Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

We left off the analysis of ALMOST FAMOUS at the key point, where we were about to get into what it says about Rock and Fame. That is a complicated subject, because you need to consider the phenomenon of Fame itself, before you get into what Rock does with it. Bowie’s deliberately sour song is practically incidental to this, but of course not Bowie himself.

1) There are two distinctions we particularly have to consider: first, the modern pursuit of fame v. the pre-modern ambition for honorable greatness, second, celebrity as the key species of modern fame.

2) We are reminded of the first distinction by Robert Faulkner’s fine book The Case for Greatness: Honorable Ambition and Its Critics , in which the likes of Washington, Lincoln, Churchill, Mandela, and Aristotle’s great-souled man are held up as models of greatness, whereas men like Alcibiades and Cyrus are considered as models revealing how the pursuit of it can go wrong. The most obvious danger is that the love of doing honorable things might become replaced by a love for the honors themselves, including ones unearned. (Faulkner doesn’t discuss it, but that danger is heightened for the poet or artist, given the way poetic greatness depends on audience response—see the Songbook on the Poetic Wisdom Paradox .) The key distinction Faulkner makes is between the classic pursuit of greatness, and a newer Enlightenment-style pursuit of fame. He argues the template for latter was set by Francis Bacon:

Bacon separates ambition for fame from that for honor and true distinction, and he connects it instead to desire for preserving and empowering oneself. Desire for fame replaces love of honor. The wish to be honorable as well as honored, is dropped. Instead the man of enlightened ambition is to seek a name that endures. [there is] . . . a new and calculating spirit. One rises by serving, and clear-sightedness is not obscured by considerations merely moral or honorable. Love of honor or glory often bedazzles politic judgment. Calculated concern for power bedazzles it less. . . . Whatever the influence of this Enlightenment philosophizing on a Franklin, even then regarded by many contemporaries as a slippery fellow, it did not shape a Washington . . .


In other words, any notoriety that helps one gain and maintain any sort of power is worthwhile. One never worries about being honored more than one deserves, although one might worry about things like “inapt branding” and “over-exposure.” One also never lets the fame and the honors go to one’s head. That can be hard to do, even if you are otherwise all about being Enlightened.

3) What is more, achievement that is great in and of itself, but which the public (or the historical guild) might fail to appreciate, is discouraged. So this modern fame can be blind to political or military greatness; and, it is almost always blind to what Pascal, in Penseé #308, refers to as the philosophic and saintly orders of greatness. And thus it likewise turns from the gentleman’s hope of harmonizing the different orders of greatness, albeit with an emphasis on readiness for political leadership, a hope similar to the Aristotelian teaching that one must aspire to virtue entire .

4) Faulkner is aware that such fame-pursuit occurred prior to modern times; his primary point is that it was not then given philosophic justification. And he is right that it was in Bacon, and not in Machiavelli, that its full justification was given.

5) We associate “celebrity” with notoriety in popular entertainment, sports, and the more well-known fine arts, but reverting to older 19th-century habits, we also apply it to explorers and some business leaders. It does not feel quite right to use the term with political leaders, or especially military heroes, although it works okay with some “public intellectuals.” A political leader might cultivate an aura of celebrity, like JFK or Obama, or enter politics as a celebrity, like Ronald Reagan or Al Franken.

6) What celebrity is, is a marketized version of fame, which is connected at the hip with newspapers . To speak in my standard Tocquevillian key, in aristocratic times, the talk of Society was the medium in which the fame of someone like Franklin existed, in democratic times, the media become the medium. To be a celebrity you at the very least need to sell newspapers, which of course later translated into increasing ratings, or attracting hits. But for pure celebrity, you need to also sell a popular entertainment experience: films, shows, sporting events, or recordings. Hollywood’s star system set the template here, with a number of tricks it learned from various publicity pioneers, such as P.T. Barnum.

7) Celebrity is now the main species of modern fame, although perhaps, one can pursue it with a pre-modern devotion to honorable greatness: the one who we sometimes call a “righteous” rock-star or film actor accepts a certain inevitable celebrity-huckstering and the un-earned honors that accompany it, but never compromises the key principles of their art.

