I was lucky enough to produce and chair From Bowie to Bieber: What makes a music icon? at Battle of Ideas held at the Barbican, London, last month. The discussion was prompted by what looked like being a year defined by multiple celebrity (particularly rock star) deaths - Bowie, Prince and Lemmy (of Motorhead) prominent among them; and with the recent addition of the great Leonard Cohen, though at a somewhat grander age. That we have Brexit and Trump to thank for 2016 turning out rather differently - forcing our collective political futures onto the agenda, rather than shoe-gazing over our pop-cultural past - is no bad thing.
So you might ask why would apparently intelligent people devote an hour and a half to discussing the relative merits of Jay Z and Beyonce vs. Bowie et al, when there are other much more important things going on in the world? Why were so many of us so apparently overcome by a sort-of-mourning for those iconic strangers in the first place? 'All of us, when we lose our cultural icons, are affected in a profound way because there's a child in us who thinks they're immortal', said Sting in a recent interview. But surely there is more to it than that? For Barb Jungr, singer, writer and performer, icons are an 'alchemy of image, intention, place and form'. At their height we were 'watching the same things at the same time'; today iconography has given way to branding.
Tom Slater, deputy editor at spiked-online echoed Jungr, arguing that today's pop stars come to us via 'myriad channels'. They struggle to achieve iconic status: to be both 'great and weird on a huge scale' he argued - a combination, to be fair, that even in the past was rarely achieved. (Bowie was unique precisely because he could be mightily weird one moment, whether in his made-up Glamishness or his avant-garde starkness; and be wearing a chunky sweater the next, doing the intro for The Snowman or singing Little Drummer Boy / Peace on Earth with Bing Crosby for a Christmas special.) Icons were also, said Slater, identified with a 'youthful spirit of rebellion', but young people are too 'scared of the world' these days to be truly rebellious.
Similarly, Neil Davenport - a sociology and politics teacher, a writer on culture and a former music journalist - suggested that what makes an idol is a combination of originality, a connection with an audience and a sense that they 'capture the moment'. If you're looking for idols, hip-hop is 'way ahead' of tired stadium rock, and 'technologically innovative' too with artists working across mediums: acting, designing, and making art as well as music, he said. Johnny Ensall, freelance writer and editor, contributor to NME and former music editor at Time Out, referred to what he dubbed the 'Adele paragidm', where labels place their money on the safe bet CDs for mums at Xmas. But still music is 'as brave and innovative as ever'.
Chris Sharp, contemporary music programmer at the Barbican Centre, who broke off from rehearsals to join us, was also positive about today's artists. Indeed he was critical of the 'ossified idols' of the past, describing Prince's output as variable; and reminding us Bowie fans of his less successful work, for instance with Tin Machine. A reminder that we can worship our idols a little too much. And that there is still exciting music being made by intriguing young artists. It's scattered and harder to find but discovering something new has its own appeal.
Still, there's something missing. Lady Gaga may have changed her image, and rappers may be pushing boundaries musically, but this sense of play and exploration doesn't have a wider impact. I'm not so sure that icons belong to the past, or that a multi-media world necessarily makes them obsolete. But there's nothing dangerous about pop music today, it doesn't unsettle any deeply held beliefs or sensibilities (not counting easily outraged ban-happy student bodies). Maybe that's not their fault. We live in politically bland times after all. Or at least we used to. Perhaps the political earthquakes of recent times will play a role in the making of future pop idols.