“[Debbie Harry and I] are some of the few women left who do what we do in the way that we do it. We’re getting rarer and rarer. I think people understand that this breed is dying.”
This is right for the wrong reason. There are no female rock stars right now, but that’s becasue there are no rock stars right now. Rock isn’t mainstream anymore. The garage-rock boom of the early ’00s died out, and that was it. All of the top-billed, headline-making music right now is either hip-hop, R&B, electronica, or spectacle pop. Hell, even country’s made a comeback. The only exceptions are legacy acts like Radiohead and minor celebrities like Jack White. Looking for a Shirley Manson figure in this context is like looking for water on Mars.
However, the notion that women who “write their own music and aren’t chasing pop success,” constitute a “thinning bloodline” is as horrendously wrong as anything can possibly be. It’s important to make this distinction because the progress of this half of the dynamic has been overwhelmingly positive. Female rock stars may be a dying breed, but female rockers are almost literally everywhere. We’re getting shockingly close to the point where women being in rock bands is fully normal behavior – it would honestly be difficult for me to avoid them were I trying. Even when I go to see a typical boy-punk band like Wavves1 it’s a near guarantee that there will be women writing songs and playing instruments in the openers. I’m the last person who’s ever going to argue that “things are okay,” but even an inveterate hater like me has to admit that this is a hell of a lot better than it used to be. If Bikini Kill were around today, they wouldn’t be getting alternately harassed and patronized. They would seem like a normal rock band with normal politics. Again, this is not to minimize any of the very real shit that’s still happening, but the fact is this battle has largely been won. Women playing rock music is normal now. Deal with it.
It’s still valid to ask whether we’re missing something by not having heroes, though, because heroes serve different functions than regular artists. Actually, it kind of seems like the functions heroes serve are the only ones that matter. That is, if you’re already into music or you’re reading radical theory or whatever, you don’t need a lot of help. You’re in a position where you can figure things out for yourself; you know where you can look for answers. The person who does need help is the proverbial queer kid in a small religious town – someone who’s too far away from the truth to be reached by conventional means. The value of heroes is that they have this kind of reach. If you’re in a position where you actually need to be saved, a hero is the only option.
The problem with this is that it’s a coincidence. If society were generally just, the people with reach would be the people whose touch matters. This is not the case. In fact, it’s worse than just being a coincidence. The actual situation is fairly chaotic, but as a general rule, it’s more accurate to say that we live in a society that suppresses things that are worthwhile and promotes things that are useless, and indeed often actively harmful. The people with the means to do the talking are usually those with the least to say. For every one Garbage screaming out the truth, there are ten Limp Bizkits stinking up the airwaves and hundreds more Bratmobiles languishing in the shadows.
Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with the fact that Garbage had a positive effect on people through being on MTV. I mean, I can vouch for this personally. Garbage was the only good band I liked before I liked music. And because I was a stupid kid back then, I never would have heard of them if they hadn’t been on MTV. They didn’t save me or anything, but I’d probably be worse off otherwise. They helped me, and they’ve helped millions of others even more. To the extent that they had to get popular in order to do this, their popularity was a good thing. But they didn’t get big because they had something worthwhile to say; if anything, they got big in spite of it. Which means that any “stardom” effect in play is ultimately just a matter of luck.
It’s important to draw a distinction here between popularity, the general concept describing a situation where lots of people like something, and fame, the specific thing that happens when popularity Ouroboroses itself. While they can occur together, they don’t have to, and the difference is not just a matter of numbers. Someone can have a large number of fans while remaining unknown outside that group and therefore not properly famous; this is what we refer to as a “cult following.” And we’re all familiar with the situation in which someone is famous without there being anything they’re actually known for doing; this can happen even when relatively few people are paying attention to them.
So what we can understand here is that fame is strictly bad: the specific thing it means is that lots of people are paying attention to you without caring about what you’re doing. Fame discriminates improperly. Bad things get famous just as easily as (or more easily than) good things, and fame occupies cultural breathing room that could otherwise be filled with more things that matter. There can’t be a good version of the Grammys; any awards show necessarily resolves itself into red carpet bullshit. Popularity, by contrast, is the enthusiasm without the awards. So it’s actually a good thing, but in the sense that heart surgery is a good thing. You don’t want it for its own sake, and if you can get along without it you’re probably better off. But in some situations it can help you do the thing that you actually want to do. I’d like to emphasize that this is neither an obscurantist nor an apologetic argument; things aren’t better or worse for being more or less popular. Being popular increases your chances of reaching people, but what’s important is the reaching, not the numbers. In fact, the problem with popularity is precisely that it leads to fame; it increases the chances that your bandwidth will start to get clogged up with people who don’t actually care.
