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The study of word origins, or etymology, is often fascinating. Words come to our language from many different places and many different needs. The most interesting words, however, often have very obvious origins but mysteriously deep cultural meanings. One such “super-cliché” is the word “Rockstar”.

The usage is obvious. A “Rockstar” is someone who is awesome, inspiring, or otherwise very powerful simply through their presence. The word is used often to describe Barack Obama this year, but it is also used as a casual compliment when someone does something very well or holds the attention of an audience.

What makes this word interesting is that the common usage often runs against the origin. Think of the posters of actual Rock Stars that you’ve seen. Do they seem like genuinely happy people with a gracious life and a great command? Almost to a person, the image we have of a Rock Star is much more pensive, as if they have the weight of the world on their shoulders; great leadership is a burden more than a blessing.

The image of a Rock Star is generally based a simple, pre-packaged set of trappings that are easily identifiable. The Beatles and the Rolling Stones, early examples of the modern concept, often wore long coats and had their hair either pushed back or otherwise different from everyone else. They wore serious expressions that implied they thought long and hard about their craft. In short, they were artists, people who were not of this world in the sense that they were a bit above it all. They created their own style.

Where did this come from? It all dates back to the very first Rock Star of them all, Ludwig van Beethoven.

The reason it goes back to van Beethoven is a practical one as much as an aesthetic one because he was the first person to successfully build an entire career as a free-lance artist. Before him, artists had to have a patron such as a Prince, Archbishop, or wealthy merchant. Handel went off on his own later in life, as did Haydn. Mozart tried desperately, but never could quite make it. Beethoven was the first to do it early, and he was successful because of the changes that took place in life at the turn of the Nineteenth Century.

At that time, there were two potential sources of income for a free-lancer. The music publishing industry had been a great source of income for Haydn, but it continued to blossom as more and more middle-class people became interested in having music in their life, and thus had formal training. That same middle class that was rising in trade cities like Vienna also had a growing desire to hear serious music in concert settings, not just as operas or set around plays. As good as the rising publishing money was, concerts was where the big money was. That’s what van Beethoven realized.

December 22, 1808 was the first monster concert for the masses. Beethoven rented out the Theatre an der Wien himself, even though he couldn’t afford to heat it, and thus captured all the revenue. It was a solid four hours of all original music, including Symphonies 5 and 6, Piano Concerto 4, and the Choral Fantasy. Think of your favorite Rock Star giving you that much for your money these days.

It was a huge hit, and it made van Beethoven enough money to live off of for quite some time. More importantly, it established him as maestro van Beethoven, the genius composer that everyone admired. Playing this role to the hilt, van Beethoven became even more petulant than before, partly because his drinking got out of control as the success became too much. But his image as the tortured genius who spoke for the angels and carried his audience off to another world for a few hours was cemented.

More importantly, that image was a big part of his later box office success. Everyone wanted to hear what maestro van Beethoven was writing, and everyone wanted to be seen at his concerts.  It was the scene and be seen of its day.

Flash forward to today’s image of a Rock Star. Remarkably little has changed since the archetype was invented in that chilly theatre nearly 200 years ago. We use the word slightly differently in normal conversation, but the image is roughly the same. A Rockstar is a person who captivates and sets the trends. They are a person apart and above. They are, in short, who we want to follow and who we want to be like.

It’s not often that a cultural reference can be traced so well to one particular night. What’s most interesting about the term Rockstar is that it ultimately refers to a life that not everyone would want to lead for themselves, if they really thought about it long enough.

19 thoughts on “Rockstar

  1. You are thinking about politics even if you won’t write about it! But I like this, it’s great. Why is it that rockstars don’t smile? If it’s all a Beethoven thing then you’re a lot less crazy than you fear, Erik! 🙂

  2. Look, if your team is down by 4 with 42 seconds to go and they throw a “Hail Mary” on first down, you know they’ll do the same thing on second, third, and fourth. You don’t need to be John Madden to figure that out, and unlike Madden I’m not paid to keep talking about it while they do it.

    That’s all that’s going on here – they are desperate. Frankly, I’m desperate when I use complex football analogies in a year when the Dolphins look lousy, but there you go. The point is that this is going just like anyone should expect so far.

    Why don’t Rock Stars smile? Because they are serious artists. It’s just like the reason why Supermodels don’t smile – they are above you. You follow them because they have a wisdom/insight that you don’t. That archetype was set down 200 years ago.

    Yes, I was writing background for some later political analysis, because I fear Obama is getting to be too much of a Rock Star and not enough of a politician. There is a big, important difference. I’m watching.

    But you know I love writing about van Beethoven no matter what, yes? 😉

  3. Great take on the great Ludwig, Erik! I never thought of him in those terms.

    Another thing about him: he was a virtuoso pianist who dazzled audiences with his improvisations. He’d play one of his concertos and make up the coda as he went along. He’d also take a theme and vary it, right off the cuff, in the concert hall (or room or salon). Simply a great mind.

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  5. Compelling arguement, but I’d still say Mozart was a Rockstar before Beethoven. Mozart was an internationally famous musician as a child and I don’t see a big difference between the benefactors of old and modern day record labels.

    Not too many Rockstars actually are free-lancers. Today’s free-lance musician would be more like a jingle writer or some such and how many of those can you name?

    Also, there’s been much debunking of the financially poor Mozart. He was actually quite wealthy.

  6. I don’t debate that all the bits and pieces that went into being a Rockstar were around before van Beethoven. I’m saying he’s the first one to put it all together and make the leap, much as Rock ‘n’ Roll went from being played in bars to great big arena concerts.

    It’s the image that matters the most, and that image has stayed with us. I think a lot of the reason is that van Beethoven’s personna was very public and more than a bit outrageous. He was also totally dependent on that image.

    I realize this is a stretch, but I don’t think it’s a big one. As I said, it’s not a matter of a major invention but how it is packaged. Who did play the first arena-sized concert, anyway? The Rolling Stones?

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