All singers are dicks

All singers are dicks

Deena Weinstein

How many singers does it take to screw in a lightbulb? One, to hold the bulb; the rest of the world revolves around him.

“All singers are dicks.” Those weren’t Charlie’s exact words, but it was the statement I quoted to a large array of rock musicians, some in famous bands, others in recently formed groups, most somewhere between these two extremes.

“Singers are dicks” is what Charlie actually said. The drummer didn’t tell me to turn off the tape recorder, nor did he ask me not to print his remark. He even amplified his view: “A lot of singers are dicks. The majority of them are dicks. I hear this from other bands too” (Dasein, “More” 4).

I was interviewing Charlie for a rock magazine feature. Rarely does a band’s drummer serve as spokesman, but I had asked to speak with him because I had discovered that he not only created the band’s album covers, but, more significantly, wrote much of their music.

Working as a rock journalist is a helpful adjunct to other modes of researching the multifaceted rock industry. It allows access to members of well-known bands, permitting one to ask them a wide variety of questions with the tape recorder running and to hang with them backstage, on the bus, and in the studio. This allows researchers interested in roles of musicians and the analysis of bands to get beyond the hype of magazine features and the long-form PR called band biography books, and to get behind the formulaic sensationalism of the Behind the Music television shows. It allows one to speak informally with band members and their assistants, and to observe their nonpublic behavior. Most of the data for this study were gathered through nonparticipant observation of, and discussions and interviews with, rock musicians conducted both for pieces in rock magazines and for the scholarly purpose of understanding interaction in bands. In addition, extensive study was done of the rock press, Internet sites, and trade books on rock bands.

I repeated my version of Charlie’s calumny to all and sundry. The remark was greeted with broad, knowing smiles, supplemented with rueful examples of the “dickness” of their band’s singer, former singer, or the singer in some other band that they knew. Not everyone agreed with the remark, of course, but so many did that I realized that I was on to something. The methodology here can best be described as “run it up the flag pole and see who salutes it.” It is a useful way to start clearing a path through an uncharted jungle.

Over the years, almost a decade now, since Charlie called my attention to the lack of love between other musicians and the singer, I have discussed and observed this phenomenon with a sufficient number and variety of bands to give me some confidence that it is genuine. I shall leave it to others to use a behavioralist sampling and questionnaire method to confirm it. My interest here is not in determining the character traits of singers but in understanding why they were seen in a negative light by their bandmates.

All singers aren’t dicks, of course.

To be more precise, animosity is aimed almost exclusively at singers who have no other musical role in the band. When the singer is also an instrumentalist, you rarely hear the complaint. And we are discussing male singers here. A whole set of other factors clustered around gender roles pertain to female singers.

“I’m Just a Singer (In a Rock and Roll Band)”

One of a complex of factors that helps to explain negative views toward singers relates to their “otherness.” The singer’s instrument and role in creating the band’s music is, and is felt to be, so distinctly unlike the musicians’ that it creates a structural split.

Difference as such is not animosity, but it always has the possibility of producing it. The history of human society is littered with innumerable instances of lynchings, witch burnings, pogroms, and genocides that erupt in times of tension, when discontent is displaced from the powerful to a scapegoated other.

A singer who does not play an instrument is an alien, a stranger, whose distance from the others can be reduced but not completely bridged by ties of friendship, shared outside interests, or common background. The stranger is a tenuous social form (Simmel); those who find themselves in this role are always in danger of being expelled, isolated, or exterminated. The stranger, the other, is in the group but not fully a part of it.

