Monday, September 5, 2011

Third Blog: Stars and their Place in History

In honor of Freddie Mercury's birthday, I'm asking the musical and historical question:  What do Freddie Mercury and Diana Ross have in common?

Apart from liking to be called "Miss," I mean.  Pretty different sounds, right?  From different countries and backgrounds different styles of music -- about as different as different gets in pop music, right? 

What about the groups that made them famous, respectively Queen and The Supremes?  From different decades, and, generally speaking, with fairly different age and demographic appeal.

And yet, each emerged as the unquestioned leader and iconic front person for groups which struggled to make an impact within the prevailing genres of the time and then, seemingly overnight, became the most successful bands within those movements and, just as quickly, eclipsed and essentially retired all the other performers in the categories.

By now you've guessed that I'm talking about Girl Groups for the Supremes and Glam or Glitter Rock in the case of Queen.  In each case, it took about 4 years of little or limited success starting from roughly the beginning of their respective decades until about the mid-point at which everything turned in their favor and against the fortunes of the other bands that chose to carry on in those genres.

So what you say?  The Beatles reinvented Rock-n-Roll, Michael Jackson became the King of Pop, Nirvana replaced Punk … eventually.  Happens all the time, right?

Not really.  Elvis would be the most likely supplanter of Rock-n-Roll, except that by the time 50s Rock was replaced Elvis wasn't really even doing that much of it.  By the time the Beatles came along, Rock and Roll as it was known then was a distant memory.  In fact, what the Beatles did could arguably be described as becoming the Ultimate Teen Idol group, even though their style initially harkened back to 50s style rock.

Something similar could be said for Nirvana.  What they conquered and replaced was 80s "Alternative" or "College Rock," using the style of the previous decade's Punk.  Punk Rock splintered so fast into New Wave, Ska and ElectroPop that it is hard to find any single successor.  The closest comparison to an outright takeover and replacement of Punk Rock in the Supremes/Queen mode might be the Red Hot Chili Peppers.  Flea was at least part of the punk movement as a member of Fear, but redefined the sound by creating a hybrid that mixed in 70s Funk.  It may have taken longer to reach Ultimate Success but the payback is that it has been much more lasting.

And while Michael Jackson and Madonna did become the biggest pop stars of the 80s, their lineage could be linked most closely to the evolution of Disco into Dance Music and they always had many very successful competitors in that field before and after their reigns (despite holding onto their crowns).

No, the Supremes and Queen stand alone in terms of their emergence from, dominance over and disposal of the genres from which they sprung.  So maybe those were just small sub-genres, headed for the dustbin of pop music history anyway.  Well, Glam and Glitter Rock were associated with some of the biggest musical acts of the 70s, from David Bowie, Roxy Music, Elton John and even the Rolling Stones for a period of time.  Though perhaps less well-remembered, the 60s Girl Group period included such solid-hit powerhouses as The Shirelles, The Ronettes, The Shangri-Las, The Marvelettes and Martha and the Vandellas.

Of course, Freddie Mercury and Diana Ross were never just members of a group nor even of the genres they began by aspiring toward.  Their styles and personas outgrew even the bounds of pop music itself and they each became something both symbolic of and larger than their own times.  I don't think its an accident that Diana Ross became Supreme during the Civil Rights Era nor that Freddie Mercury's ascendancy as Queen began during the early days of what was then called Gay Liberation, although, ironically, they would both have somewhat complicated relationships to these movements.

Sometimes stars are called by history but the calls go unanswered because the stars are out making their own history.