“‘Rock star’…has become shorthand for a virtuosity so exalted it borders on genius”

Once, a long time ago, a rock star was a free-spirited, convention-flouting artist/rebel/hero/Dionysian fertility god who fronted a world-famous band, sold millions of records and headlined stadium concerts where people were trampled in frenzies of cultlike fervor. Someone who smashed guitars, trashed hotel rooms, developed Byzantine drug problems and tried to mask evidence of his infidelity with the strategically applied scent of breakfast burritos. Despite what his “Behind the Music” episode would invariably reveal, a “rock star” — or the Platonic ideal of a rock star — was not just a powder keg of charisma and unresolved childhood issues, but a revolutionary driven by a need to assert the primacy of the self in an increasingly alienating commercial world.

Now, 60 years, give or take, since the phrase came into existence, “rock star” has made a complete about-face. In its new incarnation, it is more likely to refer to a programmer, salesperson, social-media strategist, business-to-business telemarketer, recruiter, management consultant or celebrity pastry chef than to a person in a band. The term has become shorthand for a virtuosity so exalted it borders on genius — only for some repetitive, detail-oriented task. It flatters the person being spoken about by shrouding him in mystique while also conferring a Svengali-like power on the person speaking. Posting a listing for a job for which only “rock stars” need apply casts an H.R. manager as a kind of corporate Malcolm McLaren; that nobody is looking for a front-end developer who is addicted to heroin or who bites the heads off doves in conference rooms goes without saying. Pretty much anyone can be a “rock star” these days — except actual rock stars, who are encouraged to think of themselves as brands.

This bizarre transposition goes back to the turn of the millennium, when the idea of a “creative class” was popularized in books like Paul H. Ray and Sherry Ruth Anderson’s “The Cultural Creatives: How 50 Million People Are Changing the World” and Richard Florida’s “The Rise of the Creative Class”, which argued that innovation would drive growth in the 21st century. The creative class, according to these thinkers, valued the cool things in life. More than money and status, they cared about authenticity, activism, ecology and the interconnectedness of all things. They were more egalitarian, more into personal growth. Whereas the popular business literature of the 1980s urged managers to imagine themselves as fierce, merciless warriors (Sun Tzu’s ancient treatise “The Art of War” was required reading for many American executives and business students), by the end of the century, consultants at McKinsey had declared a “war for talent”. Business writers in the new millennium reconceptualized men in suits (or hoodies) as social revolutionaries.

Carina Chocano, “Revolution Blues”,The New York Times Magazine (16 August 2015), 13-14.