Tension, anxiety, and downward fortunes are never far from the career of rock bands. (1) Joe Carducci, writing from his intimate experience of working and touring with bands, explains:

Bands demand of their members relationships more akin to family than

to a co-worker. This means that ridicule and shame born of intimate

awareness are always potential; however, the lifelong experience at

accommodation developed in family relationships is lacking. The

work involved in writing, arranging, practicing, recording and

performing music is also more apt to bend egos than is

more conventional work. Each individual musician’s ego is on the

line to some extent at every little artistic decision. It’s more

common for the music or the money to keep a band together than it is

for camaraderie. (7-8)

Singers are others for several reasons, including the radical difference between their “instrument” and those of the other band members. The voice is part of the person, not a thing that can be carried, set up by others, or replaced for a better model. Like an athlete’s body, the voice is vulnerable. It doesn’t get played as much as it gets expressed, and its expression is influenced by the physical and mental condition of the person. Tired or energetic, with a head cold or in good health, depressed or happy, singers reflect their states of being in their vocal performances. Instrumentalists can far more easily–up to a point, of course–play at the same level of competence despite physical or mental impairments. Noting this otherness in his study of rock bands in New York City in the 1980s, Leslie Gay mentions that a singer who doesn’t also play an instrument “enjoys little respect within the band … despite his enormously important musical responsibilities and frontman functions during performance” (165).

A band’s musical sound is often arrived at interactively, with each instrumentalist either contributing his/her part or arrangement, or at least learning to integrate parts with one another. Singers are usually responsible for writing the lyrics, frequently done in the studio itself in the midst of the recording session. They speak of having a grab-bag of phrases and lines written in their ever-present notebook, from which they collage a song’s lyrics. The music itself is rarely done solo and on the fly like this, but is constructed, modified, and rehearsed together. The vocals are put on top of this sound, separating them from the rest of the process. Ozzy Osbourne describes how this worked in Black Sabbath: “In Sabbath, whatever they laid down, I had to put a vocal on it” (Fricke 66).

Like the added-later vocals, many singers are grafted-on heads to pre-existing groups. A group of musicians may recruit a singer, as Pearl Jam enlisted Eddie Vedder and the New Jersey musicians Skid Row found the Canadian Sebastian Bach tanked up and singing at someone’s wedding. Or, if there was an original singer, the band replaces him before they become famous, as did Judas Priest (Rob Halford), Black Flag (Henry Rollins), Pantera (Phil Anselmo), AC/DC (Bon Scott), and Iron Maiden (Bruce Dickinson). Well-known singers have often come from different backgrounds (geographical, cultural, or class) than the others in their band. In each of these cases, the singer doesn’t share in the band’s early history, usually the most difficult and formative time.

The otherness of the singer can be mitigated by common musical influences, but taste can change over time. For example, when I discussed Black Sabbath’s 1992 reunion with bassist Geezer Butler, we talked about how individualized each of their tastes is now. “Our outside influences are wide apart,” Butler said, understating the differences. “Tony is into all the jazz stuff. I’m more into the blues. I think that Ronnie’s more into Frank Sinatra and that side of things. Vinnie’s into Disco” (Dasein, “Black Sabbath” 13).

Most importantly, the position of the singer in a rock band stands out from the others because he has two separate roles: singer and frontman. This is a difference in kind rather than an extreme form of the dual role of all members of bands–playing music in the studio and in front of an audience. The latter requires something more than just making sounds; it demands concern with the visual elements of a live show. The drummer may twirl his sticks in the air or the guitarist may contort himself during his solo, and similarly the singer needs to present his vocals in some dramatic way, from staring at his shoes to running from one side of the stage to the other. But the singer, in concert, is also a frontman who greets the audience, introduces the songs and the band, and, in general, mediates the band to the audience.

The problem with these two roles is that the requirements of a frontman decisively separate the singer from the other band members. Exuding personality, showing “attitude” (many genres have specific sorts of attitudes that must be shown by the frontman), and representing a group’s personality compressed into one person all serve to distinguish the singer. But in a group, especially a male group, one is supposed to suppress rather than flagrantly display personal expressivity. “Check your ego at the rehearsal room door,” “No egos!” read the music want ads. The ideal is to be a team player. The singer’s structural position conflicts with the egalitarian ethos of the rock band, insuring a built-in tension regardless of individual traits. (2) Singers are less likely to be seen as dicks if they indulge in backstage clowning, joke telling, or getting out of their heads on drug or alcohol binges off stage–and many of them resort to these measures.