The difference between a “rocker” and a “rock star” – and, more generally, the difference between an “artist” and a “hero” – is the difference between popularity and fame. Ergo, heroes are bad. This is kind of a hard point to focus on, because talking about “heroes” makes you think of your own heroes, who are obviously good, but it remains the case that the concept of heroes is bad, and the act of having heroes is bad. It’s natural to want to hype someone who does something that’s important to you, but promotion is different from idolization. You can’t idolize someone you actually know, because what idolization is is the filling in of the gaps you don’t know about with positive-valence generica. It’s taking one important thing and improperly extrapolating from it that someone is important in general, which no one actually is.
So, functionally, what hero worship does is not to shine a spotlight on worthwhile achievements. Worthwhile achievements are worthwhile on their own; they justify themselves simply by existing. That’s what it means for something to be worthwhile. Rather, what the spotlight of heroism brings into view is everything else, the things that don’t actually matter. Again, this seems harmless when the other things turn out to be good. It’s certainly nice that the person who happens to be Beyoncé happens to be a feminist, but that isn’t something you can rely on. In fact, people have made exactly this complaint about Taylor Swift: she’s supposedly “not political enough” and therefore not fulfilling her role as a hero. But the question isn’t why Taylor Swift isn’t political, the question is why do you care? Why do you have the expectation that someone who writes songs (or doesn’t) that go on the radio is going to share your personally favored political viewpoint? Are you not capable of making your own arguments? Do you really think progress can’t happen without the say-so of some rando pop star?
Worse, heroes generally “happen” to be more like, oh, I don’t know, Bill Cosby. The function of heroism is to make people like Cosby look good, and to make people like Dave Chappelle apologize for them. To be clear, Chappelle doesn’t deny Cosby’s rapism, but because he idolizes Cosby, he’s compelled to argue that it’s “not that simple,” and so he comes up with extenuating factors that aren’t actually true. And it isn’t just that Cosby doesn’t deserve the favor, it’s that it doesn’t matter. His work still exists on its own; whatever value it has is still there. And his crimes also exist on their own. The only reason to conflate2 them is if you feel some need to decide whether Cosby is a “good person” in general, which you shouldn’t, because “being a good person” is not a sensible concept when divorced from specific actions. Heroism attempts to square this circle, to draw bright lines of “good” and “bad”3 that paint over the actual facts on the ground.
There is a specifically feminist point to be made here. First of all, there’s a good reason why feminists are particularly susceptible to heroineism. One of the primary mechanics through which patriarchy operates is the casting of men as agents and women as assistants. Typically masculine roles are those such as the warrior, the lone genius, the statesman, or the explorer – people who do things, who are the source of their own achievements. Typically feminine roles are those such as the wife, the maid, the mother, or the muse – people who support or maintain things, who are factors in other people’s achievements.4 The way that these role-sets and their interactions work to promote male dominance is pretty straightforward. So the natural counter here is to point out situations in which women are undeniable creative forces in their own right. When you get wildly original artists like Patti Smith5 or Björk, women who can’t possibly be understood other than as self-possessed agents and originators, it is severely temping to turn them into heroes. Like, if Patti Smith gets inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, then that’s real official proof that women are just as good as men, right?
The problem with this is that exceptions, as a rule, don’t disprove rules. You can just as well interpret the same situation the other way around: women have to be exceptional in order to qualify as creators. There’s nothing stopping anyone from recognizing the achievements of some particular handful of women and then remaining sexist about everything else. That’s exactly how it’s been throughout literally all of history, because there are always, in any context, going to be people who are exceptional in one way or another. You’re always going to see the occasional Queen Elizabeth, Commander Artemisia, or Hypatia of Alexandria – as well as the occasional Margaret Thatcher, Aileen Wuornos, or Leni Riefenstahl. By the same token, though, the overwhelming majority of women are just going to be normal people with normally-valuable abilities. We don’t need more exceptions; we need to start valuing ordinary women, to remove the requirement of exceptionality. Treating a tiny selection of women like superhumans (/”queens”/”goddesses”) does not absolve us of not treating normal women like normal humans. Women having to be exceptional in order to be considered on par with men is the exact thing that sexism is. The measure of progress in music, then, is not whether we have female superstars. That’s always been the case. It’s whether people of average talent and ordinary appeal are being given their fair shake. The glass ceiling that matters is not the highest one, but the lowest.
