Topic in Focus: Music and Celebrity

You know their songs, their voices; you see them on TV and hear them on the radio. But what does it really mean to be a celebrity, what kind of role do they play in shaping society and culture as we know it today? From the significance of the Eurovision Song Contest in political policy to the complicated nature of ‘celebrity feminism,’ from the legacy of dead celebrities to the addiction narratives of global rock stars – we’ve curated five star-studded chapters delving into how the idea of the celebrity plays a pivotal role in influencing the music and culture of our times.

Explore this topic through the free-to-view chapters below. You can also explore a range of other topics, artists, and countries previously in focus on the Bloomsbury Music and Sound platform on our featured content archive page.

The Kalush Orchestra, Winners of Eurovision 2022 (Stefania D’Alessandro / Getty Images)

Europe’s Biggest Election

Music has always held a mirror to the world from which it emerges. Socio-political anxieties find themselves voiced in the form of song, and these songs in turn can have a drastic and very real impact on large-scale political issues. The role of the musical celebrity, then, is often deeply bound to questions of cultural climate and political policy.

In Postwar Europe and the Eurovision Song Contest, Dean Vuletic explores this idea in light of how the Eurovision Song Contest has reflected and become intertwined with the history of postwar Europe from a political perspective. Eurovision is, he argues, ‘Europe’s biggest election,’ providing a platform upon which battles between capitalists and communists, Europeanists and Eurosceptics, reactionaries and revolutionaries have been played out – with musical performers being front and centre of these ideological battles.

Read Vuletic’s chapter ‘The Values of Eurovision,’ examining the role of Eurovision in shaping European political policy and cultural values.

Duke Ellington (Bettmann / Getty Images)

Second-hand Stardom

The music from the swing era of the 1930s and 1940s laid the foundations for musical stardom as we know it today. Performers such as Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, and Duke Ellington experienced immense success throughout the entertainment industry, each becoming household names in a way that is comparable to that of today’s stars, and firmly cementing the idea of the celebrity in popular culture.

With the rise of the electro swing genre – a contemporary form of dance music built around samples from the swing era – one might expect this emphasis on celebrity status to have translated across to the emerging artists utilising the music of these original performers. And yet, as Chris Inglis argues in his chapter from The Evolution of Electronic Dance Music, this is not the case at all. Instead, when a remix of the likes of Armstrong, Goodman, or Ellington is heard, it is these artists who are invoked in the mind of the listener rather than the musician who has repurposed their work. As a result, the original stars of the swing era are in many ways enjoying a form of ‘second-hand stardom,’ reaching into the future to overshadow the acclaim that may otherwise be enjoyed by the adapter of their music.

Read Inglis’ chapter ‘Second-hand Stardom: Connotations of Sampling for Electro Swing’ to discover more about the complexity of celebrity status in the electro swing genre, as well as the broader implications of what this means for notions of celebrity in the 21st century.

FKA Twigs (C Flanigan / Getty Images)

FKA Twigs and ‘Celebrity Feminism’

How do female artists in the music industry engage with, promote, or complicate feminist ideas? Is the idea of ‘celebrity feminism’ – the way in which feminism is appropriated and endorsed by celebrities – inherently negative? Or do celebrity ambassadors for gender equality ultimately benefit the cause more than they harm it?

These questions delving into the complex relationship between feminism and celebrity are explored throughout Kirsty Fairclough’s chapter ‘Soundtrack Self: FKA Twigs, Music Video, and Celebrity Feminism’ from Music/Video: Histories, Aesthetics, Media. Through detailed analysis of FKA Twigs’ self-directed music video for her 2014 single ‘Pendulum,’ Fairclough provides a fresh perspective on the ways in which female artists are able to visually represent their own identities in audiovisual cultures, and at the same time grapples with the contradictions and pitfalls of ‘celebrity feminism.’

Read Fairclough’s chapter ‘Soundtrack Self: FKA Twigs, Music Video, and Celebrity Feminism’ to discover more.

Elvis Presley (Bettmann / Getty Images)

(Im)mortality, Myth, and the Dead Celebrity

The death of a celebrity is always tied to notions of legacy. Though the individual themself has passed, the ‘idea’ of the celebrity – their work, the circumstances of their life and death, the things they stood for in the public eye – these things live on. And celebrities of large enough fame and stature are often elevated to a kind of mythic status, such as in the case of Elvis, Freddie Mercury, or Janis Joplin.

This process of posthumous celebrity myth-making reveals a great deal about Western conceptions of the celebrity both in life and death, particularly with regard to the stars of the music industry. In Christopher Partridge’s chapter ‘Transfiguration, Devotion and Immortality’ from his book Mortality and Music: Popular Music and the Awareness of Death, the author explores this idea in light of notions of religious transfiguration and idolatry. Much like how the figure of Jesus Christ can be separated into both the Christ of faith and the Jesus of history, so too, the author argues, is the figure of dead Elvis in popular culture a different being than the Elvis of historical fact.

Read Partridge’s chapter on ‘Transfiguration, Devotion and Immortality’ to discover more about the ways in which the legacy of musical celebrities continue to haunt and shape popular culture from beyond the grave.

Marianne Faithfull (ullstein bild Dtl. / Getty Images)

Rock ‘n’ Recovery

Drug abuse and addiction have come to be seen by many as par for the course of a rock ‘n’ roll celebrity lifestyle. The dramatic trajectory of excess to illness, of relapse to recovery, is a narrative firmly situated in the public’s perception of rock stars. It is no surprise, then, to see the rise of ‘rock ‘n’ recovery’ autobiographies detailing this journey from the perspectives of stars such as Eric Clapton, Marianne Faithfull, and Anthony Kiedis.

But, given the complicated location of addiction within disability studies, how do these ‘rock ‘n’ recovery’ narratives engage with and elucidate notions of disability and celebrity? Where do they sit among the wider body of disability narratives? In Oliver Lovesey’s chapter ‘Disenabling Fame: Rock ‘n’ Recovery Autobiographies and Disability Narrative’ from Popular Music Autobiography, the author argues that these narratives form a distinct subgenre within disability studies; one that grapples with both altruistic and self-serving motives lying behind their creation, their hybrid genre, their construction of self, and – above all – their highly ambivalent relationship to fame.

Read Lovesey’s chapter ‘Disenabling Fame: Rock ‘n’ Recovery Autobiographies and Disability Narrative’ to learn more about the relationship between conceptions of disability and celebrity in the rock ‘n’ roll autobiography.

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