“You’re a Better Man Than I”

The structural otherness of the singer is but one part of the explanation of the generalized animosity toward the occupant of that role. Probably a more important factor is the sense of unfairness, a judgment that the singer receives a disproportionately large part of the rewards.

Rock bands, which came into being as a social form in the communitarian ’60s, start from an ideology of equality. There had been small groups of musicians since the advent of electronic instruments made the overhead of big bands uneconomical, but those did not have an egalitarian ideology. The main example of an egalitarian musical group before the ’60s was the doo-wop vocal group.

Despite the ideology that all band members are equal contributors and participants, bands are rife with perceived and actual inequalities, which contradict the belief that all members of the band have put in the same time, effort, money, risk, and delay in starting other possible careers. Financial costs and income are usually split equally. Although songwriting is rewarded separately, many bands conscious of the equality norm even attribute songwriting credits to everyone in the band, no matter how much or how little they actually contributed to the creation of that song.

But money is not the only reward in rock, and for most bands, even the ones that get some renown, it is not the preponderant benefit. The more ubiquitous reward is fame and its related manifestations like adoration, idolization, worship, devotion, and lust. Whether the reward is just “being known,” exciting a crowd to frenzy, or having a following of groupies, recognition is the reward that motivates the majority of rockers, in whole or in part, at least for some of their careers.

Rewards reaped by the singer are perceived to be even more unfair in light of the value that musicians give to the creation and playing of the music, as opposed to writing words and singing them. In their view, at least, they do most of the heavy lifting while the one who does the least gets the most. They make the cake, a complex and difficult task, while the singer puts on the simple frosting. And the cake eaters all rave about the frosting.

On recordings, especially those with radio play, the vocals are usually higher in the mix, giving the singer a more prominent, more aurally frontal position. Live and in recordings, it is the singer’s words and especially voice that most connect to the largest audience. (3) Carducci correctly observes that “the less literate or intelligent the listener the more likely he is to require that a singer determine his response to the music” (12).

In concert, the frontman is in the foreground, addressing the audience directly, the center of its attention. “[I]n the politics of a band a singer without an instrument is essentially unarmed and outnumbered, and must turn his back to the players at the precise moment resentments are made concrete by the live audience” (Carducci 10).

The frontman’s face often becomes the face of the band. Posed shots find the singer out front, or he is in some other manner singled out from the musicians. Photographers of live performances need to get the singer in the shot in order to sell it to the magazines, and singers oblige with their photo-op poses. It is their desire to look good in the pictures that is responsible for the frequent three-song limit for the photo pit. Interviews are rarely done with anyone other than singers, and it is their clever or cliched remarks that are quoted in the rock press.

As the known voice and face of the band–the metonym of the group–it is the singer who most intensely attracts fans. It is his autograph that they most want. And those specialized fans who serve as motivators for so many boys to join bands in the first place and make the grueling tour bearable–the ubiquitous groupies–also are most attracted to the singer.

Carducci neatly sums up the situation:

There is usually some amount of tension between a band’s players and

their singer. It’s usually some amount of envy but also rooted in

musical issues. However, when the sex groupies and the mind groupies

both line up after gigs in front of the singer it tends to turn off

the players who may have written the music and in any case played

it. (10)

“No More Mr. Nice Guy”

Even more galling to the musicians than the singer’s disproportionate glory is the fact that as their singer gets more personal notice, the better it is for the band.

Some musicians can bask in the reflected fame of their singer, like parents competing with their friends by bragging about their children. Most just find it rankling that the vocalist should rise while they have done so much of the work.

