Dead Icons Society

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The recent tenth anniversary of the death of Kurt Cobain may
well have prompted an outpouring of grief from Seattle to London
but such scenes have been reflected again and again throughout
the twentieth century. Much has been made of the myth of
celebrity death and, in particular, of the now notorious deadly
age of 27. Kurt, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison all died at the
age of 27 and have all been immortalised by successive
generations of young people desperate for idols and the much
sought break from the establishment. This fascination that has become such a typical aspect of the
teenage psyche has been described by some as a latent cult of
death and, as ever, a threat to the moral fabric of society. The
hypocrisy of such statements is apparent for all. The individuals
who trudge annually past Graceland’s white picket fence in
tears at the premature loss of their King will in the same breath
proclaim the decency of their worship while dismissing Nirvana
fans as young and foolish. Graceland now boasts the Heartbreak
Hotel – “a fashionable boutique hotel that takes its
cues from the legendary hospitality and personal style” of
Elvis – while Elvis.com proudly includes the GracelandCamT
where you can keep an eye on all those eager pilgrims. Over-commercialised as all of this clearly seems there is
little difference, in terms of emotions, between the mourners at
either end of the generation gap. Those that daily monitor
GracelandCamT and those that scrawled their names and thoughts
across the London shrine to Kurt share a common desire and even a
common heritage. The flowers and tokens of love that elegantly clutter Jim
Morrison’s headstone in the Parisian Pere-Lachaise cemetery
mirror the striking grave of Oscar Wilde a short walk away now
covered in kisses and flowers. Even the Victorian monument to
Percy Bysshe Shelley at Univ holds the same attraction as the
simple plaque to a certain James Marshall Hendrix in the quiet
Greenwood Memorial Park, Renton. In reality this obsession with early death is an intrinsic
aspect of youth culture that is timeless. The great choice that
Achilles is forced to make, between a long yet quiet life or the
short and glorious life of a hero, lies at the heart of a
fascination still as relevant millennia later. Far fetched as it
seems to compare Kurt Cobain with Achilles, a common idealisation
of youth and fame are present in both, a craving to avoid the
coming of age and the pain of normality. It is this passion for
eternal youth that makes celebrity death such a fundamental
aspect of popular culture: from Marilyn Monroe, James Dean and
Elvis, to Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Ernesto Guevara, to Kurt
Cobain and Jeff Buckley. Less the manner of death than the age is
what impacts their admirers, the desperation that accompanies the
feeling of waste and tragedy at such promise being prematurely
snatched away. Youth death will always be a fasttrack to immortality and
indeed has always been a fundamental fascination of society
throughout history. Those that mourned Kurt Cobain were
celebrating his music and his influence but at the same time were
honouring one of their own generation with whom they alone
empathised and in doing so were in essence celebrating the youth
that so many popular idols will never loose. I love pop music, and sometimes I try to discuss it with
people. Nine times out of ten this is a big mistake, because
I’m not allowed to say anything somebody else likes is crap.
Unless it’s Westlife. This seems to me rather unfair. Do we
think there’s no such thing as bad art: poorly written
novels, cliched and unoriginal paintings, unconvincingly acted
films? Let’s leave aside those of us who believe that the
judgment of art is irremediably subjective. At least they’re
consistent. The people I’m addressing are those who want to
retain a uniquely sacred position for pop music; who, when faced
with the possibility that their favourite band are rubbish, will
first attempt a musical justification but then, realizing that
they know nothing whatsoever about music, retreat into
“Well, that’s just your opinion” wishy-washiness. Strangely enough, these are often the same people who berate
the “mindless marketing victims” who keep Westlife in
the Top Ten. Check out “The Vibe” comments page on
Ceefax sometime. Hilarious. “Why don’t you listen to
some real music, like Blink 182?” they rage, scowling at the
imagined infidels from beneath their hoods. The same attitude is demonstrated by those who complain about
the degradation of the charts when a novelty record like Bob the
Builder or Mr Blobby gets to number one. These records, I am
told, are not very good at all. Hey, but that was what I said
about The White Stripes! Don’t you remember? I said that
bashing away at the first four chords that come into your head
and nodding when people say that you’re reinventing the
blues for a new generation does not a great band make. You
can’t have it both ways. Either it’s all subjective, or
it’s possible to say that some pop music is good and The
Vines are crap. The “it’s all subjective” line is implicit in
pop music culture. Writers for the NME rarely have any musical
knowledge, and even more rarely write about music, as opposed to
image and fashion. Imagine a reviewer of the Berlin Philharmonic
writing only about Simon Rattle’s unruly hair. Classical
music is viewed as art, while pop music as just entertainment.
There are some artists we’re allowed to criticise: boy bands
are evil and should be outlawed. In everything else, tolerance of
others’ tastes seems to be synonymous with accepting
everything as being of equal value, which means, of course, that
the whole concept of value is bankrupt. Too many people operate by the skewed logic by which some kind
of fascist policing of taste can be inferred from an aesthetic
judgment: I think The Hives are a bunch of musically illiterate
chancers; therefore I think that everyone should be banned from
listening to The Hives. This is just nonsense. Maybe some of us want to listen to music that we ourselves
think is bad. Am I the only person who wants to be able to say,
“Yes, it’s a dreadful song, but I quite like it
actually”?ARCHIVE: 1st week TT 2004 

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