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Rockstar

For those of you who know me well, this is a piece from seven years ago which I have to re-use on a very bizzy day.

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”.

Ludwig van Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven

The usage is obvious. A “Rockstar” is someone who is awesome, inspiring, or otherwise very powerful simply through their presence. The word was once used to describe Barack Obama and other charismatic leaders, 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.

A rockstar is an artists, a person not of this world.

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. Prince would later do the act up in a big way.  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.

Prince.  We can call him that again, right?

Prince. We can call him that again, right?

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 income was, concerts were where the big money was. That’s what van Beethoven realized.

Theater an der Wien, where it all started.

Theater an der Wien, where it all started.

December 22, 1808 was the first monster concert for the masses. Beethoven rented out the Theatre an der Wien and hired the musicians himself.  Supposedly he ran out of money to heat it, though.  But the moment was his, and he was able to capture 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 who 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 theater just over 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.

10 thoughts on “Rockstar

  1. Mozart was a Rock Star in the public eye, just not financially. He could have been successful if he would have lived closer to within his means, but he partied like a Rock Star. Just because he died in debt, does not mean he was not a Rock Star. Look at Michael Jackson, His liquidity put him in debt as high as 300 million (according to some estimates), but after he dies, due to his rights, his fortune was vast. Because of publishing, royalties, copyright, etc… people kept lending him money knowing that it would pay off. Mozart didn’t have that luxury but lived it anyway.

    • Mozart almost made it. Almost. He would have been van Beethoven’s teacher if he hadn’t died, too.
      A lot of this is about timing, and Mozart was born just a bit too soon to be able to turn the corner and really make it as a freelance artist. He is certainly another image of “rockstar”, but in the end the joyous Mozart as an icon or archetype was eclipsed by the tragic figure.
      Yes, I blame van Beethoven in part for that image. People only had an archetype for Mozart as one who spoke for the angels after he died, and thus didn’t appreciate him enough in his life.
      But you do have a valid point all the same. 🙂

      • Yes, timing is definitely a factor, but even though in adulthood the musical elite didn’t care for him, he was still very popular with the people (one reason the elite didn’t care for him), politics and cholera, and just a few other issues played into it, but I was just saying that one can be a Rock Star without being successful. So many musicians and artists that are famous go bankrupt to this day.

    • It’s a bit silly to insist on a definitive answer, but I staked my claim.
      There was indeed an evolution. Handel was very popular late in life with his operas and specifically Messiah, and had a huge following. Haydn was stunned by the huge crowds that greeted him in London, making him something of a rockstar as well. I think Josh made the case for Mozart very well.
      But only van Beethoven was never an employee of a single patron. He was the first to make his entire career as a freelancer. And the image that he crafted was not only critical to making that happen, it’s still with us 200 years later.
      Things were moving very quickly at this time in the transition to a more open, popular kind of music for the masses. Just a little later we have Rossini – what if he was the model for a successful artist? And he not only had a huge following, he became very rich. But through it all remained a joyful, funny man.

  2. I remember Prince from the Purple Rain era. He was so over the top it was really fresh & sexy & exciting! I don’t know if thats really the same thing as what you are talking about here but his fans were split between “he’s so sexy” and “he’s such an artist”.

    • I think van Beethoven had similar fans in his day. But yes, Prince is a very good example of this tradition carrying on. I think we can see it in a lot of other artists, too, but not every one. Katy Perry, for example, always smiles and seems to really enjoy what she does.

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