The singer’s increasing prominence changes the band’s internal dynamics. One of the features of a small group of equals, like a pair of friends, a business partnership, or a romantic couple, is that any member can kill the group. Rock bands are supposed to have this same egalitarian character, but in a band’s early stages no single person’s leaving could eradicate the group itself. Unlike a group of children dealing with the kid who owns the only ball in the neighborhood, a band can usually count on a large pool of willing and able replacements for musicians and singers. At any point, replacing someone is more than finding another individual with the required skills; a new member must affirm the band’s sound and image, and also be a person with whom the others feel they can get along. The new kid on the block has to learn the existing repertoire and integrate himself into the band’s culture, neither of which create insuperable difficulties. But once the band becomes well known through the mass media, the focus on the singer permits him to become the only one who can kill the band.

Bands are brands and one of their major brand elements is the voice and persona embodied in their distinctive singer/frontman. His name and face and the set of celebrity factoids dutifully trotted out in all magazine features can’t be cloned; nor, technology notwithstanding, can “the voice.” A musician can procure the same models of instruments and accessories as the person he replaces and more or less imitate his predecessor’s style to produce the same sound. Even if the singer is not well known as a personality, in bands with one or more hit songs, his voice is familiar enough to have a certain irreplaceability.

In any case, the persona and the vocal qualities are combined in rock. Dave Laing argues that, unlike other forms of popular music, which are determined by “the emotional connotations of the words,” in rock the style is due to the singer’s “personal style, the ensemble of vocal effects that characterize the whole body of his work” (qtd. in Frith, “Why” 100). In the same vein, Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus says that “[a] good voice isn’t so important. It’s more important to sound really unique. We need more singers like P. J. Harvey or Shirley Manson, Dylan or Lou Reed. They really got their own cool style” (Gabriella).

As the radical dependence on the singer increases with the band’s success, the value of the band’s creative forces diminishes. Songwriting is another brand element, but once the signature sound is developed with key songs, others in the band can follow the established pattern or it can hire paladin songwriters like Desmond Child. (4)

The band’s dependence on the singer gives him more power in the band, which he may or may not use. Knowing how crucial he is, the singer may behave like a spoiled child, or may be perceived that way by the others. Pearl Jam guitarist Stone Gossard describes the changes in power as Eddie Vedder’s personal fame grew: “Vitalogy was the first record where Ed was the guy making the final decisions. It was a real difficult record for me to make, because I was having to give up a lot of control” (Weisbard 96).

Resentment against the singer is most intense when he doesn’t write the music or play an instrument. When the singer pulls far more than his own weight–is the main or sole songwriter or a good or better instrumentalist–no one calls him a dick. There is no expectation of equality in this situation.

The romantic ideology that permeates rock also gives “creatives” greater leeway to be “difficult.” And some of them seem to live up to this expectation. At the height of the Smashing Pumpkins’ popularity, Billy Corgan owned that his “reputation as a tyrant, svengali, asshole; there’s truth in that” (Luerssen 155). Working with such overachievers may not evoke pure satisfaction and admiration from the other members of their bands; yet it’s difficult for outsiders to hear their complaints with much sympathy. Still, that hasn’t stopped some musicians from giving voice to their antipathy, like John Fogerty’s bandmates in Creedence Clearwater Revival.

The rise to prominence of the singer is most irritating to the guitarist who writes much of the music. “The guitar dominates rock like the singer dominates pop,” concludes rock maven Joe Carducci (7). “A singer without an instrument allows too easy identification with the person; with a guitar one can only identify with the band as a whole or the genre,” Laing adds (88). For bands wanting to reach the top of the charts, there is a strong pull toward pop, creating a fault line between the singer and the musicians.

Iggy Pop spoke of the singer-guitarist tension some decades after his peak with the Stooges:

In any band there’s two camps: the lead singer’s camp and the

guitarist’s camp. The guitar player you work with; it’s like

riding a fuckin’ horse. He’s gonna buck–that’s his job. He

wants to dominate you and scare you so they can dominate the band.

