Reflections on a Failed Music Career: Do Looks Matter?
By Wil Forbis
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Does appearance matter in rock 'n roll?
This question would seem to have an obvious answer. After all, appearance is rock and roll. Rock 'n roll is the genre that gave us Gene Simmons spitting blood, David Bowie embracing androgyny, George Clinton wearing diapers and, currently, Lady Gaga strutting around in modified superhero costumes with 6 inch plastic nipples. There's probably no other genre of music in which appearance is weighted so heavily. (Opera?)
But that's defining appearance in terms of fashion. I'm wondering whether a performer's raw physical looks matter.
Again, the answer would seem to be an obvious yes. If you take a look at a rogue's gallery of rock stars throughout history, you'll find that they definitely tend to be more attractive than a random sample of the human population (even if you take away their expensive make up and crazy hair styles.) Certainly they're younger. And no one would claim to be surprised by this observation.
Nonetheless, some might be disturbed by this. Rock 'n roll, or at least components of rock 'n roll, have always claimed a certain egalitarianism. "Power to the people" the song said, and it wasn't just referring to attractive people. Rock was supposed to give a voice to the voiceless (using the power of amplification) to tear down the existing corporate power structures (while simultaneously making bucket loads of money) and generally fight the good fight against injustice and unfairness.
Of course, we all know that rhetoric is a load of baloney. Shooting down na´ve hippy calls for egalitarian utopias about as easy as shooting a barrel full of hippies.
Let's return to this observation that rock and rollers are unusually attractive. Why would this be? Several answers come to mind...
- Attractive people are better musicians
Perhaps the genes which determine physical attractiveness are in some way correlated with musical ability. This strikes me as unlikely, scientifically speaking, and can generally be refuted by a basic mental survey of some of the great uglies who were fantastic musicians.
- Unattractive people don't try to become musicians
There might be some truth to this one. If people are implicitly aware of the fact that successful rock 'n roll stars are more attractive than the average person, then unattractive people will realize that "rock musician" is a category into which they will never fit, and thus not even try. (There are plenty of exceptions of course.)
- We, the audience, are biased towards attractive people
This seems the most likely answer. Marketing, social connections and talent are, of course, vitally important to become a successful musician, but at the end of the day, if the public doesn't buy your output, you ain't going anywhere. Studies have convincingly shown that we are biased to think more favorably of attractive people (it's known as the halo effect), and there's no reason to think this wouldn't apply in the realm of pop music. In fact, you would expect the bias to be magnified in a vocation so dependent on demanding other people's attention. Attractive people might have a slight advantage in the world of selling real estate, but they probably have a planet sized advantage as musicians. I need look no further for proof than in my own behavior. On more than one occasion I've found myself stepping out to see a talentless, off key female singer who had big boobs.
(In the above bullet points, I'm treating attractiveness as a binary element --- either you've got it or you don't --- which is incorrect. It's more accurate to represent attractiveness on a grade --- some people are very attractive, some people are kind of attractive, some people are blah, some people are hideous monstrosities who should be forever condemned to a darkened room and fed spiders. But for quick analysis, the binary model is helpful.)
It is worth noting that while rock musicians tend to be above average in the looks department, they're not all gorgeous. (An intriguing aspect about Katy Perry is that she looks slightly like she's got Down's syndrome.) In fact, a certain impurity in looks tends to make an artist appear more authentic. A lot of rock music is about yearning for love, or suffering after being jilted, and few people will buy the idea of a supermodel having these experiences (though they doubtless do.) Nothing is more inauthentic than a band where every member is gorgeous e.g. the Backstreet Boys or the Pussycat Dolls.
Now, why should we care about this? Why not just say, "fine, attractive people achieve more success in the realm of rock 'n roll, the same way they do in pretty much every other aspect of life? So what?"
To answer this, I find myself returning to, and having a strange sympathy for the previously derided na´ve hippy utopian ideals. In some sense, rock 'n roll claims to be better than other theaters of our lives, and, I guess, part of me would like it to be. Part of me would like to think that when I'm responding to a great rock performance, no part of my judgment is biased because I would really like to sleep with the performer. To think otherwise somehow cheapens the whole thing. I feel used, manipulated, like a weepy, aging prostitute who thought this time the guy really cared about her as a person.
Recognizing that looks play a role in our appreciation of rock music not only cheapens listener, it cheapens the artist as well. If I were a fabulously wealthy, universally acclaimed rock 'n roll star (and it is to my great bafflement that I am not) I would not want to consider the notion that my success was not because of hard work, musical genius and a deep understanding of the heartbeat of pop culture, but simply good genes. I would not want to think that were my nose a bit off, my ears a bit wider or my lips too thin then the success I'd earned would not be mine.
As members of the audience, I think we're wary of confronting our lookism because we realize how utterly pervasive and utterly insurmountable it is. Scientists and social critics can legitimately argue whether or not people are born with a tendency to be racist or sexist, but we're all acutely aware that we are born with a bias towards good-looking people. We want to be near people we find attractive, and shun those we don't. Of course, the very act of choosing to gaze at an attractive person and ignoring a Plain Jane is rife with unfairness and injustice. But it is also unavoidable.
And I think there's a particular tendency to avoid examining this behavior in relation to pop music and rock 'n roll. Because we believe --- or at least we've been told --- that rock 'n roll is better than that. From the love-in concerts of the 1960s, to the "brothers in rock" heavy metal concerts of the 70s, to the "one nation under a groove" dance concerts of the 80s, to the ecstasy laden raves of the modern era, rock and pop have always claimed to be a space where egalitarianism ruled --- where everyone was equal. Of course, the notion is absurd. There's an obvious hierarchy: there's people who are on stage, and people who aren't. (You can break it down to more granular distinctions from there --- every audience has its obvious hipsters and obvious losers.) If rock music were actually about equality, you'd have fat people rocking out, ugly people rocking out and people over 30 rocking out (don't get me wrong, they're there, but their percentages are definitely skewed from the normal population.)
If we accept the proposition that rock 'n roll was an attempt to impose some kind of equality on culture, we can agree that it has failed. Why? Maybe human interactions are destined to always be unequal? Maybe the corporate influence corrupted rock 'n roll? We've been shy about deeply and thoughtfully investigating these questions* because rock music has had a profound and meaningful impact on the lives of pretty much everyone under 70 --- we don't want to concede its flaws, or admit that it might even be dead. But I posit that rock 'n roll is dead. It lies before us on the operating table, its eyes glassy, a crimson tear trickling out of its mouth. Let's cut open the corpse and see what made it tick.
* I'm not saying these questions have never been asked --- the entire punk movement is based on the presumption that corporate rock sucks --- but you seldom see any objective and open (e.g. deep and thoughtful) analysis.
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Wil Forbis is a well known international playboy who lives a fast paced life attending chic parties, performing feats of derring-do and making love to the world's most beautiful women. Together with his partner, Scrotum-Boy, he is making the world safe for democracy. Email - firstname.lastname@example.orgVisit Wil's web log, The Wil Forbis Blog, and receive complete enlightenment.