8) Pop recording artists were and are expected to make every effort, by their actions, dress, appearance, performances, etc., to get noticed. But prior to MTV and the internet, the ability to do this was limited. It was thus sound , first and foremost, that got one’s record noticed. Getting more hits, and concert tours, often did depend on the celebrity-friendly-manners and publicity-work that labels like Motown emphasized, but still, pop-music celebrity always remained somewhat different from the image-drenched Hollywood method of star-creation, which especially in the early days tended to be far more about the star’s type-cast and sex-appeal possibilities than acting talents.

If you saw the (pretty mediocre) film Swing Kids , you saw how the early jazz-hounds might test one another to correctly identify the soloists on records: is that Lester Young or Coleman Hawkins, Louis Armstrong or Roy Eldridge, Johnny Hodges or Benny Carter? Those were elementary questions, and I’d bet that you found a similar dynamic among aficionados of “hillbilly” recordings, as you certainly did among connoisseurs of opera or classical piano recordings. Live performances were treasured, pics and publicity-type bios were sought out, of course, but the hard-core fans knew their heroes, their celebrities, primarily by means of their aural fingerprints. In the market for more deliberately “pop” recordings, a visually attractive but weak singer might gain fame, but it would not last. A solid sound was a prerequisite, even for the musician determined to be a pop-star. Both the record-market switch in emphasis away from the “instrumental”(the term comes later) to the vocalist , apparent from the late 40s on, and the later impacts of MTV and the internet, ate away at this, but could not change a certain bottom-line necessity for musical talent.

9) The musician (I include singers and songwriters/composers) that is purely pop wants to make money most of all, which requires celebrity, and the one that is purely an artist wants to make beauty most of all, which makes popularity incidental and often undesirable. I suppose we can place all musicians on a spectrum drawn between these two poles, especially since the dawn of recording.

10) But what about rock? Have its creators been more concerned about the music, or the fame? I think we have to say that rock has been pretty equally about both, in part because unlike pop, it has deliberately explored artistic uses of fame.

11) After all, the rock phenomenon was in large part born out of the astounding level of fame achieved by The Beatles. The Rolling Stones tried to contrast their authenticity and their R+B music against “pop,” of which the Beatles were the most obvious example, but in truth, they were part of the same phenomenon: Stones-fandom was marketed as an alternative identity to Beatles-fandom. Both bands represented an arrangement that gave the musicians greater control vis-à-vis their recording companies, and this extended, in an increasing degree, to the publicity itself. Unlike their competition, white and black, from the States, the Beatles and Stones were apparently educated enough, and in any case taken seriously enough by the media, that they were both able to cultivate a more ironic distance from their fame, and pretty rapidly able to think about what to do with it besides making lots of money.

12) Back in the U.S.A., rock n’ roll consumers were used to things like the Long Beach surf-band the Pyramids all shaving their heads , or arriving at a gig atop elephants. Making a splash, that was the thing, and it ought to be a fun thing. But in Britain, bands like The Who would find ways of making a splash that could also be interpreted as an artistic statement . Was their destroying amps a gimmick, or a performance art happening? Or go back to the Beatles: what did the long hair mean ? Not the sort of question anyone ever asked about the Pyramids’ shaved heads. Rock increasingly became an opportunity for some portentous something, often a visual or theatrical something, to HAPPEN.

13) Consider some other establishers of the Rock Fame pattern: rock’s more artistic potentialties were encouraged by Dylan’s example, and he accepted for a few years that his becoming famous was a necessary aspect of his art’s attempt, as the various hype-sters put it, “to speak to and for his generation.” Bowie, who tellingly wrote a song that was a plea for Bob Dylan to step back into this role, would himself explore the idea that the trappings and character of fame itself were suitable material for artistry, making them all the more the very stuff of rock. He understood, as the Songbook once discussed, that celebrity generally, but especially that of Rock Stardom , allowed a new sort of heroism, and one better suited for modern democratic times.