Ron (Asheton) and James (Williamson) were like that–they wanted

control. Any guitar player worth his salt is basically a thug.

(Luerssen 138)

This dualism is strongest in hard rock and classic metal bands, where both singer and lead guitarist share the spotlight. In such bands, fans know the names and appreciatively recognize the distinctive sounds of both. The tension between these two positions is useful to the style–up to a point. But when it is tied to egos who cannot deal with it, it eventually splits the band. And it is usually the guitarist who stays.

It is mainly in hard rock and metal bands where replacing the singer has been attempted. The process seems like getting a head transplant. You can imagine a new kidney or a heart-lung implant. But a new head? There have only been a few successful operations. The best example is probably AC/DC’s replacement of the dead Bon Scott with Brian Johnson. When Iron Maiden’s long-time athletic vocalist Bruce Dickinson left the band, the new singer, Blaze Bailey, was a rejected transplant. Both the critics and media found him to be sub-par; there may not be any love lost between Dickinson and the musicians, but he is now back in the fold. Judas Priest’s charismatic frontman, Rob Halford, split from the band (whether he was thrown overboard or jumped ship is hard to know, even after I spoke with all concerned) after two decades. As in Iron Maiden’s case, the rupture came at a time when heavy metal had lost much of its mass popularity. The musicians auditioned many singers and could not find anyone suitable until their drummer ran across a Judas Priest tribute band whose singer was almost a dead ringer, vocally, for Halford. Tim Owen was a huge Priest fan and modeled his singing on Halford, whose influence was strong in Owens’s regular band and to whom he was an uncanny doppelganger in his Judas Priest tribute band. Priest guitarist Downing was very pleased: “[H]is similarities to Halford are just enough, really so that we can go out and play any song and nobody would ever be let down. He can hit the high notes, and has the tonal quality” (Dasein, “Judas Priest” 24).

The rent in bands between the singer and musicians usually ends with the singer leaving the band that made him famous, often to go on to a successful career, sometimes far more successful than his original band. Playing upon his fame, the singer usually gives his name to the new project, for example: Ozzy (Black Sabbath), Dio (Black Sabbath), Danzig (the Misfits), Peter Gabriel (Genesis), John Fogerty (Creedence Clearwater Revival), Rollins Band (Black Flag) and King Diamond (Mercyful Fate).

Guitar gods or merely guitarists have left bands too, but in general have been less successful: Steve Perry (Aerosmith), John Fruscicante (Red Hot Chili Peppers), Slash’s Snakepit (Guns N’ Roses), Michael Schenker-MSG (UFO). Eric Clapton (Cream) and Ted Nugent (Amboy Dukes), both of whom took up singing, were the exceptions.

“Bad to the Bone”

Before beginning this section, I showed what I had already written to a friend, who then accompanied me to a show that evening. Outside the venue, we ran into Jamie, the bassist for the band I had come to see. We spoke for about a half-hour before I asked the question I always ask: What is your view of rock singers who don’t also play an instrument? Before he said a word, his facial expression said it all. As he verbalized his disgusted sneer, he mentioned most of what I’d been writing, starting and ending with “and they won’t help carry the amps.” My friend smiled broadly, congratulating me for getting it right. Unlike the sweet and soft-spoken person we’d been talking to up until I asked this question, the bassist became vehement. When he finished his diatribe, I asked if the term “dick” was an appropriate summary for his view of singers. “Definitely!” said Jamie, who is also his band’s singer.

Some of the acrimony between the singer and the musicians is documented in the press; those who work in the rock industry know far more. In a gossip website for the industry, the Velvet Rope, one thread was on this topic. Someone posted bands where the singer travels in a separate bus from the musicians. Another described the relations in Rage Against the Machine, saying that the hatred between singer Zach and the others was so strong that their label had to pay them to rehearse. (The band has since broken up.)

