From Elvis to Mac: Rock ’n’ Roll and the Cult of Identity
From the inception of pop music in the 1950s with Elvis Presley to the unprecedented idolatry of indie legend Mac DeMarco, pop music has always centred around the individual. We buy records not only because we like the music, but also because we recognise and admire its creators.
Pop music emerged as a phenomenon to take over from film but it is remarkable that, despite having music at its centre, pop culture maintains an enormous focus on image. This image, however, is far more dramatic than the appearance of a film, due to one notable distinction: music is real. Where film occupies a private, fictitious realm, music has a selling point in its claim to reality. Yet picking apart the individual figure centralised in popular culture, it is revealed as nothing more than a marketing phenomenon. In this way, we can view any musical cult of personality – from The Beatles through to David Bowie and finally Mac DeMarco – as a brand, a product to be sold in a process that is inherently visual.
A cult of personality can be loosely defined as a collective, intense obsession or admiration for a particular public figure, a term that is often applied to political figures (notably communist leaders like Mao) but is equally relevant in religious idolatry and, of course, in the world of music. Such a cult of personality is as old as pop music itself, visible in the following of Elvis but perhaps more significantly with the world’s first pop band. ‘Lennon-McCartney’ requires no other name in order to be recognised –a key feature of cult status, seen not only in ‘Prince’, ‘Madonna’ and ‘Bowie’ but also in Lenin and Stalin, and moreover in Jesus, Mary and Moses. A single name allows a person to become more than a person – a personified icon.
The cult of The Beatles is as strong today as it ever was – a cult status that is a household name, but a cult nonetheless. Borne into a world where pop music was just beginning to kick off, the band capitalised on the rise of consumer culture to sell things: namely, themselves. The Beatles, or rather, Brian Epstein, created a brand more loveable than any other, by a careful maintenance of image: one of the first moves Epstein made as manager of The Beatles was advising the boys to get haircuts, and start wearing suits. Yet the band didn’t keep up the neat image that created their fame. From the suit-clad moptops of the early 60s to the psychedelic, drugged-up rebels of the late 60s, The Beatles (likely with help from their manager) changed their image from one of loveable innocence suitable for the family home to a rock-star individuality, rebranding themselves like a product, in a bid to stay relevant – a bid which was undeniably successful. Before the world of social media, the band maintained their image through media footage and, significantly, through their distinctive use of album artwork. The covers of Sgt. Pepper, Abbey Road and Rubber Soul (to name a few) remain iconic even now and are central in our perception of The Beatles. For instance, The Beatles (The White Album) is strongly linked to The Beatles’ image, as the plain white album cover released on the already experimental album serves as a sort of publicity stunt, and represents the peak of their fame, a cult of personality so strong that they knew they didn’t even need visual signifiers.
This element of the musical cult – namely, constructing and reconstructing one’s own image – was echoed later by the many personas of David Bowie. Much loved figure by all, Bowie used aesthetic reconfiguration (from Ziggy Stardust to the Thin White Duke and beyond) to symbolise both a change in his musical genre and, as with The Beatles, to create a sort of publicity stunt, to entice fans and create a cult following. Bowie used his body as an instrument in the creation of fictional (but also real) star characters. Again here we see the importance of image, as our general association with Bowie is largely aesthetic – when you think Bowie, you think of Ziggy Stardust and the iconic makeup and clothes which has now become intrinsic to our understanding of the cult icon. The way Bowie used image and aesthetic to create his cult of personality is clear in his creation of the character the Thin White Duke – a controversial figure with fascist undertones, but one which was deemed okay by Bowie and many others because it was not Bowie himself but rather a form of alter-ego and so, despite its politically charged nature, remains an integral part in our retrospective conception of David Bowie as a pop-star and as a cult figure.
Whilst it may be too early in his career to have seen a clear re-branding of indie legend Mac DeMarco, the ways he creates and maintains his cult of personality are still timeless. In the indie world, the name ‘Mac’ denotes nobody else, and if we are to see an icon in the traditional religious manner – a hollow vessel to be filled by the consumer – Mac’s iconic status is clear in the intimate relationship he sets up between himself and his followers. Mac DeMarco deliberately sets up a persona of being a chilled, normal, casual guy: his image is very consciously real.
This can be seen in the move from The Beatles’ films such as A Hard Day’s Night, which present them very much as stars, being obsessively followed and idolised by their fans, to Pitchfork’s 2014 documentary on Mac DeMarco, Pepperoni Playboy. Described as a ‘macumentary’, it documents the behind-the-scenes of Mac’s career, a mixture of interview and playful documentary which carefully preserves his laidback image, presenting him as a person rather than a star. Yet it is this presentation which is so fundamental to his cult of personality: the combination of celebrity and reality creates a loveable image that consumers can buy into. Mac is known for the whimsical features of his personality: his rowdy stage presence, his predilection for Viceroys, and his battered Vans. Yet however ‘indie’ Mac DeMarco is, cult status has always been, and remains, centred on consumer culture, using image to sell products with little functional value, as the cult status adds enhanced value to products. A perfect example of the way Mac DeMarco manipulates this to maintain his casual image is him selling a pair of battered old Vans on eBay, which sold for $21,100. Despite the fact this money was given to a charity, the emphasis is still on commercialism: the product itself had very little inherent value outside of the cult of Mac DeMarco. It only gained value because of Mac’s scruffy image and loveable rogue personality – something which he exploits in order to sell records (or, in this case, battered old shoes).
It is clear, then, that image has remained central in both our conception of and our love for cult personalities, in the world of music. It is image, in fact, more than music, that is our primary association with such cult legends, and image that is crucial to much of their success.