In short, it’s a trap. Idolization is how patriarchy handles the unavoidable existence of exceptional women while maintaining existing sexist structures. A social system that didn’t account for exceptions would be brittle; it would crack under pressure. The systems that become pervasive are the ones that are flexible, that can adapt themselves to whatever the conditions on the ground happen to be, that resolve problematic happenstances. They’re the ones that cause you to take a genuine feminist influence like Shirley Manson, call her a “grunge goddess” (which is an oxymoron all by itself), and portray her and a bunch of other important female creators as generic representatives of something called “women in rock.”
As you’ll recall, though, the catch is that heroism serves valuable functions, so the real question is: can we make do without it? Even if the concept sucks, it might act as a Wittgensteinian Ladder: we might need it now because things are fucked, even though we’re going to want to throw it away later. While I can’t speak for the past, I submit that, even if this is the case, the time has come. Instead of inflating heroes to shadow over everything, it is within our power to make smaller, more direct connections, where they’re needed.
Obviously, the internet is a big deal here. I’m sure I don’t have to explain the effect it’s had on music distribution. But this isn’t a technological problem. After all, the internet has had just as strong of an effect in the opposite direction. The vast majority of people use the internet to pay more attention to the things that are already the most popular.6 This has nothing to do with the technology itself; the problem is what people want. If you’re trying to connect things with the people who need them, you can find some way to do that at any level of technology. Back in the day there were things like zines and mail-order catalogs and good old fashioned word of mouth. The internet is potentially a huge help – rather, it has been, and it can be an even bigger help – but it can’t help you do anything until you want to do it.
The fundamental problem is that people want heroes. They prefer stars shining from afar to real people existing unglamorously in front of them.7 They aren’t comfortable valuing things on their own; they want to be told that the things they care about are “really” important, that they’re “right” to care. They want to outsource their humanity to someone else. But this can only ever be a lie, because importance comes from the personal interactions you have with something. Other people can acknowledge that those interactions happened, but they only ever belong to you. It’s simply factual to say that Garbage has had a strong influence on a lot of people, but that doesn’t merely add up to “stardom”; each influence retains its individual content, content that can’t simply be exchanged with that of any other equivalent “star,” precisely as those influenced by Garbage describe:
Screaming Females’ guitarist Marissa Paternoster, whose band went on tour with Garbage in 2013, agreed. “Shirley was the most honest in her darkness. Gwen Stefani was a great inspiration for me but she didn’t have that sharp edge that I was looking for. That’s what attracted me to Garbage: Shirley’s transparency and vulnerability.”
What’s really important is not just that this suffices, but that it’s better. I can also vouch for this personally, because, as ideologically disinclined as I am to admit this, I actually was saved. It’s really none of your fucking business, but the important thing is that I wasn’t saved by a hero; I was saved by a person. In my case, this was also luck, but it didn’t have to be. This is the part that’s fixable. It’s not fixable by finding the “right” heroes; it’s fixable by ceasing to lean on the crutch. As soon as you start caring about popularity, as soon as you go looking for “heroes,” you’re putting your finger on the scale and fucking up the balance. But even when something worthwhile gets famous – rather, when it gets popular, because fame is the part of popularity that isn’t justified – we can’t simply accept that as a fortunate coincidence. We have to move away from fame and towards meaning; we have to topple the statue in order to free the spirit inside. This is what it means to kill yr idols.
