The rockstar is dead. That’s not to say there aren’t still rockstars living among us. However, if we were judging rockstar-dom by popularity, and measuring popularity by what bands have been invited to play the Super Bowl, rockstars are a bunch of pretty old guys.
Maybe a nice way to define rockstar might be as a rock musician that has reached an elite level of recognition, and is widely admired and imitated. And early rock heroes—Gene Vincent, Dick Dale, Carl Perkins—are certainly performers worthy of the title of rockstar. Little Richard is the original rockstar. Elvis is obviously the king. Prince is Prince. But nowadays who’d want to be known as a rockstar? Rockstars have long gone out of style. Ozzy Osborne gave the world a clear explanation in The Decline of Western Civilization II: The Metal Years (1988) of just how terribly worn out the rockstar persona had become. Him and his hair metal contemporaries helped, probably more than anyone, to further the association between rockstar and ego-obsessed, self-aggrandizing, oversexed and drugged-up maniac. And we all know how the grunge rockers felt about fame of rockstar-dom—there seems to be a new documentary on the tragedy of Kurt Cobain death released every couple of years to help remind us.
“Fame is a fickle food,” Emily Dickenson once wrote, “Men eat of it and die.” Which is a pretty strong statement. All I’m saying is that notoriety doesn’t correlate to quality, so for those I’m dubbing rockstars I mean only that these folks have obtained a certain level of pop culture prominence. The rock understudies are musicians who have released comparable music, some very inspired rock, and are equally deserving of your recognition. In no way do I seek to imply that any one of these folks are more deserving of fame than the other, but you got to wonder sometimes why one is famous but not the other.
Rockstar: Carrie Brownstein (of Sleater-Kinny)
Rock Understudy: Kim Shattuck (of Muffs)
So it makes sense that Carrie Brownnstein is well known. She’s on T.V. I’ve no doubt many love her without any knowledge of her role in Sleater-Kinney. So comparing Carrie to Kim Shattuck probably isn’t a fair comparison. But comparisons are rarely fair to begin with, so who cares. There’s obviously more in common between these rock goddesses than the fact that they share the same gender. Both were 90’s punk rockers that excelled even when they’re main bands were on hiatus—Carrie going on to form the formidable Wild Flag, while Kim would replace Kim Deal in the legendary Pixies. And, luckily for us, both now have reunited with their original acts and are taking the old show back on the road. Because of this The Muffs incredible self-titled album has been re-issued. “Better Than Me” is a serious pop punk gem.
Rockstar: Rivers Cuomo (of Weezer)
Rock Understudy: Tony Molina
In the rock god pantheon there’s some diversity. Whether sporting leather pants or mothballed thrift store sweaters, it doesn’t matter. The important thing is that they make music that rocks so hard, it gives you something to apprise to. For me, a key component of the rockstar is to inspire more rockstar-dom. Tony Molina is a clear explain of this. His music might most aptly be described as Weezer worship, expect his music is a zillion times better than anything that Rivers and crew have released at anytime over this past decade. Molina songs are golden nuggets of pure joy. It is highly addictive music.
Rockstar: Jack White
Rock Understudy: Jon Spencer
Why is it that Jack White got famous while John Spencer kicks around in semi-obscurity is a mystery. While I won’t say that Jack White doesn’t deserve his very elevated status in the rock world, there’s no doubt Spencer does as well. Both artists have a deep affinity for American roots music, especially in regards to the blues. However, Jon Spencer’s own contributions to the genre are far more experimental, and, dare I say it, more innovative. Just take a listen to the album he cut with R.L. Burnstein “A Ass Pocket of Whiskey.” Spencer began to develop his particular style of garage punk blues-rock with his first band Pussy Galore and later perfected it with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. Perhaps the deciding factor here is that White’s band went with a major label, whereas Spencer stuck mainly with small labels.