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Shumway presents studies of famous rock stars, listening

David Shumway, Carnegie Mellon professor, lectured on what it means to be a true star. (credit: Kevin Zheng/) David Shumway, Carnegie Mellon professor, lectured on what it means to be a true star. (credit: Kevin Zheng/)

Society has long fixated on stars and celebrities — ordinary people who become cultural icons, whether by talent or by sheer infamy.

But David Shumway, a Carnegie Mellon professor of English and literary and cultural studies, wants to know, What is stardom? What makes a “star,” and how do individuals attain star status?
Shumway addressed these questions in his talk “Rock Star and Listening,” delivered on Thursday in the Adamson Wing of Baker Hall. “How did we get from Cary Grant to Mick Jagger?” he asked. “How is it that popular music went from ... something that people considered trivial, light entertainment ... to central to cultural identity?”

Shumway offered a summary of his book Rock Star: The Making of Musical Icons from Elvis to Springsteen, which examines the concept of the “rock star” — its origins, its defining qualities, and its impact on music listening over the past century.

According to Shumway, the original rock star equivalents were movie stars like Humphrey Bogart and Cary Grant — actors who adopted culturally iconic personas in their work, “distinct packages of attractive traits that might inspire imitation.”

Their legacies gave way to more politicized stars like John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe, and James Dean and ultimately to Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, and James Brown, who became increasingly influential and transformed the way people experience music.

Unlike celebrity, defined as “someone who is known for their well-knownness,” stardom requires skill and talent. “All stars are celebrities, but not all celebrities are stars,” Shumway explained.

Stardom requires some level of attractiveness, Shumway said: People “want to either have the star or be the star.” The star’s persona must transcend the individual, existing symbolically or iconically in the public’s imagining. In this way, the persona is not only accessible, but to a degree attainable by ordinary people. Shumway focused his talk on three 20th-century rock stars. Elvis Presley is described by Shumway as a blend of rebelliousness and vulnerability.

Presley’s accessibility on network TV meant that “fun could be experienced in living rooms of most American homes,” and as a cultural icon he challenged a number of social norms: paying homage to African American music, performing as a working-class man, and “bumping and grinding” against gender norms that prescribed that only women display their bodies as sexual objects.

Presley’s stardom gave way to Bob Dylan, initially a protest songwriter who gained attention as a full rock-’n’-roll musician with hit single “Like a Rolling Stone.”

Dylan embodied “the individual freedom of the bohemian,” styling himself as a societal outsider. Later, “godfather of soul” James Brown came to fame as a traditional American success story, overcoming poverty and race barriers to attain stardom and using his status to influence politics and cultural trends.

Due to time constraints, Shumway cut his summary short, offering brief overviews of influential stars Joni Mitchell, who represented a shift to the personal songwriter, and Bruce Springsteen, who continued Dylan’s legacy as a politically engaged musician and hoped for a transformation in American government.

Shumway described the phenomenon of “listening through rock stardom,” when consumers of music feel an emotional connection to any recording by a particular star: Songs become significant because a star produced it, not because of any stand-alone musical merit.

Although we still see this phenomenon today, Shumway argues that stardom is necessarily dwindling: Stars simply don’t have the same reach they did decades ago.
Shumway concluded with his assessment of the decline of rock stardom in recent years.

According to Shumway, we have entered an era of “distracted listening,” characterized by ubiquitous music and listening while multitasking, in contrast to a previous time when music listening was an absorbing, attention-consuming experience.

In this way, Shumway argued, popular music is becoming essentially trivial, just as it was before the era of rock stardom.