The Beatles, Lennon, Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley and, dare I say it, David Bowie. What do all these people have in common? Each is/was prolific, for one thing. They each have a touch of class and definition about them – a je ne sais quoi. One thing for certain is that they all possess the status of ‘icon’.
I recently watched a documentary about Bowie (‘David Bowie: Five Years’, which can be found here) and, like a wall, inspiration hit me. Wave after wave of ideas and strands of thought popped into my head. Bowie does not inspire me in the cliched sense. He literally inspires me. I wrote a poem, the length of which I have never stretched to before and I pondered writing a song, whilst watching the documentary.
Being an icon suggests to me that they are not just a memorable piece of culture but something much, much more than that. An icon is someone who can make a person want to change what they do or who they are, as well as securing their place in pop culture history.
I wrote an essay on iconography a few years back and a large part of gaining that status is branding yourself. For example, Michael Jackson branded himself by wearing the single white glove, the too-short trousers and created a dance move of his very own – the Moonwalk. Each of these things remind us instantly of Michael Jackson. If somebody was to give a shrill squeak of surprise, perhaps, the first name on everybody’s lips would be Michael Jackson.
Branding yourself allows you to slip, seamlessly, into the public’s consciousness and remain in the psyche of a generation for maybe a century or more thereafter.
When watching the Bowie documentary I noticed how branding was definitely not something that Bowie was interested in, particularly during the 80s and onwards. Alter-egos like Ziggy Stardust, lightening bolts across the face and two-toned irises are, of course, a stamp which can belong only to Bowie himself but it was less because of a need to secure his place in the psyche, rather than creating a niche for his own amusement. I daresay that it was, in part, an attempt to secure his name in the great spectrum of Great British culture but as I say, it was more than just creating a prolonged future for himself.
Where am I going with this? Well, forget about the 80s and the Thin White Duke for a moment and reel your minds back to the present. This very moment in time. Pluck an artist/band that could be considered ‘iconic’ in 40, 50, 60 years time. Other than Madonna, who is also of a different time. Difficult, isn’t it?
There are the ‘modern day Beatles’ (I cringe, even as I write it), One Direction. Can you possibly name anything that distinguishes them from any other modern day boyband? No. That is not because you refuse to retain any knowledge of them but because there is not one thing that is distinctive about them. I remember that their fans once named Niall Horan as being ‘the one who likes carrots.’ I need not say anymore . . . The Beatles themselves, on the other hand, sparked a revolution and did such original work that even their album covers became pop cultural references, which are used around the world 46 years later.
The age of the icon is over. There are no great phenomenons anymore. I blame the gradual degradation of music over the past 20 years – the nineties may have brought me into the world but its achievements ended there – but I also blame the prevalence of social media in the modern era. There was once a time when if you wanted to learn anything new about somebody like Elvis, you would need to read a music magazine, which spawned on shelves but once a fortnight. If you wanted to learn anything new about Michael Jackson, you would have to wait for the newspapers to fabricate something new. Michael had maybe three interviews during his entire career. He rarely sat on a couch with anybody in front of a camera because he didn’t need to. His talent – and ‘act’ – sold his albums.
Today, we don’t want to know anything about our ‘stars’ because we don’t need to know anything about them. Five Years highlighted the fact that Bowie never gave his fans everything. He always held something back. It left a hunger for more of him. The mystique surrounding him was almost too much to bear. He continues this tactic even today. When, The Next Day, was released in 2013 he refused to give any interviews for it. The excitement around the album alone was enough to get people to buy it. It is an extremely clever business trick. It is very much the ‘ringing phone syndrome’. We cannot leave a phone to ring – we must know who it is calling. With his album, we didn’t have any information about it so needed to hear it to set our minds at rest.
The only people even close to being considered an icon today are on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and whatever else they can use as a makeshift marketing tool. They speak like a normal person. They even speak to us via outlets like Twitter and have become one of us. They are no longer totally unreachable because we can speak to them whenever we like. Social media and the technological age altogether has stripped away the mystique of celebrity and shot it dead with a binary-coded gun.
Not only is it social media that’s the issue. Let us not forget that we have the portable encyclopaedia that is Google now. If we want to know something – a celebrity’s age or height – we just need to tap at our phones for thirty seconds and we have the answer. Where is the mystique in that?
Icons are untouchable, beyond the realms of the ‘norm’. Ziggy Stardust would not be sat in the corner in your local club, Jessie J could and that is why the age of the icon is over.