"WHAT MAKES AN "IDOL" AN "ICON"?"
At the time of writing this article, there have been 3 recent deaths of music stars Natalie Cole, Lemmy from the Rock band Motorhead and David Bowie. As usual, when these sad events happen, many people from all over the globe from various professions throw around words like “legend”, “genius”, “idol” and “icon”. Sometimes, we can go a little crazy when a music star dies. No offence meant, but can we really compare Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse’s contribution to music with the impact that David Bowie and James Brown brought? Yet, ALL of these artists had one of the aforementioned words accompanying their epitaph.
In the Oxford English Dictionary “idol” is defined as “an image or representation of a God used as an object of worship”. Well we sometimes think our favourite music artists are Gods and we do worship them, ask One Direction fans if they worship the band! The second definition is more apt, “a person or thing that is greatly admired, loved or revered”. I respect a lot of artists although I may not have their music in my collections, I admire many and I “love” in the broadest sense (as in I have a strong feeling of affection for). These “feelings” can come from how the music affects you, the artists’ attitude or their all round persona.
We all have idols, all music lovers will have their favourites and all generations will have different idols. Some will be claimed as geniuses, being “before their time”, or “misunderstood legends”, all these words come when the artist is not around anymore. Do we just say this after death so random, but not really mean it?
“Icon” has several cultural definitions but I will use this one;”a person or thing regarded as a representative symbol or as worthy of veneration”. Now “symbol” is something you see that represents an object, function or process. So let us assume that this means the artist who is an “icon” represents a certain musical movement, style or genre when you think of his/her name or see their image. “Veneration” is great respect which could also apply to the word “idol” so I think the “symbol” part of the definition should be applied to “icon” status.
So after establishing what the two words actually mean how can we stop putting everyone on the same pedestal? Being a lover of music and writer I have read about lots and lots of bands who give their influences in interviews and say whoever inspired me and such like. There are the “followers” and the “pioneers”, and this is how the world turns. Let me explain.
As for today, the likes of Ed Sheeran, Sam Smith, One Direction, Adele…of course they are popular right now, but can we really see in 20, 30, 40 years time that these artists “made a difference”?. I doubt it, because they are “followers”, there’s not enough “unique” artists anymore, which is why I introduce new artists here in this blog. Those who catch my eye and I think “hm, that’s a little different, it’s not an imitation”.
Although I may be biased, Madonna is a pioneer, there has been and probably won’t be anybody like her again. She broke down boundaries in the way females think and also with the constant change of styles, staying ahead of the game. Kylie and Lady Gaga have tried, and as good as they are, they are always 5 years behind Madonna. Prince broke down boundaries, playing over 30 instruments, a one man band, having a multi-racial band, crossing over funk, rock, jazz, creating electrifying shows and still (even though music sales are not “Purple Rain” standard, he has that aura that everyone knows his shows are second to none and they want to work with the mystique and talent that is Prince just to be around him. Some say he copied Sly Stone’s funk, James Brown’s moves and Jimi Hendrix’s guitar licks, well I say how many people combine and excel in all departments?
Shania Twain was blasted for “shedding her Country roots” in the 90s and making Rock/Pop radio friendly Country. She paved the way for Leann Rimes and Taylor Swift to be brave enough to make that switch. Debbie Harry of Blondie was a strong, independent woman fronting a Rock band, she made it possible for the likes of Garbage and Paramore and was at the forefront of New Wave music in the 80s. There are others that have changed the course of music such as Abba, Stevie Wonder, The Supremes, Simon and Garfunkel and made a unique stand but back to the start of my article…the icons that have died.
David Bowie (1947-2016) was indeed an icon. The Thin White Duke, Ziggy Stardust, Major Tom. It is not an understatement, he was a visionary. His videos, style and music were always ahead of their time. From the start of his chart career with the very strange but appealing “Space Oddity” he was at the core of Glam Rock in the 70s, created his own style to break America calling it “plastic Soul” and then blended in with ease into the 80s through Electronica and New Wave records. Although I wasn’t a massive fan, he was always around, everyone mentioned him, I had respect for him, even if I didn’t understand his music sometimes. Even when he didn’t make records he was still known and his name was thrown into conversation mixes. A true icon.
Michael Jackson (1958-2009) was also an icon, the King of Pop, love him or loathe him, the man was a talented guy. Although his last few years were tough personally, I think almost every household in the world holds a copy of “Thriller”. To have the most sold album in the world for so many years and still today, years after his death is some achievement. His videos, his dancing, his music, his mysterious persona, the little boy lost, whatever you think of him, he can’t be ignored as an icon of popular music. He brought a Pop/Rock edge to Motown and crossed boundaries.
Miles Davis (1926-1991), one of the original Jazz trumpeters of the 50s, he became a very notable bandleader and composer for other artists. He is regarded by many as one of the most influential and innovative musicians of the 20th Century. Miles Davis basically changed the format of Jazz and made it accessible to new listeners. Bebop Jazz, Cool Jazz and Jazz Fusion were all brought to listening ears during his time with many musical groups and crossover collaborations.
James Brown (1933-2006) was the founding father of Funk. The Godfather of Soul is another title given to him. A producer, singer, dancer and bandleader he re-defined the “show”. With his bands The JB’s and The Famous Flames among others his energetic, uptempo R & B, Funk and Soul dance moves and airtight band cues thrilled audiences for decades. Releasing a 100+ albums, the man was as was “the hardest working man in showbiz” as his introduction always claimed. Drugs and marriage problems came at the end but the Brown was a pioneer, Jimmy Page once said, “James Brown is a genre in his own right”.
Elvis Presley (1935-1977), The King or the King of Rock n’ Roll. Elvis is the best selling solo music artist ahead of Michael Jackson and Madonna. A most celebrated artist of the 20th Century, still adored by legions of fans around the world today. He has been indicted in numerous Hall of Fame’s and commercially successful in Pop, Blues and Gospel genres. Thousands of people still mourn him outside his home in Memphis under candlelight. When Elvis first came to be popular, the “hip swiveling” dance routines caused uproar. It was seemed “inappropriate” and created mass hysteria among the teenage girl fans. Apparently teenage boys were not impressed and hated Elvis and became jealous. Through the years, he continued his domination of the charts with his film soundtracks, dabbling in Bluegrass, R&B and even Country. He also was a forerunner of the crossover Country/R&B fusion that became Rockabilly. Since his death numerous compilation albums are snapped up and hit the charts by new and old fans alike.
So there you have it, my own take on the idol versus icon debate. We are too quick to praise and give titles to any music star that died. Sometimes, there are young stars who instigate their own death, old stars who die from natural causes, some are hit factories, some are personalities, some are top class musicians, but surely everyone isn’t an icon….?