14) In THE DOORS, the Jim Morrison character makes what the film presents as a horrifying confession to his girlfriend: “I lied to you. I love fame. I love it.” Even as part of him knows his quest for Dionysian liberation is failing, and that his playing the role of rock-sex-god is detracting from his poetic and yes, spiritual ambitions, he is now getting high off of fame most of all. Perhaps he tells himself it is not just the acid, poetry, orgies, and music that are going to help he and his audience “break on through,” but also the magic of fame, with all its myth-making potential. In any case, Jim is hardly calculating the way most of his band members, those of Stillwater, and all the “not-sweet” members of rock n’ roll are. In Faulkner’s terms, Morrison lets himself become “bedazzled” by his “love of glory.” Without anything like the political or military skill of an Alcibiades, his concert performances sought to combine the dissolute Alcibiades of party-time with the demagogic Alcibiades of assembly-time. Such self-delusion is not advised by Bacon, although as Martha Bayles suggested, it is a sign of sincerity:  Morrison and certain other 60s stars didn’t just gaze into the abyss—they leaped. . . . Most of the crazy things [Morrison] did were the product of inchoate, spontaneous impulse, not conscious calculation.

15) And whereas it is appropriate for those who aspire to be statesmen or even profound artists to appear thoughtful, prudent, and calculating, it is not so for one aspiring to be a rock star. One must rather appear to be totally lost within one’s artistry, totally given to the moment, which is a Dionysian or otherwise impassioned moment. That is, even calculating (Baconian) rock stars remain bound to the Morrison model. Bowie, for example, will achieve his fame playing a role , Ziggy Stardust, the totally gone rock star stud with an alien delicateness. But that role will in fact take over, get way out of his control, in a way that Ben Franklin’s famous fur-hat fashion gesture, deliberately suggestive of nature-taught frontier genius, never did for him. Bowie will only be able to get away from Ziggy by adopting other roles.

16) Most acknowledge that it was Bowie’s example that really set the template for the monster tour, and appropriately, when ALMOST FAMOUS wants to display the touring life at its wildest and most decadent, it is when Stillwater stays in the same hotel Bowie is in—Swingos in Cleveland; we briefly glimpse him as Ziggy as the elevator doors shut(or do we?), and then we get a shot of one of the groupies twirling half-nude in one of the rocker’s rooms, as we hear riffs from one of Bowies’ more obviously sexed-out songs .

17) So a Bowie and Lennon collaboration (even if it was Bowie’s single and lead vocal, and did involve a third songwriter) “Fame,” was a fitting symbolical embodiment of 60s/70s rock fame, and vehicle for commenting upon its nauseating aspects. (Why anyone wanted to buy the three-minute evocation of nausea is beyond me, though.) For symbolic perfection, it only lacked Dylan’s involvement.

18) The fact that there is a later punk-driven attempt to democratize rock fame (and not in the fatuous way that Andy Warhol’s “15-minutes of fame” comment suggested) or that pop/disco artists like Michael Jackson and Madonna will pick up on Bowie’s fame-playing and image-emphatic example, in Madonna’s case overtly subordinating the music to the prerogatives of notoriety, do not alter what ALMOST FAMOUS is showing us, that rock can be thought of as a social phenomenon/scene that one might belong to (“you’re too sweet for rock and roll” is said not by a musician to a musician, but by a groupie to a rock writer), that is as fame-focused as it is music-focused. While this was more obvious in the 70s, it remains a basic feature of rock—when one reads the bios, one finds that even such apparently austere bands as Joy Division or (pre-90s) U2 were very much attracted to rock fame, and at least in Joy Division’s case, to the partying that went with it.

So if a film-maker wanted to us to more closely consider this essential feature of rock, setting the film in 70s period would be logical.

19) The truly interesting thing about ALMOST FAMOUS, however, is that it is more about the scene itself, and how it impacts more ordinary people, than about the situation of the stars: it is not stuck up there in the heights with the Lennons, Jaggers, Morissons, Bowies, and Alcibiadeses, but rather is all about thinking about how the Fame aspect of rock affects those who are on edge of it, either socially speaking, or potentially speaking. It is the “lesser fames” of rock, the ones that might be achieved by the lesser band, the rock writer, or even by a groupie, that the film is primarily about. Next time we’ll be considering those, and mainly within the confines of the film itself.

Dear Reader,

We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.

Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on

Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.

Will you give today?

Make My Gift

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles