TOPIC GUIDE: Pop artists
"Pop artists should be judged on their work, not their lifestyle"
PUBLISHED: 02 Sep 2009
AUTHOR: Naomi Todd
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Michael Jackson’s death in 2009 prompted much discussion over how the pop-star should be remembered – as ‘Wacko Jacko’, the tabloid figure famed for his erratic behaviour, extreme plastic surgery and accusations of child abuse, or as an extraordinary talent who produced an exceptional body of work over his musical career [Ref: The Times]. The question is whether pop artists should be judged on their work, or on their behaviour and lifestyle. Whilst many artists are celebrated for the work they produce, the coverage given to the likes of Pete Doherty and Amy Winehouse suggests that their work is but the support act to their many personal dramas [Ref: Independent]. Is this focus on lifestyle damaging? Is it a necessary side-effect of many artists’ alleged status as role models for the young and impressionable? Are pop stars today victims of a celebrity culture, or do they have themselves to blame for becoming a part of it?
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Pop artists DEBATE IN CONTEXT
This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.
Does focus on an artist’s lifestyle damage their work?
The death of Michael Jackson has also prompted debate over whether his work was damaged by ‘the tawdy freak show that his life had become’ [Ref: Independent]. Cult singer-songwriter Patti Smith [Ref: Wikipedia] is damning of the media’s lack of restraint with regard to divulging artists’ lifestyles, claiming that it ‘creates an addiction’ that diverts people from appreciating artists’ work [Ref: The Times], with Shingai Shoniwa (of The Noisettes) adding that the media ‘don’t seem to want artists to do the job of entertaining and emancipating people’ but are more interested in making them suffer: ‘the more problems you have, the more records you’re going to sell’. With many pop stars, perhaps most notably Britney Spears, under 24-hour scrutiny by paparazzi and press in order to fill the bloated pages of internet gossip and celebrity magazines, increasingly it seems as if pop stars can no longer get away with anything or live ordinary lives. However, there are historical precedents to this discussion: the ‘cult of personality’ created by artists such as Oscar Wilde and Lord Byron, who were in many ways the ‘pop stars’ of their time, can be seen to be as influential and lasting as their work [Ref: The Times]. The private lives of some pop stars have inspired original new art works, ranging from music biopics to paintings, which display the benefits that this knowledge can give when placed in the right hands [Ref: The Times]. Many also suggest that since artists utilise and manipulate their own public images to create publicity, they therefore make themselves complicit players in the game of celebrity culture. Is it fair that they should be able to market their private lives when it suits them and then claim invasions of privacy when it doesn’t?
One reason for the scrutiny of artists’ lifestyles is that they are widely regarded as role models for young people. In 2005, Michael Howard, then leader of the Conservative Party, condemned Peter Doherty as a bad role model for children due to the singer’s highly publicised drug habits [Ref: Telegraph], but also hit out at the media for giving Doherty “celebrity coverage” and “the impression that drug-taking is cool.” Doherty’s perceived influence was enough that police banned his band Babyshambles from headlining the Moonfest festival in 2008, fearing that his performance would cause violence [Ref: Sky News]. If the result of young people idolising pop stars is that they imitate their behaviour, then it could be argued that the quality of their music becomes irrelevant. Journalist Sonia Poulton has stated that, despite her love of rap, she is now aware that rap music that “celebrates violence” also makes the “Thug Life” lifestyle of rappers such as the now deceased Tupac Shakur dangerously appealing to its “many young impressionable followers”. However, is the pop star ‘role model’ in itself a media creation? It is unclear whether or not musicians really have any impact on the behaviour of their fans, or whether this is a false perception that unfairly assumes the naivety of young music fans [Ref: BBC News]. Even if artists are role models, is this enough to justify the exploitation of their conduct and private lives by the media? Is it right that, as Michael Jackson stated in an interview, ‘becoming successful means that you become a prisoner’? [Ref: First Post].
Can pop artists be judged solely on their work?
For those who think that artists should be judged on the merits of their work alone, there is an assumption that it is possible to divorce a celebrity’s work from his or her personal life. But is this relationship quite so clear cut? Moses Albubala, a member of the Kenyan choir that sang at US President Obama’s inauguration, states that one of music’s greatest attributes is that though it, ‘you are able to learn about someone’s lifestyle’ [Ref: The Times]. As all art is born from the mind of the artist, it is more than likely that it will be influenced by their experiences and reflect their lifestyle in some fashion. To some artists themselves, their lifestyle is as, if not more, important than their actual work – it is an artist’s task to be, in the words of Marc Almond, ‘flawed and extinguishable, but never mediocre’ [Ref: Independent]. For many, the highs and lows of an artist’s lifestyle provoke their interest and also allow them to better relate to the artist, and thus have a greater understanding and appreciation of their work, as evidenced by the strong demand for celebrity biographies. It is also possible that a greater understanding of artists’ private lives acts to humanise these figures, and to prevent the kind of ignorant idolization of musicians that could lead to the imitation of their mistakes.However, the focus on the private lives of artists has been criticized for creating a shallow cult of celebrity which idolizes ‘talentless non-entities who are famous merely for being famous’ [Ref: BBC News]. The fear is that if the attention is on the lifestyle, the work can all too easily slip from view.
It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.
Dan Cairns The Times 28 June 2008
Charles Shaar Murray Independent 5 February 2005
Sophia Heawood Independent 28 June 2009
Kate Harding Salon 19 June 2009
Miranda Sawyer Observer 11 November 2007
Nick Johnstone Guardian 24 November 2006
Deborah Orr Independent 24 September 2005
Sonia Poulton Independent 10 July 2009
Ben Machell The Times 27 June 2009
Lindsay Johns The Times 12 February 2009
Giles Brandreth The Times 6 April 2008
Mark Ravenhill Guardian 3 September 2007
Richard Williams Guardian 26 June 2009
Patrick West Culture Wars 23 October 2008
Sophie Heawood The Times 19 October 2007
Jessica Winter Slate 10 October 2007
Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.
Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.
Spinner 3 August 2009
Jessica Bannet Newsweek 22 July 2009
Alexis Petridis Guardian 12 June 2009
Christopher Goodwin The Times 7 June 2009
Guardian 4 May 2009
NME Radio 21 April 2009
Tim Walker and Alexis Ashman Independent 8 January 2009
New York Magazine 5 January 2009
Pop Music Scene 14 July 2008
Nicholas Jones Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom 5 February 2008
Sam Richards Guardian 20 March 2007
ITV.com 15 March 2007
Guardian 21 February 2007
Michael Wuebben CBS News 11 January 2007
Granada Television 3 February 2003
Jeff Clutterbuck Daily Vault
Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.
IN THE NEWS
Relevant recent news stories from a variety of sources, which ensure students have an up to date awareness of the state of the debate.
Guardian 25 August 2009
New York Times 31 July 2009
Guardian 2 July 2009
First Post 29 June 2009
Independent 27 June 2009
Guardian 23 June 2009
Guardian 1 May 2009
Telegraph 10 February 2009
BBC News 8 February 2009
Guardian 21 January 2009
Guardian 7 December 2008
The Times 9 November 2008
Sky News 20 August 2008
Daily Mail 2 April 2008
BBC News 14 March 2008
Guardian 10 March 2008
Scotsman 23 November 2007
BBC News 7 January 2007
Telegraph 25 February 2005
Telegraph 21 August 2000
NME Radio 21 April 2009
ITV.com 15 March 2007
Granada Television 3 February 2003
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