So, are singers dicks, or are they merely dicks in the eyes of those who play instruments? The stories and evidence of egotistic, selfish, vain, fussy, and uncooperative behavior are too widespread to think it is only a misperception based on jealousy. If it is not only in the eyes of their mates that singers are dicks, the question is: Were they that way when they entered the band, or did they become dicks?

Would bands recruit dicks? Even if most bands are more interested in the skills of the singer than in how he behaves with them, and may not be able to judge character in auditions anyway, all of those “No egos!” want ads would argue against an affirmative answer.

Whether or not these perception and recruitment hypotheses have some merit, it is far more likely that singers become dicks. “Dickitude” is an emergent, a reaction to a complex of factors.

Believing that the singer is of a different species, the others in the band treat him in ways that encourage just the behavior that they come to deplore. For example, they tell the singer that he doesn’t have to get to the venue until all the instruments have been loaded in and set up for sound check. As a result, the singer doesn’t do any of the physical labor of loading in, something that the rest of the band resents deeply. And after the show the singer, pointman for the press and special fans, is otherwise engaged while his bandmates are loading out. As a result of a self-fulfilling prophecy, singers learn that they do not have to schlep stuff, and accept this state of affairs.

Stress and anxiety are part of the package for members of rock bands. Thirty years ago Ozzy Osbourne, then frontman of Black Sabbath, said:

you get needled easily, people can bug you, because it’s the stress

of the tour. It’s very strenuous work, not physically hard, but

mentally very hard. Fucks your nerves up, it does, this business.

Sometimes I feel like it’s eating me up, like I’m going fucking

crazy. (Bangs 78)

According to a study on musicians by Wills and Cooper, “it becomes more and more strenuous to be constantly expected to perform at maximum level–and with advancing age more effort is needed to achieve this” (Wills and Cooper 19). Furthermore:

Living together as a small group of people who are totally different

characters, sleeping in the same hotel, eating, drinking together,

you’ve got different views on life you’ve got to live with them

month after month, and it can be a nightmare. (Wills and Cooper 53)

Everyone in the band is exposed to these conditions, and all seem to have common coping mechanisms, especially alcohol and drugs. In her study of rock musicians, Susan Raeburn states that “[s]ubjects uniformly reported that their use of substances increased considerably when performance schedules increased, due to greater time duration spent in bars and clubs” (46).

Wills and Cooper’s research indicates that “in comparison with the overall mean male adult scores … both the psychoticism and neuroticism scores for musicians were elevated” (54). They conclude that “the musician may be an individual especially susceptible to stress” (15).

Are singers more high-strung, more neurotic, and more easily stressed? Are they more susceptible to the negative effects of these coping mechanisms? Is the singer subject to more stress than the others in the band?

If stress or coping with stress were the same for all members of a band, one would expect to find deaths equally distributed among the band’s positions. That is, given that most bands have about four members, singers should account for about 25 percent of these deaths. What I found is that singers account for slightly more than 50 percent of them. (5)

There are stresses that seem to be particular to singers. They are more plagued by stage fright than others in the band, in part because they have no instrument to hide behind, and in part because they can best see the audience’s reaction and feel it is more their responsibility to elicit a positive response.

More than their bandmates, most singers need to look good and be energetic on stage. The wear and tear of the tour, let alone the aging process, puts them in a more vulnerable position. And, as mentioned earlier, there is more at stake for them if their instrument, their voice, is harmed.

Between the growing resentment of bandmates and the increasing adoration by fans, press, and groupies, singers get isolated from genuine human relations. Staind frontman, Aaron Lewis, observes: “It’s really hard for me to talk to fans now. It feels like they’re teetering on every word I say” (Luerssen 60). The singer’s isolation decreases his ability to cope and may be responsible for his increased use of drugs and alcohol to deal with the stress. In his classic study of suicide more than a century ago, Emile Durkheim concluded that those with weaker social bonds to others are more likely to commit suicide.

