The End of an Archetype

There was a time when rock stars ruled Seattle. That time is over.

Last month the Jambox, a storied practice space in Lower Queen Anne, went silent. After 20 years providing a place to play loud to hundreds, maybe thousands, of bands—including Screaming Trees and Blind Melon—the building was sold to make room for a new multi-purpose complex. The development leaves dozens of bands searching for new digs.

If there’s a silver lining, it’s this: The hand-written notice on the front door that stated “Rock Stars Only”—it no longer applies.

The sign was most likely a joke. But there was some truth in it.

The term “rock star” has for a long time occupied an uncomfortable space in the psyche of Seattle music. When grunge broke into the international arena—mere months before the Jambox opened—the music industry came to town intent on staging a follow-up to the rock star-friendly hair-metal boom of the ’80s. It found a conflicted bunch, led by Kurt Cobain, a child of the DIY world of Olympia indie rock who secretly had dreams of stardom. He went on to become the most reluctant rock star in the history of popular music.

“We want to cash in and suck butt up to the big wigs in hopes that we too can get high and fuck wax-figure hot babes,” Cobain wrote in his journal, casting sarcastic aspersion on the world of the rock star he willingly entered.

The term rock star survived into the ’00s but rarely was attached to original music. It was the title of a short-lived televised singing competition, the winner of which would go on to front INXS (a band whose original lead singer also died at the height of his rock stardom in the ’90s). There was the 2001 Mark Wahlberg vehicle, Rock Star, which was based on the story of the then-30-year-old British heavy metal act Judas Priest. It was the name of a video game company responsible for the Grand Theft Auto games. It was adopted by an energy drink.

“Rock star” did show up in music from time to time—with unconvincing results. R&B creep R Kelly had a song called “Rock Star,” as did chronically disappointing Canadian band Nickelback. By the time fictional pop princess Hannah Montana provided a Disney-approved version of “Rock Star,” the term was completely unmoored. It had become the joke that Seattle musicians suspected it was.

Fans of the rock star persona shouldn’t expect a new musical messiah anytime soon; the industry is finally walking away from one of its greatest archetypes. Look at the nomination to this year’s Grammy’s: So sparsely populated is the field that the Recording Academy consolidated the Rock category, combining the Best Hard Rock and Best Metal Album awards and eliminating Best Rock Instrumental Performance. (The guitar solo, long a staple of rock stardom, has been mothballed.) The categories for Best Rock Album and Song remain but are populated by a grab bag of currently popular genres. There’s the soul band, Alabama Shakes. There’s the strummy folk band, Mumford & Sons. There’s Coldplay, a band that rocks like a chair.

So this year we officially retire “rock star” from the musical lexicon. We can give it a plaque at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and a lifetime achievement award at next year’s Grammy’s. And the front door of the Jambox can go on display at the Experience Music Project, among the relics where it belongs.

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