When I see a fancy photo shoot in a magazine, that makes me feel like whatever’s being talked about has nothing to do with me, like it’s taking place on another planet. When I see someone five feet in front of me plugging in a guitar and tuning up, that makes me feel like I can do things, like it’s possible for me to exist in this world. Maybe that’s just me, but I don’t think it is. Even when people engage in hero-worship, they aren’t really responding to the lights and the dresses. If they were, heroes would be completely interchangeable. But it’s the opposite: people cling only to their heroes, because they’ve found something specific there that has mattered to them. People like glitz because it makes the things they care about seem more important, more “real.” But this is mere reassurance, and it’s false reassurance. It’s cowardice, and we should be brave enough to reject it. We should accept the smallness of the truth. Shirley Manson is not a representative of some kind of general “women in music” category; she is a musician, which is better.8 There are specific things that people found in Garbage’s music and kept with them, and that’s the only thing that matters. The rest ought to be silence. Correspondingly, the answer to the question “who is there for little girls to look up to now?” is everyone. We just have to show them where to look.
This is, of course, a more challenging pursuit. It’s not as easy as getting a couple of good videos on MTV. You have to explore, you have to focus, you have to figure out how to get the right things to the right people. The task is harder now; it’s a little more involved. It requires more of us as individuals. We have to think more personally about the things that are important to us, and also think more broadly about how our actions contribute to creating the kind of world we’re going to have to live in. This is called “progress.” It gets us closer to, one day, maybe, getting things right. And what’s important to remember that progress isn’t natural. It’ll be just as easy to fuck this up, to go back to looking for heroes, create a new circumscribed, media-friendly class of “female rock stars,” and re-erect the wall that so much effort has been put into tearing down. I’m really not interested in letting this happen.
It is better to be a person than to be a hero. Even accounting for the fact that some people are going to accomplish a lot more than others, everyone can be valued for their contributions without anyone being turned to stone and stuck on a pedestal. (Recall the feminist insight that putting someone on a pedestal is a means of preventing them from moving.) This is also a more accurate depiction of reality; it prevents us from being bamboozled by people like Cosby. The real world is not narrow, and no one bestrides it like a Colossus. In truth, no one is any larger than life – or any smaller. Everyone is exactly the same size as life.
- Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Actually, credit where it’s due: when I saw them recently Nathan Williams made a pretty serious comment about not groping the female crowdsurfers, so a lot of men have actually been doing a decent job of getting on the ball here. ↩
- Note that conflation is different from reassessing in the light of new evidence. But if you find something new as a result of this, it will be something that was there all along. ↩
- Villainy is the same thing as heroism, just in the opposite direction. ↩
- Note that the role of the “father” is primarily understood as a provider and a rule-maker, so it’s still a “doer” role. Similarly, female artists are often understood as mystics or “conduits of the spirits” or whatever, which recasts their creativity as passive midwifery of an external, agentive force. Consider further such dichotomies as doctor/nurse, playboy/slut, priest/nun, etc. It’s pretty much everywhere. Also, this goes all the way down to the level of basic biology. People used to have the idea that a sperm was an entire fully-formed person and the womb was basically just a big empty hole where it hung out and grew on its own. ↩
- Patti Smith is a fascinatingly ironic example here, like there’s seriously a book to be written about this, as she is herself an unabashed hero-worshipper with some pretty traditionally sexist ideas about men being creative geniuses and women being muses. As recounted in Just Kids, she originally tried to get Sam Shepard to save rock and roll before reluctantly accepting the fact that she was going to have to do it herself. ↩
- Note that the huge amount of social media noise during the 2016 election, which supposedly destroyed all sources of authority and turned politics into a mess of untethered subjectivity, did not make third parties any more viable, or indeed do anything at all to broaden the scope of debate beyond the usual popularity-contest bullshit – which is exactly how the person whose only ability is competing in popularity contests won. In fact, social media increased this effect: the election might otherwise not have been enough of a popularity contest to make the difference. ↩
- Believe it or not, Adam Smith has a pretty good bit about this: “This disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition, though necessary both to establish and to maintain the distinction of ranks and the order of society, is, at the same time, the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments. That wealth and greatness are often regarded with the respect and admiration which are due only to wisdom and virtue; and that the contempt, of which vice and folly are the only proper objects, is often most unjustly bestowed upon poverty and weakness, has been the complaint of moralists in all ages.” ↩
- Just in case it’s not clear, I’m very much not saying that gender doesn’t matter. It matters the same way everything else does. Being a feminist means neither reifying nor ignoring gender; it means accepting it as a subject of serious study. ↩