There are specific problems in the singer’s role that exacerbate the other stressors. The role of a rock singer fuses two dissimilar cultural forms. One part comes from the bluesman–with his dignity and his hyperindividuality. If the blues singer doesn’t work alone, he has a set of musicians who follow him and respond to his every twist and turn and start when he tells them to and end, or extend, a song at his whim. The blues singer has no need for his “own” songs, since it is the performance, rather than the song, that counts. The other part of the role is rock frontman for a machine that is fully rehearsed and not responsive to the moment. Each person, including the singer, must keep to his prescripted precise moves. Here, singers demonstrate their personality, in part, through rendering “their own authentic” songs.

And that A-word, authenticity, (6) is far more problematic for the singer than for anyone else in the band. Frith notes that in rock the “voice is an apparently transparent reflection of feeling: it is the sound of the voice, not the words sung, which suggests what a singer REALLY means” (Frith, “Why” 98).

On stage, and in interviews, it is the singer who is required to express the attitude of the band: in a goth band, solemn or morbid; angst in grunge; party animals in hair metal, etc.

This ideology judges vocal performance not by how skillfully a

singer can SIGNIFY or present an emotion, … but by the

listener’s idea of how far a singer “really feels” what is being

communicated. This position is intensified as virtually all rock

performers write their own material: the assumption being analogous

with that of lyric poets–what you write must be what you really

feel or think; anything else is bogus or contrived. (Laing 63)

Authenticity is constrained by genre and the specific signature stance of the band. Rock vocalists aren’t like pop singers who are actors whose attitude is shaped by each particular song. Like standup comedians or other kinds of performance artists, rock singers express some real side of themselves, at least when they are developing their style. But once they become famous, no matter how their values and personalities may change and how their maturation has eliminated their rage, diminished their mordancy, reduced their raging hormones, or given them “self-esteem” they never had, they still need to keep in character.

For example, describing the lack of the usual strong fan response at Eminem’s concert in July 2002, a reviewer suggested:

Perhaps, in wanting to, as he put it, “show growth” and put the

controversies behind him with his new release, Eminem is finding

himself caught in the conflict between his two personalities:

Marshall Mathers, his given name, and his on-stage alter-ego Slim

Shady. (Wawrow 6)

The reviewer noted the absence in this concert of songs in which Eminem put down homosexuals and fantasized about murdering his ex-wife. In a recent song, “Without Me,” Mathers ruefully concedes that his fans prefer the Shady persona.

Similarly, Ozzy, in his prime, sang about marijuana (“Sweetleaf”) and cocaine (“Snowblind”). But when I spoke with him in the early 1990s his drug of choice was the newly fashionable Prozac. “It’s the only thing that sticks my feet to the floor, because I’m a fuckin’ lunatic. Without the Prozac I’d be dead” (Dasein, “Never” 92).

While the music’s message may be cathartic or symbolically rebellious for the audience, it may become an integral part of the singer/performance artist’s life. Henry Rollins mentioned that he saw his performance, his raging on stage, as cathartic for him as it is for his audience: “a way to get what’s inside out” (Dasein, “Authentically” 7). If he is correct about this, one would think that he would have long since exorcised his demons. And then what? He would either have to be an inauthentic fraud or radically change his already popular style. Or worse, he would need to make sure that he remained in a state where his rage is an authentic response to his inner turmoil.

Although they may come to a band with personalities that dispose them to be uncooperative and egotistic, singers are to a great extent made “dicks” by prevailing social expectations that follow from the structural constraints and tensions of their role. (7) Even when a singer is a generous and accommodating personality, he will experience pressures that isolate him from his bandmates and seductions that prey upon any needs that he might have for approval and adulation. The role of rock singer demands an acceptance if not an embrace of exhibitionism, which necessarily has a narcissistic component that the role encourages. Singers are surely complicit in their “dickhood,” but they are not entirely responsible for its social construction.


