A Word from the Rock Star of Limbo
It has become part of the vernacular these days to describe anyone whom one admires or who has become prominent in any arena whatsoever as “a rock star.” Just today, for example, I noticed an online commenter at Right Scoop describing outgoing White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders — a frumpy but loyal professional apologist for idiocy — as having been “a rock star” in that role.
Over the past few years, I have observed this expression becoming ubiquitous. And so it is that today, Cory Booker is a “political rock star.” A handsome bodyguard for Korean president Moon Jae-in, having been noticed standing next to Moon in many photographs, is described as having risen to “rock-star status.” Even Pope Francis — Bishop of Rome apparently no longer being a grand enough title — is often labeled “the rock star pontiff.” Most bizarrely, even Beethoven is now rescued from classical music nerddom by his fans by being rebranded “the world’s first rock star,” as if that made any sense.
I find it lamentable — tragic, really — that when today’s common man is grasping for a way to identify excellence, he now feels most comfortable, and most certain he will be understood, choosing “rock star” as his analogy. Why not “virtuoso,” or “maestro”?
And my objection is not simply playful, nor a mere expression of personal musical preference. Notice the key difference between those alternative expressions of approval or praise: Whereas “virtuoso” and “maestro” draw specific attention to a person’s extraordinary and definable talents or highly developed skills, “rock star” indicates only fame, or more precisely the ability to inspire a kind of immature idolization, to make us pump our fists and shout, “Yeah!”
To call someone a virtuoso is to call him a master craftsman, to highlight his ability to do some specific thing with great proficiency. To call someone a rock star is merely to say he gets attention or adulation, without providing any reason for it, let alone an admirable reason. This is a perfect popular simplification of modern psychobabble, functioning as a colloquial update of the sociologists’ old word, “charisma,” with which social scientists name the supposed gift some people (such as Hitler or Mussolini) have for attracting others to themselves, not with their intelligence or abilities, but with the sheer force of their “personalities” (another modern psychological concept).
In short, to call someone a rock star as a means of praising him is effectively to say exactly this about him: He knows how to get attention, though he is not really all that talented; but as long as we carefully limit our perceptions to the realm in which he is operating (as teenagers do for their favorite entertainers), while pretending the rest of the universe doesn’t exist, we won’t have to notice that there is really nothing so special about him, apart from an overdeveloped chutzpah — a capacity, which may in fact be a serious psychological flaw, for putting himself “out there” with great bravado, in spite of actually having little of significance, and nothing truly impressive, to show.
“Rock star” is the perfect expression of praise for our progressive egalitarian age, with our ever-flattening “social mind.” The highest aspiration of life today is not to achieve greatness or excellence of any kind — not to be superlatively courageous or wise or modest — but merely to stick out for a moment, to be noticed and cheered on by that crowd whose acceptance one desperately craves, and belonging to which is the source of one’s identity and “sense of self-worth.” This infatuation with being noticed has no relation to the traditional notion of honor, which entailed a reputation earned through achievement. It is, on the contrary, our modern democratic age’s honor-surrogate: a reputation gained without being earned, praise merely for being, adoration evoked by advertising. A rock star is a champion at selling his name.
To call someone a rock star is thus to tell us nothing substantial about him. Such an expression does, on the other hand, tell us a great deal about the person who uses it. It tells us that he values and therefore admires fame and vainglorious bravado for their own sakes. It tells us that he believes a person’s “social significance” may be measured with a decibel meter. It tells us that he regards the ephemeral as important, that he mistakes distraction for substance, and that he regards transient popularity and the approval of a generic mob as key elements of human worth.
People who look for “rock stars” — the charismatic, the attention-grabbing, the merely glinting — in every arena, from politics to religion, reveal a basic hollowness at their own core, as well as at the core of a world that engenders such people.