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Why We Love Pop Music Villains

16/12/2013 13:41 GMT | Updated 15/02/2014 10:59 GMT

With panto season in full flight, I was pleased to see Cold War hero and burger enthusiast David Hasselhoff playing Captain Hook at the Theatre Royal - in my native Nottingham.

And it made me wonder about the public's relationship with villainous stars, and why certain individuals continue to court global success despite not actually being liked.

Pop music's villain-in-chief, Simon Cowell, is an excellent example.

The TV phenomenon that is The X Factor has provided 5 UK Christmas number 1s, is syndicated in over 40 countries worldwide and continues to launch (and dash) dozens of pop careers every year.

But the early success of this show can be attributed to the role of Cowell's villainous TV personality, and his ability to reduce hopefuls to quivering wrecks with his bitchy put-downs.

In this context, his nastiness is tolerated (and indeed, relished) because viewers feel he presents a greater truth about the music business. In a world of backstabbing, fakery and sycophancy, Cowell's candour is interpreted as a kind of theatrical honesty. He's a hard-nosed businessman in a fickle, ego-led business.

Which brings us neatly to the second example; Lady Gaga - a woman who has spearheaded an avant-garde pop revival in the 2010s.

I'm reluctant to call Lady Gaga a villain because she's not mean in the same way as Cowell.

But the philosophy is the same; she disrupts typical tropes to expose a greater truth - only with Lady Gaga, it's her appearance that challenges. She bucks the trend of hyper-airbrushed celebrities by uglying up, adopting transgender personalities and, crucially... not smiling.

Now, pre-Bowie, this would have provoked a litany of criticism from the conservative press, but we live in an era of increased (but not guaranteed) tolerance, so criticism of Lady Gaga is more subtle.

Gaga's choice of attire displays a rejection of normative behaviour - that is - she's willing to suggest a contempt for the audience that enshrines her commitment to her craft, and her desire to get her message across. In this regard, you rarely need to write anything next to a picture of Gaga to solicit negativity - conservatives will do it themselves.

This is critical for her appeal - anyone from the LGBT community will attest that sexuality-based discrimination is alive and well, so while Cowell exposes dark truths about his industry, Gaga challenges society at large. Ambitious stuff.

And that brings us onto our final example - Kanye West. I've saved him for last because he is challenging his very own role of villain with the promotional activities for latest album, Yeezus.

Modern hip-hop is an environment of bling self-immersion, so audiences tolerate West's egotism because of a genuine admiration of his talent.

Additionally, the self-glorification in hip hop lyrics is often a vital form of vicarious living for the listener, and there are wider, darker truths about the American (and Western) story that inform the genre. Hence - rappers acting up to the villain role are rarely out of the charts.

But Kanye's recent attempt to succeed in fashion - an industry that Kanye claims he is spending the majority of his time trying to break into - appears to be misfiring because it has a completely different set of rules to hip-hop.

Furthermore, when West suggests that the fashion industry is racist for not taking him seriously, the whole adage about his 'villainy' exposing a wider truth about the industry - cannot really be certified, especially when there are big names who have succeeded; P-Diddy's Sean John label and Jay Z's Rocawear, to name two. Is Kanye just throwing his toys out of the pram?

This endangers his relationship with fans (like me) because our love of Kanye's music is informed by a perception of his commitment to it. When he claims he's not trying, it feels disingenuous... like we're being ripped off.

I'll look on with great interest. In the meantime, I don't expect to see too much drop off in Kanye's popularity, and if the desire for fashion and music deserts him, we'll welcome him with open arms at the Theatre Royal. Perhaps he could play Buttons!