(1.) Even when there is no “other,” when all in the group are the singers, as in the doo-wop vocal groups of the 1950s, there is tension. Johnny Keyes from the Magnificents says: “I don’t care how close you are friendship-wise, five people constitute five different personalities, different patience capacities, different likes and dislikes, different timetables for achieving success and different ideas about what success means” (18).

(2.) I asked Chris, bassist in the unsigned hard rock band Gladhand who had mentioned a negative view of singers, why this was the case. He replied: “It takes confidence to be a lead singer, but confidence often becomes arrogance and lead singers become dicks” (personal communication, 3 Mar. 2003).

(3.) It is only some subcultural audiences, as for prog-rock or death metal genres, for example, that don’t privilege the singer.

(4.) Even without the key singer, or indeed without any original member, bands with famous songs get to play on the oldies circuit.

(5.) A list of “rock deaths” was generated by collecting names from rock critics, students, websites like “The Rock and Roll Death List,” and Google searches (died + band). For each of the 227 people identified, information (from at least two sources–rock encylcopedias, band biographies, and band websites) was gathered on the following variables: the person’s position in the band (lead singer only, lead singer/instrumentalist, instrumentalist only); whether the band was active at the time of the person’s death; and the cause of death. Only those in active bands who died from drugs/alcohol or commited suicide were used for this study. Of these 26 cases, eight were singers, five were singer/instrumentalists, and 13 were only instrumentalists.

(6.) See Simon Frith’s discussions of authenticity in rock in Performing Rites.

(7.) “Each role shapes the person in it by confronting him or her with characteristic dilemmas and constricting the range of options for response. People respond to their position in a structure of opportunity” (Kanter 5).

Works cited

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Carducci, Joe. Rock and the Pop Narcotic: Testament for the Electric Church Volume 1. Chicago: Redoubt P, 1990.

Dasein, Deena. “Authentically, Uniquely Henry Rollins.” U.S. Rocker April 1993: 7.

–. “Black Sabbath: An Interview with Geezer Butler.” C.A.M.M. July 1992:12-14.

–. “Judas Priest: Surviving Decapitation.” Illinois Entertainer January 1998: 24+.

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Fricke, David. “For Ozzy Osbourne, There is Reality Television–And There Is Real Life.” Rolling Stone 25 July 2002: 62-66.

Frith, Simon. Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1996.

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Gabriella. “Interview with Stephen Malkmus of Pavement.” N.Y. Rock June 1999: np.

Gay, Jr., Leslie Clay. “Commitment, Cohesion, and Creative Process: A Study of New York City Rock Bands.” Diss. Columbia U, 1991.

Kanter, Rosabeth M. Men and Women of the Organization. New York: Basic Books, 1977.

Keyes, Johnny. Du-Wop. Chicago: Vesti P, 1991.

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Raeburn, Susan D. “Occupational Stress and Coping in a Sample of Professional Rock Musicians.” Medical Problems of Performing Artists 2.2 (1987): 41-48.

Simmel, Georg. “The Stranger.” From Georg Simmel. Ed. Kurt Wolff. New York: Free P, 1950. 402-08.

Wawrow, John. “Audience Leaves a Buffaloed Eminem Pleading for More.” Chicago Tribune 21 July 2002, Sec. 4: 6.

Weisbard, Eric. “Ten Past “Ten.'” Spin August 2001: 88-102.

Wills, Geoff, and Cary L. Cooper. Pressure Sensitive: Popular Musicians Under Stress. Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 1988.

Deena Weinstein is Professor of Sociology at DePaul University in Chicago. Her main area is cultural sociology focusing on popular culture with an emphasis on music. She has taught the Sociology of Rock course for over two decades. Her recent publications include: Heavy Metal: The Music and Its Culture, DaCapo, 2000; “Progressive Rock As Text: The Lyrics of Roger Waters,” in Kevin Holm-Hudson (ed.) Progressive Rock Reconsidered, Routledge, 2001; and “Creativity and Band Dynamics,” in Eric Weisbard (ed.) This is Pop, Harvard University Press, 2004.

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