling.

Rock stars are also indulged. But bad behavior is their duty. Of course there are limits, but generally speaking, rock stars do not have to control their inner toddler. They can be moody jerks. They are expected to wreck a few hotel rooms. They are assumed to inhale and to do so with the gusto of a Dyson vacuum cleaner. And folks admire them for it.

A feast of rock star fabulosity will be on display in the coming week. On Labor Day, Justin Timberlake's "Futuresex/Loveshow" debuts on HBO. He looks even more like a rock star now that he has adopted his signature look: a modern Rat Pack/David Bowie/crooner/hip-hop mash of skinny suits, schoolboy vests, mod ties and pristine white sneakers. Timberlake didn't invent the style, but he popularized it and inspired countless imitators: young men trying to look smooth. On Thursday, "Fashion Rocks" -- the Conde Nast Media Group's fourth annual music and style orgy -- tapes live at Radio City Music Hall and airs on CBS the following night. It will include a performance by Jennifer Lopez -- the designing, acting, marrying celebrity whose sheen never dimmed despite a spate of bad movies, clothes and marriages because she is, above all else . . . a rock star.

And finally, next Sunday brings MTV's Video Music Awards live from Las Vegas.

The VMAs don't have the stature of the Grammys or the Oscars. The VMAs have never been about the prestige of the moonman statue but about the show itself. Few people remember any of the winners from 2003, but most everyone recalls the Britney Spears-Madonna smooch. The pleasure of the show is not in who will win Video of the Year but in what might happen if Kanye West doesn't.

The VMAs celebrate the spontaneity of a concert and the shared spectacle of it all. The rock star gets everyone shouting in unison, moving to the same rhythms. That's an enviable amount of power. No other segment of popular culture has the ability to so consistently create moments like that.

Athletes can get a crowd revved up, but into an antagonistic, home-team-vs.-visitors fury. The film world had the aberrant "Rocky Horror Picture Show," which encouraged the audience to participate in the on-screen action. But that was more of a rite of passage, a teenage obsession. Book fans may have the rare "Harry Potter" community phenomenon, but there is something undeniably geeky about camping out to be first in line to buy a book that is going to be just as readily available to people who slept in, went to brunch and arrived at Barnes and Noble by midday. A rock star on tour is a fleeting thing. It's a happening that can be captured on video, but it's never, ever quite like the feeling of having been there.

Rock stars may hide behind all sorts of masks -- be it makeup, a thuggish image or an alter ego named Sasha -- but when they perform, the best of them give the audience the sense that it's witnessing a very real part of their personality.

There's something charmingly old school about the notion of a rock star, a larger than life character that at once seems untouchable but also like an intimate friend. The Internet can't make a rock star -- at least not yet. Sites like YouTube celebrate accessibility and the notion that everyone should be equally seen and heard. Rock stars still benefit from the quaint notion that they are more subversive, more audacious, more fearless, more sensitive than everyone else. They speak truth to power. They speak for the disenfranchised. They are poets. It doesn't matter that some of the biggest stars are akin to private corporations with all the hierarchies, for-profit motives and mainstream popularity that implies.

The myth of the rock star endures. And at some point, everyone turns into a groupie.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company